Commemorating the sinking of the RMS Leinster, 1918-2018
By Philip Lecane
The sinking of the RMS Leinster resulted in the greatest ever loss of life in the Irish Sea and the highest ever death toll on an Irish owned ship. Yet, while mention of the Lusitania sinking will bring a nod of recognition from an Irish listener, reference to the RMS Leinster sinking will bring a look of puzzlement. Why was the Irish Sea’s greatest ever loss of life forgotten? How is it finally coming to be remembered?
There are at least four reasons for the widespread amnesia surrounding the sinking of the RMS Leinster.
1. The War of Independence broke out within a year of the sinking. This resulted in the establishment of an Irish state. It subsequently suited both sides to deliberately forget the part played by Irish men and women in the First World War. The Irish constructed a story of perpetual Irish resistance to British rule down through the centuries. As the involvement of Irish men and women in the British forces challenged the story, their role was not included in official Irish history. The British, smarting from the achievement of Irish independence, did nothing to highlight the contribution made by the Irish during the First World War. The sinking of the RMS Leinster became part of the general memory loss.
2. His Majesty’s Stationary Office (HMSO) publication British Vessels and Merchant Ships lost at sea 1914-1918 (London 1919) records 176 deaths for the RMS Leinster. At the beginning of the book, however, is a note that casualty numbers do not include any troops onboard ships at the time of their sinking. As most of those who died on the RMS Leinster were military personnel, they are not included in the figure published by H.M.S.O. This led to several eminent historians incorrectly stating that 176 people died in the sinking, thus hugely understating the scale of the tragedy. Current research shows that 564 people were lost in the sinking.
3. The disaster has also been largely forgotten due to lack of information about the people who died. The sinking is remembered to some extent in Dún Laoghaire and Holyhead, the towns from where most of the ship’s crew came. It is, however, difficult to remember nameless people. True remembrance could not take place until the names and stories of those who were on the ship were known.
4. The sinking was also forgotten because of the shameful neglect by successive Irish governments of the Irish maritime sector and the a general lack of interest by Irish academia in Irish maritime history. Much of what has been written on Irish maritime history has been researched by a dedicated band of non-academic historians.
Milestones in Public Memory
So what efforts have been made to blow away the fog of amnesia? As we approach the centenary of its sinking, what have been the milestones in bringing the RMS Leinster story to public attention?
• On 26 August 1946 Father Joe Ranson took down the words of The Mail Boat Leinster sung by Patrick Doyle of Kilmacoe, County Wexford. He subsequently published the ballad in Songs of the Wexford Coast (1948). Historians and musicians owe the late Father Ranson a debt of gratitude for recording the song that would otherwise have been lost in the mists of time.
• Cabin Boy Tom Connolly survived the sinking of the RMS Leinster. In 1968, on the 50th anniversary of the sinking, Tom, now a businessman, hosted a dinner for five other survivors in Ross Hotel, Dún Laoghaire. A model of the RMS Leinster, made for the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company (CDSPCo), ended up on display in O’Hara’s public house in Chancery Street, Dublin. Tom offered £100 for the model but the owner would not sell it. Later the premises changed hands. By a twist of fate, it was bought by a friend of Tom’s who gave him the model as a present. For many years the model was on display in his shop in Patrick Street, Dún Laoghaire. When he retired he gave the model to the National Maritime Museum in Dún Laoghaire, where it is still on display.
• During the First World War, British merchant ships were insured by the British Government under a war risk policy. When the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company was compensated for the loss of the RMS Leinster, the British government became owners of the wreck. Irishman Des Brannigan subsequently bought the wreck. In 1991, on behalf of Des Brannigan, divers recovered the RMS Leinster’s starboard anchor. It was cleaned up and placed near the Carlisle Pier, from where the ship had set out on her final journey.
• In 1998, Death in the Irish Sea: The sinking of the R.M.S. Leinster by Maritime Historian Roy Stokes was published. Roy is a member of the closely-knit diving community who have long cherished the memory of the RMS Leinster.
• During his research, Author Roy Stokes discovered The Mail Boat Leinster song. He brought it to the attention of William Byrne, great-grandson of the RMS Leinster’s Chief Stoker – and survivor – John Donohoe. William performed the song at a number of venues.
• On 10 October 2003 and 2008, the 85th and 90th anniversaries of the sinking were marked by commemorative services in Dún Laoghaire and in Holyhead, the towns from where the RMS Leinster crew were drawn. In 2003, An Post unveiled a plaque in Dún Laoghaire Post Office in memory of the postal sorters who were lost on the ship. An identical plaque was subsequently erected in the GPO. In 2008, An Post issued a commemorative stamp to mark the 90th anniversary of the sinking.
My own interest in the subject began in the early 1990s when I began to research the circumstances of the sinking and – as a passenger list was never published – to compile a list of the people who were aboard the ship. That initial research resulted in the publication in 1996 of an article on Sophia Violet Barrett, a volunteer nurse lost in the sinking of the Leinster, and it led to further efforts to chronicle and commemorate the event. Together with Canadian Will Lockhart (whose relative Frank Higgerty was lost in the sinking) a website was established in 2003 and it has become the official site for information on the sinking. It has received queries from around the world in the lead up to the centenary of the RMS Leinster disaster. My book Torpedoed! The RMS Leinster Disaster, followed in 2005 telling the stories of many of those aboard the ship and creating the first ever list of those known to have been on the ship. It also looked at the story of the men aboard UB-123 and gave a list of its crew.
Remembering the RMS Leinster in 2018
All of these efforts, undertaken by many individuals over many years, has contributed to a better understanding of the scale of the Leinster disaster and it sets a context for the approaching centenary commemorations. So what can we expect in October 2018? While the two previous RMS Leinster commemorations were entirely planned by voluntary committees, it was announced that the centenary would receive official and institutional recognition and support.
In April this year, Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan TD announced that an official commemoration would take place in Dún Laoghaire on 10 October 2018. She stated the programme would comprise ‘a significant cultural element as well as a formal commemoration and wreath laying ceremony with participation by members the Defence Forces.’ The centenary will be marked by a government publication. Ireland’s National Maritime Museum put in place a comprehensive programme to mark the occasion. A steering group chaired by Mary T. Daly of Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council planned the official commemoration. It was comprised of representatives from government departments, Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, Ireland’s National Maritime Museum, St John Ambulance and various local groups.
The National Maritime Museum’s RMS Leinster centenary exhibition – incorporating the model of the ship donated by Tom Connolly – includes a touchscreen developed by Museum Librarian Brian Ellis. This will contain information on every person known to have been aboard the ship, with their photographs where available. The Museum will hold a seminar on the sinking on 9 October.
An Post will issue a stamp to commemorate the centenary and has commissioned Fatal Voyage, a dramatic production about the sinking, which will be staged in the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire on 10 October 2018.
For further information see: www.rmsleinster.com
The National Maritime’s website: www.mariner.ie
Now retired, Philip Lecane has been a volunteer working in the Library Service of the National Maritime Museum in Dún Laoghaire since early 2017.In late September 2018, his latest book Women and Children of the RMS Leinster: Restored to History will be published, as will Carmel Uí Cheallaigh’s children’s book RMS Leinster: The Forgotten Tragedy.