On the morning of 10 October 1918, the Royal Mail Ship, Leinster, left Dún Laoghaire on its usual voyage to Holyhead. The mailboat was a central part of the economy of Dún Laoghaire and operated as a highly efficient floating postal sorting office and passenger ship - at a time when sea travel between Ireland and Britain was the only option for travellers. It was a model of efficiency. It was one of four sister ships named after the four provinces of Ireland.
On that morning the Leinster carried about 180 civilians, 77 crew, some 500 soldiers and 22 postal workers. It left punctually at 09:00, as it normally did to avoid penalties for delayed sailings that affected the efficient distribution of post and parcels throughout Britain. Between 09:30 and 09:40 it had passed the Kish lightship – there was no lighthouse then.
Breakfast had been served and the postal workers were busy in the sorting room. No one on board had any idea that the Leinster was sailing to its doom. Unbeknownst to them, the ship was now in the sights of U-Boat 123, commanded by Robert Ramm.
In 1917, the Allies had begun concentrating their naval protection on ships in the Atlantic, leaving ships like the Leinster vulnerable. Some protection was thought to be offered by the ship's camouflage but it sailed into the Irish Sea unescorted.
It was passengers on the upper deck who spotted the first torpedo, which missed. The second torpedo did not. It blew apart the postal sorting room. The ship altered course but a third torpedo then struck. The fate of Leinster and many on board was sealed. Crowded lifeboats and drifting wood used as rafts were the only option for survivors as the ship sank quickly.
There were other ships nearby, but none could offer any assistance. Admiralty rules strictly forbad any ship attempting rescue less it would become another target for an enemy unseen beneath the waves. It was many hours before a rescue attempt could be organised.
There are stories of heroism. William Maher was a Boer War veteran and a strong swimmer. Louisa Toppin and her daughter, Dorothy, aged 13 were among those whom Maher saved. As both mother and daughter slipped repeatedly from a raft, Maher dove again and again into the water.
Both survived and Mrs Toppin went on to have Maher recognised with a parchment from the Royal Humane Society and a watch inscribed: "To William Maher from Dorothy Toppin as a small token of gratitude for saving her life. Leinster Disaster, 10th October, 1918".
Maher died in 1953, aged 78. No headstone marks the grave in which he and his wife, Elizabeth, are buried in Deansgrange Cemetery.
There were many tragic stories too. Edward Lee of Blackrock had lost a son, Joe, at Gallipoli. His brother, Tennyson, was wounded there three days later. Now Edward Lee faced the dreadful task of writing to Tennyson in London to tell him his other brother Ernest had been on board the Leinster. Ernest had boarded the Leinster to rejoin the Royal Army Medical Corps in France.
There is no account of him, dead or alive.....Oh the horror of it. Your poor mother is bearing up as well as can be expected but God alone knows the sorrow we feel. We fear the worst as we can get no news at all today. Mother and Ted join in unified love to our dear, dear boy. Your loving and affectionate Father, Edward Lee
John Brophy of Phibsborough went to Dún Laoghaire to search for his brother Mathew's, body and later recounted seeing bodies in piles on the pier, "their heads hanging one to the left, one to the right". He did not find his brother. He subsequently arranged for an empty coffin to be buried in his father's grave in Glasnevin.
His niece, Marie Comiskey, says when John Brophy became older and ill his decision bore heavily on him. "He wondered if he had done the right thing in telling his mother and sister-in-law that there was no body in the coffin".
One hundred years on, the records of how many were on the Leinster are still being probed and the death toll updated. As of six weeks ago, the figure stands at 564.
Robert Ramm and his young crew left the Leinster to its fate but theirs was also soon to be sealed. Shortly after, their U-Boat was mined off the Orkney Islands in Scotland. For many of the mostly teenaged crew, death was prolonged.
Four days later another Irish ship, the SS Dundalk, would also become a target. The Dundalk was one of a number of ships plying the route to Britain. Livestock and horses for the war effort went one way, coal the other.
On the night of 14 October, the ship left Liverpool with 32 passengers and crew on board. The Dundalk too was unescorted and an easy target.
At about 11.10pm, as the passengers and crew were settling down for the night, a torpedo struck. The scene was similar to that of the aftermath of the Leinster. A sister ship, the SS Carlingford, passed afterwards but could offer no assistance because the U-Boat was still on the surface, its crew surveying the scene. The Carlingford's captain, Gerard Hughes, would endure much criticism and animosity on his return to Dundalk and subsequently emigrated to ship on the Great Lakes of North America. He paid a high price for following orders.
Margaret Creegan, the only woman crew member, was among those who died. She had survived another torpedo attack on the Dundalk a year previously.
This Sunday, those lost on the Dundalk will be remembered at a special service in the town's St Patrick's Cathedral, where a plaque records their names.
The death toll in the Irish Sea for that week in October 1918 was almost 600. For them, the end of the war came just weeks too late.
Images courtesy of The Lawler Collection