WORDS: FINTAN LAMBE
MANY DISTRESSING tragedies were reported throughout Ireland during the Christmas season, but none more poignant and terrible than that which occurred at Ballygarrett, about six miles from Gorey, on Saturday night or early on Sunday morning, when a widow named Mrs Alice O'neill and her seven children were all burned to death.
The 1922 tragedy, as recorded in The Free Press several days later, and reproduced here, recently featured on an RTÉ radio documentary, shedding light on a dark chapter in the history of Ballygarrett, which has rarely been publicly aired since.
Alice O'neill's sole surviving child Molly was eight years old at the time. Years later, she married James Doyle, and they reared their family in the house which was built in place of that in which the tragedy took place. Their youngest son Francis now lives in the house, and, following his mother's death in 1996, he approached his family members, and they erected a headstone in memory of the family which was almost wiped out in one night.
The headstone was later spotted in Donaghmore graveyard by a friend of Molly's granddaughter Maureen, and the story then came to the attention of documentary maker Pat Shine.
For the RTÉ Radio One Documentary on One titled Little Molly O'neill: A Survivor's Story, he interviewed family members and a surviving witness to the fire. Francis Doyle said afterwards he's received a huge response to the programme. 'Everyone thought it was really well done,' he said. 'It came across very well. It was balanced, rather than being sensational.'
Throughout her life, Molly didn't dwell on finding out who might have been responsible for the tragedy, and the family are anxious that the finger of suspicion isn't pointed at anyone. They were more interested that their family's story was finally told.
The Free Press from December 1922 contains a detailed account of the tragedy and the subsequent inquest.
'A blaze was first observed at Mrs O'neill's farmstead shortly after midnight on Saturday night, by a farmer named Michael Hobbs, who lives about a mile away. Hobbs at once proceeded to his home to get a bicycle, and on the way roused a man named David Doyle. On arriving at the scene they found the dwellinghouse was in flames and burning fiercely, the greater portion of it having already collapsed. One outhouse adjoining was on fire, but a second structure had escaped the flames. A rick of hay, 18ft from the dwellinghouse, was also completely ablaze, and was by this time practically gutted. The two men called out to know if there was anybody inside the house, but there was no reply. Owing to the flames which shot out from the thatch and the intense heat, the men were unable to approach the doors or windows, and were thus powerless to render assistance, if indeed it was not already too late.
'They then set out to alarm the villagers, who quickly arrived in large numbers. The Very Rev Canon Jones PP was one of the first to arrive, and remained for a considerable time. Many willing hands fetched buckets of water, which were thrown on the burning ruins, for the dwelling had now completely collapsed. A search was made as soon as possible, and a ghastly sight met their gaze when the searchers came upon the charred remains of Mrs O'neill and her seven children. In one room off the kitchen, the four elder boys slept in one bed together, and in the adjoining room the mother and the three other children, the youngest being only 15 months old. The tragic occurrence cast a thrill of horror throughout the district where Mrs O'neill was known as a quiet, inoffensive, woman. She was aged about 42 years, and had a farm of about 16 acres. The ages of the children ranged from one to ten years. The second-eldest child Molly, aged 8 1/2 years, was staying with her aunt, Mrs Morris, who lives across the road, and to this fact she undoubtedly owes her life. It was only last May that Mrs O'neill became a widow, her husband succumbing to an attack of pneumonia. Much sympathy is felt in the district for the relatives for the deceased.'
The report then gives a detailed account of the inquest which followed, examining the reasons for the fire.
The tragedy occurred on the night of December 23, into Christmas Eve, and within days, the inquest was held in Kehoe's Pub in Ballygarrett.
Among the witnesses was Mrs Brigid Morris, who was in the house at 9.30 p.m. and saw her sister put out the fire before she went to bed. She retired to her own house for the night, but was then later called to her door by David Doyle who had spotted the fire. The roof had fallen in at this stage. In her testimony, she also recounted incidents of vandalism in previous months. She said that spikes had been put in Alice O'neill's land to damage mowers. Potato stalks had also been pulled up. She didn't believe the fire could have started in the kitchen.
Michael Hobbs told the inquest how the sparks were blowing from the rick onto the house. There was a strong wind. He couldn't say where the fire originated in the house or the rick, but he believed it was in the rick.
After further testimony, the coroner told the jury there was no evidence of the fire being accidentally started.
During their deliberations, one juror asked 'Why would anyone interfere with a poor widow and her seven children?'
The paper adds: 'The coroner said that if a person only intended to burn the rick he would in that case have caused their deaths indirectly and he would be guilty of manslaughter; but if he fired it knowingly, he would be guilty of the murder of eight souls. You must draw up your verdict on the facts before you and say whether it was malicious or not.'
The verdict was returned that Mrs O'neill and seven children were burned to death, and the jury concluded that the fire originated at the rick of hay at the rear of the dwelling. There was no evidence of it being malicious or accidental.
In the documentary, it's explained that 12 votes were needed for a verdict of malice to be found, and for a full investigation. Eleven voted in favour, six were against, and one abstained.
Relatives also tell the story of how Alice had to let farm labourers go because she couldn't afford to pay them. She then accepted help from a neighbour, Jim Kehoe, for the harvesting and for hay making. It was after this that the incidents of vandalism occurred, which led to suspicions later that the fire at the rick may have been started deliberately. However, no one was ever identified as having set the rick on fire, if it was deliberate at all. But there were suspicions as to who may have been responsible.
As well as Molly's son Francis Doyle; his wife Teresa, his sister Maureen Cuddihy, her daughter Maureen, and his brother Fergus, were interviewed for the programme, as was one of the area's oldest residents Andy Doyle, who recalls the fire.
He was a young boy, and school friend of Molly and some of the children who died. His father attended the scene of the fire. 'The place was a mass of light,' he told Pat Shine. 'I remember as a child it was frightening. An awful blaze was out of it. You'd see the sparks right down to the ground. It was a massive fire.'
In later years, Molly sometimes spoke about her siblings and mother, but not too often about the fire. She did mention remembering men trying to get livestock out of the stable. She was also convinced that the priest calmed the winds, by getting up on a ladder and praying.
Andy recalled the people in the village couldn't speak, such was the shock the following day. Just two coffins were needed for the charred remains of the family. Maureen Cuddihy recounted how the priest later prayed for the souls of the people thought to have been responsible for setting the fire.
Molly had 10 children, three of whom died in infancy. Teresa said that while the story was known locally, it wasn't widely spoken of. 'People didn't openly talk about it out of respect for her,' she said. 'This documentary was about the tragedy, and how life sprang forth from one little girl. There is no interest in finding out if anyone was responsible. Molly's attitude was there was no point in blaming anyone because she might blame someone in the wrong.'
'Molly would have had a strong intuition as to who the perpetrators were and never judged, and she insisted that the family be met with grace and respect from members of my family,' Maureen Jr explains in the documentary. 'She didn't even judge in the first place.'
'She took the attitude that as it wasn't proven she wasn't going to condemn where the law hadn't condemned,' Francis said. 'She was going to lead her life and not dwell on it all the time.'
'We all grew up with it,' said Francis, after the programme aired. 'But I didn't realise the impact the documentary would have. I didn't realise until I researched it. It was just another story up to then. When I saw the death entries in the death register, it hit me like a sledgehammer.'
When the house was rebuilt, it was rented to the local school teachers, Master and Mistress Dunne, until Molly married in 1934 and moved in. The Dunnes' granddaughter Teresa, later married Francis Doyle, and now lives in the house.
The headstone in Donaghmore Cemetery now serves as a permanent reminder of Ballygarrett's darkest day. It reads: 'In memory of James O'neill, Ballygarrett Little, died 17th May, 1922, aged 52 years, His wife Alice O'neill, née Sheridan, aged 41 years, and their children, Mogue aged 10, Alice aged 8, Patrick aged 7, James aged 6, George aged 5, Henry aged 4, Thomas aged 1, who all died tragically on 24th Dec. 1922. Also their son Arthur, and their grand-children Alice, P.J. and Albert, who died in infancy.'