Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Ac­tor Claire Mullen on her re­turn to Achill Is­land

When a crew of six film­mak­ers and ac­tors ar­rived on Achill Is­land in late April of 1951, none could have known that only two of them would leave alive. The film they were mak­ing was called Shark Is­land and what be­fell the crew on that pro­duc­tion would go down as one of the worst film ac­ci­dents of all time and one that re­mains al­most for­got­ten.

Shark Is­land was a 30-minute docu-drama on the sub­ject of the then-thriv­ing Achill shark fish­ing in­dus­try. The shark­ing was the stuff of Hem­ing­way sto­ries — men with har­poons bat­tling enor­mous bask­ing sharks in tiny cur­rachs that could be flipped by the flick of the shark’s tail.

Claire Mullen was a young Dublin ac­tress from a big Ir­ish In­de­pen­dent fam­ily — her grand­fa­ther, fa­ther, mother and brother had all at one point worked for the pa­per and Claire wanted to get in on the fam­ily busi­ness. Her painful shy­ness, how­ever, led to her fa­ther en­rolling her in an act­ing school in or­der to try to over­come her af­flic­tion. When An­glo-Amal­ga­mated, an English film com­pany, came look­ing for an ac­tress to play the role of Kath­leen in their lat­est film Shark Is­land, Claire jumped at the chance of her first part — and got it.

When she ar­rived in Achill, film­ing was al­ready un­der­way. The naive young Ir­ish girl strug­gled to fit in with the English so­phis­ti­cates, although she had a great fond­ness for the di­rec­tor Sam Lee and the cam­era­man, Bill Bren­don.

The pro­ducer of the film and one of the ac­tors was Hugh Falkus, a pow­er­ful, dash­ing man in his mid-30s. A very keen fish­er­man, he’d heard of the shark fish­ing in­dus­try on Achill through an Ir­ish­man, Charles Os­borne, who had jump-started the busi­ness there in 1947. A wild dare­devil, Os­borne lived on the is­land with his wife and two sons and when Falkus met him, cre­ative sparks flew. Os­borne would be­come in­volved in the film as an ac­tor and lo­ca­tion man­ager.

Falkus brought along his wife of three months, Diana.

Shoot­ing was hellish for Claire. The weather was mis­er­able. She couldn’t get over the butch­ery of the sharks and the blood-red wa­ter. She de­scribes Os­borne to me: “[He was] very reck­less. He would do things like climb up cliffs and ex­pect us to do the same and be too close to the cliff edge and the wa­ter and the rocks in the wa­ter when we were film­ing. I was fright­ened of the whole busi­ness.”

On May 11, 1951, the crew were out shoot­ing in Os­borne’s scarcely sea­wor­thy lit­tle boat. A swell struck the boat, wa­ter­log­ging the cam­era and forc­ing the crew to re­turn to the har­bour for the day.

The next day, May 12, the crew were set­ting out from the har­bour at Pur­teen. Claire had bad wind­burn from the day be­fore and asked di­rec­tor Bill Bren­don if she could go to the chemist and get some­thing for her face. As she walked up the hill, she heard them call­ing af­ter her to re­turn. But she didn’t. When she came back to the har­bour 15 min­utes later, the boat was gone. Out of the five peo­ple that left on the boat that day, only one would ever be seen alive again.

As they filmed around the Daisy Rocks that day, a 25-foot wave struck the boat, cap­siz­ing it and throw­ing the crew into the wa­ter. It was a race for sur­vival to get out of the bit­terly cold sea. Their only hope for res­cue lay with Falkus, the strong­est swim­mer. He left them float­ing in the wa­ter cling­ing on to the in­ner tubes of tyres, pieces of wood and petrol cans and set out to swim the mile-and-a-half to shore to get help. When the fish­er­men in Keem Bay picked him up, he was barely alive. He told them to res­cue his wife and crew but fell un­con­scious be­fore he could tell them where they were. All hope for the sur­vival of Diana and the oth­ers was lost.

The bod­ies of Charles Os­borne and Bill Bren­don were never found. The bod­ies of Sam and Diana were later washed up on the shore in Keem.

It wasn’t long be­fore re­porters caught wind of the ac­ci­dent. In his of­fice in the Ir­ish In­de­pen­dent in Dublin’s Mid­dle Abbey Street, Pa­trick Mullen, Claire’s fa­ther and the pa­per’s chief tele­graphist, was alone in his of­fice lis­ten­ing to re­ports com­ing in from Reuters. As the news came in of three men and one woman killed on a film-shoot in Achill, he as­sumed the worst and col­lapsed.

Claire is my aunt and when she first told me the story of Shark Is­land, I knew that it was a story worth telling.

Though the peo­ple of Achill were noth­ing but kind, it was still a hard place for Claire to re­turn to, such were the mem­o­ries. In the late 1990s, an Achill fish­er­man, Ger Has­sett, hauled up a rusted tan­gle of me­tal in his nets while he was fish­ing near the Daisy Rocks. This was the pro­peller from the fate­ful Shark Is­land boat. To­day, it sits in the shed of Sheila McHugh in Achill. When we vis­ited Sheila, the prop was ly­ing on the floor and it looked at home sur­rounded by her beau­ti­ful pieces of carved drift­wood. It was quite a mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for Claire and me to see one of the only phys­i­cal con­nec­tions to the boat that’s left. “The pro­peller looks like the skele­ton of a swan to me,” says Claire. “A big thing — a sur­vivor it­self.”

See­ing the pro­peller brought back one par­tic­u­lar strange and co-in­ci­den­tal mem­ory. Claire’s act­ing academy sent down a car to col­lect her af­ter the ac­ci­dent and af­ter she had had to iden­tify Sam and Diana’s bod­ies. In the car was a driver and a young man.

That young man, Kevin O’Con­nor, whose stage name was Conor Evans, would later be­come her hus­band. Kevin died in 2014 but Claire re­mem­bers him telling her that, as a child in the late 1930s hol­i­day­ing in Achill, he and his sis­ter and broth­ers used to play on a lit­tle boat that was washed up on the shore, a wreck of a thing that some­one was us­ing as a chicken coop. That boat would later be sal­vaged and reused by a man called Charles Os­borne and it is that boat that still lies qui­etly rust­ing on the seabed near the Daisy Rocks.

Doc­u­men­tary on One, Re­turn to Shark Is­land, airs on RTÉ Ra­dio 1 to­day (Satur­day) at 2pm and is re­peated to­mor­row at 7pm. It is pro­duced by Ni­co­l­ine Greer and David Mullen

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