Town to commemorate centenary of River Foyle drownings

The headstone in a St Johnston graveyard of Arthur James Dowds who drowned with three young friends in the River Foyle in 1917.
Seamus McKinney

A border village is planning a permanent memorial to mark the centenary of a drowning tragedy in the River Foyle in 1917 in which four children died.

Arthur James Dowds (9) and James Orr (9) along with their 13-year-old friends, George Quigley and Patrick O'Donnell drowned when they got into difficulty while enjoying a summer swim on June 30, 1917.

The four children were swimming near a pool in the river known as “The Widgeon's Hole” when disaster struck. All four were from the village of St Johnston, just seven miles from Derry.

Little is known about the victims other than that Arthur Dowds father, Thomas was principal of the local school. The family suffered another tragedy a year earlier when Arthur's brother was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Historian Stephen Hunter, who is researching the tragedy on behalf of the Carrigans and St Johnston Resource Centre, said the drownings became deeply embedded in the psyche of the local area.

“You'd still get older people in the area who talk about it although of course it's no longer in living memory,” Mr Hunter said

He said a recent public meeting to discuss ways of marking the centenary was well attended and particularly emotional.

“We'd people from all over but what made it more poignant was the attendance of some people who lost a child in the Foyle in recent years,” he said.

A fifth friend at the time, James Burnside (14) realised that the water was too deep and survived the tragedy. He told an inquest into their deaths that the five friends decided to go for a swim around noon on Saturday June 30 1917. On their way they passed local man, James Lynch who was “tarring” his boat.

Burnside recalled that James Orr suggested the group move out into the deeper channel of the river. He recalled the horror as he watched his friends get into difficulty.

Later that night a diver brought in from Derry recovered the bodies of Dowds and Orr. Patrick O'Donnell and George Quigley's remains were not found until later.

Mr Hunter said: “We intend holding a memorial service on the banks of the river on June 30; all the local clergy will be taking part and we hope to erect the memorial by the water's edge later this year.”

The Donegal-based historian said organisers were keen to speak to anyone who could shed more light on the tragedy.

“They're all local families so we're hopeful that some descendants might come forward who can provide more information.”

Mr Hunter urged anyone with information about the four children or the tragedy to contact him at Carrigans and St Johnston Family Resource Centre (00353 749148551).

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