The sinking of the RMS Leinster, just one month before the end of the First World War, remains the single greatest maritime disaster on the Irish Sea. At least 550 people died when a German submarine sank the mailboat on 10 October 1918. The centenary will be the key historical event commemorated by the Irish state in 2018.
There were 22 men in the ship’s Postal Sorting Quarters when the first torpedo struck. Most were Dubliners. It was standard practice on a mailboat like RMS Leinster to ‘sort’ mail as the ship voyaged the seventy miles between Kingstown (as Dun Laoghaire was then called) and the Welsh port of Holyhead. On this morning, there were over 250 sacks of mail to go through.
The banter would have been free flowing among the postal sorters. They knew each other well. Together they had gone on strike the previous April as part of a successful protest against a threat by the British government to introduce conscription in Ireland.[i]
Joseph Blake from Drumcondra had been particularly active in the strike. Two of his sons served with the Volunteers during the Easter Rising; one died of his wounds.[ii]
Matthew Brophy of Phibsboro had just learned that his wife was pregnant with their first child. Adam Smyth from Sandycove was called in at the last minute when a colleague fell ill.[iii] Just before he boarded the ship, Adam saw his eldest daughter Daisy running towards him, armed with sandwiches his wife had just made for him.
Although her main purpose was to carry mail, the Leinster was also transporting 187 civilians – men, women and children.[iv] Civilians were the primary source of income for the City of Dublin Steam-Packet Company, which had operated the Leinster and three sister ships on the Kingstown-Holyhead route since before the war. Each ship was named for an Irish province.
Some of the passengers were very well-to-do, such as Lady Phyllis Hamilton, eldest daughter of the 2nd Duke of Abercorn and a sister to Lady Wicklow.
Jocelyn Alexander, a poet, was the eldest son of the Protestant Primate of All Ireland; his mother was the hymn writer Mrs. Cecil Frances Humphreys who penned such classics as ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ and ‘Once in Royal David’s City.’ [v]
As a past pupil of Winchester College (or Old Wykehamist, as they are called), he may have exchanged words with another Winchester pupil, Bob King, a 14-year-old butterfly enthusiast who had been visiting his family in Dundrum. Bob’s father was Professor of Oriental Languages in Trinity College Dublin; his mother was a sister of the press barons Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Daily Mail, and Lord Rothermere. [vi]
Widowed just over three months earlier, Fanny Wookey was sailing home to live with her family in England. She apparently carried a bag of gold sovereigns given to her by a Latvian Jew in return for the sale of her late husband’s business, the Wookey Linen Mills in Leixlip, County Kildare. [vii]
John Ross, secretary of the Howth Yacht Club, was on his way to a scouting conference in England.
Fanny Saunders was going to visit her dying daughter in Wales; she had bought a new pair of red shoes for the trip. [viii]
Elsewhere on the ship, some 500 soldiers were milling about, mostly preparing to rejoin their units in the UK and beyond.[ix]
Ernest Lee, a captain with the Royal Army Medical Corps, was heading back to the Western Front where he had been based for four long years. Many were aware of his incredible heroism during the battle of Ypres. His father Edward Lee, a draper, was one of Ireland’s best-known businessmen; as well as operating the largest retailer in Dun Laoghaire, he had been the only employer to serve on Tom Kettle’s Peace Committee during the 1913 Lockout.[x]
Forty-year-old Arthur Cohen had moved to Ireland from Lithuania as a teenager and tried his hand at many things, including stints as a railway porter and as a gold prospector in South Africa. His biggest venture was the Donegal Clothing and Home Furnishing Company, based in Belfast. However, its failure in 1916 ultimately left him with little option but to join the army so he could secure a regular income for his wife Mollie and their son Louis. And so it was that he was on board the Leinster, headed, he thought, for the frontlines.[xi]
Private Patrick Faughlin of the 3rd Battalion of the Leinster Regiment had come home from the frontlines to meet his baby son.
Alexander Burleigh from Florence Court, Co. Fermanagh, had been visiting his older brother, Andrew, an injured soldier, at a hospital in Dublin. Travelling with him was an Australian relative, Edwin Johnson Carter, who had also been wounded.
Margaret and May O’Grady, two young nurses from Newmarket-on-Fergus, County Clare, were returning to their duties in England after a holiday with their parents.
The 77-strong-crew was predominantly Irish or Welsh. They included William Maher, a moustachioed Boer War veteran who worked as a stoker, and the Greaser Connolly, whose son Tom was a cabin boy on the ship.
Jem Carraher, a seasoned mariner from Cahore, Co Wexford, had been at sea since he was 13. As the Leinster’s bosun, he looked after her rigging, anchors and cables.
In charge of this entire operation was Dublin-born William Birch, the 61-year-old captain of the ship, who had been sailing the seas for nearly half a century.[xii]
Shortly before 9 o’clock that Thursday morning, Captain Birch gave the signal; the Leinster left her moorings on Carlisle Pier and set off on its last voyage from Kingstown.
Nobody should cross the Irish Sea without a degree of trepidation, not least in a time of war, when German U-boats are on the prowl. Although the Germans had suspended attacks on merchant ships in the wake of the uproar over the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, there had been a shift in the Kaiser’s naval policy since late 1917 and many ships had been sunk.
As such, the Leinster’s 230-foot long exterior had been painted with zig-zag lines, the clever camouflage employed by many merchant ships at this time. A twelve-pound gun was also mounted on her stern, along with a three-man team of Royal Navy gunners to man it. This explains the origin of some live artillery shells divers found on the ship in the 1980s. The shells inspired a certain amount of baseless conspiracy thereafter, with allegations that the ship was transporting armaments, but she was certainly carrying troops and that arguably made her a legitimate target.
Moreover, with no escort, she was still exceedingly vulnerable.
Below sea-level, Oberleutnant Robert Ramm of UB–123 scanned the waters for suitable quarry.
The weather was fine but the Irish Sea was rough after a recent storm. As the Leinster steamed by the Kish Bank, it passed RMS Ulster, her sister mailboat, returning from Holyhead. Adam Smyth must have thought of his eldest son Daniel, a cabin boy on the Ulster.
Shortly after 9.30, the Leinster passed the Kish Light Vessel. And then, approximately 16 miles from Dun Laoghaire, Ramm’s submarine spotted the ship and fired.
When passengers on the Leinster saw the first torpedo approach, they initially thought it was a porpoise. As it crossed the bow, narrowly missing them, the shock of realisation set in.
Captain Birch was informed and immediately ordered the ship to turn about and head back to Kingstown, following a zig-zag course. When the Leinster was launched in 1897, she was one of the fastest ships at sea with a speed of 24 knots; the captain had reasonable grounds to hope he could outrun the submarine.[xiii]
Sensing further trouble, he also ordered the lifeboats to be lowered but unfortunately the horror was only just beginning.
Ramm’s second torpedo struck slammed into the port side, right beside the postal sorting quarters. The ladder connecting the quarters to the upper deck was also destroyed and all but one of the 22 sorters either drowned or were killed in the initial explosion.
Captain Birch was blown off the bridge into the sea, as a torrent of water began gushing into the ship through holes in both her port and starboard sides.
In desperation, the crew tried to alter course and lower the lifeboats but the panic was rife. Many had already tumbled into the icy waters and started to drown.
Some heads remained unruffled.
Louie Parry, a fun-loving 22-year-old stewardess, instantly ran down to the lower decks to bring women and children up, handing out lifejackets.
Alderman Michael Joyce, the nationalist MP for Limerick since 1918 and a founder member of Garryowen Rugby club, was reading a newspaper in the smoke-room when the first torpedo struck. Having already survived four shipwrecks in his life, the 68-year-old calmly made his was onto one of the lowered lifeboats, which quickly went around collecting people from the sea.
‘We are quite alright,’ Lady Phyllis Hamilton assured crewmembers. ‘Not a bit excited, don’t worry about us.’
That was just before a third torpedo ripped into the starboard side of the ship, penetrating through to the engine room. As one witness put it, the ensuing explosion ‘shattered the ship like matchwood.’ It blew the funnels into pieces; splinters riddled the deck, killing several passengers.[xiv]
The Leinster plunged, bow first, hurling the majority of passengers on the forward deck into the water. Lady Phyllis handed her lifejacket to someone else, saying ‘I’m a strong swimmer.’
Louie Parry was trying to get a woman and child out of their cabin when the second torpedo hit. Their cabin door slammed on all three of them; their bodies were never recovered.
As the ship was sinking, Ernest Lee helped a fellow officer with a metal splint in his arm to put on his life jacket. He also helped a nurse with her life jacket and then swam out to a lifeboat. However, he then jumped back into the sea to help a woman and child in distress. Having got them safely on board, he suddenly disappeared from sight.
Edward Shortt, Lloyd George’s Chief Secretary (and future Home Secretary), was a passenger on the incoming Ulster and watched aghast as the Leinster sank beneath the waves.[xv]
Arthur Cohen had managed to clamber onto a raft after the first hit but fell back into the freezing water amid the turbulence of the second strike. All around him the sea was now full of men, women and children, terrified, screaming, dying. Some struggled into lifeboats while others, like Arthur, clung on to floating pieces of wood or debris. A self-professed atheist, Arthur vowed that he would say his morning prayers forever more if he survived.
William Maher plunged into the cold waters. A strong swimmer, the fireman had just reached an upturned lifeboat when he saw 13-year-old Dorothy Topping struggling in the water. He dove back in, grabbed her and held onto her for 2½ hours until the rescue boat arrived. She later presented him with a watch as a symbol of her thanks.[xvi]
Captain Birch was pulled into the lifeboat “Big Bertha”, his legs smashed, his eye badly cut.
The bosun Jem Carraher managed to push a raft into the water and gathered up several people, including a baby. Together they prayed for rescue.
The dreadful news had now reached the Admiralty at Kingstown who dispatched fifteen vessels, tugboats and torpedo destroyers to the scene.[xvii] However, amid fears of more torpedo strikes, the first rescue boats did not arrive until almost 90 minutes after the initial attack, by which time unknown numbers had perished.
The torpedo destroyer, HMS Lively, eventually picked up 127 survivors but when its crew began throwing ropes at Big Bertha, there was such a mad scramble to catch them that the lifeboat capsized. Captain Birch was never seen again.
The destroyers Seal and Mallard rescued 51 and 20 people respectively.
All survivors were brought to Victoria Wharf, Kingstown, to receive medical care and comfort. Boats continued to arrive back with survivors and the bodies of the dead until night fell. The bodies were placed in piles along the pier, their heads hanging, one to the left, one to the right, as distraught families jostled with the press to identify their loved ones.
Fanny Saunders’ younger sister broke her heart when she saw a pair of familiar red shoes poking out from one of the body blankets. Fanny’s sickly daughter Janet Owens died three days later.
Also found among the dead were Nurse Margaret O’Grady, Alexander Burleigh, Adam Smyth and Jocelyn Alexander.[xviii]
Fanny Wookey’s body was also recovered and she was buried in Leixlip; the fate of her bag of gold is unknown.
When John Brophy failed to find the body of his brother Matthew, he couldn’t bring himself to tell his mother or Mathew’s pregnant wife, Molly. He arranged for an empty coffin to be buried alongside his father in Glasnevin. Molly gave birth to her first child in July 1919; she named the boy Matthew.
Ernest Lee’s body washed ashore in Gorey a week later. The woman and child who he rescued later called to his parents to express their immense gratitude and told how Ernest had smiled so encouragingly as he saved them.
Lady Phyllis Hamilton’s body was never found.
Nor was that of John Ross.
Nor Bob King, the butterfly boy.
Nor Patrick Faughlin, whose wife Mary, unsure of his whereabouts, rightly feared the worst when his frequent letters ceased on 18 October.[xix]
Nor did they find nineteen-year-old Josephine Carr, a shorthand typist from Cork, who thus had the unhappy distinction of being the first member of the WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) to be killed on active service.
Jem Carraher, the bosun, made it ashore and waked quietly past the row of dead bodies, a blanket over his shoulder, and home to his wife and children on Findlater Street.[xx]
Arthur Cohen was hospitalised with pneumonia for six months but kept his vow to say his prayers. He later became a cinema magnate in Britain, running the London and Southern Super Cinemas, which built several large cinemas named Ambassador, and also took over a number of existing halls. He died penniless when his housekeeper embezzled the funds.
Tom Connolly, the cabin boy, survived when John Donohoe, the Chief Stoker, gave him his own life-jacket. Remarkably Donohoe also lived, as did Tom’s father, the Greaser. Tom later established the first supermarket in Dun Laoghaire.
Alderman Joyce declared he had ‘never had a more trying experience than he had that morning’. He died in his bed in his 90th year
It is not certain how many died. The official death toll of 501 but there were at least 550. The reason for the discrepancy is that (as on many ferries) people did not have to give their name in order to buy a ticket. In any case, it was very much an Irish tragedy; more Irish people died in the sinking of the Leinster than on either Titanic or Lusitania. The fact that the ship sank within sight of Dun Laoghaire was particularly shocking and brought the war right to the Irish shore in a way that hadn’t happened before.
The authorities refused to hold an official public inquiry despite an outcry over the failure to provide the ship with an escort; the Germans had warned that all ships within the exclusion zone surrounding Britain were liable to be sunk. As such, the Leinster was deemed a legitimate target and its sinking was a thus an act of war. Such a conclusion had unhappy consequences for families seeking compensation. Nor did it help the City of Dublin Steam-Packet Company, which went bust in the early 1920s.
Sinn Fein effectively capitalized on the failure to hold an inquiry during their triumphant General Election campaign in December 1918, just two months after the disaster.
The wreck of the Leinster is presently embedded in the sands about 30 m or 100 feet below sea level. She was bought by the late Des Branigan, an archaeological diver and maritime historian, widely hailed for his research into Spanish Armada vessels on the west coast of Ireland. He bought her to stop the plunder of artefacts from the vessel. It is hoped that the wreck will become State property on the hundredth anniversary of the sinking.
As for UB-123, the submarine that sank the Leinster … just nine days later the entire crew died when it struck a mine in the North Sea.
If there was any upside to the tragedy, it did speed up the end of the war. The German government had, in fact, being pushing for peace talks since early October. However, on hearing of the Leinster’s fate, US President Woodrow Wilson remarked on 14 October:
‘At the very time that the German government approaches the government of the United States with proposals of peace its submarines are engaged in sinking passenger ships at sea.’
Six days later, Germany agreed to cease attacks on merchant ships. An armistice was agreed and the First World War formally ended on 11 November 1918.
With thanks to David Cotter, Philip Lecane and Linda Maher of the Irish Daily Mail.
Please visit www.rmsleinster.com for regular bulletins as plans for the centenary are developed. Anyone with information about, or photos of, their RMS Leinster relatives are likewise encouraged to email it to firstname.lastname@example.org
‘Torpedoed!: The R.M.S. Leinster Disaster’ (Periscope Publishing Ltd., 2005) by Philip Lecane, chairperson of the Friends of the Leinster.
[i] They also included Tom Bolster, one of three players with the Davis GAA Club, and two more players from Glasthule Mitchels. ‘The Last Voyage of the Leinster’ book erroneously gives Tom’s age as 15. In fact, he had served in the Post Office for 15 years.
[ii] Joseph Blake’s son Jack Blake apparently died of wounds received as a volunteer in the 1916 Rising. Does anyone know which area he served in? Another son Joe Blake Junior served under De Valera in Boland’s Mill during the Rising. One of Joseph’s daughters was mother to Liam Whelan, the Busby Babe killed in the Munich air crash in 1958. Another was grandmother to Aidan Gillen, the actor who plays Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish in ‘Game of Thrones.’ The Blake family played a prominent role during the War of Independence and Michael Collins regularly stayed in their home in Drumcondra. Joseph’s in-laws were the Fay family, closely involved with he Abbey Theatre.
[iii] The second of 11 children, Adam Smyth grew up on Sandycove Road and was himself married with nine children aged between two and 17.
[iv] Many of the passengers had stayed the previous night in Dun Laoghaire at Ross’s Victoria Hotel, the Royal Marine or Salthill Hotel.
[v] (Robert) Jocelyn Alexander (1852-1918), third son of Mrs. Cecil Frances Humphreys and her husband, Sir William Alexander, the Protestant Primate of All Ireland the Most Reverend. His only son had died in infancy over forty years earlier. The 66-year-old Oxford graduate, poet and HM Inspectorate of Schools was buried in Derry near his parents.
[vi] Alfred Curzon King, as Bob was formally called, had been visiting his family at Roebuck Hall in Dundrum; his father, Sir Lucas King, was Professor of Oriental Languages in Trinity College Dublin while his mother, Geraldine, was the eldest sister of the press barons Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Daily Mail, and Lord Rothermere. It was nearly four years since his older brother Luke was killed in action at Ypres.
[vii] Fanny Wookey was the English wife of Frederick Wookey, Justice of the Peace and owner of the Wookey Linen Mills, once the largest employer in the Leixlip area of County Kildare, with 50 staff. During the 1913 Lockout, Frederick became notorious for locking out members of the ITGWU, despite there being no dispute among the workers. Their eldest son was killed in France during the war. After Frederick’s death on 6 July 1918, Fanny sold the business to Benny Wolfsson, a Jewish refugee from Latvia who had come to Ireland in 1903. He paid her a bag of gold sovereigns as a down payment. She was returning to England to live with her relatives. Her body was recovered and she was buried in Saint Mary’s Churchyard in Leixlip next to her husband and, in due course, their only surviving child, Frances Norah Wookey, who died in 1939.
[viii] Fanny Saunders’ husband was one of the lifeboat men who died in the 1895 Dun Laoghaire Christmas Eve tragedy.
[ix] Transporting soldiers was compulsory during the war; the City of Dublin Steam-Packet Company was ordered to provide space on each crossing for soldiers. On occasion there were rowdy scenes when paying passengers were turned away because there were so many soldiers on board that the ship was at maximum capacity. The soldiers came from all over the world. Many had gone to Ireland on leave.
[x] Having studied medicine in Trinity, Ernest Lee was working as a medical officer on a cruise ship when war broke out. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and spent the next four years in Flanders and France, being widely applauded for his work on the front lines during the Battle of Ypres.
His father Edward Lee, the son of a Methodist tenant farmer from Tyrrellspass, County Westmeath, was born in 1853 and married Annie Shackleton from Dungar, County Offaly. Only four of their nine children reached adulthood but their drapery business was so successful that they were able to send their sons to boarding school and to Trinity College Dublin. The family lived in The Grange, Stillorgan, County Dublin. Edward served on Bray Urban District Council and owned, among other things, the biggest retail outlet in Dun Laoghaire, which stood on the site of present-day Dunne Stores at 22 to 24 upper Georges Street. During the 1913 Lockout, Edward Lee was the only employer to join Tom Kettle’s Dublin Peace Committee, which tried but failed to find a resolution to the conflict.
Ernest Lee’s brothers Joseph and Tennyson were with the 6th Munster Fusiliers during the bloody landing at Suvla Bay in Gallipoli in August 1915; Joseph was killed on the 7th; Tennyson was wounded two days later.
[xi] Arthur Jacob Israel Cohen was the son of Russian Jews who emigrated from Lithuania to Belfast in 1892. They started as bakers but soon ran a successful linen business. At the age of 15 he ran away to South Africa where he tried but failed to make his fortune from diamonds all gold. He then tried his luck in Canada before returning to Belfast in 1904. In 1910 he married Louisa, with whom he had Mollie and a son Louis. He claimed he was ruined when a cargo of linen he sent from Ireland to England was torpedoed in the Irish Sea. In fact, his linen and clothing business simply failed and he was declared bankrupt in both England and Ireland in 1915. He subsequently took various odd jobs, including a stint as a railway porter, before deciding to join the British Army for a regular income. See also The Northern Whig, 10 February 1916.
[xii] William Birch, the son of a Woollen Merchant, gained his 2nd Mate’s Ticket over forty years earlier. Having worked for the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company since 1902, he was now their most senior captain, holding the honorary title of Commodore. He was a veteran of the Holyhead to Kingstown route.
[xiii] RMS Leinster was built by Laird Brothers of Birkenhead in 1897 and weighed 2,640 gross tons.
[xiv] The third torpedo hit the ship about three minutes after the second one struck.
[xvi] William Maher was also awarded a silver medal and certificate for bravery from the Royal Humane Society. He died in 1953 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Dean’s Grange. I understand a headstone is ahoy!
[xvii] The early edition of the Evening Herald carried the news but mistakenly claimed there were no casualties; as the paper had reported without official permission, it was closed down by Dublin Castle and banned for four days.
[xviii] Margaret O’Grady is buried in the family plot at Quin Abbey; her sister May’s body was never recovered. Adam Smyth was buried in Deans Grange Upper North. Fanny Saunders is also buried in Deans Grange. Jocelyn Alexander was buried near his parents in Derry exactly a year to the day after his mother was laid to rest. Alexander Burleigh was buried in Enniskillen. 144 military casualties were interred at Grangegorman Military Cemetery in Dublin
[xix] Nor was that of Edward Moors of Birkenhead was the Engineer’s Steward on the Leinster. He left a widow and eight children. He grew up near Laird Brothers, Birkenhead, where Leinster was built in 1897.
[xx] Jem Carraher narrowly avoided death when MV Inishfallon was sunk by a mine on 21st December 1940. He died in 1965 at the age of 82.
[xxi] The story, published in ‘The Last Voyage of the Leinster’ book, about the McCormacks searching the pier at Dun Laoghaire is not accurate.