The sinking of RMS Lusitania in May 1915 – A personal recollection.


RMS Lusitania which won the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic by a liner. She was torpedoed 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale on 7th May 1915.

With the commencement of World War I commemorations in 2014, it is appropriate to mention a local commemoration in the south-east Cork area.  Cobh, formerly Queenstown, will commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.  This fast passenger liner, en route from New York to Liverpool, was torpedoed about 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale by U-20 shortly after 14.10 hours on 7th May 1915.  What happened next is debated, but the ship sank so rapidly that only that only six of her lifeboats could be launched successfully.  Of the 1959 passengers and crew aboard her, only 764 were rescued despite the best efforts of local Irish fishermen who sailed to assist.

Lusitania poster

Recruiting poster issued by the British government for use in Ireland. The sinking of the Lusitania caused outrage in Ireland.

The Irish fishermen who went to assist the survivors did not have modern fishing vessels.  Most of their boats were powered by sail or, more rarely, by a steam engine.  This meant that they could be slow to get the the site, thus increasing the distress of the survivors struggling to combat hypothermia in the cold waters. Hypothermic shock was likely the biggest killer of the survivors – the seas around Ireland can remain cold until June – and even then they need a long spell of warm weather to make the water just about bearable.

Most of the survivors were conveyed to Queenstown, the principal base for the Royal Navy on the south coast of Ireland, and the center commanding the rescue operations. In Queenstown, the survivors were cared for in hospitals and lodged in hotels and guest houses. In the days following the sinking, bodies washed ashore all over west Cork, but most of the bodies that were recovered were interred in mass graves in Queenstown, although a small number were interred in Kinsale, which was closer to the site of the sinking.  The majority of the victims were never recovered.

Lusitania notice

Most of the victims of the Lusitania were never recovered. This poster shows how desperate people were to recover just the remains of their loved ones.

At the time the US newspapers published details of the ship’s manifest and munitions and war materiel were clearly stated to be aboard the ship.  However in Britain and Ireland this information was suppressed. Indeed many people in Ireland remain ignorant to this day of the RMS Lusitania’s official status as an Auxiliary Merchant Cruiser – she was so listed in Jane’s Naval Ships in 1914.  The Lusitania was not just built with private funds – but her construction and operations were subsidized by the British government (RMS means Royal Mail Ship – the Lusitania was contracted to carry letters and parcels for the Royal Mail – a useful subsidy).

Roches Point

Roches Point lighthouse, not far from Midleton, marked the nearest safe haven for a vessel the size of the Lusitania – Cork Harbour.  On her maiden voyage, Lusitania, like Titanic, stopped offshore to take on passengers from Queenstown.  

One controversy about the Lusitania concerns the ‘second explosion’.  Kaiptanleutnant Walther Schwieger, commander of U-20, recorded that he only fired one torpedo and was reluctant to fire a second in the the struggling mass of humanity struggling in the water.  Yet there was a second explosion – this is clear now.  It wasn’t widely known when I was growing up.  Yet, I have personal testimony that supports one view of the sinking.  Years ago we had a neighbour, Mr Patrick Donovan, who was a retired Garda (Irish police officer).  Pat grew up near the coast not far from the Old Head of Kinsale.  Once, when I visited him in the late 1980s, he told me of his experience the sinking of the Lusitania.  His memory was slightly hazy about the events of May 1915, but only slightly – this man remained lucid to the end of his life, and he was very clear on certain points.

I’ll give you the gist is his own words – they are still very vivid to me. One point to remember, dinner in rural Ireland was then eaten in the middle of the day (and this is still the case for a lot of people).  That was the first thing he said – ‘it happened just as we were finishing our dinner.  We heard an explosion. We knew it came from the sea so we ran out of the house up a nearby hill to look. As we left the house there was a second explosion.  When we got to the top of the hill we saw on the horizon a big ship sinking.  it was gone in about five minutes.’

Needless to say I was taken aback by this so I asked him – are you sure there was a second explosion?  The history books say there was only one torpedo.’  ‘Tony,’ he said ‘the books are wrong – I was there and there were two explosions.  I heard a second explosion.  We all heard the second explosion.  The first one got us up from the table and the second happened as we ran from the house.’

Old Head lighthouse

The view from the Old Head of Kinsale towards the area where the Lusitania sank in 1915.

Why do I remember this conversation so vividly?  Simple, my neighbour had contradicted everything I knew about the Lusitania – and he was very clear about the second explosion.  Curiously it would be several years before the story of the second explosion became more widely known and the theories that were put foward ranged from a coal dust detonation to suspicion of munitions going off.

The British hoped that the loss of so many American lives aboard he Lusitania would propel he US into the war – this has led to speculation that Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty had deliberately put the ship in harm’s way to achieve an American entry into the war.  I think it seems too farfetched – the Lusitania was a fast vessel, having held the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic.  It was assumed she would outrun any submarine.  But she couldn’t outrun a submarine that just accidentally stumbled upon her.  She was simply in the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.

Lusitania Memorial

The Lusitania Memorial in Cobh, by Jerome Connor, with stone carved by Seamus Murphy, is actually unfinished. In a way it is oddly appropriate since the ship didn’t complete her voyage in May 1915.  The two figures at the front commemorate the fishermen who rescued survivors and retrieved bodies. 

Keep you eyes open for the commemorative events in Cobh this year!

Some links about the commemorations:

The history that is lost to us as hinted in an old postcard.


The cathedral at Queenstown (now Cobh) before the completion of the spire. The cathedral of St Colman was the most expensive Catholic church built in Ireland in the 19th century. It was the last landmark seen by so many emigrants who departed from Cork Harbour. The photo may have been taken around 1904.

Recently I was shown an old postcard that was postmarked Queenstown, 8.30pm, June 7, 1906.  The green half-penny stamp depicted King Edward VII.  Queenstown, as you know from previous posts, is now called Cobh (pronounced Cove – it’s not actually an Irish word, just an Irish spelling of the English word). The postcard was sent by a woman to another (friend? sister? cousin?) elsewhere in East Cork.  The recipient lived somewhere between Midleton and Youghal, so it is a local communication.  The card depicts a photomontage of a young woman having a religious vision and there is a stanza of a poem (The Holy City) printed beneath the image.

But the real interest of the postcard is the message written on the other side. I think it would be best to give the whole text, preserving the original punctuation and spelling:

Write me a long letter, now, & don’t forget what I told you about.  Did you see anyone passing since. No more to say at present. Excuse the writing as I am huring to go to the mission. I am nearly late alreddy. Love to all & yourself.  The note is signed Kathleen.

The use of a post-card and half-penny stamp shows that this was the cheapest way to communicate between two people living in nearby communities in East Cork at the beginning of the twentieth century. Postcards were cheaper than sealed letters, cheaper than telegrams and certainly better than the few telephones available. Of course, postcards can be read by other people, so discretion was required in the communications between the two women – the code used in the postcard is clear, but not to anyone outside their original conversation.  What are we to make of the mysterious line don’t forget what I told you about?  And Did you see anyone passing since suggests that the two women had shared some item of news or gossip that may affect someone else.  Indeed the injunction at the start – write me a long letter now – suggests that this is a developing story and that both parties are keeping each other up to date with developments, but the details were too sensitive to put on a postcard.

The fact that the recipient lived in a small village that was not on the main road to anywhere important suggests that the source of their fascination had very local implications. It’s a priceless piece of a conversation that seems to revolve around local gossip – but we’ll never know what was setting tongues wagging in East Cork in 1906.


An early 20th century postcard of Cork Harbour as viewed from Queenstown. The post office in Queenstown was a very busy place as emigrants often posted last messages home from there.

The contrast between a religious image and poem on one side of the postcard and the gossipy note on the other is highlighted by the mention that the writer is late for the ‘mission.’  This was an annual event in most parishes in Ireland at the time.  The parish priest (in this case the Bishop of Cloyne or his parish administrator) brought priests from a religious order to the parish for a week to conduct a ‘Mission.’  These priests, usually from the Redemptorist congregation, but equally from the Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits or Vincentians were charged with effectively re-evangelizing the local people, getting them to go to confession, to give up bad habits (like fornication, drink, gambling or gossip) and generally conform again to the moral strictures of the Church.  Missions involved house visitations, confraternity meetings, daily (or twice daily) Mass with long thunderous sermons, as well as devotional practices like Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction.  It was quite an intense time in the religious practice of the parish.  It could often yield results that eluded the parochial clergy – ‘sinners’ could feel more comfortable confessing to a missioner (not a missionary – they went to foreign countries).  The mission clergy were strangers and they were perhaps seen as more approachable, and possibly less judgmental, than the parish clergy.

So why was the writer of the postcard so worried about being late for the ‘mission’?  Simple, her absence would have been noted – you have to remember that people habitually sat in or near the same place in the church, in this case, probably St Colman’s Cathedral. One had to keep up appearances and ensure that nobody was given any reason to gossip about oneself.  Mind you gossiping about other people….that was a different matter.

HMS Mars 1902

HMS Mars in Queenstown around 1902. Queenstown was a major base for the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet and was commanded by a Rear Admiral.The building on the right is the former clubhouse of the Royal Cork Yacht Club, which – aims to be the oldest yacht club in the world.

Clearly the writer was a resident of Queenstown and not a prospective emigrant, although it is possible that emigrants attended mission events before setting off for a new life the next day. We have no idea if the original communication between the two women was a face-to-face conversation (either woman could reach the other by train) or by means of a letter.  I suspect it was a conversation, since the postcard didn’t have an opening greeting, it may have been written a day or two after the encounter.

What the postcard shows us is that we will never know everything there is to know about history. The news shared by the two women might pertain to a family matter or to local religious concerns or matters of social standing in the community, but is unlikely to refer to politics or sport.  It’s infuriatingly mysterious….and great fun to get such an insight into the real concerns of two people in the same part of Ireland at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In this case I think the woman who wrote the message should have been hired by the British Admiralty to write infuriatingly knowing and highly suggestive but otherwise meaningless messages to various non-existent agents during World War I – it would have kept German Naval Intelligence very busy indeed looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack, except the needle would have been a figment of someone’s imagination!

The Queenstown Patrol – the US navy in Cork Harbour in World War I

St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh


Seeing that there was such a good response to my post on the World War I lecture in Carrigtwohill that took place last Friday night, I thought I’d follow up by posting a link to a publication by the US Naval War College in Newport, RI.  The book is called The Queenstown Patrol and is taken from the diary of Commander Joseph K Taussig USN who was based in Queenstown (now Cobh) in 1917 – he led the first patrol of US destroyers to Queenstown after the Americans entered the war.  The diary entries include a reference to what may have been the first ever recorded game of baseball played in Cork by the crews of two destroyers before some 3,000 people.  The train service from Queenstown to Cork still runs hourly – and although short, as he says, it’s a pleasant and interesting journey.  Unfortunately, Taussig left Queenstown before the Air Base in Aghada was built, but his observations are interesting – especially concerning the seeming indifference of the local population to the war!  Remember, Ireland, as part of the UK had been at war since August 1914, while the US had only just entered the war, so the indifference might have been war-weariness.

I did notice a few typos in the text:  Talley Head should read Galley Head, and Gaunt Rock Lightship is also mentioned – in fact it is Daunt Rock Lightship, scene of a famous lifeboat rescue many years later.  I’m sure there are one or two more.  Also, one of the illustrations at the back of the book shows a US destroyer in the harbour before the famous cathedral of Queenstown/Cobh.  The cathedral is captioned with the name ‘Stella Maris.’   OOPS!  The Catholic cathedral in Cobh was built as St Colman’s Cathedral – it never changed its name!  ‘Stella Maris’ may be a mistaken reference to Ballycotton church – Our Lady Star of the Sea – which was then only a few years old and also stands on a height in the village.  Although how the publishers could mix up the cathedral and church is beyond me – the US Navy wasn’t based in Ballycotton!


Further reading on this subject from

Naval History of World War I

Queenstown Patrol, 1917: The Diary of Commander Joseph Knefler Taussig, U.S. Navy

Ballycotton church

Admiralty House, Queenstown

Admiralty House, Queenstown (as it then was). This is where Vice- Admiral Bayly RN was based. The building is now a Benedictine convent.


Cobh promenade and Former Royal Cork Yacht Club.

Cobh Promenade and the former Royal Cork Yacht Club – the favourite bar of US naval officers in Queenstown.  It’s now an art gallery.