The Saltmills Disaster

Throughout the War of Independence in Wexford there were many casualties on both sides. But the largest single loss of life took place on Tuesday night the 12th of October 1920, in an old unoccupied house just off a small road which runs by sea shore, near Saltmills in South Wexford. Here members of the I.R.A were making bombs and Joseph McCarthy of New Ross describes the operation in his witness statement:

‘The local I.R.A. had selected this old house, and had been using it for some time now, for making bombs, filling cartridge cases and storing all kinds of ammunition. Raids on the Hook lighthouse and supplies from other places brought large quantities of explosives. They were kept in boxes, and brought each night from hidden dumps near the neighboring farms. The manufactured bombs were burled in ground close to the unoccupied house, before dispatch to their various destinations.’ (pages 1-2)

On the night 14 men were present in the house making explosives. Joseph goes on to describe the event which would lead to 9 of them men being injured and the other 5 men dead.

Buckets of explosive material, emptied out of the sacks and boxes, were all over the room. Candles and cart-lamps gave them light, and sacking was placed against the windows, so as to have no light visible from outside. Tom Gleeson and Michael Conway were cutting detonator wires. Michael Conway was using a pliers. Tom Gleeson struck the detonator with a penknife he was using, causing a spark. In a second or two, a blue flame filled the room. John Timmons and Edward Kelly shouted, “Run, run, lads! The Lord have mercy on us!”, and, as they finished those words, a quick, short, loud explosion had blown the old house to pieces. The explosion was so powerful that it had blown the roof to the far end of a four-acre field. Three men Martin Roche, Robert Walsh and Michael Fitzgerald were killed instantly. James Gleeson lived about half an hour, and James Byrne died in Kelly’s, Saltmills, the following morning. Of the remaining men, some were found shortly afterwards, grievously injured, naked and bleeding, trying to creep along the ground. The others were stunned, going aimlessly around and suffering from shock. Michael Conway recalls that, a moment after he saw the spark, a blue glow filled the house with a choking gas, and, in another moment, the explosion had left him bereft of any memory till he found himself outside, numbed from shock and bleeding.’ (Pages 3-4)

The Freemans Journal Newspaper on the 23rd of October reported that on the night the explosion could be heard up to 10 miles away and it goes on to describe the gruesome and harrowing scene which greeted the earliest arrivals after the explosion.

…’Passing through the debris the searchers came upon quivering masses of human flesh and blood soaked garments torn from the bodies of the unfortunate victims, and hurled to a distance by the force of the explosion. On the site of the house hurled underneath what was left of the ruins were discovered the frightfully mutilated remains and charred bodies of 10 young men, resident of the district.’

At first it was thought all were dead but closer examination showed thus was not so, although half the number were in their last hour and the air was filled with agonising moans. The remains of some of the men were almost unrecognisable and one required a strong nerve to look, even for a moment, upon the awful sight. Bodies stripped naked, were twisted and broken; legs, arms, and heads were fractured. Four died during the night and the fifth lingered on until 5 o clock on Wednesday morning. Fragments of men’s wearing appearl were to be seen strewn on all sides around the ruins, whilst some were to be seen on neighboring high trees. From the position in which the bodies of the dead and injured were found it would appear that they were lifted bodily in the concussion caused by the explosions and fell on the strewn mass of the broken walls.

The Rev., Isaac Scallan C.C, who ministered to the dying and wounded, gave a Freeman reporter a vivid description of the appalling horrors of the scene. Men groaning in their death agony were found lying in different parts of an adjoining field, into which they had been hurled, or whether they had crawled for saftey. Groping in the darkness he came upon Robert Walsh amongst the debris lying on his side his face buried in a pool of blood. Martin Roche found half slaked and frightfully scorched, partially hidden under a heap of stones. Michael Fitzgerald was lying on his face with blood oozing from his mouth. ‘Although he was my next door neighbor’ said Father Scallan, ‘I failed to recognize him’. James Byrne was found lying in a ditch , his leg fractured in two places (Freemans Journal, 23rd October 1920, Page 5)

The Freemans journal listed those dead and wounded.

(Freemans Journal 15th October 1920 Page 5)
Photo of Martin Roche who was killed in the explosion

Following on from the events of that night the army and police arrived in the area the following morning. Patrick O Grady, Patrick Kelly and Patrick Reville managed to go on the run while the other 6 survivors were rounded up and imprisoned. Of those 6 Michael Conway, Edward Kelly and Stephen Barron were taken and imprisoned in Cork Military Barracks. During this period in they were brought along as hostages when the black and tans travelled over wide areas of Cork and Tipperary. The officer in charge always warned his party before they set out on their journey’s that in case they met any hostilities the three prisoners were to be shot.

Eventually all 6 men ended up in Waterford prison and were then later transferred to Mountjoy prison in Dublin, were they awaited deportation to Portland prision in England. In March 1921, the night before they were due to be shipped out, an incident occurred involving several black and tans. The 6 men were gathered in the yard with all the other prisoners having their names checked for deportation. Several black and tans entered the prison drunk, cursing, shouting and pushing the military escort in charge of the prisoners. They were looking for one prisoner named ‘Joe Murphy’ whom they intended to shoot. The prison Governor tried to remove them but was powerless and knowing Joe’s faith declined to read out his name. However, the black and tans had some idea of Murphy’s description. Joe was standing beside Edward Kelly, one of the Saltmill survivors and as they were somewhat similar in appearance Edward swapped hats with Joe to confuse the black and tans. Upon seeing Edward kelly and thinking him to be Joe Murphy they grabbed him and placed him up against a wall with revolvers at the ready. Just before they were about to shoot another survivor, John Timmins, shouted out that they had a Wexford man and not who they wanted. The Governor and military guard then intervened and Kelly escaped with his life.

The black and tans remained all night in the yard and the following morning when the lorries arrived to take prisoners to the ships they were still there. A final name check was to take place with the prisoners in the lorries. At this point the military were getting hostile towards the black and tans. Soldiers stated they were never ambushed in Dublin except when accompanied by them and that if they (the black and tans) shot Joe murphy they would shoot some tans. The military formed a shield around Joe Murphy’s lorry, and in frustration the black and tans climbed a wall at the entrance and pointed their revolvers at the lorry with Joe murphy inside as it approached the exit. Fortunately some soldiers took their rifles and swung the butts of them at the tans, knocking them senseless and preventing a slaughter.

Later in July 1921 the Saltmills prisoners were moved to Dartmoor prison were they remained through the truce until their release on the 3rd of February 1922.

Six survivors of the Saltmills disaster pictured in February 1922 on their release from Dartmoor prison. Backrow:Thomas Gleeson, John Timmins, Michael Conway, Edward Kelly. Front Row: Patrick Kinsella, Stephen Barron. Thanks to Mairead Timmins for the photo and names.

The Site Today

The location of the incident is remote today, as it would have been back in the 1920s. The house was situated uphill from a small narrow road which runs beside the seaside, just east of the village of Saltmills. Two houses are visible on the 1905 ordinance survey map (see below picture) and one of these was likely that which was blown up on the night. Today there is no evidence of a former structure on the site and the location is marked on the roadside below by a memorial baring the names of those who were killed and wounded on the night.

1905 25 Inch Ordinance Survey Map (depicting 2 houses) overlaying a modern aerial photo with the roadside memorial visible. One of these two houses was very likely that which was used by the volunteers and which was blown up in the explosion.
The roadside memorial located below the site of the explosion. This image is taken from Google Street View 2009 and with the exception of a 1916 proclamation added remains much the same to this day,

Sources

Freemans Journal 15th October 1920

Freemans Journal, 23rd October 1920, Page 5

Joseph McCarthy, Bureau of Military History witness statement #1507

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