Wes­ley Boyd

The Irish Times - - Comment & Letters -

They were mix­ing ni­tro-glyc­er­ine and gun cot­ton in four iso­lated huts. Some said later they heard a whirring sound be­fore it hap­pened.

The flash of the ex­plo­sion was seen miles out to sea and the blast was heard 20 miles away. It was 3am on Septem­ber 21st, 1917, and most of the cit­i­zens of Ark­low were asleep. But the night shift of 200 men and 12 girls at the Kynoch mu­ni­tions fac­to­ries which stretched for over a mile along the Co Wick­low shore line were hard at work mak­ing ex­plo­sives for use on the bat­tle fronts of the first World War.

They were mix­ing ni­tro-glyc­er­ine and gun cot­ton in four iso­lated huts. Some said later they heard a whirring sound be­fore it hap­pened. When it did hap­pen three of the huts van­ished com­pletely. Win­dows were shat­tered over a wide area, and towns­peo­ple liv­ing nearby were thrown from their beds. At the fac­tory up to 28 work­ers van­ished with the huts and many more were in­jured. They were treated at the fac­tory’s small hos­pi­tal on the site of what is now the Ark­low Bay Ho­tel. Ex­act de­tails of the in­ci­dent were rapidly smoth­ered by wartime cen­sor­ship and it could not be as­cer­tained with cer­tainty just how many peo­ple per­ished. Some his­to­ri­ans say 17, oth­ers 28. There is no ar­gu­ment that had the ex­plo­sion oc­curred dur­ing the day shift the toll of dead and in­jured would have been much higher.

Rigid so­cial and se­cu­rity struc­tures were im­posed on Ark­low to fa­cil­i­tate the op­er­a­tion of the fac­tory, which at its peak em­ployed up to 5,000 peo­ple. Armed po­lice and Bri­tish sol­diers guarded the en­trances around the clock. Lo­cal pubs had re­stricted open­ing hours to de­ter ex­ces­sive drink­ing. Ev­ery pub­li­can had to pro­vide ac­com­mo­da­tion for at least three sol­diers. Work­ers had to wear wooden clogs in the fac­tory to pre­vent sparks. (Clogg Lane, where they were man­u­fac­tured, re­mains to this day near the ho­tel). Fish­ing boats could not leave port dur­ing the hours of dark­ness and had to fish at least five miles off shore. Coast­guard fam­i­lies had to leave their cot­tages to ac­com­mo­date the mil­i­tary.

The cel­e­brated artist Ge­orge Camp­bell, more com­monly as­so­ci­ated with the Belfast of his up­bring­ing than the Ark­low of his birth, claimed the ex­plo­sion was the ge­n­e­sis of his mi­graine at­tacks. He was born near the scene of the ex­plo­sion at St Pa­trick’s Ter­race on July 29th, 1917, and was con­vinced the ex­plo­sion of the fol­low­ing Septem­ber had im­pacted in some way on his first ten­der for­ma­tive months. Ear­lier this year the lo­cal coun­cil in Ark­low un­veiled a com­mem­o­ra­tive plaque at Camp­bell’s birth­place. An ex­hi­bi­tion of his paint­ings runs at the Ark­low pub­lic li­brary un­til the end of the month.

The mu­ni­tions plant at Ark­low was es­tab­lished by Ge­orge Kynoch, a Scot­tish en­tre­pre­neur, around 1894, but the driv­ing force was the chair­man of the board, Arthur Cham­ber­lain, a Birm­ing­ham in­dus­tri­al­ist and un­cle of Neville Cham­ber­lain, who was the Bri­tish prime min­is­ter in 1939 when Europe de­scended into an­other World War. It ini­tially em­ployed 260 men, women and teenage boys and girls.

The men were paid 12 shillings a week, about av­er­age at the time, but the women got only four shillings. There were a num­ber of fa­tal ac­ci­dents and sev­eral in­dus­trial dis­putes about pay and con­di­tions. The fac­tory hos­pi­tal recorded 900 in­juries, many from acid burns, and, ac­cord­ing to the Wick­low

Peo­ple, some men were in­ca­pac­i­tated for life by nox­ious fumes.

Pro­duc­tion was boosted by the de­mands of the Boer War in South Africa but that rise was dwarfed by the needs of the ever-gap­ing guns in Bel­gium and France in the war to end all wars. Dur­ing a visit in Septem­ber 1915 John Red­mond, the leader of the Ir­ish Par­lia­men­tary Party at West­min­ster, con­grat­u­lated the work­ers on “help­ing to save ex­ist­ing civil­i­sa­tion from Ger­man ruth­less­ness.”

The cause of the hor­rific ex­plo­sion a cen­tury ago was never clearly es­tab­lished. Just six months be­fore the blast a Ger­man U-boat had sunk a South Ark­low light ves­sel and at the in­quest into the deaths at the fac­tory the man­ager, a Mr Udal, said the whirring sound heard by some of the work­ers in­di­cated an at­tack from the sea. It was also re­vealed that a few weeks be­fore the blast some work­ers had been rep­ri­manded for be­ing in pos­ses­sion of matches. A ver­dict of un­known causes was re­turned.

The plant did not long sur­vive the war. It fell vic­tim to ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tion which led even­tu­ally to the cre­ation of the chem­i­cal con­glom­er­ate, ICI. The works were pur­chased by the Ham­mond Lane Foundry in Dublin and the machin­ery was re­duced to scrap. A pleas­ant wooded walk­way now runs around the site be­side a wild duck reser­va­tion.

Dis­as­ter struck the Kynoch mu­ni­tions fac­to­ries in Ark­low, Co Wick­low, on Septem­ber 21st, 1917

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