We all know Molly Malone died of a fever, but many Dubliners have died over the years from eating her wares, and none more tragic than the case of a young family from Seapoint.
On Monday 30 June 1890, the thirteen year old daughter of James O’Connor, a journalist for the United Ireland newspaper, was out playing in the back garden of No. 1 Seapoint Terrace.
Behind the house and adjacent to the railway line was a pond, which had been there for over one hundred years. On that day, a handy man by the name of Mr William Mullan, drained some of the water from the pond and, as the water drained, a number of mussel beds became visible.
Since the water was salty, William deduced that they had come into the pond at a high tide, as it was believed that the water was sourced from nearby seawater.
Annie O’Connor and the family maid, Eliza Casey, saw the mussel beds and began to gather them. They returned to their kitchen where the mussels were steamed and served with vinegar to the two girls, Annie’s mother and her four sisters.
Within twenty minutes some of the children said they felt a prickly sensation in their hands. This was followed by vomiting and swelling of the face.
Eliza and the youngest child, Moya, had eaten only one or two of the toxic mussels but, nonetheless, were violently ill.
Three doctors arrived on the dreadful scene and gave the children an emetic, but it was too late.
Within two short hours, Mrs Mary O’Connor, and four of her children – Annie, Aileen, Kathleen and Norah – were dead.
The coroner’s inquest, held two weeks later in Blackrock Town Hall, concluded that the pond had a number of sewage outlets leading into it and that the water in it had been stagnant for some time, thus causing the mussels to become poisoned.
There had been a call for the pond to be condemned ten years previously, but no action had been taken.
The funeral of the O’Connor family was a heartbreaking affair. At 9.30 a.m. the remains of Mrs O’Connor and her four children were enclosed into coffins of oak, the lid of each covered by flowers sent from women in Blackrock.
In the leading hearse was placed the coffin of Mrs O’Connor, and in the hearses behind, those of her daughters.
The funeral made its way from Seapoint through Blackrock to the city centre and then on to Glasnevin Cemetery. The extent of public sympathy was evident – large groups of people gathered and lifted their hats or blessed themselves as the cortege passed them by.
Shops and windows were closed without exception. When the procession reached the cemetery the remains were brought into the mortuary chapel where last prayers were said, before the five coffins were lowered into a single grave beside the O’Connell Circle.
The Seapoint Tragedy, as it became known, shocked the people of Dublin and was spoken about for years. James Joyce, whose dad Stanislaus was at the funeral, immortalized it in his Ulysses when Bloom says: ‘Poor man O'Connor’s wife and five children poisoned by mussels here. The sewage.’
The grave memorial to his family, erected by the friends of James O’Connor, features a woman and four cherubs who represent his young family: Mary O’Connor, aged thirty-five; Annie O’Connor, aged thirteen; Eileen O’Connor, aged eleven; Kathleen O’Connor, aged seven and Norah O’Connor, aged five.
In later life Moya, the only surviving child, went on to marry Sinn Féin MP Compton Llewelyn Davies, and they settled in London. Moya became a close confident and courier for Michael Collins.
She had always been a writer and assisted Collins with his book Path to Freedom. Her translation, with George Thompson, of Fiche Bliain Ag Fás, Múiris Ó Súilleabháin's autobiography Twenty Years A-Growing, describing his youth on the Great Blasket Islands, is probably her best known work. She also wrote an autobiography, but sadly, this memoir was never published, and the manuscript has been lost.