Armagh Rail Disaster in Fiction
In this extract of 'The Woman from Kerry' Anne Doughty writes about the disaster
The following extract is from The Woman from Kerry by Anne Doughty. In it she writes from the perspective of a woman who, along with her children, is a passenger on the ill-fated train.
Doughty said: ‘As a very little girl, walking out the Portadown Road to visit my grandparents at Hockley, my father would point out the railways banks where the derailment occurred. I still look at the spot when we drive past, though the trees have almost obscured the now deserted embankment.’
‘We’ll be going in a minute now,’ said Sam, taking his turn at the window, ‘the Guard has just blown his whistle. I can see him waving his flag.’
Seconds later, there was a minute movement in the carriage, followed by a distinct lurch, a long whistle and a passing cloud of steam and smoke.
‘We’re away,’ said Sam, his face wreathed in smiles.
‘Yes,’ said Rose, sitting back, glad they were underway at last, after all the waiting and the delays.
They rolled out of the station between high banks, the sides of the cutting steep and smooth, the light glinting in long, undisturbed grass with nodding heads. Briar bushes grew in tangles, pink with opening buds. Hannah changed seats with Sam and looked up at the blue sky high above them, surprised and delighted when the cutting became an embankment, and her view was now over meadows and hayfields.
‘My turn now,’ said Sarah.
Smiling agreeably, the woman beside Rose said what good children they were and how well they shared the window seat.
‘Susie, you change with Helen, then Mary can have a turn,’ she said to her own children, while her husband smiled benevolently and consulted his fob watch.
‘Fifteen minutes late,’ he said. ‘Good thing we’re not going to work, we’d be in trouble,’ he added, looking at the four young people.
One of the girls managed a smile.
‘You’d have a stoppage for that, sir, where I work,’ said the older of the two young men.
‘Were slowing down,’ said the gentleman. ‘I hope we haven’t got a cow on the line.’
James thrust his head through the window.
‘My turn,’ said Sam, urgently a few moments later.
At the moment he spoke, the train stopped.
‘I think they’ll have to bank her, she can’t get up the slope,’ said James, turning to Rose.
‘So we’ll have to wait for another engine to come and give us a push?’ asked Hannah.
They’ll not make it otherwise,’ he replied, soberly.
While the train was moving there had been a comfortable breeze through both open windows. Now the air was still and getting hotter every moment. The amiable lady was perspiring visibly and Sarah was beginning to get cross as the sun beat down on the thin roof of the carriage.
‘James, see what’s happening,’ said Rose, who was beginning to feel uncomfortable herself.
‘They’re going to divide the train,’ said James, suddenly. ‘They’ve uncoupled the first five coaches to take them up the gradient first. Then they’ll come back for us.’
‘Let me look,’ said Sam, urgently. ‘Let me look.’
James gave way reluctantly under Rose’s glance.
‘A man’s put stones under the wheels of this carriage,’ said Sam, abruptly. ‘The other man says he’s mad to take the vacuum off. What’s that mean?’
By way of answer, James stuck his head out of the window again. As he did so, the carriage received a bang loud enough to startle everyone. It began to move imperceptibly backwards. He spun round, his face taut with urgency.
‘Ma, the stones have crumbled, we’ve got to jump out!’
‘Why James?’ Rose asked, alarmed by the tone of his voice.
‘There’s no brakes on us now the vacuum’s off, and the 10.35 is coming up behind us. We’ll run straight back into her.’
Rose stood up immediately.
‘Open the door James and jump out. I’ll drop Sarah down next,’ she said without any hesitation.
The movement in the carriage was very small. The young girls looked at her in surprise as she lowered Sarah into James’s waiting arms.
‘You next, Sam, and catch Hannah.’
Rose was about to jump down after her when she realised no one else in the carriage had moved.
‘Please, please, follow me immediately,’ she said, looking at the gentleman and then at the young people. ‘Something dreadful is going to happen, I can’t start to explain, but I know James is right,’ she said as the carriage wavered more significantly. ‘I must go to my children,’ she said, with a final backwards glance.
She paused at the door to get her balance and jumped down, almost falling forward, but managing to steady herself. She ran back the dozen or so yards to where the children were standing waiting, Sarah with tears running down her face.
‘I’m all right, Sarah, but I’ve got to go and see Auntie Mary. James, take them well off the line, out of the sun. Wait for me.’
She picked up her skirts and ran as hard as she could to catch up with the runaway carriages, trying to work out how far away Mary’s had been. She was gasping for breath as the coaches picked up speed and she tripped several times on the rough stone as she tried to navigate the narrow space between the rails and the edge of the embankment.
Heads were now poking out of windows, arms trying to open locked doors. The carriages were gaining speed, minute by minute, running quickly down the gradient that had defeated the engine on the way up.
‘Mary, Mary, she called, as she drew level with a coach that might be the one. A man was struggling with the door. Mary’s face appeared beside him at the window white with fear.
‘It’s locked, Rose. It’s locked,’ she shouted, shaking her head in despair.
‘Try the other side,’ she yelled. ‘Jump out, Mary,’ she cried, with one last effort to keep pace with the carriage. ‘For God’s sake, jump.’
She straightened up, a violent stitch in her side, as the last carriage of the divided train rattled past at speed. She took a deep breath, crossed the line and looked down the embankment, hoping against hope to see a figure, standing, sitting or even lying on the grass. But there was no one there.
The screams of the trapped people sounded in her ears. And then a yet more ominous sound, the long, long whistle of the oncoming passenger train. She covered her face with her hands, sobbing and waited for what had to come. The smash of metal on wood, the cries of people whose bodies would shatter like the wood of the carriages.
The pain in her chest was so bad she couldn’t breathe. She tried to move and couldn’t. Finally, she let herself slump to the ground and buried her face in the warm grass. She gasped, panting madly, found she could breathe again. Then she staggered to her feet, shaking violently and crossed the railway line.
‘The children are waiting, Rose,’ she said aloud. ‘Don’t look back. Just don’t look back.’