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'Devastation on both sides of the Atlantic': 100 years on from Ireland's worst maritime disaster

More than 500 people died when the RMS Leinster was sunk by three torpedoes in 1918.

The anchor of the RMS Leinster in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin
The anchor of the RMS Leinster in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin
Image: Philip Lecane/PA Archive/PA Images

AN OFFICIAL COMMEMORATION to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Royal Mail Steamer (RMS) Leinster will take place in Dublin in October.

More than 500 people died in the incident, making it the worst-ever maritime disaster in the Irish Sea.

Shortly before 9am on Thursday, 10 October 1918, the RMS Leinster began its final voyage from Carlisle Pier in Dún Laoghaire (then Kingstown) to Holyhead in Wales.

The ship was owned and operated by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. An estimated 771 passengers and crew were on board, comprising postal sorters, civilian passengers, military and medical personnel, and the ship’s crew.

Between 9.30am and 9.40am, the ship passed the Kish Bank Lighthouse. Shortly afterwards, it was sunk by three torpedoes fired by the German submarine UB-123.

Plans for the commemorative event, which will take place in Dún Laoghaire on Wednesday 10 October, were announced during the week. Members of the Defence Forces will take part in the formal commemoration and wreath-laying ceremony.

This is also the date on which the vessel will come under the protection of the National Monuments Acts, which covers all shipwrecks over 100 years old.

Speaking about the incident, Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan noted: “This tragedy took place one month and one day before the signing of the armistice that ended the fighting in World War I and it remains the greatest maritime disaster ever to have occurred in the Irish Sea.

“Over 500 people perished, including members of the ship’s crew, postal sorters, civilian passengers and military, medical and support personnel involved in the war effort.”

‘Families were devastated’

Madigan said families and communities on both sides of the Irish Sea and as far afield as America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, were “devastated by this tragedy”.

Madigan said “an immense humanitarian response was mobilised following the tragedy”, adding that the rescue services and nursing and medical personnel involved in this effort will also be honoured at the event, as will the 35 members of the crew of the UB-123, who themselves were killed one week later.

The minister thanked all those who “worked so hard to ensure that the stories of all of those who were on board the RMS Leinster when she embarked upon her final journey are not forgotten”, adding: “Their stories have, for too long, been hidden and unspoken.”

Madigan also acknowledged the efforts of the late owner of the RMS Leinster, Des Brannigan, who “was committed to protecting the ship”. He was one of the founders of the National Maritime Museum in Dún Laoghaire.

“As we mark the centenary of this tragedy, we have developed an appreciation of the complex narratives around Ireland’s involvement in World War I and a mature understanding of the context of that time,” Madigan said.

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Órla Ryan

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