Today is the sombre centenary of the worst maritime disaster in Irish waters; on 7 May 1915 the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat, with the loss of 1,198 lives, as she neared the end of her journey from New York to Liverpool. It was an event that was instrumental in bringing America into the First World War and it was the subject of accusation and counter accusation in the propaganda war between England and Germany. The Germans asserted that the ship was a legitimate target as it carried munitions; the English denied this but eventually confirmed that it carried small arms ammunition. Rumours persisted of the presence of dangerous high explosives.
The wreck has for years been the subject of legal tussles between the Irish government and the owner of the site, American venture capitalist Gregg Bemis. As Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in 1995, Michael D. Higgins imposed a heritage order on the wreck, saying it should be protected as though it were a war grave; Bemis successfully challenged this and established his ownership, although the heritage order still stands and the ship is considered to be an archaeological site. Bemis’ sale of objects taken from the site, which influenced Higgins’ action, has been controversial; allegedly one of the propellers was melted down to make a personalised set of golf-clubs. Can this be true? If it is, it surely represents the best possible argument against any further removal of material from the wreck. As a result of Michael D’s heritage order, the Bemis/ National Geographic diving expedition, that recovered fixtures and fittings in 2011, had to surrender the objects to the Irish Receiver of Wrecks.
Oddly enough Trinity College Library is home to a few poignant artefacts.
The sinking of the ship has always attracted dedicated researchers. One of these was a Canadian called Terence Robson, whose family presented his research papers to the Library after his death in 1991. While most of this collection of papers comprises copies of records – drawings of the ship, passenger lists, photographs and so on – there is some memorabilia which Robson may have acquired from the sale of objects removed from the wreck in 1982. Among the items sold at that time were 6000 Kitchener commemorative spoons, which were to have been presented to the first-class passengers as a memento of the voyage, and a box of watches.
The loss of the RMS Lusitania one hundred years ago this week is one of the many World War I tragedies to resonate with war historians and the wider public. Uncertainties regarding the ship’s cargo and the role of its sinking in influencing America to enter the conflict have divided opinion.
The impact of the disaster and the familiar image of the stricken ship were not lost on the Department of Recruiting in Ireland who quickly used it to appeal to Irishmen to join the ranks of the army and avenge this wrongdoing.
Less well publicised however is the history of the passenger ship before the conflict. When launched in June 1906 RMS Lusitania was the largest and fastest ship in the world. By 1915 it had crossed the Atlantic over 200 times carrying ca.240,000 passengers. The current display in the Berkeley foyer features a reprint from Engineering which is in itself a fascinating account of the ship’s construction in Clydebank from 1904 onwards.
The display also includes two works by former US Consul, Wesley Frost. His role in Ireland during the war included the compilation of reports for the US authorities on submarine warfare in Irish waters. The prevalence of these attacks was noted by Frost – ‘As Consul at Queenstown for the three years ending last June, I reported to our Government on the destruction by submarines of eighty-one different ships carrying American citizens’. Traveling the length of the Irish south coast, Frost devoted much time to recording the legal testimonies of survivors of such U-boat attacks. He was later recalled, unfairly, in 1917 from his post in Ireland following an alleged complaint by Admiral Sims of his reporting of British destroyers at Queenstown. Tragically, Frost was to lose his only brother Cleveland in 1918 to submarine warfare as the USS Ticonderoga was torpedoed with the loss of 213 lives.
The RMS Lusitania was hit on 7 May 1915, off the coast of Kinsale, by a single torpedo from submarine U-20, killing 1,197 of the 1,960 passengers and crew. Frost helped coordinate relief operations for the survivors as they arrived traumatised on the quayside of Cobh. This experience was to have a profound lifelong effect on him. SM U-20 was responsible for the fate of 36 other ships during the conflict before being grounded in late 1916.
On October 28th 1730, the Danish ship The Golden Lion hit stormy weather off the Kerry coast on its voyage from Copenhagen to the Indian port of Tranquebar. Thomas Crosbie came to the aid of the stranded ship and its captain Johan Heitman at Ballyheigue by beating off a scavenging mob and sheltering the crew on his nearby estate. The cargo was recovered and stored on Crosbie’s land. It included 12 chests of silver, the majority of which was the property of the Danish East India Company and valued at c. £20,000. With his health suffering after the exertions of saving the crew, Crosbie died a short time later. By early 1731 after an eventful few months the widow Lady Barrymore initiated salvage claims to the cargo which resulted in her being awarded £4,000. The drama however was only beginning!
In early June 1731 events took a spectacular turn when the Crosbie property was stormed by a gang of over 60 men who made away with the chests and killed at least two Danish guards in the process. Even though half the silver was recouped with the help of Francis Ryan, a ring-leader of the gang, the balance remains unaccounted for to this day.
Establishing who was behind the robbery became a sensational news story. Suspicion soon fell on the Crosbies and other landed gentry about their role in the missing silver. The close relationship between the investigating authorities (local magistrate Sir Maurice Crosbie was a nephew of the recently deceased Thomas) and the suspects, coupled with Lady Barrymore’s dubious salvage claims, rightly concerned Captain Heitman. His confidence in the resulting Kerry verdict was low and he moved that the case be heard in Dublin. Proceedings eventually opened in November 1735 resulting in the acquittal of conspirators Arthur Crosbie, cousin of Thomas, Archdeacon Francis Lauder and his wife Bridget. Much to Captain Heitman’s dismay Lady Margaret was never charged with involvement. He returned in defeat to Denmark in 1740 aged 77 and passed away a short time later.
The events inspired the composition of this rare ballad from the Burgage collection.
The collection came to the library in 1979 from Terence Vigors of Burgage, Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow. The verse shown is one of seven poems and ballads from the collection not recorded in Foxon, D.F. ‘English verse, 1701-1750′.