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The Sinking of RMS Lusitania, 1915

Raimund Weisbach followed the trajectory of the torpedo through his periscope from the U-boat where he was based. It shot off like a dolphin in a perfect straight line towards its target. And then the 19-year-old German watch officer watched as the gyroscopic torpedo struck home, sending a huge column of water and debris high above the ship. [i] Moments later there was a second explosion and the mighty Lusitania lurched. Within 18 minutes, the ocean-liner had sunk beneath the waves. 1,197 of its 1,960 passengers and crew died in the attack.

Sir Hugh Lane was standing on the first class deck looking out to his County Cork homeland when the torpedo struck. Considered one of the finest art connoisseurs in the world, the 39-year-old Director of the National Gallery of Ireland was returning from a trip to the USA, brimming with ideas for the artists he championed such as Jack Butler Yeats, Sir John Lavery and his good friend William Orpen. His trip had been a positive one and he had sold two paintings to the American art collector Henry Clay Frick in New York, namely ‘The Man in the Red Cap’ by Titian, and the famous portrait of ‘Thomas Cromwell’ by Hans Holbein the Younger. He was also undoubtedly looking forward to a catch up with his aunt Lady Gregory, co-founder the Abbey Theatre.

As Lusitania powered along the Irish coast, Sir Hugh may also have spared a thought for the engineer Charles Parsons of Birr, County Offaly, who designed the ships’ engines. Revolutionary at the time, Parson’s steam turbines meant Lusitania was the fastest passenger liner in the world when she was launched in 1906. [ii] As the flagship of the Cunard Line, the massive, four-funnelled liner also boasted cutting edge lifts, wireless telegraph and electric lighting.[iii]

Feeling hungry, Sir Hugh made his way downstairs for a late lunch in the neoclassical dining saloon where he no doubt felt at home amid the gilt carved mahogany panels and Corinthian columns that rose up to an elaborate overhead dome, decorated with Rococo frescos.

All the dining furniture was bolted to the floor and seated on one of the chairs was 68-year-old Dr. Basil Maturin, a cousin of Oscar Wilde, who had been appointed Catholic chaplain to the University of Oxford two years earlier. He was on his way back from a successful preaching tour of the US. Born in Ireland in 1847 and educated at Trinity College, Dublin, Dr. Maturin would have been a familiar face to older passengers from Philadelphia from his time as Protestant rector of the city’s St. Clement’s Parish in the 1880s. The parish had become increasingly ‘Romish’ on his watch and it was little surprise when Dr. Maturin converted to Catholicism in 1897.

One floor below, in second-class, pretty 25-year-old May Barrett and her friend Kitty McDonnell were lunching with an Irishman called Joe who worked in a bank. The two women were returning to Cork City for a holiday, having emigrated to New York some years earlier. May was also hoping to console the parents of her goddaughter, Annie, who had died from meningitis earlier in the year. [iv] As children, May and Kitty remembered the excitement when Lusitania pulled into Queenstown (Cobh) on her maiden voyage to New York in 1907, reputedly drawing a crowd of 200,000. ‘You can almost see the smoke from your chimneys from here’, joked Joe, as the ship rolled past the distant coast of Cork.

Elsewhere in the second-class dining saloon sat Ernest Moore, well known in Cavan farming circles and a regular exhibitor at the county’s agricultural shows. He was returning home to surprise his sister, having moved to Saskatchewan for the good of his health three years earlier. Catherine Dingley, the wife of a machinist from Massachusetts, was likewise heading home to visit her family, the Glenn’s of Clones [possibly Killevan] in County Monaghan, while Margaret Cox and her 17-month-old son Desmond were going to stay with a friend in Dalkey.

Above: The Lusitania in 1907.


The 54-year-old composer Thomas O’Brien Butler had already finished his lunch and was making his way back to his cabin. The Kerryman’s visit to New York had been a mixed success. The new Aeolian Hall in Manhattan had staged a concert of his works, including excerpts from Muirgheis, his Irish-language opera, but the reviews were only so-so. Muirgheis was no masterpiece, even if George Moore had worked on the libretto. Perhaps he thought of Moore now and of the Mayo-born writer’s long standing affair with Emerald Cunard, wife of the shipping tycoon who owned Lusitania.[v] Like Sir Hugh Lane and Moore, O’Brien Butler was much inspired by the Irish Literary Renaissance of the period. A couple of years earlier, he had composed the music for the “Marching Song of the Irish Volunteers”, written by the teacher – and future Easter Rising patriot – Thomas MacDonagh. [vi]

One floor below the composer, Catherine Henry from Swinford, Count Mayo, pregnant with her first child, lay on a berth in her third class cabin and tried to sleep. Somewhere down the deck, a piano was tinkling.

Perhaps some passengers were tenser than others. On the very morning that she left New York, the Imperial German Embassy had placed an ad in fifty US newspapers warning that anyone ‘sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.’

Cunard did all they could to ensure no ‘suspicious person’ boarded the vessel while Captain Turner, the ship’s captain, reassured everyone that Lusitania could easily outpace the fastest submarine.[vii] When sceptics enquired how the luxury cruiser would fare if a submarine fired a torpedo at it, they were reminded that she had already crossed the Atlantic 201 times.[viii]

The glistening white Lusitania departed from New York’s Pier 54 on the afternoon of May 1, destination Liverpool, on what was a singularly unremarkable voyage for the most part. There were some reminders of the war in Europe – the ship lights were covered in canvas at night to reduce the possibility of them being spotted and she travelled slower than usual, operating with three of its four boiler rooms, in order to conserve its increasingly precious coal supply.

At 2:10pm on Friday 7 May, Seaman Leslie Morton saw what looked ‘like an invisible hand with a piece of chalk on a blackboard’ running along the top of the water. ‘Torpedoes coming on the starboard side, Sir’, he yelled into the megaphone.

Moments later, May Barrett and Kitty McDonnell heard what sounded like ‘the smashing of big dishes.’ [ix] The stewards and waiters assured them nothing was wrong until a second, louder blast erupted from the ship’s belly. Mortally hit, Lusitania immediately began to go down.

Along with Joe, the two Cork women made their way up to the boat deck where the crew were already starting to hoist some of the 22 clinker boats into the water. The electrical power had ceased; below deck, people were starting to panic and scream in the darkness. Others were trapped in the lifts. May started for her cabin to fetch their lifebelts but Joe stopped her. ‘If you go into the cabin, you will never get up again’. He then disappeared and returned shortly afterwards with a pair of life-belts. [x]

Robert Anderson Mackenzie, a Scottish fish and poultry merchant, survived the Lusitania only to be killed in the Easter Rising. He was sitting close to a window in his shop at 3 Cavendish Row, Rutland Square [now Parnell Square], Dublin, when hit in the head by a stray bullet. He was buried in St. George’s Church Cemetery, Dublin, as per here.

The ship was seriously listing by this time and passengers were losing their balance. Kitty put on her life-belt, mumbled a prayer and jumped into the water but May stayed rooted to the spot. Her fear was not helped when Joe put her life belt on back the front. ‘I’ll stay’, she told him. He nodded. ‘Say goodbye to me’, he asked. She extended her hand. ‘Ah, give me your two hands and say goodbye properly!’ And as she did so, he lifted her up and threw her overboard.[xi]

Margaret Cox had also arrived on the deck with her baby. By the time she squeezed through the crowd, the ship was listing so much that the collapsible lifeboats on the port side were no longer viable. She stumbled towards one of the starboard side boats but it was completely overcrowded. A second lifeboat was also packed but she thrust her baby at the passengers and said, ‘You will have to take the baby – I’ll be all right.’ Mother and baby were pulled into the lifeboat just as the ropes were cut. As the boat hit the water, a woman on the ship was sucked into one of the coal funnels, only for her to be blasted out again like a human cannonball moments later. Margaret also saw the first lifeboat she had tried to board capsize.

Dr. Maturin was on the deck, ‘pale but calm’, administering absolutions. As the last lifeboat was lowered to the water, he passed a child on board, urging the passengers, ‘Find its mother.’

Catherine Henry was still on deck when Lusitania plunged beneath the waves just 18 minutes after the torpedo struck. Many passengers and crew were trapped inside as the ship sank to the bottom of the sea.

It took several hours for the first rescue boats to arrive, during which time hundreds perished in the icy Atlantic water. The first boat on the scene was a mackerel-fishing trawler called Wanderer which picked up 160 survivors and towed two full lifeboats into Queenstown. Other trawlers and a paddle steamer also made for the wreckage and did what they could. Among them the Keiza Gwilt, rowed by 12 men from Courtmacsherry, who spent over three hours searching through the floating bodies for survivors. By such acts of valour, 767 people were rescued, four of whom later died from injuries sustained during the sinking.

Catherine Henry ‘s lifebelt kept her afloat for two hours, after which she was pulled, black and blue, into a lifeboat. She survived and gave birth to her son Michael four months later.

May Barrett floated semi-conscious in the water for approximately four hours in her back to front lifebelt until she was picked up by a lifeboat. She lost consciousness shortly before she was transferred to a fishing trawler and brought into Queenstown.[xii]

Kitty O’Donnell was assumed to be another dead body when the rescue boat drifted by but she somehow mustered enough strength to raise her hand at the crucial moment. Someone spotted her and she was pulled from the water.

Most vessels made for Queenstown (Cobh) where every hotel was made available to accommodate the critically ill survivors, many of whom were stretchered in naked, near-naked and unconscious. Blankets and brandy were urgently distributed while Cunard and other local benefactors set up accounts in the shops for people to obtain clothing and footwear.[xiii]

Temporary morgues were also set up across the town for the dead bodies which were gathered up over the coming days. On May 10, a cortege of 100 coffins was carried to three mass graves in the Old Church Cemetery above Cobh. Among those laid to rest was Catherine Dingley. Another 48 recovered bodies were buried at the Church of St. Multose in Kinsale.

A vain search for art collector Hugh Lane begins.

Dr. Maturin’s body was recovered by two fisherman in Ballycotton Bay and shipped to England where he was buried in London’s Brompton Oratory

Ernest Moore never got to surprise his sister; his body was never found. Thomas O’Brien Butler and Sir Hugh Lane who also among the 885 victims whose bodies were never recovered.[xiv] Rumours subsequently abounded that Sir Hugh had paintings by Monet, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian encased in lead tubes on board the ship. The bulk of his remarkable art collection is now to be found in the Hugh Lane Gallery, on Parnell Square, Dublin.

In total, there were 1,197 dead, including 94 children and 31 babies. Like any tragedy of this magnitude, there were manifold controversies and conspiracies. Was Lusitania really carrying munitions for the Allied war effort? [xv] Why was she not given immediate protection when she reached British waters? [xvi] Did the British Admiralty effectively allow the attack to happen because it might push the US into joining the Allied cause?

159 Americans died in the tragedy, including many extremely wealthy and influential citizens, but while it did much to shake the USA out of its ‘isolationist innocence’, it would be another two years before Washington declared war on Germany.

Lusitania’s wreck lies about 19km off the Old Head of Kinsale (51°25′N 8°33′W) in about 90m (300ft) of water. Amongst many events to commemorate the centenary of the sinking, the Cunard liner Queen Victoria paused over the Lusitania’s wreck on 7 May 2015 and sounded her whistles as a mark of respect.


My favourite Lusitania story took place in de Barra’s pub in Clonakilty where the snug is covered in front-page newspaper accounts of the tragedy. While I was working on ‘The Irish Pub’ book in 2007, the owner Bobby Blackwell recalled an occasion when two American’s were reading these words. An old man seated beside them coughed slightly and said quietly, ‘I’m a survivor’. ‘My God’, said the Americans. They bought him brandy and stout for the remainder of the day while he talked cryptically of life on the Lusitania. When the Americans left, Bobby went up to the man and said: ‘Con, you were never on the Lusitania in your life’. ‘I never said I was’, replied the 96-year-old Clonakilty postman. ‘I just said ‘I’m a survivor’. And I am a fecking survivor’.

Above: The New York Times report on the sinking of the Lusitania.


Thanks to Christy Keating, John Redmond, Hampton Sides, Winkie Corballis, Sue Forsey, Barbara Dawson, John Cahalane, Senan Moloney, Cormac Lowth and especially to Peter Kelly


The ultimate resource is Peter Kelly’s excellent but I also bow to Senan Molony, author of ‘Lusitania: An Irish Tragedy’ (Mercier Press, 2004). Other titles of note include:

  • Hickey, Des and Gus Smith. Seven Days to Disaster. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1982.
  • Hoehling, A. A. and Mary Hoehling. The Last Voyage of the Lusitania. Madison Books, 1956.
  • Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. Berkley Books, 2002.
  • “Basil W. Maturin.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. 24 July 2011.
  • Fergus Cassidy in ‘People of Queenstown respond to the tragedy’ (Irish Independent, 4 May 2015).


[i] Born in Breslau, Silesia, Captain Raimund Weisbach (1886–1970)later commanded the U-19 submarine that carried the ill-fated Roger Casement to Ireland ahead of the Easter Rising in 9816. As a U-boat commander, he sank thirty-six ships before his submarine was sunk by the Royal Navy in May 1917. He was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class. Imprisoned in Britain, he later returned to Germany where he died in Hamburg in 1970. In 1966, he was an official guest of the Irish government at the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising.

[ii] When Lusitania was launched in Glasgow on 7 June 1906, she was the largest (787-feet-long) and fastest passenger liner (service speed of 25 knots) in the world. She was named for ancient Roman province on the west of Iberian Peninsula, the region that is now Southern Portugal.

[iii] Lusitania had 50% more passenger space than any other ship. Spread over six decks, each of the three classes had their own separate space. Each class was tightly segregated from each other. Those in second class also travelled in considerable comfort while the cabins provided for third class passengers, many of them emigrants, were also relatively popular. They even had a piano.

[iv] See and although the accounts do vary somewhat.

[v] Sir Bache Cunard, the Canadian shipping tycoon and head of the Cunard Line, was a friend of Tom Rathdonnell and stayed at Lisnavagh. Lady Maud Cunard, known as Emerald, his diminutive and enchanting American-born blonde-haired wife had a long-standing affair with the Irish author George Moore.

[vi] Thomas O’Brien Butler was from Caherciveen, County Kerry, and his real name appears to have been Thomas Whitwell. He wrote Muirgheis twelve years earlier, while staying in Kashmir, northern India. The first performance of the play had been in English. He was on his way back to his home in the Dublin mountains from New York where he had witnessed the production that included Muirgheis at the Aeolian Hall on April 19. Despite poor reviews, he was planning to return to the US for further performances in the autumn. He was taken ill during the voyage, although he did attend a concert, in which he had taken a “special interest”. On the afternoon of 7 May, his friend Mrs. Nash watched him leave the dining hall after luncheon to go to sleep. No trace of his body was ever found.

Thomas Butler O’Brien remarks in ‘Letter from Edward Nolan to The O’Rahilly, 29 of April, 1915’ Papers of The O’Rahilly (1875–1916) UCD Archives IE UCDA P102/129 (2), by Colm O’Flaherty UCD School of History and Archives April 2015 (, April 2015). See also Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, Volume 24; Volume 2004., Samuel Jones, p. 44.

“Marching Song of the Irish Volunteers.” Music by O’Brien Butler. Irish Review: III (Dec., 1913) 397-402.

I found a reference to it being staged (after a postponment) in the Aeolian Hall in the New York Times of 1915.

[vii] According to the New York Times, ‘every precaution possible’ was taken to ensure no ‘suspicious person’ boarded the vessel. “Each passenger lined up, single file, and claimed his or her baggage. Packages were opened and checked before boarding. Tickets were scrutinized. Detectives were stationed at the end of each gangway.”

[viii] When war was declared, Lusitania was requisitioned by the British Admiralty as an armed merchant cruise. However, she continued in commercial service, despite a marked reduction in passengers on account of the war. By May 1915, she had already crossed the Atlantic 201 times but Cunard’s bosses were increasingly nervous. In February Germany had declared the seas around Britain and Ireland to be a war zone and the threat from their U-boats, or submarines, was escalating rapidly.

Capt. William Turner, a Liverpudlian, had been appointed captain of the ship shortly before the ship’s departure when the previous captain resigned claiming that the wartime crossings were just too stressful. Turner sought to reassure his edgier passengers that Lusitania was considerably faster than a U-boats; slim comfort given the propensity for submarines to hide. Although Captain Turner was exonerated, “the charges haunted him for the rest of his days, and he lived in seclusion”.

On the morning that she sank, Col. Edward House, advisor to US President Woodrow Wilson, was in London to meet Edward Grey, Britain’s foreign secretary. “We spoke of the probability of an ocean liner being sunk and I told him if this were done, a flame of indignation would sweep across America, which would in itself probably carry us into war.” [Source: Erik Larson “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania,”] When he met George V later that day, the king likewise mused, “Suppose they should sink the Lusitania with American passengers aboard?” [Larson]

[ix] See and although the accounts do vary somewhat.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Some understandably purchased much better quality clothing then they would normally have worn, and some local people passed themselves off as survivors to take advantage of the situation.

One story tells that Otto Humbert, the German-born owner of the Queen’s Hotel in Queenstown, was so fearful of being lynched after the tragedy that he barricaded himself into his wine cellar and emerged days later, drunk as a lord, having demolished his stock! However, this doesn’t quite tally with the findings of, for instance, Fergus Cassidy in ‘People of Queenstown respond to the tragedy’ (Irish Independent, 4 May 2015) at

[xiv] Other deceased passengers of note to me include the brewer Charles Arthur Dingwall (great grandfather of my father’s friend Charlie Dallmeyer), Arthur ‘Joe’ Elliott (a kinsman of John Redmond connected to the Lloyds of Limerick) and the railroad tycoon Alfred G Vanderbilt who had formerly booked ticket on Titanic to go home after sailing to Europe on her but ultimately sent his footman instead with the baggage. On Lusitania, according to Wikipedia, “Vanderbilt and his valet, Ronald Denyer, helped others into lifeboats, and then Vanderbilt gave his lifejacket to save a female passenger. Vanderbilt had promised the young mother of a small baby that he would locate an extra lifevest for her. Failing to do so, he offered her his own life vest, which he proceeded to even tie on to her himself since she was holding her infant child in her arms at the time. Many consider his actions to be very brave and gallant since he could not swim, he knew that there were no other lifevests or lifeboats available, and yet he still gave away his only chance to survive to the young mother and child.”

The precise number of Irish passengers is impossible to determine. Many of those listed as being American were, in fact, Irish-born and had become U.S citizens either by marriage or naturalisation. Many of the crew were also Irish-born, with more being of Irish-born parents. And of course all British subjects (Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Canadian, Australian, etc.), were described as ‘British’ in all matters in 1915, and much later in many cases. There were no passports available to British subjects, except a British one, therefore it can take some research to unearth the origins of many people.

[xv] The reason why Walter Schwieger, the commander of the U-20, fired at the ostensibly neutral Lusitania are the subject of much controversy. Germany alleged that the vessel was carrying munitions for the Allied cause, thus making her a legitimate target. Raimund Weisbach, watching from the U-boat, considered the magnitude of the blast as proof that she was carrying high explosives to assist the British war effort. That was certainly the line towed by Germany ever since, with claims she was carrying 4 million U.S.-made rifle bullets and other munitions. Germany also claimed their newspaper warnings on 1 May were purely coincidental. When the ship was designed, she was certainly fitted with a secret compartment to carry arms and ammunition if need be. However, Gregg Bemis, the American multi-millionaire who bought the wreck in 1968 has either participated in or sponsored [how many?] several dives to the wreck and claims there is no proof that substantial munitions were on board. US oceanographer Robert Ballard believed the second blast was simply an explosion of coal dust, while Seaman Leslie Morton who first raised the alarm about the incoming torpedo always maintained there were two torpedoes. The truth was obscured by the necessity of “wartime secrecy and a propaganda campaign to ensure all blame fell upon Germany”. Schweiger, the U-boat captain, was killed in action a year and a half later.

[xvi] Captain Turner had assumed that once his ship reached British waters, the Royal Navy would dispatch vessels from places such as Cork Harbour that would offer ample security. Given their excellent intelligence network, it is thus strange that the British did not send a single vessel out to protect her. HMS Juno, stationed at Queenstown, was due to escort Lusitania when she arrived off the south west coast of Ireland but was recalled on the morning of the sinking. When she learned of the torpedo strike, Juno immediately set out to assist the stricken ship but she was then ordered back to Queenstown for reasons that have never been explained. The war office has yet to open the records for the Haulbowline naval base at Cobh (Queenstown) for that day but it has been suggested Juno was recalled because U 20 had been sighted three times off Cork Harbour that morning. This mystery has led some to propose that the British government wanted Lusitania to be attacked in order to coax the neutral US onto the Allies side, as with Pearl Harbour in the Second World War. Referring to US ships bound for British waters, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, had remarked, “We want the traffic, the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.’ (Larson)