Shortly before 0900 hrs on 10 October 1918, the mailboat RMS Leinster left Carlisle Pier, Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire), Co. Dublin, bound for Holyhead in Anglesey with 771 passengers and crew. Shortly before 1000 hrs, roughly 16 miles out to sea, the mail boat was torpedoed by German submarine UB 123. More than 550 people were killed, making this the worst maritime disaster on the Irish Sea.
One hundred years after that fatal voyage, cruise boat St Bridget set sail from Dún Laoghaire Harbour to bring relatives and friends of the deceased – and of the few survivors – to the resting place of RMS Leinster at the Kish Lighthouse.
About 70 passengers were on board: young and old, Dún Laoghaire and Dublin locals, visitors from as far afield as New Zealand and Australia, friends and relatives of postal workers, cabin crew, passengers and the ship’s Captain.
St Bridget followed the route of RMS Leinster, stopping at the Kish Lighthouse where passengers scattered wreaths and remembered their loved ones. Some referred to the Kish as ‘the grave’.
Sadly the victims who were lost at sea included many young children including 15- year-old Gerald Palmer who had spent most of his life in care of the ‘Cripples Home’ (later Sunbeam House) in Bray. He was drowned as he sailed to the UK to start a new job and a new life.
Lorraine Newsome and John Giles from Sunbeam House were there to pay their respects to young Gerald.
“18 roses, one from each of his grandchildren” said Monica. She was joined by Joan, Gerry, Susan and Michelle to remember their grandfather, William H. Wakefield, a postal worker. Apparently William should not have been working that day but had stood in for a colleague who had the flu.
They spoke fondly of how they remembered their mum bringing a rose with her on every boat journey she took from Dún Laoghaire Harbour, throwing it beside the Kish Lighthouse on her ‘Daddy’s grave’. Now it was their turn to visit their grandfather’s grave at sea. They had also brought a small bottle of whiskey and enjoyed a toast to William.
In a cruel twist of fate, another man who was not supposed to have been working that day was Adam Smyth, a postal worker from nearby Sandycove. He had been asked to stand in for an ill colleague. The family’s story is that his daughter, Mary Claire (Daisy), was the last to see him alive as she ran after him with the sandwiches he had forgotten. He left a wife and nine children, aged two to 17. Marie Malone, his great granddaughter, was there to remember Adam.
The ship’s Captain William Birch was among the victims and his body was never recovered. Captain Birch had been pulled into the lifeboat Big Bertha with his legs smashed and an eye badly cut. Royal Navy torpedo destroyer, HMS Lively had reached the scene, picking up 127 survivors, but during the mad scramble to catch the ropes, the lifeboat capsized and Captain Birch was never seen again.
Siobhan Worn from Shankhill, is a third-cousin-once-removed of the late Captain. She was joined by Dorothy Worn and George Jackson.
Sheila Monahan had travelled from Australia to remember her grandfather Michael Hogan, a postal worker. Sheila had been planning her trip to Ireland for several years to coincide with the RMS Leinster centenary services.
Small rays of sunshine were among the sadness: Dinah Jordan and Olive Gray were there to celebrate the survival of their father Tom Connolly and his father Philip (‘The Greaser’) Connolly. Young Tom was only 16-years-old and working as a cabin boy on the Leinster when the torpedo struck.
His father Philip was working in a totally different area on the ship but managed to find his son and they jumped together. Both Tom and Philip survived. The two sisters hoot with laughter as they tell the story of their father Tom racing into town to spend the half-crown he had got as a Leinster survivor, boys will be boys!