‘The Hun was murdering Irish people in very waters of Cork’

Front page of the New York Times, Saturday May 8 1915, news which shocked the world, and led to
America declaring war on Germany.

Front page of the New York Times, Saturday May 8 1915, news which shocked the world, and led to America declaring war on Germany.

The British ocean liner RMS Lusitania, famous for its luxurious accommodations and speed capability, primarily ferried people and goods across the Atlantic Ocean between the United States and Great Britain. On May 1, 1915, the Lusitania left port in New York for Liverpool to make her 202nd trip across the Atlantic. On board were 1,959 people, 159 of whom were Americans.

Since the outbreak of World War I, ocean voyage had become dangerous. Each side hoped to blockade the other, thus preventing any war materials getting through. German U-boats stalked British waters, continually looking for enemy vessels to sink.

All ships headed to Great Britain were instructed to be on the lookout for U-boats and take precautionary measures such as travel at full speed and make zigzag movements.

Unfortunately, on May 7, 1915, Captain William Thomas Turner slowed the Lusitania down because of fog and travelled in a predictable line.

Approximately 14 miles off the coast of southern Ireland at Old Head of Kinsale, neither the captain nor any of his crew realized that the German U-boat, U-20, had already spotted and targeted them. At 1:40 pm, it launched a torpedo, which hit the starboard side of the Lusitania. Almost immediately, another explosion rocked the ship.

At the time, the Allies thought the Germans had launched two or three torpedoes to sink the Lusitania. However, the Germans say their U-boat only fired one torpedo. Many believe the second explosion was caused by the ignition of ammunition hidden in the cargo hold. Others say that coal dust, kicked up when the torpedo hit, exploded. No matter what the exact cause, it was the damage from the second explosion that sank the ship.

The Lusitania sunk within 18 minutes. Though there had been enough lifeboats for all passengers, the severe listing of the ship while it sank prevented most from being launched properly. Of the 1,959 people on board, 1,198 died. The toll of civilians killed in this disaster shocked the world.

Clinging to wreckage

Understandably there was absolute outrage. It was probably the final catalyst that brought America into the war. It prompted a huge recruitment campaign in Ireland. "The Hun was murdering Irish people in the very waters of Cork," was the drumbeat of the propaganda of the day, fanned by an increasingly nervous Britain as Irish nationalism was gaining momentum, and stopping many young men from taking the King's shilling.

Coming only three years after the sinking of the Titanic, there was an insatiable market for sea tragedies. The newspapers of the time had a field day. A fascinating account, including gruesome first-hand reports of capsizing lifeboats as people frantically abandoned ship, throwing everyone into the sea, of people clinging to wreckage, unfortunate children and parents screaming as they desperately tried to tie on lifejackets, and, above all, the terrible noise as the ship broke up and rose Titanic-like out of the sea above the struggling and terrified bodies below her, was dramatically described in Senan Moloney’s Lusitania, an Irish Tragedy published some years ago. Passengers who were in their cabins or just finishing lunch, were flung off their feet and subjected to an immediate roulette of life and death.

Galway victims

Galway victims included Annie Kelly, of Newgrove, Mountbellew, who was returning to Ireland, having been refused entry to New York due to ill health (and I will try to tell her story next week ). Other Galway victims included Bessie Hare (27 ), from Dublin Road, Tuam, Co Galway, who was comfortably living and working in New York, but was going home to visit her ailing father.*

Marie Kelly (32 ) from Cloosh, Kinvara, was also on her way home to visit her father when she lost her life, and was buried with Bessie in the common grave at Old Church cemetery in Queenstown, now Cobh. There is a plaque to Marie on the wall at Doorus church today. Mrs Nellie Woolven was brought home by her family and buried at Kilronan, Inishmore. On July 11, the remains of one man, little more than a skeleton as it was picked clean by sea birds and fish, was washed ashore at Cleggan, Co Galway, a considerable distance from Kinsale. He was identified as probably American by his clothes, and buried at the local Ballinakill graveyard.

Next week: Annie Kelly and her quest for love

NOTES: * No doubt because of her welcome financial contributions to the family in Tuam, her brother Willie sought compensation for her loss. The Cunard line made one excuse after another to avoid payment; and it wasn't until 1925 that the Hare family finally abandoned their fruitless request.

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