The 15 October 1970 was a poignant day for two families in Baltinglass Co. Wicklow, when both sides lost two loved ones through an unforeseen and unimaginable misadventure. This year is the 50th Anniversary of the tragedy. Apart from family members, John Mullins, Wexford Branch, says he is apparently the last official witness to this incident.
I recently travelled to the Baltinglass Fire Station where I discovered a plaque erected in the name of Patrick Doody, Fire Chief in 1970, who is the true hero of this story. The plaque is inscribed ‘PATRICK DOODY – DIED 15th OCT 1970 – GREATER LOVE NO MAN HATH THAN THIS THAN A MAN LAY DOWN HIS LIFE FOR HIS FRIENDS’. On the morning of 15 October 1970, I had a meeting with the fire chief Patrick Doody to discuss a fire that had happened about six weeks previously, and Paddy was to give me an update of his investigations. We met at the Garda Station at about 11am and were standing on the steps at the entrance talking when Joe Byrne (mentioned in citation) came running down the hill in a very agitated state, shouting that Peter Doyle, who was blasting a well-shaft, had collapsed at the bottom of the shaft and they needed a rope to get to him as it was over 40 feet deep. I picked up both grappling irons and ropes in the station store and followed on. I was the only Garda on duty in Baltinglass Garda Station that morning. I told our Superintendent, Peter McGing, what had happened. He told me to go ahead with the rope and he would call assistance. Doyle’s dwelling house was about one kilometre from the Garda Station on the Rathvilly Road at Clough, just south of the junction with the Castledermot Road. I arrived within four minutes of Fire Chief Paddy Doody and when I reached the well-shaft, there were two elderly neighbours there with Joe Byrne, who was in his sixties.
FROM WELL-SHAFT TO HOSPITAL I could see Paddy Doody and Peter Doyle at the bottom of the well-shaft. Paddy was leaning over Peter trying to lift him. Paddy looked up at me and I dropped the rope down securing the grappling hook to the top of the shaft. I saw Paddy look up as he took hold of the rope and he turned very red in the face and tried to speak and then collapsed on top of Peter Doyle. I entered the shaft and climbed down the line. I saw that Paddy had fallen on top of the rope. I tried to lift him. I moved him a little and was pulling the rope from under him when I got the awful toxic smell of fumes and I felt dizzy. I next found myself on top of the shaft again. I have no recollection of climbing out. I felt very ill and dizzy, but I recovered quickly. I saw Dr Patrick Lord, the local GP, who was present along with Supt Peter McGing and Garda Con Hayes. Dr Lord had a cylinder of oxygen. I put on the oxygen mask and tied a rope around my waist and re-entered the shaft. A ladder was lowered down the shaft. As I reached the bottom of the ladder, I noted that the hose from the oxygen cylinder had detached and while trying to re-attach it, I was overcome. I was in and out of consciousness and eventually I found myself fully revived in Baltinglass Hospital. I was told by Dr Lord that when I became unconscious on the ladder and got tangled in the rope and my left hip was dislocated as my leg was trapped by the ladder. Dr Lord was actually able to put my hip back in place on the spot, but I was black and blue for about two months. The warm weather conditions on the day contributed to the retention of the noxious gasses in the well-shaft. At the inquest, a department inspector stated that if the weather had been windy or fresh the fumes would have been blown away. Newspaper reporters came to visit Joe Byrne and myself, our photographs were taken in hospital, and the national press carried our photos the following day.
MARKING TRAGIC EVENT In Fethard, Co. Tipperary the next morning, my beloved mother was on her daily trip to the paper shop to get her copy of the Daily Press. She was passing White’s Garage in the Main Street just past the Garda Station when John White, the proprietor, approached her looking very grave and extended his hand to her saying ‘Mrs Mullins, I am very sorry for your trouble’. He had the paper in his hand and had actually misread the headline and thought that I had died in the incident. My mother nearly died on the spot and Sgt Healy who was coming out of the station saw her and brought her into the station and rang Baltinglass Station. The other victim of the noxious gas down in that well-shaft was Peter Doyle, aged 19 years. His parents and sisters suffered greatly and his father never recovered from the responsibility he felt. A local committee was formed to mark this tragic event and subsequently Joe Byrne and I were presented with commemorative watches to mark the event. I also received a citation from Comairle Na Mire Gaile, the issuing Authority for Certificates of Bravery which I still have. This document is written in the traditional officialese style and does nothing to convey the horror and tragedy of this occurrence and the subsequent psychological damage and deep grief that was to follow in the wake of the incident for both families and others involved.
UNIQUE WATCH INSCRIBED That watch travelled with me to the Cavan/Monaghan Division and back to Bunclody over the next 33 years. Early in this New Year, I was searching in my attic for an item and in an old cabinet drawer, I rediscovered this unique watch and on the back is etched the date and my name. The date is, of course, 15 October 1970. The realisation that so much time had passed so quickly stunned me for some minutes as I sat holding the link to the memory. As I look back over the half century to the tragedy, I realise that life is a mystery to a large extent and we can only truly survive it by going with the flow and having the gratitude as we awaken each morning to face a new day. Heroism of this sacrificial nature is a rare and beautiful spontaneous and inspirational act of courage. Those who knew Patrick Doody will remember and recognise that he lived those true qualities of courage, honesty, leadership and integrity every day in his life. I am glad that I am alive today to be able to give my testimony to his sacrifice for the present generation and his immediate family. I think it was Rose Kennedy who said ‘Time Heals All Wounds’ that is very true and thankfully the memory remains alive to inspire us to stand against the rampant fear created by the Covid-19 pandemic currently spreading around the world.
GSRMA Wexford Branch