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Death on the ice … a winter tragedy

The Christmas of 1916 was not a happy one in Ireland. There was tragedy and loss everywhere. There was an empty place at the dinner table in many a Kildare household where a father or son had perished on the killing fields of Europe. They were the casualties of what became known as the First World War (1914-18) … a war which marked new depths of depravity in the annals of human conflict. The shadow of war shrouded the small towns of Leinster with each week’s newspaper carrying lists of the dead and the missing.
Against the background of such epic sadness it was a local tragedy which transfixed the readers of the Kildare Observer newspaper in the days before Christmas 1916.
Under a headline ‘Sanatorium patients drowned – tragedy at Peamount’ the paper carried a vivid account of a multiple drowning just over the county boundary in the part of Co. Dublin near to Celbridge.  The tragic incident claimed the lives of John Flaherty (25) from Maynooth, James Cannon of Balbriggan (20) and James Lynn (18) of Derry. The tragedy took place at a time of severe weather which saw ponds and lakes freeze in many parts of the country. The temptation to go sliding on the ice was irresistible for a number of the younger patients of the Peamount sanatorium, just north of Newcastle, Co. Dublin.  The sanatorium had been established in 1912 by the Women’s National Health Association as a place of convalescence for those with TB and other respiratory diseases which were prevalent and dangerous.  It was occupied by patients who were not necessarily bed-ridden but who needed care to recover from dreadful consumptive diseases.
The week before Christmas 1916 saw Ireland enter a deep freeze. Frozen ponds became gathering places for young people. According to the Kildare Observer a number of the patients from Peamount left the grounds of the sanatorium and made their way to a flooded quarry some 300 yards away known as Burn’s Quarry. An eye-witness, one Francis Evans, said he was in a group of twenty who had begun to slide on the frozen surface of the water-filled quarry.  He saw three men sliding further out on the ice from the main group, at one point he saw them holding hands as they slid across the surface. Then in an instant glee turned to terror as the ice gave way and the three young men plunged into the freezing water.
Another witness John O’Shea said he and a man named Columbcille O’ Sullivan had heard the screams from the quarry and had run over. He saw the three deceased in the quarry pleading for help. Sullivan managed to enter the water and took two of the drowning men under his arms. However the ice gave way as he attempted to bring them to shore and in the chaos lost his grip and in seconds they had disappeared into the deep waters.
An inquest held at Peamount two days after the tragedy revealed more details on some of those involved. One of the drowned, John Flaherty, was a native of Maynooth and prior to admission to the sanatorium had been a labourer on the Duke of Leinster’s estate at Carton. 
The inquest jury was fulsome in its praise of the rescuers. The paper singled out Columbcille O’Sullivan for particular mention. Also a Maynooth man he had been a patient at Peamount in 1913 and had left the sanatorium so restored to health that he was accepted into the British Army. He had fought on the western front but the hardship of the trenches had broken his health again and he was re-admitted to Peamount. Another plucky rescuer Laurence Kavanagh, was described as being a south Kildare man and also an ex-soldier.
The details of the tragedy and the inquest were given prominent coverage in the paper. Peamount was well known throughout Kildare as a sanctuary for those in danger of death from TB. Death in a different guise tinged its story in the week before Christmas of 1916.  It did not make for happy reading for readers looking forward to the tranquillity of Christmas. But then bad news never respected the calendar.
Postscript: Congratulations to the congregation of St. Brigid’s, Straffan who this month mark the 225th anniversary of their picturesque church. A visit by Dr. Dermot Martin,  Archbishop of Dublin, has been a high point of the commemorations. Still on Straffan a mention for the charming seasonal custom which sees the carefully tended holly tree in the village decorated with lights … a homely sight to passers-by on the road from Kill to Barberstown Cross. Series no: 260.

Liam Kenny writes of a winter tragedy in 1916 when three patients from Peamount drowned at Burn's Quarry. Our thanks to Liam

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