Frank McNally on a Donegal disaster, the Irish Naval Service’s finest hour, and a great Russian-Irish translator

At a sombre gathering in west Donegal this week, locals marked the 80th anniversary of the Ballymanus sea-mine disaster

At a sombre gathering in west Donegal this week, locals marked the 80th anniversary of the Ballymanus sea-mine disaster, which cost the lives of 19 young men.

A weapon of war in the Atlantic, the spiked, 8ft-high mine floated ashore one evening in early May 1943, attracting concern from gardaí, but not enough concern to have the area condoned off.

After the mine bobbed in and out among the rocks for a while, onlookers were fatally convinced it was harmless.

A group of 23 young men and boys then tied ropes to it and tried to pull it farther inshore, at which point it exploded, obliterating those closest. Seventeen died at the scene, two others later.


The explosion was heard 40 miles away.

In a rider to the inquest verdict, there was criticism of a Garda sergeant, who was subsequently transferred out of the area. No official inquiry followed, however, and there were no other consequences.

The victims, aged between 13 and 34 and including three brothers from the same family, are named on a monument at the spot. Marking the anniversary there on Wednesday, about 70 people gathered in the rain, reciting a rosary in Irish and English.


Bad as May 1943 was in Donegal, it could have been worse. A week later, according to The Irish Times, another mine washed up on Tory Island. Army bomb experts were quickly dispatched from the mainland to dispose of it safely. But when they got there, they found the islanders had already dismantled it “with spanners, wrenches, and screwdrivers”.

As the news report noted, with understatement: “The islanders’ behaviour occasioned surprise on the mainland, where it was stated that Tory people might yet be unaware of the Ballymanus disaster.”


Still with Donegal, Seamus Hayden from Ardara has written to draw our attention to another recent maritime anniversary, somewhat less sombre.

This one happened at the opposite end of Ireland – off Hook Head, Co Wexford – 60 years ago in January. But it has some contemporary resonance, concerning as it does an incident in which the Naval Service faced down a territorial incursion by Russians.

One night in January 1963, the patrolling Irish corvette Maev had spotted a fleet of Soviet trawlers in or near the three-mile limit of Irish territorial waters.

After taking “fixes” to confirm the location was illegal, it moved in on one factory ship, the Paltus (meaning “halibut” or “turbot” or both) and, with flags and light signals, ordered the captain to haul gear and proceed to Dunmore East.

When the captain refused, Maev fired the proverbial shot across his bows. Following which, the Russians came peacefully.

A court in Waterford later heard the trawler had been caught “red-handed” (pun apparently not intended).

Seamus knows all this because he watched the incident – including the firing of the “four-inch tracer shell” –- live from the deck of another vessel nearby. But the event and its aftermath also made national news.

In its coverage of the court case, The Irish Times noted that the trawler captain and Soviet consul had hired as an interpreter one Margaret McMackin, professor of Russian at Trinity College, who was said to have “translated a number of Chekhov’s works into Irish”.

Retribution against the Russians included the auctioning of their catch and gear in Waterford. There was some global humiliation too. A New York newspaper trumpeted the unsuspected might of the Irish Navy thus: “Bold Eire Hauls in Soviet Trawlers: What Few Nations Have Dared Do!”

The paper wrote: “What Nikita [Khrushchev] will do about all this remains [...] to be seen. In due course, bombs may fall on Killarney. But, while it’s still around to be seen, the rest of the world must, thanks to this incident, look upon Old Erin with an admiration not untinged with awe.”

That Margaret McMackin was a remarkable person in her own right. She too was from Donegal, with a fluency in Irish admired even by her friend the writer Séamus Ó Grianna, with whom she later campaigned against the standardisation of the language to the detriment of the Donegal dialect.

Having good Russian too, she travelled to the Soviet Union in 1932 as a translator and there married a communist Irishman, Padraic Breslin.

But after she returned home in 1938 to give birth to their daughter, the couple never met again. The Soviets would neither let him leave, nor her return. Imprisoned as a dissident, he ended his days in the gulags.

She spent the rest of her life teaching and translating, while her flat on Dublin’s Grafton Street became “an unofficial centre of Slavonic and Irish studies”.

She died there 40 years ago, in January 1983. And in a partial reversal of the fishing incident 20 years earlier, the USSR subsequently gained 200 books in Irish, gifted in her memory by Cumann na bhFoilsitheori to the University of Moscow.