The Memorial Plaque which was unveiled yesterday (Sunday) to honour the memory of four young boys from the Ballinamore Bridge area of east Galway who lost their lives in a drowning tragedy in 1904.

Memorial plaque unveiled in honour of four young east Galway drowning victims

A drowning tragedy which claimed the lives of four young boys over a century ago in east Galway was commemorated in a very special way yesterday afternoon (Sunday) when a memorial plaque was unveiled close to the site of the horrific event at Ballinamore Bridge.

The granite plaque poignantly depicts four young boys “arm in arm” with their backs turned away from the world in an eternal embrace and was unveiled to commemorate the short lives of three brothers, Laurence (13), James (9) and Patrick (7) Lohan and their friend, James Coffey (9) all of whom drowned when they went swimming in the River Shiven at around 5am on Sunday morning, July 10, 1904.

The concept for the visually powerful image of the four young boys arm in arm came from committee member, Pia Farrell (Hughes) and was brought to life by artist, Mel Cameron, who is originally from Zimbabwe but has been working as a graphic artist for over four decades in Dublin. As a result of her long-term friendship with Pia's family, Mel is no stranger to Ballinamore Bridge and the local area and her thought-provoking image of the four young boys depicts the enormity of the tragedy which befell the quite rural east Galway locality almost 120 years ago.

The commemoration is the brainchild of the Ballinamore Bridge Heritage Group which was officially established in January 2022 with the overall aim of examining and exploring the social, cultural and historical aspects of the local hinterland and sharing this information with the wider community.

According to heritage group member, Pia Farrell (Hughes), who is the Principal of St Hilda's Special School in Athlone, the one subject which kept coming to the fore when the group was carrying out its research was the tragic drowning of the four young boys in the River Shiven, and they felt it was “imperative” to preserve their memory.

Pia explains that a special committee of the heritage group was set up to oversee the memorial project and as well as poring through a great deal of historical documentation and records relating to the children and their families, “a lot of time and thought” also went into the text and design of the memorial plaque.

The Westmeath Independent was one of the few Irish newspapers of the time to report the story of the east Galway drownings in our coverage on July 16, 1904, and the Ballinamore Bridge Heritage Group said that coverage was “a central focus” of their research into the tragic events of six days earlier.

The terrible trauma wreaked by the Ballinamore Bridge drowning left an indelible mark on the psyche of the local community over the last 119 years, and the decision of the newly-formed heritage group to commemorate the four young local boys was very warmly received.

As a result of the extensive research carried out into the tragedy by the Ballinamore Bridge Heritage Group, a special commemorative booklet, “A Local Tragedy” was compiled by Tommy Crehan, and was available at the unveiling of the memorial plague yesterday.

As well as detailing the horrific events of July 10, 1904, the booklet draws on contemporaneous records from the inquest into the drownings and the eyewitness account of the only survivor, 11-year old Matthew Keane. The author used a number of historical photographs in the book, which along with the eyewitness accounts, paints a very vivid picture of what life was like for children and their families growing up in rural Ireland in the 19th century. The booklet is dedicated to the memory of the the four young boys who lost their lives. As well as unveiling the memorial plaque at a ceremony which began at 3pm yesterday and was followed by traditional music, the Ballinamore Bridge Heritage Group laid a special wreath made by the members of Ballygar Men's Shed, and a flag pole was hoisted to accompany the memorial plaque. The flag pole was made by gifted local blacksmith and mental worker, Brian Daly, who lives in the nearby village of Ballinlass.

Apart from highlighting a tragic historic event which still reverberates within their local community to this very day, the members of the Ballinamore Bridge Heritage Group hope that the memorial plaque will highlight the danger of, and create awareness of swimming in aquatic environments. “Above all else, we hope it will go some way towards preventing such a tragedy from every occurring again,” according to group members.

The special ceremony to unveil the memorial plaque to the Lohan brothers and James Coffey was very well attended yesterday afternoon after a warm welcome was extended to everyone in the local community to attend what was a painful, but hugely significant event for the entire locality.