The Sinking of the RMS Leinster
Eamon Delaney wrote this article in The Times Irish edition in October 2018, on the centenary anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Leinster off the Dublin coastline.
The attack killed hundreds of soldiers and civilians from Ireland, England and many other countries.
This year is the centenary of the sinking of the RMS Leinster, torpedoed by the Germans after setting off from Dun Laoghaire (then Kingstown) en route to Holyhead.
A State reception and Inter Church ceremony were held and poignantly the navy vessel, the L.E. Ethne, sailed to the site of the sinking in 1918 and laid a wreath and flowers. Local church bells rung out at the moment that the ship was struck, 9.45 am.
Theses events show a further development in our official and public recognition of the suffering of Irish people in World War One and the heroic efforts made by Irish soldiers and others in that war.
Many of these passionately believed they were also fighting for Home Rule. But even if they were supporters of the Unionist cause, and from a different, mainly Protestant tradition, they should still be recognised and commemorated for the sacrifices they made.
More Irish were killed in the sinking of the Leinster than with the Lusitania, also torpedoed by a German U-boat, or indeed even on the more well known Titanic sinking. It was an infamous German action, even if there were many British (and Irish) soldiers on board en route back to the European battlefield.
However, many on the Leinster were just regular Irish citizens, as they would be on this ‘Mail Boat’ route for generations, taking the emigrant ship to Britain to find the work not available in Ireland.
One of them was my great aunt Delia Brannick. She was from Claremorris, Co Mayo, my father’s home town, and was going to Leeds to work as a nurse.
She was just 25 and her remains were never found – despite her sister, Katie, and my grandmother, trying to identify her from a line of laid out corpses. Today, her name is inscribed on Katie’s tombstone, in a small graveyard near Claremorris. My late father Edward is also buried there.
The sinking of the Leinster is especially tragic as it was just a month before the end of World War I. It was the greatest single loss of life ever in the Irish Sea, with 564 people killed. An estimated 197 managed to escape, clinging on to life boats and wreckage. A flotilla of local boats immediately set sail for the scene to help.
Apparently, the ship’s postal sorters were the first to die when a torpedo struck the ship. A second torpedo practically blew up the ship which then went down in minutes.
This postal aspect really resonated with us, as kids, when we lived in Dun Laoghaire. We would often go down to the pier to watch the departure of the Mail Boat – still going strong in the 1970s – with its many portholes and famous fog horn.
We also saw the lines of emigrants, still queuing up to go back to work in England like my Grand Aunt Delia. One time we recognised some young Connemara natives whom we knew from our time there, where we had a holiday home – not far from Claremorris, indeed in south Mayo, indeed, where Grand Aunt Delia had left from in 1918.
Last month, a full requiem mass in the Pro Cathedral was celebrated by the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, to mark the event. This directly echoes a similar mass celebrated on the same date in 1918 by then Archbishop of Dublin. This is a thoughtful and welcome gesture.
It is a recognition not only of our more mature attitude and pluralistic attitude to past events in our history, but also to the fact that we have also erased how people actually reacted at the time.
The Irish public were shocked by German actions like the Leinster’s sinking and were broadly supportive of the war efforts, even if this attitude changed with the increase in nationalist sentiment and the War of Independence.
But even after Irish Independence and into the 1920s and 1930s, there were still large commemorations by veterans and families of loved ones, lost in the War. But our (nationalist) history books did not mention this, so the recent events around World War One have been another modern step on the journey of acknowledging this huge part of our complex history.