The day war came to Galway

On Monday morning September 4 1939, the Galway harbour master Capt T Tierney was listening to a radio message from the Norwegian freighter Knute Nelson to say that it was steaming to Galway with 430 survivors from the Athenia, which was sunk by torpedo 250 miles north-west of Inishtrahull Island, off the Donegal coast. There were injuries among the survivors. Many were distressed and suffering from hypothermia. It requested urgent assistance.

The Athenia had sailed from Glasgow on September 1, picked up more passengers off Belfast later that day, and departed from Liverpool at about 4pm the next morning (September 2 ), bound for Quebec City and Montreal in Canada. There was a total of 1,418 passengers and crew on board. Now, however, she was no more.

Capt Tierney was alarmed that the war had come to Galway so soon. It had only been declared by the British government the previous day, Sunday September 3 at 11am. Clearly German submarines were already on the prowl around Britain and Ireland prior to the declaration of war.* Yet Tierney immediately set about informing all the relevant authorities to be prepared to deal with disaster relief.

That evening a committee was formed led by the mayor Joe Costello and Bishop Michael Browne. The county council, health authorities, the Army and the Gardaí, the Red Cross, the hospital, local hotels, and local buses were all put on alert. Mrs Costello organised a committee of women to be prepared to look after the needs of women survivors. The Irish government met late on Monday, and made £500 available to mayor Costello to provide food, clothing, and medical care. Seán T O’Kelly, acting for the minister for education, requested that the schools at Taylor’s Hill, Coláiste Éinde and the Grammar School be made available to the civic authorities.

‘A cold raw day’

Shortly before midnight on that same busy Monday, a pilot boat left Galway harbour for Blackhead, at the entrance to the bay, to await the arrival of the Knute Nelson, and to guide her into port. At midnight the Aran steamer Cathair Na Gaillimhe, under Captain William Goggin, also waited in the roadstead to give assistance as soon as possible, and to take on board the survivors from the Knute Nelson to take into the harbour. On board was a local priest, Fr Conway, doctors S ÓBeirne and Robbie Sandys, and members of the local army and An Garda Siochana to help with stretchers. A third boat followed out from the harbour with the mayor, journalists, more doctors, Army Commandant Pádraig Ó DuinnÍn, Garda Superintendent T Ó Coileáin, and US embassy official John C Cudahy.

As dawn broke ‘on a cold, raw day, with low clouds and white caps on the water’ ** this small flotilla waited the arrival of the Norwegian ship. At last she steamed into the bay. The survivors lined the decks. When they saw the waiting boats they began cheering. The Knute Nelson anchored off Galway just after 10am on Tuesday September 5.

A Volvo welcome

Most of the passengers on the Athenia (a Donaldson Atlantic Line ship that had been built on the Clyde in 1923 ), were fleeing the deteriorating political situation in Europe. They were hoping to live a safer life in Canada. In the confusion of the torpedo attack, the explosion, the scramble overboard from a sinking ship, 112 people were killed. Ten seriously injured stretcher cases were removed from the ship; among them were several elderly people. Two of the crew had been badly hurt in the explosion. Three children were carried off.

These were followed by the walking wounded, and the rest of the survivors many only partially clad or wrapped in blankets, and some wearing makeshift footwear made of gunny sacks and bits of cloth. A number of them suffered broken bones, burns and bruises. Many appeared in a state of shock, particularly the children, who were crying or calling for their parents. Even so, when a journalist shouted up to ask a woman how she was doing, she called down: ‘I have lost everything except my sense of humour.’

When all the survivors had been passed to the waiting boats, the Knute Nelson began to weigh anchor. One of the survivors called out ‘Three cheers for the captain Carl J Andersson of the Knute Nelson; and when the cheering subsided another voice called out for three cheers for its crew. The ship, as it steamed out of the bay, returned the greetings with horn blasts.

When the boats came in to Galway about noon, hundreds of people lined the quay, and gave a Volvo Ocean Race welcome. But many people were shocked, and some brought to tears, at the sight of the distressed survivors, dressed in their borrowed swearers and dungarees or cloaked in blankets. They were a bedraggled lot, and the children were the most pathetic.

The gardaí assisted people off the tender, the injured first. White uniformed nurses from the Regional Hospital and members of the Army Medical Corps waited on the pier to assist all those with injuries. Once ashore each person was given a hot cup of Bovril, good Irish bread and butter, and tea. The gardaí assisted people to register all their details, and to help identify who was saved and who was missing. A witness to all this, Seán Kenny, declared that ‘it was a sight that will imprint itself on my memory for all time’.

Eventually, people were taken by bus to the Royal Hotel, where they were given something more to eat. They were given combs, toothbrushes, shaving equipment, and clothes, before being taken to other hotels and homes where they would stay for some days.

Galway was both excited and alarmed at this development. Nothing else was discussed but the plight of the survivors, and wondering what else would the war bring to our shores.

Next week : A survivor’s story, and praise for Galway’s ‘splendid human spirit’.

NOTES: *The fatal attack was made by the German submarine U-30 commanded by Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp. At approximately 7.35pm on September 3, just as the sun was setting, the U-30 fired two torpedoes. One missed its target, but the other struck the Athenia near the engine room, causing the ship to sink. Lemp turned out to be a tragic but incompetent submarine commander, which I will tell you about later.

** I am taking this article from ‘The first casualty of the sea’ by Francis M Carroll, Professor Emeritus at St John’s College, University of Manitoba, published in History Ireland (Vol 19 No 1 ) January/February 2011. My colleague on this page, Tom Kenny, quoted personal memories of the Athenia saga by Frank McCabe on August 11 last. It was a fascinating insight on this eventful occasion.


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