seamus dubhghaill

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


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The Sinking of the RMS Lusitania

The Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania is sunk by German U-boat U-20 eleven miles off the Old Head of Kinsale on May 7, 1915 during World War I.

On the morning of May 6, RMS Lusitania is 750 miles west of southern Ireland. By 5:00 AM on May 7 she reaches a point 120 miles west southwest of Fastnet Rock off the southern tip of Ireland, where she meets the patrolling boarding vessel Partridge. By 6:00 AM, heavy fog has arrived and extra lookouts are posted. As the ship comes closer to Ireland, Captain William Thomas Turner orders depth soundings to be made and at 8:00 AM for speed to be reduced to eighteen knots, then to 15 knots and for the foghorn to be sounded. Some of the passengers are disturbed that the ship appears to be advertising her presence. By 10:00 AM the fog begins to lift and by noon it has been replaced by bright sunshine over a clear smooth sea. The RMS Lusitania increases speed to 18 knots.

U-20 surfaces at 12:45 PM as visibility is now excellent. At 1:20 PM something is sighted and Kapitänleutnant  Walther Schwieger is summoned to the conning tower. At first it appears to be several ships because of the number of funnels and masts, but this resolves into one large steamer appearing over the horizon. At 1:25 PM the submarine submerges to periscope depth of 11 metres and sets a course to intercept the liner at her maximum submerged speed of 9 knots. When the ships have closed to 2 miles RMS Lusitania turns away. Schwieger fears he has lost his target, but she turns again, this time onto a near ideal course to bring her into position for an attack. At 2:10 PM with the target at 700m range he orders one gyroscopic torpedo to be fired, set to run at a depth of three metres.

The U-20‘s torpedo officer, Raimund Weisbach, views the destruction through the vessel’s periscope and feels the explosion is unusually severe. Within six minutes, RMS Lusitania‘s forecastle begins to submerge.

On board the RMS Lusitania, Leslie Morton, an eighteen-year-old lookout at the bow, spots thin lines of foam racing toward the ship. He shouts, “Torpedoes coming on the starboard side!” through a megaphone, thinking the bubbles come from two projectiles. The torpedo strikes RMS Lusitania under the bridge, sending a plume of debris, steel plating and water upward and knocking lifeboat number five off its davits. A second, more powerful explosion follows, sending a geyser of water, coal, dust, and debris high above the deck. Schwieger’s log entries attest that he had only launched one torpedo. Some doubt the validity of this claim, contending that the German government subsequently alters the published fair copy of Schwieger’s log, but accounts from other U-20 crew members corroborate it. The entries are also consistent with intercepted radio reports sent to Germany by U-20 once she has returned to the North Sea, before any possibility of an official coverup.

At 2:12 PM Captain Turner orders Quartermaster Johnston stationed at the ship’s wheel to steer “hard-a-starboard” towards the Irish coast, which Johnston confirms, but the ship can not be steadied on the course and rapidly ceases to respond to the wheel. Turner signals for the engines to be reversed to halt the ship, but although the signal is received in the engine room, nothing can be done. Steam pressure collapses from 195 PSI before the explosion, to 50 PSI and falling afterwards. RMS Lusitania‘s wireless operator sends out an immediate SOS, which is acknowledged by a coastal wireless station. Shortly afterward he transmits the ship’s position, 10 miles (16 km) south of the Old Head of Kinsale. At 2:14 PM electrical power fails, plunging the cavernous interior of the ship into darkness. Radio signals continue on emergency batteries, but electric lifts fail, trapping passengers and crew. Bulkhead doors closed as a precaution before the attack can not be reopened to release trapped men.

About one minute after the electrical power fails, Captain Turner gives the order to abandon ship. Water has flooded the ship’s starboard longitudinal compartments, causing a 15-degree list to starboard.

RMS Lusitania‘s severe starboard list complicates the launch of her lifeboats. Ten minutes after the torpedoing, when she has slowed enough to start putting boats in the water, the lifeboats on the starboard side swing out too far to step aboard safely. While it is still possible to board the lifeboats on the port side, lowering them presents a different problem. As is typical for the period, the hull plates of RMS Lusitania are riveted, and as the lifeboats are lowered they drag on the inch high rivets, which threatens to seriously damage the boats before they land in the water.

Many lifeboats overturn while loading or lowering, spilling passengers into the sea. Others are overturned by the ship’s motion when they hit the water. RMS Lusitania has 48 lifeboats, more than enough for all the crew and passengers, but only six are successfully lowered, all from the starboard side. A few of her collapsible lifeboats wash off her decks as she sinks and provides floatation for some survivors.

There is panic and disorder on the decks. Schwieger has been observing this through U-20‘s periscope, and by 2:25 PM, he drops the periscope and heads out to sea.

Captain Turner is on the deck near the bridge clutching the ship’s logbook and charts when a wave sweeps upward towards the bridge and the rest of the ship’s forward superstructure, knocking him overboard into the sea. He manages to swim and find a chair floating in the water which he clings to. He survives, having been pulled unconscious from the water after spending three hours there. RMS Lusitania‘s bow slams into the bottom about 330 feet below at a shallow angle because of her forward momentum as she sinks. Along the way, some boilers explode, including one that causes the third funnel to collapse. The remaining funnels collapse soon after. The ship travels about two miles from the time of the torpedoing to her final resting place, leaving a trail of debris and people behind. After her bow sinks completely, RMS Lusitania‘s stern rises out of the water, enough for her propellers to be visible, and then goes under.

RMS Lusitania sinks in only 18 minutes. It takes several hours for help to arrive from the Irish coast and by that time many in the 52° F water have succumbed to the cold. By the days’ end, 764 passengers and crew from the RMS Lusitania are rescued and land at Queenstown. Eventually, the final death toll for the disaster comes to a catastrophic number. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew aboard RMS Lusitania at the time of her sinking, 1,195 have been lost.

In the days following the disaster, the Cunard line offers local fishermen and sea merchants a cash reward for the bodies floating all throughout the Irish Sea, some floating as far away as the Welsh coast. In all, only 289 bodies are recovered, 65 of which are never identified. The bodies of many of the victims are buried at either Queenstown, where 148 bodies are interred in the Old Church Cemetery, or the Church of St. Multose in Kinsale. The bodies of the remaining 885 victims are never recovered.


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Birth of Engineer John Philip Holland

john-philip-hollandJohn Philip Holland, Irish engineer who develops the first submarine to be formally commissioned by the U.S. Navy, and the first Royal Navy submarine, HMS Holland 1, is born on February 24, 1841.

Holland, the second of four siblings, all boys, is born in a coastguard cottage in Liscannor, County Clare, where his father, John Philip Holland, Sr., is a member of the British Coastguard Service. His mother, a native Irish speaker from Liscannor, Máire Ní Scannláin, is John Holland’s second wife. His first wife, Anne Foley Holland, believed to be a native of Kilkee, dies in 1835. The area is heavily Irish-speaking and Holland learns English properly only when he attends the local English-speaking St. Macreehy’s National School, and from 1858, in the Christian Brothers in Ennistymon.

Holland joins the Irish Christian Brothers in Limerick and teaches in CBS Sexton Street in Limerick and many other centres in the country, including North Monastery CBS in Cork, St. Joseph’s CBS in Drogheda, and as the first Mathematics teacher in Coláiste Rís in Dundalk. Due to ill health, he leaves the Christian Brothers in 1873 and emigrates to the United States. Initially working for an engineering firm, he returns to teaching again for an additional six years in St. John’s Catholic school in Paterson, New Jersey.

While a teacher in Cork, Holland reads an account of the battle between the ironclads USS Monitor and USS Merrimack in the Battle of Hampton Roads during the American Civil War. He realizes that the best way to attack such ships would be through an attack beneath the waterline. He draws a design, but when he attempts to obtain funding, he is turned away. After his arrival in the United States, Holland slips and falls on an icy Boston street and breaks a leg. While recuperating from the injury in a hospital, he uses his time to refine his submarine designs and is encouraged by a priest, Isaac Whelan.

In 1875, his first submarine designs are submitted for consideration by the U.S. Navy, but are turned down as unworkable. The Fenians, however, continue to fund Holland’s research and development expenses at a level that allows him to resign from his teaching post. In 1881, Fenian Ram is launched, but soon after, Holland and the Fenians part company on bad terms over the issue of payment within the Fenian organization, and between the Fenians and Holland. The submarine is now preserved at Paterson Museum in New Jersey.

Holland continues to improve his designs and works on several experimental boats, prior to his successful efforts with a privately built type, launched on May 17, 1897. This is the first submarine having power to run submerged for any considerable distance, and the first to combine electric motors for submerged travel and gasoline engines for use on the surface. The submarine is purchased by the U.S. Navy on April 11, 1900, after rigorous tests and is commissioned on October 12, 1900 as USS Holland (SS-1). Six more of her type are ordered and built at the Crescent Shipyard in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The company that emerges from under these developments is called The Electric Boat Company, founded on February 7, 1899. Isaac Leopold Rice becomes the company’s first President with Elihu B. Frost acting as vice president and chief financial officer. The company eventually evolves into the major defense contractor General Dynamics.

The USS Holland design is also adopted by others, including the Royal Navy in developing the Holland-class submarine. The Imperial Japanese Navy employs a modified version of the basic design for their first five submarines, although these submarines are at least 10 feet longer at about 63 feet. These submarines are also developed at the Fore River Ship and Engine Company in Quincy, Massachusetts. Holland also designs the Holland II and Holland III prototypes. The Royal Navy ‘Holland 1’ is on display at the Submarine Museum in Gosport, England.

After spending 56 of his 73 years working with submersibles, John Philip Holland dies on August 12, 1914 in Newark, New Jersey. He is interred at the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Totowa, New Jersey.


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Sinking of the MV Princess Victoria

mv-princess-victoriaMV Princess Victoria, one of the earliest roll-on/roll-off ferries, sinks on January 31, 1953, in the North Channel during a severe European windstorm with the loss of 133 lives. It is then the deadliest maritime disaster in United Kingdom waters since World War II.

Princess Victoria is built in 1947 by William Denny and Brothers, Dumbarton. She is the first purpose-built ferry of her kind to operate in British coastal waters and could hold 1,500 passengers plus cargo and had sleeping accommodations for 54.

Captained by James Ferguson, the vessel leaves Stranraer‘s railway loading pier at 7:45 AM on January 31, 1953 with 44 tons of cargo, 128 passengers, and 51 crew. Captain Ferguson has served as master on various ferries on the same route for seventeen years. A gale warning is in force but he makes the decision to put to sea. Loch Ryan is a sheltered inlet and the immediate force of the wind and sea is not apparent, but it is noted that spray is breaking over the stern doors. A “guillotine door” has been fitted, because of a previously identified problem with spray and waves hitting the stern doors, but it is rarely used, because it takes too long to raise and lower. This would provide extra protection for the sliding stern doors but on this occasion it is not lowered.

Shortly after clearing the mouth of Loch Ryan, the ship turns west towards Larne, County Antrim, Northern Ireland and exposes her stern to the worst of the high seas. Huge waves damage the low stern doors, allowing water to enter the car deck. The crew struggles to close the doors again but they prove to be too badly damaged and water continues to flood in from the waves. The scuppers do not appear to be allowing the water to drain away. The ship takes a list to starboard and at this point Captain Ferguson decides to retreat to the safety of Loch Ryan by going astern and using the bow rudder. This proves to be impossible, because the extreme conditions prevent the deckhands from releasing the securing pin on the bow rudder. Ferguson then makes a decision to try to reach Northern Ireland by adopting a course which keeps the stern of the craft sheltered from the worst of the elements. At 9:46 AM, two hours after leaving Stranraer, a message is transmitted in Morse code (the Princess Victoria does not have a radio telephone) by radio operator David Broadfoot to the Portpatrick Radio Station: “Hove-to off mouth of Loch Ryan. Vessel not under command. Urgent assistance of tugs required.”

With a list to starboard exacerbated by shifting cargo, water continues to enter the ship. At 10:32 AM an SOS transmission is made, and the order to abandon is given at 2:00 PM. Possibly the first warship in the area is HMS Launceston Castle, commanded by Lt. Cdr J M Cowling, a frigate which is en route to Derry. Searches are carried out but Launceston Castle is forced to leave when her condensers are contaminated by salt. Upon the upgrade of the assistance message to an SOS, the Portpatrick Lifeboat the Jeannie Spiers is dispatched, as is the destroyer HMS Contest. Contest, commanded by Lt. Commander HP Fleming, leaves Rothesay at 11:09 AM but, although she comes close to her position at 1:30 PM, poor visibility prevents the crew from seeing the sinking ship. The destroyer has been trying to maintain a speed of 31 knots to reach the listing ferry but, after sustaining damage from the seas, Captain Fleming is forced to reduce speed to 16 knots.

The Princess Victoria is still reporting her position as 5 miles northwest of Corsewall Point but her engines are still turning and even at the speed of 5 knots are gradually drawing the vessel closer to Northern Ireland and away from her reported position. At 1:08 PM, the ship broadcasts that her engines have stopped. The final morse code message at 1:58 PM reports the ship “on her beam end” five miles east of the Copeland Islands.

The Court of Enquiry into the sinking, held in March 1953 at Crumlin Road Courthouse in Belfast, finds that the Princess Victoria was lost due to a combination of factors. In a 30,000 page report the enquiry finds that firstly, the stern doors are not sufficiently robust. Secondly, arrangements for clearing water from the car deck are inadequate. The report concludes “If the Princess Victoria had been as staunch as those who manned her, then all would have been well and the disaster averted.” The court also notes the failure of the duty destroyer HMS Tenacious from the 3rd Training Squadron based at HMS Sea Eagle at Londonderry Port to be able to put to sea as too many men had been released on shore leave. As a consequence of the enquiry the duty destroyer from the 3rd Squadron is subsequently based “on station” at the mouth of Lough Foyle on one hour readiness to put to sea.

The wreck lay undiscovered until 1992 when a team from Cromarty Firth Diving, led by John MacKenzie and funded by the BBC, working from data provided by a Royal Navy seabed survey carried out in 1973, are able to locate it five miles north northeast of the Copeland Islands in 90 metres of water. Video footage and stills from this expedition are transmitted on a BBC programme called Home Truths (Things Don’t Happen to Boats Like This) on the 40th anniversary of the sinking in 1993.


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Construction Begins on the Royal Canal

royal-canal-old-mill-dublinConstruction begins on the Royal Canal on October 24, 1789. The canal is originally built for freight and passenger transportation from the River Liffey in Dublin to Longford.

In 1755, Thomas Williams and John Cooley make a survey to find a suitable route for a man-made waterway across north Leinster from Dublin to the River Shannon. They originally plan to use a series of rivers and lakes, including the Boyne, Blackwater, Deel, Yellow, Camlin, and Inny and Lough Derravaragh.

Work commences in 1789 and lasts 27 years before finally reaching the River Shannon in 1817, at a total cost of £1,421,954. Construction is unexpectedly expensive and the project is riven with problems. In 1794 the Royal Canal Company is declared bankrupt. The Duke of Leinster, a board member, insists that the new waterway take in his local town of Maynooth. The builders have to deviate from the planned route and necessitate the construction of a ‘deep sinking’ between Blanchardstown and Clonsilla. The diversion also calls for the building of the Ryewater Aqueduct, at Leixlip.

royal-canal-kinnegadThe canal passes through Maynooth, Kilcock, Enfield, Mullingar and Ballymahon has a spur to Longford. The total length of the main navigation is 145 kilometres (90 miles), and the system has 46 locks. There is one main feeder, from Lough Owel, which enters the canal at Mullingar.

In 200 years it has been maintained by eight successive agencies – the Royal Canal Company, the Commissioners of Inland Navigation, the New Royal Canal Company, Midland Great Western Railway Company, Great Southern Railways, CIÉ, and the Office of Public Works.

The canal falls into disrepair in the late 20th century, but much of the canal has since been restored for navigation. The length of the canal to the River Shannon is reopened on October 1, 2010, but the final spur branch of the canal to Longford Town remains closed.

(Pictured: Royal Canal as it enters Dublin city centre (left) and Royal Canal in rural County Westmeath north of Kinnegad (right)


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Harland & Wolff Cranes Listed as Historic Monuments

samson-and-goliathSamson and Goliath, the twin shipbuilding gantry cranes situated in the shipyard of Harland & Wolff at Queen’s Island, Belfast, are listed on October 9, 2003, as historic monuments to ensure their preservation. The cranes, which are named after the Biblical figures Samson and Goliath, dominate the Belfast skyline and are landmark structures of the city.

The cranes are constructed by the German engineering firm Krupp, with Goliath being completed in 1969 and Samson in 1974. Goliath, the smaller of the cranes, stands 315 feet tall, while Samson stands 348 feet in height. Goliath sits slightly further inland closer to Belfast City. At the time Harland & Wolff is one of the largest shipbuilders in the world. The announcement that they are to be built is an important event at the time.

Each crane has a span of 459 feet and can lift loads of up to 840 tonnes to a height of 230 feet, making a combined lifting capacity of over 1,600 tonnes, one of the largest in the world. Prior to commissioning, the cranes are tested up to 1,000 tonnes, which bends the gantry downwards by over 12 inches. The dry dock at the base of the cranes is the largest in the world measuring 1,824 feet × 305 feet.

At its height, Harland & Wolff boasts 35,000 employees and a healthy order book, but in the years following the construction of the cranes, the workforce and business declines. The last ship to be launched at the yard to date is a roll-on/roll-off ferry in March 2003. Since then the yard has restructured itself to focus less on shipbuilding and more on design and structural engineering, as well as ship repair, offshore construction projects and competing for other projects to do with metal engineering and construction. Initially there is concern that the now largely redundant cranes would be demolished. However, on October 9, 2003 they are scheduled as historic monuments under Article 3 of the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.

Northern Ireland Office Minister of the time Angela Smith states, “These cranes are an essential part of our city, our roots and our culture.” The cranes are not, technically, “listed buildings,” but are recognised by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency as buildings of “architectural or historic interest.”

Shipbuilding has ceased in Belfast, but the cranes are retained as part of the existing dry dock facility within the restructured shipyard, situated adjacent to the Titanic Quarter, a business, light industrial, leisure, and residential development on land now surplus to the heavy industrial requirements of the shipyard on Queen’s Island. They are kept in working order and used for heavy lifting by Harland & Wolff in its other activities.


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The Jeanie Johnston Begins 4-Month Voyage Around Ireland

jeanie-johnstonThe Jeanie Johnston, a replica of a three-masted barque that was originally built in 1847 in Quebec, Canada, by the Scottish-born shipbuilder John Munn, begins a four-month voyage around Ireland on June 9, 2004.

The original Jeanie Johnston makes her maiden emigrant voyage on April 24, 1848, from Blennerville, County Kerry to Quebec with 193 emigrants on board who are fleeing the effects of the Great Famine that is ravaging Ireland. Between 1848 and 1855, the Jeanie Johnston makes sixteen voyages to North America, sailing to Quebec, Baltimore, and New York. Ships that transport emigrants out of Ireland during this period become known as “famine ships” or “coffin ships.”

The project to build a replica is conceived in the late 1980s, but does not become a reality until November 1993 when a feasibility study is completed. In May 1995, The Jeanie Johnston (Ireland) Company Ltd. is incorporated. The ship is designed by Fred Walker, former Chief Naval Architect with the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.

The original plans are to launch the ship from her shipyard in Blennerville, but a 19th-century shipwreck is discovered by marine archaeologists while a channel is being dredged. To preserve the find, on April 19, 2000 the hull of the Jeanie Johnston is hauled to the shore and loaded onto a shallow-draft barge. There she is fitted with masts and sails, and on May 4 is transported to Fenit, a short distance away. On May 6 the barge is submerged and the Jeanie Johnston takes to the water for the first time. The next day she is officially christened by President Mary McAleese.

In 2003, the replica Jeanie Johnston sails from Tralee to Canada and the United States visiting 32 U.S. and Canadian cities and attracting over 100,000 visitors.

The replica is currently owned by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority who bought it in 2005 for a reported 2.7 million Euro, which were used to clear outstanding loans on the vessel guaranteed by Tralee Town Council and Kerry County Council. It is docked at Custom House Quay in the centre of Dublin.


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Sinking of the RMS Titanic

The RMS Titanic, four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City, sinks in the north Atlantic Ocean at 2:20 AM on the morning of April 15, 1912, after striking an iceberg just before midnight on April 14.

Titanic, the largest ship afloat at the time it enters service on April 2, 1912, is the second of three Olympic class ocean liners operated by the White Star Line, and is built by the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Titanic‘s maiden voyage, commanded by 62-year-old Captain Edward John Smith, begins shortly after noon on April 10, 1912 when she leaves Southampton on the first leg of her journey to New York City. A few hours later she reaches Cherbourg in France, where she takes on passengers. Her next port of call is Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland, which she reaches around midday on April 11. After taking on more passengers and stores, Titanic departs in the afternoon with an estimated 2,224 people on board.

Titanic receives six warnings of sea ice on April 14 but is traveling near her maximum speed when her lookouts sight the iceberg. Unable to turn quickly enough, the ship suffers a glancing blow that buckles her starboard side and opens five of her sixteen compartments to the sea. Titanic has been designed to stay afloat with four of her forward compartments flooded but not more, and the crew soon realises that the ship is going to sink. They use distress flares and wireless radio messages to attract help as the passengers are put into lifeboats. However, in accordance with existing practice, Titanic‘s lifeboat system is designed to ferry passengers to nearby rescue vessels, not to hold everyone on board simultaneously. With the ship sinking quickly and help still hours away, there is no safe refuge for many of the passengers and crew. Compounding this, poor management of the evacuation means many boats are launched before they are totally full.

At about 2:15 AM, Titanic‘s angle in the water begins to increase rapidly as water pours into previously unflooded parts of the ship through deck hatches. Her suddenly increasing angle causes a giant wave to wash along the ship from the forward end of the boat deck, sweeping many people into the sea. Titanic‘s stern lifts high into the air as the ship tilts down in the water, reaching an angle of 30–45 degrees. After another minute, the ship’s lights flicker once and then permanently go out, plunging Titanic into darkness. Shortly after the lights go out, the ship splits apart at one of the weakest points in the structure, the area of the engine room hatch. The submerged bow likely remains attached to the stern by the keel for a short time, pulling the stern to a high angle before separating and leaving the stern to float for a few minutes longer. The forward part of the stern floods very rapidly, causing it to tilt and then settle briefly before sinking.

Titanic sinks with over a thousand passengers and crew still on board. Almost all those who jump or fall into the water die from hypothermia within minutes. RMS Carpathia arrives on the scene about 90 minutes after the sinking and has rescued the last of the survivors by 9:15 AM on April 15, some nine and a half hours after the collision with the iceberg.

The death toll has been put at 1,513, including many Irish, although the number of casualties remains somewhat unclear due to a number of factors, including confusion over the passenger list, which includes some names of people who cancelled their trip at the last minute, and the fact that several passengers traveled under aliases for various reasons and were double-counted on the casualty lists.

The disaster causes widespread outrage over the lack of lifeboats, lax regulations, and the unequal treatment of the three passenger classes during the evacuation. Subsequent inquiries recommend sweeping changes to maritime regulations, leading to the establishment in 1914 of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which still governs maritime safety today.