Lusitania wreck donor, Gregg Bemis, hailed as friend and benefactor of Kinsale

Lusitania wreck donor, Gregg Bemis, hailed as friend and benefactor of Kinsale
Gregg Bemis, owner of the Lusitania wreck, pictured in front of a photograph of the Lusitania at the Speckled Door, Old Head in 2019. Photo: Denis Minihane.

Gregg Bemis, the multi-millionaire who donated the wreck of the Lusitania to a Kinsale heritage group, will be fondly remembered as "a good friend and benefactor" in the west Cork town.

Mr Bemis died at the age of 91 this week in New Mexico.

The US businessman had been the owner of the wreck of the Lusitania until 2019, when he signed it over to the Old Head Signal Tower and Lusitania Museum Heritage Company. The ship was torpedoed off the Cork coast with the loss of more than 1,200 lives during World War One.

Padraig Begley, a member of the heritage group, said Kinsale will remember him fondly: "He is best described as a great friend and benefactor to Kinsale."

Mr Bemis was a regular visitor to the town. His trip in May 2019 to sign over the rights to the wreck was his last time in Kinsale.

"He was very invested in the Lusitania story. He got involved by accident really, doing so as a favour to a friend," Mr Begley said.

Lusitania wreck donor, Gregg Bemis, hailed as friend and benefactor of Kinsale
Gregg Bemis pictured in 2012. Photo: Denis Minihane.

Mr Bemis, who descended to the wreck at the age of 76, acquired joint ownership of the Lusitania in the 1960s. He fought a lengthy legal battle to verify his ownership, involving court hearings in three countries, including Ireland.

RMS Lusitania sank some 18km off the Cork coast on May 7, 1915 after being struck by a single torpedo from the German submarine, U-20. A second internal explosion minutes later accelerated the rate of sinking and cost hundreds more lives.

The cause of the second explosion remains a mystery, more than 100 years later.

Some 1,198 people died with just over 700 being saved.

It is now up to the local heritage group to continue the efforts to solve the mystery of the second explosion, Mr Begley said.

"We got a nice note this week from his daughter, who told us that his last wish was to get his whole family over to the museum, so we hope we can achieve that," Mr Begley said, adding that Mr Bemis was very invested in the cause of opening the museum.

Architects have been appointed and the project is moving forward, though the Covid-19 shutdown has resulted in the cancellation of several major fundraisers for the cause.

Lusitania wreck donor, Gregg Bemis, hailed as friend and benefactor of Kinsale
Gregg Bemis, owner of the Lusitania wreck heading out on a dive from Kinsale pier. Photo: Dermot Ryan.

Mr Begley said the US businessman was a "gentleman — feisty and someone who wouldn't suffer fools gladly", recalling how he had clashed with Irish authorities on several occasions over the Lusitania wreck. Mr Bemis believed it to be his property and, thus, that there should be no government interference but authorities here disagreed.

More than 20 years ago, during his term as Heritage Minister, Michael D Higgins placed a heritage order on the wreck and, in 2014, President Higgins once again declared it "a grave" and cautioned against excavating it.

Tributes have already come from government ministers, though, with Culture & Heritage Minister Josepha Madigan describing Mr Bemis as "a man of vision, fortitude and determination, who enriched every initiative he supported".

"He will be missed by his friends in Kinsale," she added.

Deep sea diver, Eoin McGarry, a close friend of Mr Bemis, has already spoken of his persistence and tenacity: 

We hope to get an expedition going for a forensic examination of the bow area, but the captain of the ship has gone — he was like a father figure to me.

"He always wanted to find out what caused the second explosion on the Lusitania, and the mantle we have to take on is to find that out."

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