Victims of 1943 Jail Wall disaster are remembered

Memorial unveiled on Ballybricken Hill

This was the greatest peacetime tragedy in Waterford. At a time when war was in earnest in Europe and the bombing blitz raged in London, here in quiet, neutral Waterford nine people died and over seventeen were injured in the 1943 jail wall disaster off Ballybricken.

A weak wall filled with water became porous at its foundations, in the disused jail that was being used by the army in the then Emergency. On a weekend night the sixty-foot wall fell at 12.45am on a number of houses at King’s Terrace, killing some of the occupants as they slept. A section of more than a hundred feet of wall fell in total and demolished four houses, damaging a further three. The storage of turf by the army had contributed to the problem of dampness that caused the walls to become porous.

Over sixty years later, a special memorial has been unveiled by Waterford City Council with a fine tribute being made to the bereaved families. Mayor of Waterford, Cllr. Hilary Quinlan, spoke at the event, making the anniversary on Saturday last, March 4 – a very moving occasion which attended by hundreds of people. It was a cold March day and the genuine people of the city turned out, getting away from their warm fires at home and the football on telly.

This has been an incident that has long gone down in Waterford folklore and is recalled by many of the old-time residents in the famous Hill of Ballybricken. The Munster Express covered the event in great detail at the time. Disasters like that rarely happened on this island, whereas in Europe thousands were being killed daily in places like Russia, where World War II was in earnest as Hitler attempted to overrun Europe.

The jail had been built originally in 1727 close to the barracks in Ballybricken, then a new jail was built in 1861 and completed in 1864, and was used until 1939. A year later the army used it for the Local Defence force HQ. In the case of the jail wall collapse, completely innocent people died; in modern days it could be compared perhaps to the Stardust fire in Dublin. When the disaster occurred, a Beagle Ball was being held in the Olympia and patrons left the function to assist the injured and help in the rescue work in Kings Terrace and Barker St.

The accident touched hundreds of Waterford and Mayor Hilary Quinlan eloquently expressed this point in his address.

Many hundreds attended the funerals over the following days as the city descended into a period of mourning with shops closing and blinds being drawn. Huge crowds of mourners lined the street as bands played the Dead March in Saul by Handel. At the memorial unveiling last Saturday in Ballybricken local bands captured some of the atmosphere at that time.

There were three bands playing at the event on Ballybricken Green; they were the Barrack St. Brass Band, Thomas Francis Meagher Fife and Drum Band, and the City Brass Band. They played Abide with Me in a most sombre fashion that touched all who heard it. The choice of music was most appropriate. Other tunes followed. Prayers were also said for the deceased by the officiating clergy. A special occasion and one to be remembered by all who were there.

Address by theMayor Cllr Hilary Quinlan- whose family are steepedin the history of Ballybricken- at last Saturday’s ceremony

‘Recognition of greatcommunity spirit’

‘This is a time of remembrance, a time for reflection and a time, some might say long overdue, to make a lasting and permanent memorial to those who so tragically lost their lives in what was twentieth century Waterford’s greatest peacetime calamity, the Jail Wall Disaster. This tragic event took place sixty-three years ago in the very early hours of a cold rain-soaked March morning. The collapse of the high Jail wall claimed the lives of nine residents of King’s Terrace and caused injuries to a further seventeen, one of whom died some weeks later of his injuries.

The cause of the disaster is well known, the high prison wall collapsing under pressure of the rain soaked turf stored for use during the Emergency on the inside of the prison. At this time in our history imported coal and oil were in very short supply resulting from the hostilities of the Second World War and so the native turf had become an important commodity.

Many people here today will think that sixty-three years is a long time and yet we can put the intervening years into perspective if we reflect on the fact that the youngest victim, the two year old Betty Stewart, would be retiring from work this year had she survived. Anyone who has heard the stories or read accounts of the tragedy or indeed who reads the bronze plaque on this monument will, I think, be struck by the fact that on that fateful and tragic night death respected neither age nor sex as men, women and children were all taken. Many of those who lost their lives had worked hard to earn a livelihood in a country that was plagued by emigration. Others were so young that had they lived they would have witnesses the birth of the Celtic Tiger and the transformation of both their city and country. Sadly however on that tragic night their future was stolen from them. Those family members that survived have had to live out their lives haunted by the memory of that loss and I am sure all our thoughts are with them today.

Yet amidst all the gloom it is comforting and reassuring to remember that the tragedy was accompanied by a great up swell of community support. On the night of the tragedy itself people from all walks of life rolled up their sleeves and set about the task of rescuing survivors or recovering the bodies of those fatally injured. Almost the entire city turned out for the funerals and as a gesture of cross community support the bells of Christ Church Cathedral tolled as the funeral cortège passed through the streets of the city. When the dead had been laid to rest a fundraising campaign was launched to bring some financial support to those who not only lost loved ones but indeed all their worldly possessions.

The tragedy was felt deeply in the city and it made an indelible mark on the consciousness of the people, particularly the people of this community here in Ballybricken. The fact that we are all here today commemorating this event that took place sixty-three years ago is proof of the great community spirit that exists and in many ways this memorial is recognition of this great spirit. Waterford City Council was delighted to have the opportunity to work with the Jail Wall Disaster Committee in ensuring that a fitting and dignified memorial was raised to honour those who lost their lives in the Jail Wall Disaster. I would like to congratulate the committee on their initiative and ongoing support for this project.

I would like also to congratulate the artist Declan Breen, his work is a very fitting and dignified tribute in remembrance of those who died. I believe that in time it will become an integral part of what Ballybricken is and will be as well known and talked about as that other great Ballybricken landmark, the Bull Post. I would like to extend our thanks to the City of Waterford Brass Band, the Barrack Street Band and the Thomas Francis Meagher Fife & Drum Band for their meaningful contribution to today’s commemoration and also to the Order of Malta, many of whose predecessors were on the rescue teams on that fateful March night in 1943.’

For full story see The Munster Express newspaper or
subscribe to our Electronic edition.

Comments are closed.