This coming month of October sees the commemoration of the sinking of the RMS Leinster on the Irish sea just outside of Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) on October 10, 1918. It was torpedoed by a German U-boat with the loss of more than 500 lives. To date, it remains the single biggest loss of life on the Irish Sea.
The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has organised several commemorative events for that date and there will be many hundreds of people attending from all over the world. Doubtless many of those attending will have their own stories to relate on this awful tragedy. Personally, I lost my grandfather who was a postal worker on the boat.
On that occasion, there were many ironies contributing to our own personal tragedy. My grandfather should not have been working that day but stood in for a colleague who had been struck down by the ‘Spanish flu’ (as it was erroneously labelled) which was rife throughout Dublin at the time. The dreadful coincidence of this date was that it was also my grandparents’ seventh wedding anniversary.
It is impossible for your readers to imagine the trauma which affected many families by this event. Like those battling it out on the front in the First World War, news of loved ones was slow to trickle down to relatives. But with such a local event as the sinking of the Leinster, you could be forgiven for thinking news would come fast. But this was not the case; there was a wholly different set of rules where communication was concerned in 1918.
I will always remember my grandmother telling me the story of that day and of how she heard the news about the sinking through people running and shouting up and down the street.
Bewildered by fear and shock, she sank into a kitchen chair and stayed in it all night until the next morning whereupon a knock came to the door. Two postal workers, not on board that day, gave her the news she didn’t want to hear. She had four children aged between two and seven years.
For the record, my grandfather’s name was William Wakefield, and my grandmother was Agnes. Many families during this period of history will have suffered similar experiences and been left in much the same circumstances with young families.
It is a credit to each and every mother of that period who found themselves suddenly widowed because of the war that they managed through adversity to raise their families, this was not a good time in Irish history to be suddenly faced with a family struggle.
On October 10, the Stena Lines sailing the Irish Sea will be sounding their horns at midday, along with a peeling of bells in Dún laoghaire. Wreaths will also be thrown to the sea at “The Kish”, the spot where the Leinster went down.
Though for many this will be a time for personal reflection I hope in a broader sense it occasions an appreciation of the suffering and sacrifice many families underwent during this turbulent period.