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100 years on, victims of naval vessel which sank off Donegal remembered

The ship sank on 25 January 1917, killing 354 of the people on board.

Martin Moloney, who as a crew member on board the SS Laurentis before it sank.
Martin Moloney, who as a crew member on board the SS Laurentis before it sank.
Image: Anne Clarke

THE SS LAURENTIC sank off the coast of Donegal 100 years ago on Thursday.

There were 475 people on board at the time, when the British vessel struck mines left by a German U-Boat on 25 January 1917. Only 121 survived, with 354 dying at sea.

It had made an unscheduled stop at Buncrana and set off again when it was struck by the mines just off Lough Swilly. It only took around 20 minutes for the ship to go down.

As well as carrying hundreds of passengers, it was carrying an estimated 43 tonnes of gold ingots at the time of its sinking, around £300 million worth.

Local fishermen managed to rescue the survivors, although many who’d made it to the lifeboats had died due to extreme cold weather that evening.

The passenger boat had been converted into an armed merchant cruiser during the war, and had been operated by White Star Line, the company most famous for its ill-fated Titanic.

Irish victims

One crew member was Irishman Martin Moloney, who had joined the British Navy around the outbreak of World War One.

His great granddaughter, Anne Clarke, told TheJournal.ie that Martin has always been a source of pride for the family, ahead of events this weekend.

She said: “He was one of the unlucky ones. My father would always tell stories about him. The ship had set off bound for Canada to bring soldiers home, but stopped off at Buncrana after members of the crew fell ill with yellow fever.”

The ship stopped briefly in Buncrana, while some of the sick seafarers exited and received treatment.

anne clarke The SS Laurentis Source: Anne Clarke

There had been reports of U-Boats in the area, and the SS Laurentis was only a couple of hours from Buncrana when it hit the mine.

One of the mines hit the engine room, cutting power to the ship. This made it difficult for crew to quickly lower the lifeboats or for the ship to issue a distress call.

“It was bitterly cold that night,” Clarke said. “A lot of the men who made it onto lifeboats didn’t survive long enough to be found.”

While 354 in total lost their lives, the Captain managed to make survive despite being the last to leave the ship.

Afterwards, he was quoted in the New York Times: “The officers and men lived up to the best traditions of the navy…The deaths were all due to exposure, owing to the coldness of the night.

My own (life)boat was almost full of water when we were picked up by a trawler the next morning, but all the men in the boat survived.

Rumours around the lost treasure trove of gold persisted for many years, with divers plunging the depths to try and recover the gold. There are still 22 gold bars yet to be recovered, at the bottom of the sea at Lough Swilly.

It is believed that the gold was intended to help fund the British war effort, by purchasing munitions from the USA which had not yet joined the Allies.

Paying tribute

Ronan McConnell, education officer with Derry City and Strabane District Council, told Highland Radio that the Mayor of Derry would welcome people in for lunch at Guildhall just as the Mayor did for survivors of the tragedy at the time, to commemorate the anniversary.

“The survivors were treated very well by the people of the North-West in general,” McConnell said.

The survivors posed with the Mayor for a picture at the time, and this was recreated at the lunch event during the week.

eileen Source: Eileen Magnier/Twitter

He also called on the public to come forward with any artifacts or mementos from the time. ”Many have come forward with stories to go along with these artifacts,” he added.

One man from Buncrana had come forward with a brass knocker which was purportedly from the captain’s quarters on the ship.

This man’s grandfather had been a handyman in Buncrana. He was among some men brought on board when the ship originally docked, and the captain told him “It might be better hanging on your door than at the bottom of the sea,” a statement which turned out to be quite prophetic.

Crana College also marked the anniversary, with transition year students learning about the tragedy and making a video on what they learned.

Source: Kevin Cooley/YouTube

BBC Radio Foyle paid this tribute on the centenary, with the “Laurentic Lament” playing in the background.

Derry’s Tower Museum is hosting a free exhibition on the ship, which will last until June this year.

Relatives of those who’d been on the ship, particularly from Canada, attended the launch of the exhibition this week.

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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