Irish Ships and Shipping
Sinking of the RMS Leinster and the loss of 501 lives
ON THE 10 OCTOBER 1918 AT 9.45AM THE MAIL BOAT LEINSTER
UNDER THE COMMAND OF CAPTAIN WILLIAM BIRCH ,WAS UNDER WAY TO HOLYHEAD WHEN JUST
OUTSIDE DUBLIN BAY SHE WAS HIT BY 3 TORPEDOES FIRED BY THE GERMAN U-BOAT UB-123.
The sinking of the Royal Mail Steamer Leinster, a short
distance from Dublin Bay in an operational area known as 'Square-72', occurred
during a period when events in Ireland and throughout the world were climaxing
with the end to a terrible conflict.
The Irish Rebellion was two years old and Home Rule was in
the balance. The end of the First World War was imminent, yet the German
submarine fleet was still desperately trying to salvage some honour by
continuing savage assaults on shipping. The conscription of Irish citizens had
been threatened almost daily, and in an effort to defeat the advancing German
Army and Navy, that giant of a nation - the USA - finally joined hands across
the water with their Allies in 1917.
This joint effort against a common enemy forged new
European-American friendships which survive to this day. It is also the
account of a government's reckless abandonment in its refusal to protect the
travelling public and a commercial shipping company's vessels at a time when it
could easily have done so.
The sinking of the Leinster remains to this day the
greatest disaster to befall Irish citizens travelling in Irish waters. This
remarkable episode, although remembered from time to time on various maritime
occasions, has not received the recognition due to it. Only very recently did
the owner of the Leinster's remains, Desmond Brannigan and several sub aqua
divers from the locality of Dun Laoghaire harbour rectify this lapse of memory.
With financial assistance from Stena Sealink, Irish Lights
and others later mentioned, they raised one of the wreck's anchors. Mounted
opposite the Carlisle Pier, it is a fitting reminder of the many local people
who served and travelled aboard the mail steamers and, in particular, to the 500
or more who lost their lives while travelling on the Leinster. The violence and
the unusually high death toll associated with this tragedy is still not
comprehended and is in dark contrast with the many pleasant and tranquil
Victorian depictions of the Mail Boats exhibited throughout Dun Laoghaire's
hotels, pubs and banks.
Ireland was a country whose conscience was in conflict. On
the one hand, it despised the British occupation, but on the other, many who
were not fighting in foreign parts in defence of the Realm could be found
working all the hours God could send, fitting and repairing the British Fleet,
producing munitions and generally supporting the War Effort.
Although submarine attacks in the Irish Sea were not
unheard of, their casualties were generally perceived to be small. This
complacency within Ireland was shattered when it received the unbelievable news
of the sinking of the mail boat Leinster by a German submarine on 10 October,
1918. When the bodies began to come ashore, Ireland gasped at the scale of the
disaster that was revealed.
To many it came as a complete surprise, but to the seamen on the route and
the Ministry Of Defence, it had been inevitable. Indeed, it had been almost a
miracle that these mail steamers had escaped until then. The protection of the
mail boats was the responsibility of Flag Captain Gordon Campbell VC
who commanded the Irish Sea Flotilla and, although not his only worry, he
expressed the view that the loss of a mail steamer would be considered a
The loss of the Leinster also marked the demise of its
owners, the City of Dublin Steam Packet Co., which had been in the steam packet
business since 1823.
This ship was the second in its quartet of famous mail
steamers to be lost in the War and was the final nail in a coffin that made
trading unsustainable. Despite extremely difficult and sometimes discriminatory
operating parameters, this company produced excellent vessels that served Dublin
and the cross-channel ferry service well. Shortly after the end of the War, and
probably because of it, this company which had pioneered technical innovations
in all of its vessels and upheld the highest standards in a very popular
service, faded into obscurity.
Although in relative terms, this tragedy was far greater
than that of the much publicised Titanic and Lusitania, it has received
comparatively little publicity.
are tempted to remember this War in terms of our grandparents and the stories
they passed on to us as children. But they were the survivors. Those who died in
terrible conditions in godforsaken places were no more than boys and
they were killed in their millions.
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