09 Dec 2021

This Halloween marks the anniversary of a tragedy that claimed lives of Donegal father and son

The tragedy at sea occurred 40 years ago

candles Fr Seamus Gallagher RIP

Fishing tragedy which claimed five lives is recalled on 40th anniversary

This Halloween, October 31 marks the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the fishing trawler, the Skifjord which claimed the lives of a father and son from Donegal.

Helen Gallagher recalls the tragedy on the 'Belong to Bruckless' Facebook page, posting the following account:

Sadly, that fateful night Francis Byrne and his teenage son, Jimmy from Bruckless, lost their lives. Sadly too, three other young men died on that horrible stormy night.

The fishing trawler, the Skifjord hit a reef known locally as Builg na Mire or Mad Reef near Burtonport.

This tragedy off the coast of Donegal, was the third in a line of horrendous tragedies suffered in the previous six years by the local fishing community. Indeed, all these tragedies were felt deeply by anyone who knew the victims or their families.

On hearing of the sinking of the Skifjord on that stormy Halloween night, local people rushed from every corner of the Parish and indeed from every corner of the country to where the trawler had foundered, in a futile bid to save the crew.

Many went there in the hope that they could save the lives of their neighbours and friends. On their arrival they were met by a sullen and angry sea.

These volunteers were joined by local fishermen from the Burtonport area as well as the coastguards and Naval light- aircraft and helicopters.

Miraculously, some of men survived that night by battling their way through the icy cold water to a small island called Inishinny, about half a mile from the reef. They were Gerry Lafferty, from Dunkineely and Standish O’Grady, from Dublin.

Mr O’Grady, the cook on board, survived by tying two life belts together with his socks. He and Gerry Lafferty made it to a small island, on which there was a holiday house. They took shelter there. Luckily for them, they did find shelter otherwise they too would surely have perished from hypothermia.

John Mc Guinness and Eamon Mullan both swam toward the shore, luckily, they were pulled alive from the water by locals’ fishermen.

There were three other young men who unfortunately lost their life’s that night along with Francis and Jimmy Byrne. They may not have been from this parish, but they were loved deeply by their families and friends and were thought highly of in this area.

Des Mc Govern, would have been just 22 years old the following month. He was from Newport, Co Mayo. He had plans to leave the fishing business and come home to work for his father. John Mc Govern was a well-known car dealer in Newport. Des planned to start working for his dad in the New year.

Unfortunately, along with Francis Byrne, the skipper of the Skifjord, Des’s body was never recovered. As was with the Byrne family, tragedies were no stranger in the Mc Govern household either. Des McGovern’s mother died in a car accident a few years earlier, and his brother died at the age of eight, falling off a pier in Mayo

Then, there was Tony O’Brien, a 21-year-old man from Glasnevin Dublin. Son of a doctor, Tony loved the sea. He had ambitions to have his own trawler someday. In fact, he had gained his Skippers ticket just the year before this tragedy.

Tony was a strong swimmer. On that ill-fated night, he swam for his life in the freezing dark seas. He was swept towards the shore by the strong gale force wind and although he was wearing a life jacket, fate intervened, when he was just a short distance from Clouglass beach, near Burtonport, unfortunately for him, he hit his head on a rock. His body was found later in the sea.

Tony, and Jimmy Lafferty had been classmates in Greencastle Fisheries College together four years before fate took a cruel turn. Jimmy Lafferty was just 26, from Ballycastle, Co Antrim. His body was found shortly after the disaster on the shoreline. Jimmy had been fishing in Killybegs for four years. He was one of nine children. His family sadly found out about the tragedy on the radio. Jimmy’s mother was from Donegal originally.

The ill-fated Skifjord was built in 1967 by a Norwegian firm called Janson Shipping. It was one of the largest in the Killybegs fishing fleet at the time. The trawler was a 128-foot steel-hulled vessel, which had been converted into a fishing trawler. She had been fitted with all the latest safety and fish finding devices. The Skifjord was in the possession of Francis Byrne just five months prior to this tragedy. On the day before the accident, the trawler had been fitted with a new net at a cost of £10,000.

The Skifjord was originally owned by Mr Aloysius Bonner, former manager of Burtonport Fishermen’s Co-Op. Sadly Mr Bonner died tragically a few months earlier when his car went over the pier in Burtonport.

The trawler left Killybegs that Friday evening to fish for mackerel off the coast near the Burtonport area. The weather was rough, and the trawler was forced to take shelter.

Gale force winds hampered the search for days, but luckily two bodies were recovered early that next morning. It was fortunate for Jimmy Lafferty's and Tony O’Brien’s families that their bodies were recovered.

The Byrne family had no such luck. It took almost two weeks for Jimmy’s body to be taken from the sea. Unfortunately, neither the bodies of Francis Byrne nor Des Mc Govern were ever recovered.

Not many Halloweens have ever passed in the last 40 years that I have not thought of that fateful night. There are many more people in this parish who remember the Byrne family as well as the other victims of the Skifjord at this time of year too.

I especially remember Francis’s mother Bridget; she always was wearing a smile any time I ever seen her. What an incredibly strong lady she must have been to keep on going. For those of you don’t know Bridget, she also lost her husband, Jim Byrne, and Francis ‘s father as well as her brother Daniel McCallig in the that terrible fishing tragedy of April 1945 off St John’s Point.

She was left with two young children. Francis’s wife was left with a large family, she also kept going with such dignity. Another amazing woman. It is no wonder they are all held with such high esteem by so many everywhere.

I can’t even begin to imagine how it must feel for the families who lost loved ones that night or indeed for the families of anyone lost in such terrible tragedies along our coast throughout the years and especially for those families who got no closure, or have no grave to visit. It can not be easy for survivors of these terrible tragedies either, it can never be far from their minds. Hopefully they are all doing ok.

May they all rest in peace.

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