Mudslide revives memories of runaway bog that killed eight family members

A recent mudslide in Leitrim recalls a more tragic event in Kerry a century ago that wiped out eight family members
Mudslide revives memories of runaway bog that killed eight family members
Tonnes of peat slid down from the Shass Mountain into Corcormick townland near Drumkeeran, Co. Laois. Picture: Joe Dunne

A devastating mudslide in Co Leitrim on June 28 has revived memories of a similar but more tragic runaway bog in east Kerry on December 28, 1896.

The incident at Drumkeeran in Leitrim followed a period of good weather. Bog on the mountain had dried out, leaving behind cracks on the land.

These filled with water during subsequent heavy rain which swept thousands of tonnes of peat down Shass Mountain for up to 8km. Two homes were evacuated and around 12 farms were impacted.

The Dawn of Hope Bridge after a mudslide near Drumkeeran, Co Leitrim. Picture: Joe Dunne
The Dawn of Hope Bridge after a mudslide near Drumkeeran, Co Leitrim. Picture: Joe Dunne

Con Donnelly, 44, his wife, Johanna, 38, and six of their seven children, ranging in age from 18 months to 16 years, were swept away when their thatched cottage was submerged in the bog flow. The sole survivor was 15-year old Katie, who was away from home and staying with relatives.

Poor drainage and an accumulation of water were later listed among the main reasons for the disaster which occurred without warning in the early hours of the morning following heavy rain. Some of the debris was later found 14 miles away in one of the Killarney lakes.

Journalist and author Donal Hickey, wrote in the Journal of Cumann Luachra in 1996 that the calamity caused deeply felt sadness, which continued for generations. Anyone who witnessed the immediate aftermath of the bog flow carried the bitter memory with them all their days.

There are many similarities between the moving bog in Kerry and the landslide in north Leitrim. But there is one significant difference.

The former happened in the middle of the night when the Donnelly family were asleep while the latter occurred in the evening after local people heard a roaring thunder-like noise from the ground. Gardai received the initial reports at 11.30pm.

Former agriculture minister Barry Cowen along with other ministers, politicians, farm leaders, state agency and local authority officials have visited the site in Leitrim to see for themselves the damage caused.

A multi-agency group led by the Department of Heritage has been set up to oversee the response to the mudslide and to deal with its aftermath.

Senior officials from Leitrim County Council, the Department of Agriculture, Inland Fisheries Ireland, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service attended the first meeting.

All agencies present stated their commitment to finding a multi-agency response to address the emergency, including farmer and community needs, and to investigate solutions to the longer-term stabilisation challenges now evident.

Heritage Minister Malcolm Noonan said afterwards he was shocked when he viewed the damage first- hand with junior minister Frank Feighan.

He praised the local farmers, the wider community the local authority officials for their reactions to the emergency.

Mr Noonan said there was “much work to be done” on the issue and the new committee would meet again in the very near future.

Deputy Marian Harkin earlier told the Dáil the aftermath of the incident was an incredible sight. An estimated 300,000 or 400,000 cubic metres of peat and bog had moved down the mountain for several miles.

Mary McVeigh, whose land was destroyed, and her son, Gerard, walk the mud-covered road near her home outside Drumkeeran, Co Leitrim. Picture: Joe Dunne
Mary McVeigh, whose land was destroyed, and her son, Gerard, walk the mud-covered road near her home outside Drumkeeran, Co Leitrim. Picture: Joe Dunne

Vast swathes of land were destroyed. The only thing holding back half the mountainside was the Dawn of Hope Bridge, built in the late 1800s.

“It is absolutely astonishing that this bridge is still standing and holding back thousands of tonnes of trees and bog. We are facing an emergency and there are real fears that the bridge will not hold.

“Urgent action must be taken to reinforce it and try to stabilise the bog slide. That is the immediate need,” she said, adding that people in the area, especially those whose homes are in danger and those whose land is being destroyed, need to know that they have not been forgotten.

Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice said funds must be given to Leitrim County Council to ensure it can cater for the works that need doing. The bog is sliding down the steep mountain, spreading out and destroying farmers’ land.

“These are small family farms whose owners are working in the difficult conditions that naturally arise in bog land areas. They deserve help in this emergency,” he said.

Mr Fitzmaurice said people who live in this area were frightened that if the bridge at the top of the mountain collapses, nothing will stop the bog from coming down.

Local knowledge suggests that a lake that disappeared years ago was located where the trees started moving.

Mr Noonan, whose remit includes the National Parks and Wildlife Service, said the mountain comprises an extensive upland plateau situated to the north of Lough Allen and is dominated by active blanket bog and wet heath.

NPWS officials have been to the site to investigate the extent of damage to the SAC. Initial findings indicate the bog slide originated along the southern flank of a forestry plantation. That land is deemed to be very unstable and there are fears further slippages may occur.

Mr Noonan said Leitrim County Council is currently the lead agency dealing with the incident. The Office of Public Works is in contact with engineers in the Council and providing advice as required.

In addition, the forestry inspectorate of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Coillte have been on site since the event and have examined it in detail.

Meanwhile, local community group, Save Leitrim, which is campaigning against the widespread afforestation of non-native Sitka trees, said the mudslides prove the need for further environmental protection.

It claimed during a protest outside the Dáil last year that communities were being displaced and the environment harmed as a result of forestry policy.

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