Bealtaine and the bright half of the year – with commemorations.

The white blossom of the hawthorn tree marks the arrival of summer in Ireland. The hawthorn or May Tree is associated with the festival of Bealtaine.  The tree shown here is growing in the Burren in County Clare.

The white blossom of the hawthorn tree marks the arrival of summer in Ireland. The hawthorn or May Tree is associated with the festival of Bealtaine. The tree shown here is growing in the Burren in County Clare.

As I noted at the end of October last, the ancient Irish divided the year in several ways, but one of the main divisions was between the dark half of the year and the bright half of the year.  Samhain, at the end of October and beginning of November, marked the beginning of the ‘dark half’ of the year. Bealtaine, usually celebrated around the beginning of May in the modern calendar, marked the beginning of the ‘bright half’ of the year. It also marked the beginning of the peak period of production of milk – this was the festival that marked the annual booleying, the movement of cattle into the outer or upland pastures for six months.  Milk was a critical addition to the ancient Irish diet, giving a crucial boost to the intake of protein before the cereal harvest and annual slaughter of excess livestock in the autumn.

Bonfires were lit at Bealtaine to celebrate the arrival of summer and protect cattle from disease before they were moved to their upland summer pastures.  This image is from the Midleton-based company knowthyplace.com

Bonfires were lit at Bealtaine to celebrate the arrival of summer and protect cattle from disease before they were moved to their upland summer pastures. This image is from the Midleton-based company knowthyplace.com

Symbolically, just as at Samhain, the denizens of the underworld were particularly active at Bealtaine and to protect the cattle from any ailments, or fairy mischief, they were driven between two bonfires. This ritual bonfire was a key part of the festival. It is likely that this bonfire tradition has mostly died out, but I recall that sometimes there were bonfires in some communities in Limerick city – this is unusual because such traditions are normally thought to survive in rural communities!

(It should be noted that the bonfire tradition on St John’s Eve (23rd June) is linked to the summer solstice. It can be difficult to light a bonfire in the depths of a wet Irish winter, so ‘bonfire night’ is more likely to be a summer celebration in Ireland, although there is no guarantee of any co-operation from the gods who control the Irish weather!)

The flowering of the hawthorn tree is a very visible reminder that we have entered the brighter and warmer half of the year.  The tree usually blossoms around Bealtaine.

The flowering of the hawthorn tree is a very visible reminder that we have entered the brighter and warmer half of the year. The tree usually blossoms around Bealtaine.

The white blossom of the hawthorn tree is the floral equivalent of the bealtaine bonfire.  Because it usually blossoms around the beginning of May, it is also called the May Tree.  It is considered unlucky to bring the haw blossom into the house, but some people still decorate locally regarded hawthorn trees, decorating them with ribbons or other amulets. Nowadays in Ireland, Bealtaine has been transformed into a month-long festival of creativity as we age – it is a festival for our senior citizens to get out and do something different!  Mullingar in County Westmeath has a Festival of the Fires – given that Mullingar is near the ancient site of Uisneach a site that was anciently associated with the festival of Bealtaine..

The Festival of Fires is a modern attempt to celebrate Bealtaine in Mullingar and at the ancient site of Uisneach in County Westmeath.

The Festival of Fires is a modern attempt to celebrate Bealtaine in Mullingar and at the ancient site of Uisneach in County Westmeath.

Sadly, Bealtaine in 2015 was marked by a very cold wind and outbreaks of rain – indeed, for the first day of summer, in traditional parlance, 1st May 2015 in Ireland was a day to be indoors beside a roaring fire!  But then, ‘summer’ in Ireland means that it gets bright around 5.30 am and stays bright until after 9.00 pm.  It has nothing to do with clear dry and warm sunny days – these should be regarded as a bonus! The week just gone was one of showers, winds and sunshine – a very Irish mix!

Lusitania Memorial in Cobh (formerly Queenstown).

Lusitania Memorial in Cobh (formerly Queenstown).

The first week of May this year saw events linked to the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania.  Courtmacsherry, the Old Head of Kinsale, Kinsale itself and Cobh (formerly Queenstown) all saw events to commemorate the dead of the Lusitania.  President Higgins was joined by the ambassadors from Uk, USA, Germany and France for the commemoration in Cobh on Thursday 7th May. Last Wednesday I attended a day long conference organised by Gabriel Doherty of the School of History of UCC.  Starting at 9.10 am, it drew a full crowd.  By lunchtime it was standing room only. The questions addressed to the various speakers from the audience were indicative of the enormous interest that people had in the subject. This Decade of Centenaries is a welcome addition to the social life of our communities, especially since it gets people asking questions about the history of their communities and families a century ago. Hopefully it will lead to new discoveries as more information is uncovered.  It is worth remembering that only a fortnight ago we recalled the landings at Gallipoli – a reminder that various events in World War I overlapped. .

Irish military and naval personnel at the official ceremonies commemorating the sinking of the Lusitania on 7th May.

Irish military and naval personnel at the official ceremonies commemorating the sinking of the Lusitania on 7th May.

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

Lusitania

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:

http://www.irelandcork.com/cobh-attractions-summary.php?ID=49&sc=12

http://www.corkharbour.ie/pages/newsDisplay.php?id=357

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!

Link: http://www.ibiblio.org/anrs/docs/1001taussig_thequeenstownpatrol1917.pdf

Further reading on this subject from Amazon.com:

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.