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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 23 October, 2019
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'A terrible loss': How Ireland plans to mark its worst maritime disaster

The ship was torpedoed by a German submarine on 10 October 1918.

Image: Philip Lecane/PA Images

SHORTLY AFTER THE RMS Leinster set sail from Carlisle Pier in Dún Laoghaire for Holyhead in Wales on Thursday 10 October 1918, it was struck by three torpedoes from a German submarine.

Over 500 people perished in the highest ever loss of Irish life at sea.

One hundred years later, the civilians and military who died are being commemorated by a series of events in Dún Laoghaire.

‘Tragedy’

The RMS Leinster sank just 22 kilometres off the coast of Dún Laoghaire (then Kingstown) one month before the First World War ended.

On board were 771 people, among them civilians, postal workers and military personnel from around the world, including the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, returning to fight in the war.  

On Wednesday at 7am, the LE Eithne will sail out of Dún Laoghaire harbour to the site of the sinking for a wreath-laying ceremony, the start of a day of official state commemorations. 

Later that day, the vessel will come under the protection of the National Monuments Act, which covers all shipwrecks over 100 years old. At Pearse Street Library at 6pm, historian James Scannell will deliver a talk on the torpedoing of the RMS Leinster. 

More Irish people died when the ship sank than did when the Titanic sank (78) in 1913. Or when the Lusitania sank (140) in 1914.

To mark the centenary of the tragedy a series of exhibitions are also taking place.

A new art exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Dún Laoghaire features 18 steel sculptures by artist Philip Murphy.

In attempting to “capture the enormity of the tragedy” artist Murphy has said that he was influenced by the First World War poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. 

A list of names of those who died in the tragedy as well as items recovered from the vessel will be on display at the museum, too. 

These include a brass spittoon from the wreck and a silver pocket watch given to fireman William Maher by passenger Dorothy Toppin for saving her life. 

Other items included in the exhibition are galley keys and a letter retrieved from the sea and subsequently delivered to the addressee in Canada. 

‘A terrible loss’

Another exhibition for those travelling to Dún Laoghaire this week tells the story of Des Branigan, who helped found the museum.

A trade unionist, archaeological diver and maritime historian, Branigan assisted in bringing the anchor of the Leinster ashore to Dún Laoghaire where it is currently displayed. 

A scale-model of the RMS Leinster, formerly held in the shop of survivor Tom Connolly in Patrick Street near the museum, will also feature. 

St John Ambulance equipment and uniforms used in the rescue of people from the Leinster will be on display.

Family research facilities also form part of the centenary commemorations for which An Post plans to release a postage stamp.

Postal sorters were the first to be killed aboard the RMS Leinster. When the first torpedo struck the ship it hit the postal sorting office killing all but one of the postmen.

Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, has said that the memory of the sinking is important to today’s defence forces.

The sinking of the RMS Leinster resulted in a terrible loss of life that people still remember and remark upon, with a particular poignancy that it came so close to the end of the war. 

The centenary exhibition is on display at the museum until 21 October.

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