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The Drowning of Paddy Dwyer
28 May 1922

River Suck,
from the Red Bridge
towards Ballinasloe town
(click on picture for larger image)


Patrick Dwyer was born in 1906 in Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo. His parents were Michael Dwyer and Margaret Reilly, my grandparents.

In April 1922, when he was 17 years of age, he went to live in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, to work as a draper's assistant in Mrs. Finnegan's shop in that town ("The Irish House" or "Finnegan's Corner").

On 28th May 1922 he went skinny dipping in the River Suck, near the Red Bridge, and drowned.

The story of that drowning sheds an interesting light on some of the attitudes of that time.

The Drowning

The story of the drowning, and the coroner's inquest, was extensively reported in the Connacht Tribune of 3rd June 1922. A slightly shorter report of the inquest appeared in the East Galway Democrat, the local Ballinasloe paper, also in the 3rd June edition.

The event can be summarised as follows.

Patrick and some mates were out walking along the river bank, one Sunday afternoon, when he decided to go for a swim. He stripped and jumped in, swimming with the current for a short distance. When he tried to turn back he found the current was too strong and the river too deep and he got into trouble. He called for help and a friend jumped in, fully clothed, swam to him and kept him afloat for a few minutes.

Meanwhile a boat, with one man and two women, rounded the corner and appeared to come to his assistance. What happened next is the subject of contradictory evidence. His mates say the boatman made a half-hearted effort to offer him an oar which he was not able to grasp. Then the boat took off for the bank and the two ladies got out. By the time it returned Paddy had disappeared.

Paddy's mates, and the locals, and virtually everybody else, seemed to think that the boatman figured that taking a naked Paddy into the boat would have been offensive to the young ladies' modesty so he went to the bank to leave them off the boat. The boatman claimed he had not proper control of the boat, that it drifted to the bank, whereupon he let the ladies off, and, by the time he returned, it was too late. Paddy's family and friends, the locals, and the inquest jury clearly did not believe the boatman's story and the verdict reflects this.

I suspect the case was not sufficiently open and shut for there to be any prospect of a prosecution but I would be interested in knowing if there were any repercussions for the boatman.

Paddy's father, my grandfather, himself an ex-policeman, was incensed at the behaviour of the boatman, who, he felt, put the ladies' modesty above the life of his son.

The Verdict

The jury brought in the following verdict:

“We find the cause of death was accidental, but it is our opinion that Mr. Wilson did not use the necessary judgment that probably would have saved the boy's life. We desire to make special comment on the great bravery displayed by the young man McCarthy in the gallant attempt he made to save the poor boy's life.”

A vote of sympathy was passed with the deceased's parents and friends, in which the coroner joined.

Cousin Colette had a version of this story which implied that the boatman had refused to take Paddy on board because of the ladies. I thought this unbelievable and was quite sceptical. In the event, Colette's version is, more or less, borne out.

While the boatman did make a case in his own defence, I am no more inclined to believe it than was the jury. The point was made by one of the jurymen (all men) that he would not have been out on the river with the two ladies if he had not been able to control the boat.

It strikes me that there was another and more credible defence available to the boatman. He could have said that he did not see why he should have jeopardised his own life and that of the two ladies by risking a capsize, particularly as he himself could not swim a single stroke. That would have been more understandable but would likely have endeared him less to the jury as it would have implied a conscious decision to abandon the boy.

There was another factor in play here. The boatman was a Protestant and Paddy was a Catholic. This would have introduced both a class and sectarian element into the equation. In fact, at the inquest, it was clearly suggested that had it been a Protestant boy in trouble he would certainly have been saved. There are some serious anti-Protestant vibes coming through from the report of the inquest. One of the jurors even went so far as to imply that the boatman viewed Paddy as "only a little Catholic child whose life was not worth saving" .

The religious angle also comes to the fore in another way. Patrick was described at the inquest as "an exemplary young man, went to daily Mass, was a member of the Pioneer Association, and was generally very popular". He, or the family, also rated a High Mass for the funeral in St. Patrick's, Ballyhaunis.

The death notice, inserted by the family, in the Irish Independent and the Freeman's Journal of 30th May 1922, is also an interesting reflection of the mood of the time. Patrick's parents are not mentioned in it. Instead he is identified as the "brother of Willie O'Dwyer, N.T.". A quick scan of the national press of the period has the country in a state of incipient civil war and former RIC men were being taken out and shot. In April two ex-RIC men were attacked in their homes in Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo - one was killed (Con Cranny) and the other (Con Butler) was seriously wounded. In May, in Ballinasloe itself, two ex policemen were visited by armed men and shot in the legs.

It might have been considered prudent at the time not to draw attention to Patrick's father, Michael, who had retired from the RIC in 1911. While he would not, therefore, have been involved in the 1920 official policy of RIC reprisals against IRA leaders, feelings against the RIC were exacerbated by this policy and were clearly running very high. I suppose there was also the angle that brother Willie would, at that stage, have been better known than his father as he was both local and county secretary of the INTO.

The account in the East Galway Democrat makes it clear that the Sergeant, Troops and Barracks referred to at the inquest were IRA (irregulars).

There is a brief description of swimming at the Red Bridge in the 1940/50s here. I don't know how much of this would have been relevant in Paddy's case.

You can see an ad for Sam (the boatman) Wilson's store here from the East Galway Democrat of 3 June 1922.

Found at last

Finding Paddy is a story in itself. Since being told, within the last year, that I had an uncle who had drowned, I could not find any trace of Paddy. Granted I had cousin Colette's story, but I was at a complete loss for corroboration from the usual sources.

Strangely, Paddy's death is not recorded in the national civil records. I don't know how many times I revisited the indexes looking for him. I found a chap once called Patrick Dwyer, who was 16 years of age and had died in an accident within the Ballinasloe Union District. I was sure I had him, but when I got the cert it turned out this guy had been killed by a train and his father was a farmer. Spookey. You have to remember, though, I did not have a precise year for our Patrick's death.

I finally figured cousin Michael might have heard something from uncle Willie in the dim and distant past. Michael thought he remembered something on a tombstone and cousin Matt "did" the graveyard in Ballyhaunis. Bingo. With a date it was then possible to look up the national and local papers and the death notice and inquest report were found.

In a perfect world I should have been able to interrogate the Irish newspapers archive, but this appears to have been based on scans that were OCR'd some time back and were not subject to verification, so the search was a bit of hit and miss and, in this case, nothing turned up. However, with a date I was able to use the same archive to check out the report of the inquest. I understand there is now a vast improvement in the search function of this online archive but have not tested it since. I may, at some stage, see if I can turn up the actual inquest papers via the National Archive. But as the registration of the death did not make the national indices I am not holding my breath.

Meanwhile, I think there is enough food for thought in what I have set out above.

A version of the Connacht Tribune account with a slightly more authentic masthead is here but it is 500Kb.
Only worth downloading if you want to print it.

Click   for a map of the area, courtesy

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