A hundred years ago this month, the SS Kenmare was torpedoed, one of dozens of Irish civilian ships sunk by the Germans in WWI, says Jean Prendergast.
One hundred years ago, on March 2, 1918, the City of Cork Steam Packet ship, the SS Kenmare, was struck, without warning, by a torpedo fired by a German submarine in the Irish Sea, 25 miles off the Dublin coast.
The Kenmare sank in two minutes. She had been on a regular voyage from Liverpool to Cork and this was the fourth time that she had been attacked by a submarine.
In June, 1915, she was fired on by a submarine off Youghal. In January, 1918, seven miles off Holyhead, a torpedo narrowly missed her.
This time, however, 27 crew members were drowned and the six who made it into a lifeboat remained adrift in cold, rough seas, until they were picked up at 8am the following morning.
Most of the men were asleep in their bunks and were awoken by the explosion. 30-year-old fireman, Tim O’Brien, of Blackpool, was thrown out of his bunk. The lights went out, but he managed, along with fellow crew member, 72-year-old James Barry, of Lower Road, to make it into the first of two lifeboats.
The second lifeboat, containing 25 of the crew, overturned in the water and only one of these was rescued. The survivors described how, for the next ten minutes, they had to listen to the cries of the drowning, but were unable to help.
As news reached Cork of the disaster, the Cork Examiner newspaper described the heart-rending scenes at the offices of the Steam Packet Company, on Penrose Quay, and how the young daughter of Captain Peter Blacklock, a Liverpudlian who had made his home on Victoria Road, asked ‘When is pappy expected?’
The City of Cork Steam Packet Company had been founded in Cork in the middle of the nineteenth century and operated mainly freight services between Cork and ports in the UK and Europe.
On the outbreak of the First World War, the company continued to operate and the Kenmare was not to be its only victim of submarines in 1918. The Inniscarra and the Innisfallen were both torpedoed in May, 1918, followed by the Imber, in July, and the Serula, in September.
Another SS Kenmare was launched by the company in 1921.
The previous year, the company lost the Kittiwake, the Lismore, the Bandon, Dafila, Clangula, and the Ardmore, while two ships were sunk in collisions. In the first two years of the war, 11 of the company’s ships had been attacked or sunk, and one, the Lestris, was captured by the German navy and its crew interned.
However, by the end of the war, the company had only one ship remaining and had lost over 178 of its employees, most of whom were Cork-born or Cork-resident.
The company, nevertheless, continued to operate cross-channel and European sailings throughout the war. It played a vital part in ensuring that Cork did not suffer completely from war-induced food shortages and, as the war progressed, it offered ‘war risk’ payments to the sailors.
With many Cork merchant sailors being called up to serve in the Royal Navy, the company also recruited in the UK and from Sierra Leone. Indeed, five of the sailors lost during this time came from the latter country, demonstrating the diversity of pre-Independence Cork.
Ships were also ‘defensively armed’ in the later years of the war and carried two or three Royal Naval Reserve gunners, but a single stern gun was little defence against a torpedo.
After the sinking of the Bandon, in April, 1917, the Skibbereen Eagle commented: ‘No more shall the hoot of the siren coming up the Lee cause these mothers and orphans to flush with joyous anticipation of the homecoming of the mariners who brought to them, aye, and to the city, the daily bread of life.
‘At one fell blow, twenty-five homes were stricken; twenty-five men, innocent of any wrong against man, defenceless against unseen treachery, and looking forward but to the sight of Shandon, were sent hurriedly to their maker.’
Of the sailors, many would experience being torpedoed twice or more. 2nd engineer, Robert King, of Grattan Hill, who was saved from the Lismore, when she was torpedoed in April, 1917, was also saved from the Innisfallen, in May, 1918.
As he clung to a raft after the sinking of the Innisfallen, he witnessed the submarine surface, but it was chased away by the arrival of H.M.S. Kestrel. Otto von Schrader, the captain of UB-64, which had sunk the Innisfallen, was credited with sinking 57 ships during the First World War.
He served as an admiral in the German Navy during the Second World War and committed suicide, in Norway, in July, 1945.
By June, 1918, cook Michael Walsh, of Ashburton, had been on four torpedoed ships and was saved from the Ardmore in November, 1917, and from the Innisfallen. Timothy Buckley, of Blarney Street, was the quartermaster of the Inniscarra, when she was torpedoed in May, 1918.
He was lost, as was his son, Florence, a trimmer on the same ship, who had played hurling for Redmonds, while another Cork hurler, fireman, Michael Dorney, was saved from the Ardmore in November, 1917. Father and son, Timothy Twomey Senior and Timothy Junior, of Glanmire, were both lost on the Ardmore.
After the war, the company was taken over by a Liverpool-based shipping company that would eventually become the B & I Line, which operated until the 1990s until it, in turn, was taken over by the Irish Continental Group.
Ironically, during the Second World War, the City of Cork Steam Packet Company also lost another ship named Ardmore and another named Innisfallen, and would go on to launch three more Innisfallens on their cross-channel service.
In May, 1921, the home of the company’s director, Ebenezer Pike, was burnt.
The following November, a letter from an anonymous ex-City of Cork Steam Packet Company employee was published in the Cork Examiner, complaining that local sailors were being boycotted by the company, in favour of sailors recruited in Liverpool.
The writer said that ‘if this is to be the reward given by this company to the seamen of Cork, for their services on their ships during the war, when they had the good fortune to be rescued from watery graves, then God help the seamen of Cork.’
The sailors were not only forgotten by their former employers, but also by historians and the people of Cork.
By comparison, in 1997, a memorial to 83 Waterford merchant sailors, lost during the First World War, was erected on the quays there, along with a well-researched booklet, sponsored by Waterford City Council and the Heritage Council.
It remains for Cork, so justly proud of its maritime tradition, to recognise its own merchant sailors of the First World War.