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Halloween: A mystery man, an eerie rabbit & a railway death

As we’re heading towards Halloween, it seems only fitting that we’ve a supernatural case, involving an accident to a railway worker, to bring to your attention. It’s a great demonstration of the promise of our project work, combined with digitisation and transcription of seemingly unrelated documents: the combination and linking of sources is very pleasing.

Starting in the physical world, on 25 October 1905 Patrick Tyrrell was driving his train between Donemana (as it appears in the report; Dunnamanagh) and Ballymogorry, in County Tyrone, now in Northern Ireland. The fireman, Manus Grant, noticed that Tyrrell had disappeared, so ‘at once stopped the train and informed the guard’. A search revealed that Tyrrell was lying at the lineside, near an overbridge under which they had passed: ‘the unfortunate man was suffering from severe injuries to the head and expired almost immediately.’ Inspector Charles Campbell was sent to investigate, and concluded with as much certainty as he could that Tyrrell was leaning out of the cab, looking backwards, when he hit the bridge. However, he added the caveat that there was ‘nothing definite […] to show that such was the case’, so concluded that it was a case of misadventure (1905 Quarter 4, Appendix C).

So far, so standard – sadly. Just another death on the railways, one of 437 that year. However, a story collected around 30 years later recalled a supernatural aspect not captured in the official account. In the late 1930s, as part of an effort to collect folklore in Ireland, recorders documented tales: in this case, Patrick McHugh transcribed a story he was told by Patrick Dorrian, then aged 75 and living in Killybegs, County Donegal. The story – now digitised and transcribed by volunteers (brilliant volunteers!) as part of the Dúchas Project and available here – gives us an alternative explanation for Tyrrell’s demise. Dorrian had heard the tale from his daughter, who at the time of the accident was an apprentice dressmaker, learning her craft with the wife of the engine cleaner responsible for preparing Tyrrell’s loco.

Start of Dorrian’s account, courtesy of the Duchas Project.
Full source is available from the link noted above.

According to the tale, Tyrrell – spelt in the original transcription with only 1 ‘r’, and given with the colloquial ‘Paddy’ – saw a rabbit crossing near the bridge and ‘put out his head to look at the rabbit.’ The rest of the initial part of the story matched the official account. But more detail comes on the following page. Tyrrell lodged ‘in Mrs Frank McGuire’s house in Kellybegs’, Frank McGuire being the engine cleaner who prepared the loco Tyrrell used. (As an aside, this is an interesting comment about whose house it was – a reflection of the gender politics of the time.) Five days before the accident, McGuire had a ‘big fright’ whilst preparing an engine for use in the dead of night: ‘a man came up to the window of the shed and look[ed] in.’ McGuire, with 20 years’ experience (saying something about the mobility of job market), hadn’t had this happen before, so went to find the man – ‘but could not see anything.’ Indeed, everything was ‘dead still’. Five days later Tyrrell was dead. The account goes on: ‘A strange thing in connect with the affair was that the fireman who worked alongside Tyrrell […] said that for a couple of evenings before the tragedy, a rabbit crossed the line near the place where he was killed.’ The tale was no firmer than this – there was no stronger link, but the suggestion by association/ coincidence. We might explain it rationally – but evidently there were some who found a link forged beyond the natural world.

Was the story known immediately at the time of the accident? This account suggests it probably was. Was Inspector Campbell aware of the story? Hard to say, but we might infer he was from the comment that there was ‘nothing definite’ to say Tyrrell was leaning out of the cab. Regardless of what store you set by the folklore aspect – a complex question, in terms of what it reveals about the existence of alternative ways of understanding or explaining difficult aspects of the world around us – this case is a good reminder that the accident reports only capture so much. They are full of invaluable details, about those aspects important to the official record. Plenty of other details usually evade this official source – usually the rest of the life cycle of those involved, including the impact of the accident upon the individual, their family and community. Whilst here we have a really different ‘missing piece’, it is still a reminder that we gain a fuller view of the puzzle by searching widely and combining sources. That is something to which our project contributes, making information about railway worker accidents more easily searchable and accessible – but we’re always keen to see these records used to build the wider story.

Our thanks to Maeve Rogan of the North of Ireland Family History Society for bringing the fantastic source of the premonition to our attention, and to the Dúchas Project and its volunteers, and the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, for keeping, digitising and transcribing the original source, available at:

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