The sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, after it was torpedoed by a German U boat had a particular impact on Cobh as survivors were brought to the local Cunard line offices and all rescue operations were launched out of the town by fishermen and naval personnel based there.
The Old Church graveyard also contains the remains of 193 people who died in the tragedy. Of those, 45 were unidentified and their coffins merely marked with a number.
As part of the commemoration, photographs were put on display of the open mass graves with Hendrick Verwey, chairman of Cobh Tourism, saying such visual depictions really brought the tragedy of the Lusitania home in spite of the passing of 95 years.
“It wakes you up when you see photos of open mass graves with coffins and coffins marked with just numbers. Historian Jack Gilmartin has been telling people stories that have passed down about the Lusitania, such as the one about a three- or four-year-old boy who was crying in Cobh looking for his mother after the tragedy. We have been organising commemorations for the last few years because Cobh is so tied up with shipping and the two disasters of the Titanic and the Lusitania.”
The ceremony got underway at the Lusitania graves at 2pm yesterday. Following prayers, musical honours by St Colman’s Pipe Band and the laying of wreaths, the proceedings moved to the town centre.
A colourful parade led by the Cobh branch of the Organisation of National Ex Servicemen and Women and representatives of the Royal Naval Association and other historical groups left the Town Hall on Lynch’s Quay and made the journey to the Lusitania Peace Memorial in Casement Square. Floral displays were also laid at the memorial.
The commemoration also included a lecture by divers Tim Carey and Eoin McGarry, who shared their stories of their underwater adventures whilst diving the wreck of the Lusitania.
A sample of 10 Remington .303 cartridges retrieved by Tim, Eoin and two other divers were handed in to the Cork Receiver of Wrecks in October 2008. They were subsequently given to ship’s owner, New Mexico businessman Gregg Bemis. The .303 was the official military rifle cartridge of England and the British Empire from its adoption in 1888 until the 1950s.
The speculation has been that the Lusitania was carrying munitions to Britain. However, the British Government denied any were on board. Reports of a second explosion within the bowels of the ship only served to increase rumours.
Diver Tim Carey showed video footage of the underwater exploration of the wreck at a lecture in the Commodore Hotel in Cobh. He said he was honoured to have been part of the dive where the munitions were recovered.
“It was nice to have been part of it. Two or three generations of my family have been involved in diving and I am diving since I was 12. A few of us had been diving at the wreck since 2001. In 2006 two local lads found munitions, but they were not licensed to lift it. In 2007 we dived for three days but we couldn’t find anything. In 2008 four of us were involved in a dive and one of the team found the spot and recovered the munitions. It went to the receiver of wrecks and then to Gregg Bemis. There is so much historical and maritime history in Cobh.”
Among the 1,257 passengers and 702 crew on board the Lusitania were art collector Sir Hugh Lane and millionaire Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt.
Audrey Lawson-Johnston is the last living survivor of the sinking of the Lusitania. She was just three months old when the liner was torpedoed off the coast of Cork. Mrs Johnston, who lives in Northamptonshire in Britain, regularly fundraises for the RNLI lifeboat in Britain.
Mrs Johnston was saved by her nanny, who grabbed her from a cot and rushed to one of the liner’s crowded lifeboats. She has gone on record as saying she had never forgotten the bravery of those who helped saved her life.
She last visited Cork in 2005.