American UCC student to help remember great-grandfather who commanded US flotilla that sailed into Cork harbour

Lizzie Helmer, who is studying at UCC. Picture: Dan Linehan

A Californian student at University College Cork will help remember the arrival of the US navy in Ireland — 100 years to the day after her great-grandfather commanded the flotilla that sailed into Cork harbour.

But Lizzie Helmer had no idea until a week before coming here in January that, on May 4, 1917, her ancestor Commander Joseph Taussig was in charge of the US Atlantic fleet that set up base in Cobh. The occasion marked the physical entry of the US into the First World War, just weeks after it declared war on Germany.

The centenary of the fleet’s arrival will be marked in Cobh tomorrow, when the 20-year-old unveils a commemorative plaque in front of a dignitaries at the former British Admiralty House, which is now a convent.

Lizzie has been studying English literature, fulfilling part of her journalism degree at Chico State University, California, and will return home later this month.

But it was only the week before she left for Cork that her uncle told herself and dad John of her great-grandfather’s ties here.

“I was set on coming to study in Ireland for a long time, but I wasn’t aware at all. It was truly coincidental, it’s kind of amazing how it worked out,” she said.

Lizzie’s dad and her mother Jane Coady-Helmer — who hopes to trace her Mayo and other Irish ancestry — visited Cobh recently and were amazed at how many photographs and other records of Joseph Taussig’s time were on display.

“My dad was really moved, particularly by film footage of his grandfather while he was in Cork. It almost brought him to tears, because he looked so like his own mother,” she said.

During their visit last month, she and her family met UCC president Prof Patrick O’Shea, whose granduncle Richard Scriven was one of the crew killed when the Cork merchant steamboat SS Lismore was torpedoed off Le Havre in France. That was just three weeks before the US navy arrived in Cork, and their first task was to deploy anti-submarine patrols to end the German destruction of shipping off Ireland’s south and west coasts of Ireland.

More than 10,000 US servicemen were deployed in Cork by the end of the war, at an extensive network of facilities which included sites in Queenstown (Cobh), Passage West, Haulbowline, Ringaskiddy, Aghada, Bere Island, Berehaven, and Whiddy Island.

A series of events marking their presence is happening over the coming months, and tomorrow night will also see a History Ireland magazine “hedge school” on the role of Ireland and Cork in the US naval involvement in the First World War.

The free event at Cobh Library will feature local historian Michael Martin and UCC historian John Borgonovo, also a native of California.

An exhibition opening tomorrow at the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh will showcase Midleton-based archaeologist and historian Damian Shiels’ research on Cork and other Irish women who married US sailors.

UCC will host a conference on the US Navy in Ireland in 1917 and 1918 on July 6 to 8.


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