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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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U.S. Senate Inquiry into the RMS Titanic Sinking

william-alden-smithThe April 15, 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic, the trans-Atlantic passenger liner built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast, results in an inquiry by the United States Senate, which begins at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City  on April 19, 1912. Chaired by Senator William Alden Smith (R-Michigan), the inquiry is a subcommittee of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce. The hearings later move to the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. and conclude on May 25, 1912 with a return visit to New York.

Seven senators serve on the subcommittee, with three Republicans and three Democrats in addition to Smith as chair. The other six senators are Jonathan Bourne (R-Oregon), Theodore E. Burton (R-Ohio), Duncan U. Fletcher (D-Florida), Francis G. Newlands (D-Nevada), George Clement Perkins (R-California), and Furnifold McLendel Simmons (D-North Carolina). The composition of the subcommittee is carefully chosen to represent the conservative, moderate and liberal wings of the two parties.

During 18 days of official investigations, punctuated by recesses, testimony is recorded from over 80 witnesses. These include surviving passengers and crew members, as well as captains and crew members of other ships in the vicinity, expert witnesses, and various officials and others involved in receiving and transmitting the news of the disaster. The evidence submitted varies from spoken testimony and questioning, to the deposition of correspondence and affidavits. Subjects covered include the ice warnings received, the inadequate (but legal) number of lifeboats, the handling of the ship and its speed, RMS Titanic‘s distress calls, and the handling of the evacuation of the ship.

The final report is presented to the United States Senate on May 28, 1912. It is nineteen pages long and includes 44 pages of exhibits, and summarises 1,145 pages of testimony and affidavits. Its recommendations, along with those of the British inquiry that concludes on July 3, 1912, lead to many changes in safety practices following the disaster.

The report is strongly critical of established seafaring practices and the roles that RMS Titanic‘s builders, owners, officers and crew had played in contributing to the disaster. It highlights the arrogance and complacency that had been prevalent aboard the ship and more generally in the shipping industry and the British Board of Trade. However, it does not find the International Mercantile Marine Company, an American consortium, or the White Star Line negligent under existing maritime laws, as they had merely followed standard practice, and the disaster could thus only be categorised as an “act of God.”

The inquiry is heavily criticised in Britain, both for its conduct and for Smith’s style of questioning. Many newspapers publish scathing editorial cartoons depicting Smith in unflattering terms. The British government is also hostile towards the inquiry. The British Ambassador to the United States, James Bryce, demands that President William Howard Taft dissolve the committee and refuses to recognise its jurisdiction.

Some British writers, however, applaud the inquiry. G. K. Chesterton contrasts the American objective of maximum openness with what he calls Britain’s “national evil,” which he describes as being to “hush everything up; it is to damp everything down; it is to leave the great affair unfinished, to leave every enormous question unanswered.” The American reaction is also generally positive. The American press welcomes Smith’s findings and accepts his recommendations, commending the senator for establishing the key facts of the disaster.

(Pictured: U.S. Senator William Alden Smith, chairman of the Senate inquiry into the RMS Titanic disaster)

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RMS Titanic Departs Southampton, England

titanic-departing-southampton-dockThe RMS Titanic leaves port in Southampton, England for her first and only voyage on April 10, 1912. Built by the Belfast shipbuilders Harland and Wolff, the RMS Titanic is the second of the three Olympic-class ocean liners — the first being the RMS Olympic and the third being the HMHS Britannic.

Following the embarkation of the crew the passengers begin arriving at 9:30 AM, when the London and South Western Railway‘s boat train from London Waterloo station reaches Southampton Terminus railway station on the quayside, alongside RMS Titanic‘s berth. In all, 923 passengers board RMS Titanic at Southampton, 179 First Class, 247 Second Class and 494 Third Class. The large number of Third Class passengers means they are the first to board, with First and Second Class passengers following up to an hour before departure. Stewards show them to their cabins, and First Class passengers are personally greeted by Captain Edward Smith upon boarding. Third Class passengers are inspected for ailments and physical impairments that might lead to their being refused entry to the United States, a prospect the White Star Line wishes to avoid, as it would have to carry anyone who fails the examination back across the Atlantic. A total of 922 passengers are recorded as embarking on RMS Titanic at Southampton. Additional passengers are to be picked up at Cherbourg, France and Queenstown.

The maiden voyage begins on time, at noon. An accident is narrowly averted only a few minutes later as RMS Titanic passes the moored liners SS City of New York of the American Line and what would have been her running mate on the service from Southampton, White Star’s RMS Oceanic. Her huge displacement causes both of the smaller ships to be lifted by a bulge of water and then dropped into a trough. SS City of New York‘s mooring cables cannot take the sudden strain and snap, swinging her around stern-first towards RMS Titanic. A nearby tugboat, Vulcan, comes to the rescue by taking SS City of New York under tow, and Captain Smith orders RMS Titanic‘s engines to be put “full astern.” The two ships avoid a collision by a matter of about 4 feet. The incident delays RMS Titanic‘s departure for about an hour, while the drifting SS City of New York is brought under control.

After making it safely through the complex tides and channels of Southampton Water and the Solent, RMS Titanic heads out into the English Channel. She heads for the French port of Cherbourg, a journey of 77 nautical miles. The weather is windy, very fine but cold and overcast. Four hours after RMS Titanic leaves Southampton, she arrives at Cherbourg and is met by the tenders SS Traffic and the SS Nomadic which have to be used to transfer passengers from shore to ship because Cherbourg lacks docking facilities for a ship the size of RMS Titanic. An additional 274 passengers are taken aboard. Twenty-four passengers who have booked passage only cross-channel from Southampton leave aboard the tenders to be conveyed to shore. The process is completed in about 90 minutes. At 8:00 PM RMS Titanic weighs anchor and departs for Queenstown on the south coast of Ireland with arrival scheduled late the following morning.

(Pictured: RMS Titanic departing the Southampton docks on April 10, 1912)


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The Sinking of the PS Queen Victoria

ps-queen-victoriaPS Queen Victoria, a paddle steamer built for the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company in 1838, hits the rocks near Howth, County Dublin in the early hours of February 15, 1853 with the loss of more than 80 passengers and crew.

Queen Victoria is built by Wilson shipbuilders of Glasgow, Scotland in 1838 for The City Of Dublin Steam Packet Company. She has a wooden hull, is 150 feet long and is powered by a two-cylinder steam engine.

The Queen Victoria leaves Liverpool on the night of February 14, 1853 with cargo and approximately 100 passengers. As it approaches the Irish coast at Howth it is hit by a snowstorm. It strikes Howth Head around 2:00 AM on February 15. The Captain backs the ship away from the Head in hopes of being able to navigate into the harbor. The damage to the ship is more extensive than the captain thinks and it quickly begins to fill with water. It drifts, dead in the water, and strikes below the Baily Lighthouse. It sinks 100 yards south of the lighthouse within 15 minutes of the second hit. Approximately 83 passengers and crew perish, including the Captain. One lifeboat, with 17 passengers, makes it to shore.

A subsequent Board of Trade inquiry blames the ship’s captain and first officer, as well as the lighthouse crew. A fog bell is supposed to have been installed in the lighthouse in 1846, seven years earlier, but is delayed due to costs of other construction projects. The bell is finally installed in April 1853, as a result of the Queen Victoria shipwreck and the subsequent inquiry.

At least one attempt to raise the ship is made afterwards, which fails, and the ship is salvaged where she lay. The wreck is still in place.

Members of the Marlin Sun Aqua Club, Dublin discover the wreck in 1983. They report their discovery to the authorities, and are in part responsible for having the first Underwater Preservation Order placed on a shipwreck in Irish waters. They also carry out the first underwater survey on such a wreck. The wreck is the first to be protected by The National Monuments Act (Historic Wreck), when the order is granted in 1984, thanks to representations made by Kevin Crothers, IUART, and the Maritime Institute of Ireland.

(Pictured: PS Queen Victoria’s shipwreck as depicted in The Nation)


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Sinking of the SS Tuscania

ss-tuscaniaThe SS Tuscania, a luxury liner of the Cunard Line subsidiary Anchor Line converted for troop use, is torpedoed and sunk on February 5, 1918 off Rathlin Island, north of Ireland by the German U-boat UB-77. The ship is transporting over 2,000 American troops to the war in Europe. Over 200 people lose their lives.

SS Tuscania carries passengers between New York City and Glasgow while in service with the Anchor Line, on a route that had previously been assigned to her sister ship SS Transylvania. She continues to run this route even as World War I breaks out in Europe in August 1914 and Germany initiates a submarine campaign against merchant shipping in waters near the United Kingdom.

SS Tuscania makes international headlines for rescuing passengers and crew from the burning Greek steamer SS Athinai on September 20, 1915. In 1916, SS Tuscania is refitted and pressed into service as a troopship. She makes the news again in March 1917 by evading a submarine and a suspected Imperial German Navy armed merchant cruiser.

On January 24, 1918, SS Tuscania departs Hoboken, New Jersey, with 384 crew members and 2,013 United States Army personnel aboard. On the morning of February 5, 1918, she turns south for the North Channel en route to Liverpool. The German submarine UB-77 sights SS Tuscania′s convoy during the day and stalks it until early evening. Under the cover of darkness at about 6:40 PM, the submarine′s commanding officer, Korvettenkapitän Wilhelm Meyer, orders two torpedoes fired at SS Tuscania. The second of these strikes home, sending her to the bottom of the Irish Sea within about four hours. SS Tuscania sinks nearly three years to the day after her maiden voyage as a passenger liner. Approximately 210 of the troops and crew are lost, while many others are rescued by the Royal Navy destroyers HMS Mosquito and HMS Pigeon.

Three notable passengers who survive the sinking are British critic Sydney Brooks, Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, and Harry Randall Truman who later dies in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

The wreck of SS Tuscania lies between Scotland‘s Islay and Northern Ireland′s Rathlin Island, about 7 nautical miles north of Rathlin lighthouse, at roughly 55.41°N 06.185°W in 328 feet of water.


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Birth of Arctic Explorer Robert McClure

robert-mcclureSir Robert John Le Mesurier McClure, Irish explorer of the Arctic, is born in Wexford, County Wexford on January 28, 1807.

McClure is the posthumous son of one of James Abercrombie‘s captains, first cousin of Oscar Wilde and spends his childhood under the care of his godfather, General John Le Mesurier, governor of Alderney, by whom he is educated for the army. The McClures are of Highland Scots ancestry, being a sept of Clan MacLeod of Harris. He enters the navy, however, in 1824, and twelve years later gains his first experience of Arctic exploration as mate of HMS Terror in the expedition (1836–1837) commanded by Captain George Back.

Upon his return he obtains his commission as lieutenant, and from 1838 to 1839 serves on the Canadian lakes, being subsequently attached to the North American and West Indian naval stations, where he remains until 1846. Two years later he joins John Franklin‘s search expedition (1848–1849) under James Clark Ross as first lieutenant of HMS Enterprise.

After he returns from the first Franklin search expedition, a new search expedition is launched in 1850, with Richard Collinson commanding the HMS Enterprise and McClure, as his subordinate, given the command of HMS Investigator. The two ships set out from England, sail south on the Atlantic Ocean, navigate through the Strait of Magellan to the Pacific Ocean with the assistance of steam-sloop HMS Gorgon, where they become separated and have no further contact for the rest of their respective journeys.

The HMS Investigator sails north through the Pacific and enters the Arctic Ocean by way of the Bering Strait, and sails eastward past Point Barrow, Alaska to eventually link up with another British expedition from the northwest. Although the HMS Investigator is abandoned to the pack ice in the spring of 1853, McClure and his crew are rescued by a party from the HMS Resolute, one of the ships under the command of Sir Edward Belcher that are sailing from the east, after a journey over the ice by sledge. Subsequently he completes his journey across the Northwest Passage. HMS Resolute itself does not make it out of the Arctic that year and is abandoned in ice, but later recovered. The wood from that ship becomes quite famous later.

Thus, McClure and his crew are the first both to circumnavigate the Americas, and to transit the Northwest Passage, considerable feats at that time. The HMS Enterprise, meanwhile, having arrived at Point Barrow in 1850 a fortnight later than the HMS Investigator, finds its passage blocked by winter ice and has to turn back and return the following year.

Upon his return to England, in 1854, McClure is court martialed for the loss of the HMS Investigator, which is automatic when a captain loses his ship. Following an honourable acquittal, he is knighted and promoted to post-rank, his commission being dated back four years in recognition of his special services. McClure and his crew share a great monetary reward of £10,000 awarded them by the British Parliament. He subsequently is also awarded gold medals by the English and French geographical societies. In 1855 he is elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society.

From 1856 to 1861 McClure serves in Eastern waters, commanding the division of the Naval Brigade before Canton in 1858, for which he receives a CB in the following year. His latter years are spent in a quiet country life. He attains the rank of rear admiral in 1867, and of vice admiral in 1873. He dies on October 17, 1873 and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

McClure Strait is later named after Robert McClure, as well as the crater McClure on the Moon.


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Irish Ferries Protest

irish-ferries-protestNearly 150,000 people take to the streets on December 9, 2005, as the Irish Ferries protest mushrooms into the largest public demonstration the country has seen for two decades.

The national day of protest is called by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which is demanding Government action to combat exploitation of migrant workers and the displacement of jobs. There are rallies in Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Galway, Sligo, Athlone and Rosslare.

An Garda Síochána estimate that 40,000 people take part in the march in Dublin, although organisers claim the figure is far higher. Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin, Pat Rabbitte of the Labour Party and John Gormley of the Green Party participate in the march in the capital. Staff on board the MS Isle of Inismore in Pembroke and the four engineers holed up in the ships control room say they are overwhelmed by the level of support shown by marchers in the rallies.

Bus and rail services are disrupted during the protest but return to normal for evening rush hour.

The Irish Small & Medium Enterprises Association (ISME) strongly criticises the National Day of Protest. In a statement, ISME Chief Executive Mark Fielding says the protest is undermining the industrial relations process in this country and has very little to do with the Irish Ferries dispute and is in fact an attempt by the unions to influence negotiations in advance of any new national pay agreement.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland, Services Industrial Professional Technical Union (SIPTU) President Jack O’Connor says the rallies give workers the chance to take a stand.

Director General of the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) Turlough O’Sullivan says there is nothing to be gained from disrupting business and the general public. He adds that whatever one’s views on the Irish Ferries dispute, nothing can justify calling a national work stoppage when discussions are already underway in a bid to resolve the row.


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The Navigation Act 1651

The Navigation Act 1651 is passed on October 9, 1651, by the Rump Parliament led by Oliver Cromwell. It authorises the Commonwealth of England to regulate trade within the colonies. It reinforces a long-standing principle of government policy that English trade should be carried in English vessels. The Act is a reaction to the failure of the English diplomatic mission led by Oliver St. John and Walter Strickland to The Hague seeking a political union of the Commonwealth with the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, after the States of Holland had made some cautious overtures to Cromwell to counter the monarchical aspirations of stadtholder William II, Prince of Orange.

The stadtholder dies suddenly, however, and the States are now embarrassed by Cromwell taking the idea too seriously. The English propose the joint conquest of all remaining Spanish and Portuguese possessions. England would take America and the Dutch would take Africa and Asia. But the Dutch have just ended their war with Spain and already taken over most Portuguese colonies in Asia, so they see little advantage in this grandiose scheme and propose a free trade agreement as an alternative to a full political union. This again is unacceptable to the British, who would be unable to compete on such a level playing field, and is seen by them as a deliberate affront.

The Act bans foreign ships from transporting goods from outside Europe to England or its colonies, and bans third-party countries’ ships from transporting goods from a country elsewhere in Europe to England. These rules specifically target the Dutch, who control much of Europe’s international trade and even much of England’s coastal shipping. It excludes the Dutch from essentially all trade with England, as the Dutch economy is competitive with, not complementary to the English, and the two countries therefore exchange few commodities. This Anglo-Dutch trade, however, constitutes only a small fraction of total Dutch trade flows.

The Act is often mentioned as a major cause of the First Anglo-Dutch War, though it is only part of a larger British policy to engage in war after the negotiations have failed. The English naval victories in 1653 (the Battle of Portland, the Battle of the Gabbard and the Battle of Scheveningen) show the supremacy of the Commonwealth navy in home waters. However, farther afield the Dutch predominate and are able to close down English commerce in the Baltic and the Mediterranean. Both countries hold each other in a stifling embrace.

The Treaty of Westminster (1654) ends the impasse. The Dutch fail to have the Act repealed or amended, but it seems to have had relatively little influence on their trade. The Act offers England only limited solace. It cannot limit the deterioration of England’s overseas trading position, except in the cases where England herself is the principal consumer, such as the Canary Islands wine trade and the trade in Puglian olive oil. In the trade with the West Indies, the Dutch keep up a flourishing “smuggling” trade, thanks to the preference of English planters for Dutch import goods and the better deal the Dutch offer in the sugar trade. The Dutch colony of New Netherland offers a loophole through intercolonial trade wide enough to drive a shipload of Virginia tobacco through.

The 1651 Act, like other laws of the Commonwealth period, is declared void on the Restoration of Charles II of England, having been passed by “usurping powers.” Parliament therefore passes new legislation. This is generally referred to as the “Navigation Acts,” and, with some amendments, remains in force for nearly two centuries.