Five families across Ireland and many communities would have been quietly remembering the fishermen lost 30 years ago last Monday when the Skifjord fishing trawler sunk after striking a reef off Burtonport. Among the dead were skipper Francis Byrne from Bruckless (39), his son James (16), Desmond McGovern (22) from Mayo, Jimmy Laverty (20) from Ballycastle and Tony O’Brien (21) from Dublin. Four other crewmembers - Gerry Laverty (26) from Dunkineely, John McGuinness (19) from Killybegs, Eamonn Mullin (29) also from Killybegs and the boat’s chef Standish O’Grady (33) from Dublin - survived the catastrophe.
Danny Byrne, who lost both his father and brother in the tragedy, recalls that fateful day.
“I was only eight years old at the time, but I can still remember it very clearly. The first we knew about it was when a national newspaper rang us in the morning to tell us. The horrible reality became apparent very quickly.
“Everyone helped in the search - family, friends and neighbours. We even had family living in the Middle East who came back to take part in the search, which lasted for several weeks. They only found my brother’s body after 8 or 9 days and they never found either my father’s body or Des McGovern’s.
“People were all in shock. No matter how aware you are of the dangers of fishing, it’s always a shock when someone dies. A tragedy like that, with so many lives lost, had a profound effect on the people of the area.
“The local people ralled round and were a great support to us. One of the blessings we found over the years was that the local people continued to be a great support to us. My mother was from Mayo, and she wouldn’t have had much in the way of family up here, apart from us, but the local people were wonderful to her and did all they could to help. It wasn’t a case of being there at the time of the tragedy and then leaving us all on our own.
“People were still rocking from the loss six men when the Evelyn Marie went down off Rathlin O’Beirne and in 1976 when five men from the Carrig Una died when she foundered off the same reef as my father’s boat. Both of those crews fished, like my father, out of Killybegs and Burtonport.
“I think the loss of the Skifjord wasn’t anyone’s fault, it was just an unfortunate combination of events. The sea can be a hostile place at the best of times.
“Enormous credit is due to my late mother Winnie. To be left with eight children after the trauma of losing your husband and your son, that was some cross.
“My grandmother Brigid deserves great respect too. She had already lost her husband James and brother Danny a fishing tragedy off St John’s Point as well as her brother Anthon, who drowned in Mayo. My grandmother Brigid was a very strong person, a great source of strength to my mother and a big help raising us.”
Another of the family’s affected by the tragedy, the McGovern’s, had also suffered previous losses. Des McGovern’s mother died in a car accident and his brother died at the age of eight after falling off a pier in Mayo.
Witness accounts from the Donegal Democrat
When it became apparent that the Skifjord had run aground on ‘The Mad Reef’ between Arranmore Island and Burtonport at around 3am, the crew of the Arkansas and the Autumn Glory came to their aid.
Joe Duffy, skipper of the Arkansas said the treacherous conditions meant they couldn’t get close enough to fire a safety line over to them. “I was there within ten minutes and went in as close as possible but the reef was between me and him and I couldn’t get at him.
A large wave hit the boat, at approximately 3.30am, and swept it off the reef.
Standish O’Grady described what happened next. “The boat took a list to port and then she came back over to the sternboard side. After that, she was listing to port again and the stern was going down. We were all hanging onto the rails. Then the sea came up and swept us off the boat.”
He managed to tie two buoys from the boats nets together and used them to keep afloat. Both he and Gerry Laverty made it to Inishinny Island, where they broke into a cottage and were later found by a search party.
One of the rescuers said: “When they were found, both men were so cold they were almost stiff. It was almost like rigor mortis.”
John McGuinness and Eamon Mullen also swam toward the mainland and were pulled from the water by local people.
Garda Sgt. Donal Ward recalled: “When we found McGuinness, he was fairly strong, he was swimming well. When I went back, Eamonn Mullin had been found. He was not as strong as he had swallowed a lot of diesel.”
The first body to be found was that of Tony O’Brien who nearly made it to shore. He had been swimming with McGuinness and Mullin but it is believed that he struck a submerged rock and was knocked unconscious. His body was recovered at approximately 7.30am. The body of Jimmy Lavery was found at approximately 10am.
Gales and heavy seas hampered searches for the remaining crew members. When the garda sub-aqua team located the wreck all that was found on board was two lifejackets.