1892 liability life assurance letter resurfaces in Youghal

An employer’s liability life assurance letter covering a fatal fall from Youghal’s famed clock tower over 120 years ago has resurfaced in the east Cork town.

Dated February 2, 1892, was sent from the South Ireland Branch, Dublin, of the London-based Employer’s Liability Assurance Corporation Limited, to Youghal Town Commissioners.

Signed by a Dublin-based district manager Trevor N Smith, the document poses a series of questions regarding Michael Sullivan, a young pipe fitter who had fallen from the top of the tower while cleaning a lamp. The commissioners were not legally liable for compensation but were keen to provide some recompense to the Sullivan family.

Mr Smith’s correspondence asks “by whose orders was the deceased cleaning the lamp?”, whether he had “ever cleaned the lamp before” and, if so, “how many times?”

The manager had also sought details with a sketch, pertaining to safety procedures during cleaning and precaution being considered to prevent a repeat.

The Sullivan’s were ultimately awarded £5 (about €700 today) and Michael’s father also inherited his son’s job.

Some surrealism, however, surrounds the letter’s re-emergence in Youghal. It had been removed from storage in Youghal Town Hall in the 1970’s, by local carpenter John Fenton, during repair work.

Mr Fenton was a neighbour of John McGrath, whose family lived in the Clock Gate as council tenants until 1955.

John died in Youghal, aged 78 in 1991, following which his son Michael, a fitter, discovered the letter.

“I was mystified”, says Michael. “I’d never heard of anyone falling from the Clock Gate and I put it aside and forgot about it.”

Revisiting Youghal last summer. however, Michael undertook a guided tour of the newly-renovated clock tower, where young Sullivan’s tragedy was featured and where an entire floor recreates the McGrath living quarters, alongside video commentary from John.

Later, Michael accidentally encountered John McGrath in a restaurant.

“Having taken the tour, I felt nobody was more entitled to the letter than him and I promised to send it on,” he recalls.

The letter has now come full circle with John preparing to offer a copy for permanent inclusion in the Clock Gate tour and museum experience.