Railway Disaster

LEST WE FORGET – We will remember them…

These words are used in ceremonies all over the world to remember people who died and suffered in conflict and adversity. Armagh has it’s own unique tragedy that must not be forgotten. Wednesday 12th June 1889 is a date committed to memory as one of Armagh’s darkest days. It was on this day that the Armagh Railway Disaster occurred when the annual Armagh Methodist Church Sunday School excursion was on its way by train from Armagh to Warrenpoint.

The day started with hundreds walking behind the band of the Royal Irish Fusiliers to the station. The event had a high reputation and therefore attracted many from outside the Wesleyan family. The Belfast News Letter reported that there were approximately 1,200 excursionists. They set off from Armagh station in anticipation of a fun filled day but it proved to be a fateful day.

Armagh Railway Station Armagh Railway Station
Armagh Railway Station (now demolished) Engine No.86, which stalled on the hill, leading to the disaster

A recent exhibition included the following description of the incident:

“Approximately 3 miles out of the city the engine and carriages reached a steep gradient and, due to the volume of passengers, stalled. The decision was taken to divide the train and take the first 4 carriages on to another station. The engine would then come back and take the remaining 8 and rejoin the train. Stones were put under the wheel of the carriages and as the carriages were split, the rear carriage crushed the stones and started back downhill towards Armagh. They collided with the 10.35am passenger train resulting in many fatalities and injuries. The scene was horrific.”

Scene of the devastation on edge of Armagh City

Scene of the devastation on edge of Armagh City – site is close to Portadown Road.

There were 88 fatalities. All denominations suffered – Church of Ireland 34, Presbyterian 19, Methodist 18, and Roman Catholic 9, and others. Amongst the dead was the son of the Rev William R McMullan, Minister of Abbey Street Methodist Church, who was attending the annual Methodist Conference in Cork.
When he returned to Armagh, as well as the trauma of his son lying in a coffin in the manse, he found that his Sunday School Superintendent, Samuel Steel was dead and every member of the Abbey Street Church choir was either dead or injured. The loss included many young people – nineteen were under the age of 15, twenty-seven were between 15 and 20. The dead were from every walk of life and included several from the same family. Profound grief was evident, not only within the city and district, but on the national stage as well, resulting in an Act of Parliament to ensure that such a catastrophe would not occur again.

The next day the bells of the city churches took turns to toll, businesses closed and the streets were deserted as the extent and pain of the tragedy bore down on the community. There followed a long succession of funerals with the last thirty-five victims buried on the Saturday. The scenes in the graveyards are recorded as heartbreaking with the Belfast News Letter reporting –“…especially when one hears the groans and sobs of not only women and children, but of strong men who have come to lay their nearest and dearest in their last resting place”.

Surgeon-Major Lynn, a leading Methodist layman, who was one of the organisers and who had been travelling on the train, said Many a bitter battlefield did not display such carnage. One witness recounting his efforts to help amongst the wreckage, said that he saw a dead child with little sisters standing nearby, he witnessed several bodies mangled unrecognisable and people walking around in a dazed state. This was the scene of utter devastation and remains as a scar on the history of the city.

The names of all the dead are recorded in the Abbey Street Methodist Church, Armagh.

(Armagh County Museum and St. Patrick’s Trian Visitor Centre have information on the disaster)