The Kirkintilloch tragedy

A short history of the Kirkintilloch tragedy, in which 10 Irish migrant workers were killed, written by Anonymous.

Submitted by Working Class … on January 27, 2022

OnSeptember 16, 1937- ten young migrant workers from Achill in County Mayo Ireland, died from a house fire in Kirkintilloch, Scotland. It was the height of the harvest season (June-October), and many Irish settlers emigrated for work in Scotland and Britain.
A group of twenty-six young migrant workers (12 males/ 14 females), many of whom were related, were part of the many migrants looking for temporary work to provide for their families. The group arrived from a farm in Edinburgh under the idea they would all be coming home after the harvest had finished. Although just after they had reached Kirkintilloch, ten of the twelve males perished in a fire. The victims were as young as thirteen, and the oldest being twenty-three. The two males who survived were the foreman and the son of the foreman, who provided themselves with a separate room in a cottage.
The foreman arranged the sleeping quarters with the boys in a shed (also known as a bothy) with inverted potato boxes covered in straw as bedding. The foreman provided the women and girls a slightly better accommodation within the cottage. This being a small cottage for all fourteen of them to fit in, with the foreman and his son getting a separate room. These still were largely inadequate housing spaces given to these individuals. The fire was only discovered after the foreman's son, Tom Duggan, couldn’t sleep and found the fire billowing from the bothy. The alarm was sound, but Mr. John Mackay- a potato merchant- was on the scene. When people could finally get into the shed, it was too late. The bodies of the young men and boys were found huddled in a corner opposite the door.
Due to the large scale of the fire, only one out of the ten bodies was identifiable. The news of these deaths struck the area heavily, but the loss felt much heavier when it reached Achill Island. The Connaught Telegraph in County Mayo reported the ‘weeping of mothers torn with grief as the dreadful tidings passed quickly from lip to lip.’ The boys were almost buried in Kirkintilloch Old Aisle Cemetery, although a telegram from Ireland saying, “Beir Abhaile Ar Marbh” which translates to Bring Home Our Dead. The ten migrants returned to their home country in a funeral procession followed by 3,000 Catholics from around Ireland, Scotland, and England to be part of their burial. The ten names are not to be forgotten, their names being: Thomas Cattigan, Patrick Kilbane, Thomas Kilbane, John McLoughlin, Michael McLoughlin, John Mangan, Thomas Mangan, Michael Mangan, Owen Kilbane, and Patrick McNeela.
Only that of John McLaughlin’s grave was labeled as he was the only identifiable one due to the degree of the fire.
In the wake of the death of these young men, the 1937 Housing (Agricultural Population) Scotland Act was passed, which allowed local authorities more jurisdiction over-regulation to accommodations for seasonal workers. This act also required separate entrances for sleeping accommodation, separate beds, and adequate heating/cleaning. Unfortunately, increased local jurisdiction over these laws came more at fault to the progression of workers’ rights as the authorities enforced these laws at different rates. This mixed with the conservative political ruling by Fianna Fáil politicians, led to inconclusive decision-making, leading to a larger strive for union organization of Achill workers.
With the help of Joseph Duncan, the general secretary of the Scottish Farm Servants Association, he and the association he was a part of helped utilize union contributions for Achill workers hoping for better pay and conditions. Unfortunately, any victories that did come out of this unionizing were small. The authentic yet largely veiled shock came from the young ages of each of these victims. A sense of pride was lost if Ireland’s recently freed independent land was seen as a place where young people were forced to move to other countries to provide for their families. Overall leading to poor legislative change, which created migrant workers to still feel isolated while doing this labor across seas. Although, the victims are to be remembered as a real reason to drive and care for historical migrant seasonal work as landmarks of remembrance for our need to change the systems in place.