Lusitania survivors gave Cobh an eerie unreality

Even the saved appeared lost as, like zombies, they meandered around the streets and narrow lanes of Queenstown, as it was known then, many dressed in borrowed clothes.

Many survivors of the sinking of the Lusitania hardly had time to come to terms with how lucky they were, although some exhibited a giddy excitement at their escape.

More than 1,000 were not so lucky and, in the hours, days, and weeks following the sinking, hundreds of bodies were brought ashore to be interred in mass graves in the town. The Cork Examiner was there to capture those poignant scenes. So, too, were photographers from the Waterford firm of A.H. Poole.

It is the Poole Lusitania collection that forms the centre of a photographic exhibition that opens in Cobh this week. Sponsored by Cobh Credit Union, the exhibition comprises more than 60 striking images, mostly taken in the town in the aftermath of the Lusitania tragedy.

READ MORE: Cork communities uniting to commemorate Lusitania

The A.H. Poole Lusitania collection was digitised from glass plates held in the National Library of Ireland and has never been seen collectively in the 100 years since the photographs were taken.

Carts were assembled to ferry the dead to the old cemetery outside Queenstown; coffins were draped in the union flag.

The exhibition captures survivors on the streets of Queenstown, the mass funeral, and the burials in the Old Church Cemetery. It also contains a reproduction of the burial register of the Old Church Cemetery, photographs of the rescue vessels and their captains, and some present-day photographs showing how little Cobh has changed.

The photos are being exhibited in the Cunard Centre in the centre of Cobh where the Cunard Line Ticket Office was in 1915. Part of the building was used as a temporary morgue where some of the recovered bodies were laid out.

On seeing the photographs, Colman Rasmussen, chairman of Cobh Credit Union, was anxious to assist Cobh Lusitania Centenary Committee in staging the exhibition, which forms part of a programme of events planned for Cobh.

“The sinking of the Lusitania was a terrible tragedy with a local, national, and an international dimension,” says Mr Rasmussen.

“It seemed appropriate that, as the largest community-based business organisation in Cobh, we would provide funding to allow them to be showcased right here in the town in which they were taken.”

One of the victims being carried through the streets of Cobh (Queenstown)

Towards the end of last year, Christy Keating, genealogist at Cobh Heritage Centre, went looking in the National Library of Ireland for images relating to the Lusitania tragedy.

“I was brought into a room and shown this astounding collection of photographs on glass plates,” he says.

“I had seen some before, but knew immediately that there were photographs here that have only been seen by a handful of people in over 100 years. The committee requested that the glass plates be digitised so they could be exhibited in Cobh and the National Library duly obliged.”

READ MORE: Cobh prepares to mark 100 years since Lusitania sinking

About half of the photographs are of survivors on the streets of Cobh following the sinking, and most of these people are unnamed.

Some of the survivors at the town’s railway station shortly after the event.Some of the survivors at the town’s railway station shortly after the event.

Fionnghuala Smith, a renowned photographer whose Old Time Photography Studio is based in the Cunard Centre, comments on the apparent giddiness of many of the survivors.

“It’s when you think about it that you realise that this can be a very natural reaction to being in a near death experience,” she says.

“There are very many relatives of survivors coming to Cobh on May 7 and 10 and I fully expect people to walk through our doors and point out their ancestors. It will be emotional to say the least.”

On May 10, 1915, the mass funeral of over 145 victims of the tragedy took place in the Old Church Cemetery in Cobh. The following day, the Cork Examiner reported: “The gloom which overhangs Queenstown, which shared so largely and with credit to itself in the immediate consequences of the torpedoing of the Cunard liner Lusitania, was intensified today. Everywhere one turned the same unaffected expressions of sympathy and ejaculations of dread horror of the experiences of the immediate past were heard.”

A burial ceremony at the old cemetery on May 10, 1915. A total of 169 of the 289 bodies recovered from the Lusitania were buried at the cemetery.

The photographs of the funeral cortege and at the gravesides are visual testimony to those words. Thousands turned out to pay their final respects to the victims. It was a sad and sombre occasion, with not a smile to be seen among the crowds.

The Cobh Credit Union Lusitania Centenary Photographic Exhibition is open from 11am to 6 pm from Tuesday to Saturday and from 1pm to 6 pm on Sundays, from now until the end of May. Admission is free.

Cobh is one of four coastal communities in Cork that are commemorating the Lusitania centenary with a number of events, entitled Lusitania100 Cork, in association with Cork County Council. They witnessed first-hand the trauma and heartbreak of the disaster.

The Courtmacshery RNLI and Rowing Club practice ahead of the Lusitania commemoration.

 

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