In a remarkable coincidence, descendants of three men who died in a drowning tragedy off Castletownbere 120 years ago, all began researching their families at the same time
By Helen Riddell
THE victims of a drowning tragedy which took place off Castletownbere over 120 years ago will be commemorated at a ceremony in the town on June 30th, in the presence of their descendants.
On May 29th 1897 three members of the Royal Irish Constabulary stationed in Castletownbere were returning from Bere Island when their boat started taking on water as a gale blew up.
Sergeant John Hickey (45), Constable Patrick Martin (31) and Constable Robert Frizelle (38) all drowned.
William Donegan from Bere Island who was also onboard at the time, survived.
However, in a twist of fate, Donegan’s son drowned some years later in a boating accident off Bere Island. Sergeant Hickey and Constable Frizelle are buried in St Finian’s Cemetery in Castletownbere.
Constable Martin’s body was recovered three days later on the far side of Bantry Bay, his remains were buried in Bantry in what is thought to be an unmarked grave.
At the inquest for the three RIC men, which was reported at the time in The Southern Star, it was believed that their heavy uniforms and boots hindered them in the water. However, in a remarkable series of coincidences, descendants of the three men, all began researching their family histories around the same time, each travelling to Castletownbere separately in recent years, eventually making contact with each other.
Retired Gda Sgt Fachtna O’Donovan and member of the Beara Historical Society said he first became aware of the story a number of years ago, when he was researching the history of the constabulary in Beara.
He also discovered that men had travelled to Bere Island that day to make enquiries about the suspicious death of an elderly woman on the island.
Fachtna said that over a short period of time the families of the men began to make contact with the Beara Historical Society.
‘What is remarkable is that over the last few years, the men’s descendants all made contact with us for information. First was Nuala Hickey when she enquired about her grandfather Sergeant Hickey’s grave.
‘We located his grave, which she later visited with her niece, sadly both ladies are now deceased, but two years ago another grandniece of Sergeant Hickey, Muireann McGrath also contacted us, and also Constable Frizelle’s great-granddaughter. Then this year, Ita Martin, a grandniece of Constable Martin visited the Bere Island Heritage Centre, who in turn put her in touch with us.’
Ita Martin, now living in East Cork, has undertaken detailed research into the tragedy.
‘My great-uncle John Hickey was from Cavan. I knew very little about him, but when I came across his service history, I was delighted to be able to get to know him, but then reading through his record, when it ended with how he died, I felt as if we’d lost him again.’
From reading news reports at the time of the accident, she discovered that when John Hickey’s body was found, in his pocket was a telegram: ‘I’ve always been so curious about the contents of that telegram, and the significance of it, but to date I haven’t found out what it said.’
In an extraordinary coincidence Ita discovered that a near neighbour in East Cork is a great-granddaughter of Constable Robert Frizelle.
‘I was talking to a friend of my husband’s when he mentioned that his wife’s maiden name was Frizelle. I said how that name was connected to my family history, and we discovered that Constable Robert Frizelle was her great-grandfather.’
The women have also made contact with Sergeant Hickey’s grandniece Muireann: ‘We all met up recently for lunch, and felt we’d known each other all our lives.’
Ita’s research also led her to believe that there was more to the tragedy: ‘A report in the London Evening Standard on the accident said that the boat may have been tampered with as it appeared to start taking on water not long after they left Bere Island, Constable Frizelle was an experienced sailor, and the RIC were known to have their boat well maintained, so there were questions as to why it sank so quickly.’
Constable Frizelle’s great-granddaughter Angela O’Connor first visited Castletownbere 10 years to visit his grave: ‘We initially had trouble finding his grave in St Finian’s Cemetery, but I noticed a headstone had fallen down and when I looked closely at it I was able to make out the name Frizelle.’
The three women with their families will visit Castletownbere this month when the names of their ancestors will be unveiled on a plaque beside the Twilight Haul memorial sculpture on Dinish Island.
The names have also been written into the Mna na Mara Remembrance Book in the Church of the Sacred Heart, Castletownbere.