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