Remembering the sinking of the ‘Leinster’ and the bravery of a seaman

‘It is thanks to Des Branigan’s pioneering work in maritime archaeology that the hull will become a national monument from October 10th’

Des Branigan acquired the rights to the Leinster, and ensured one of the ship’s anchors was recovered.

Des Branigan acquired the rights to the Leinster, and ensured one of the ship’s anchors was recovered.

 

In a quiet corner of a mariner’s church, a silver pocket watch mounted in a small cabinet bears a simple inscription.

“To William Maher from Dorothy Toppin as a small token of gratitude for saving her life.”

Stoker Maher would have never expected that his regular day’s work would prove to be so eventful – and this souvenir of it all so special – when he left Kingstown’s Carlisle Pier on the morning of October 10th, 1918.

He might have been worrying about the weather on the passage to Holyhead, with freshening winds forecast, though his ship, the RMS Leinster, was the fastest mailboat on that route. He might have been worrying about conscription, for British legislation to boost the first World War effort had been extended to Ireland in April.

He might have been worrying about the Spanish flu, then a pandemic after the first reported case at US military base earlier in the year. He would hardly have been thinking about a submarine risk, though the British authorities had refused an escort.

When the first of several torpedoes struck the camouflaged hull off the Kish bank, there were over 500 military on board among a complement of over 770, including passengers, postal staff and crew working for the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. The post room below the waterline took the full impact and only one of the 22 mail team survived.

Passenger Dorothy Toppin, then 12 years old, and her mother Louisa were among the 239 survivors. William Maher wasn’t able to haul the mother and daughter into a life raft, but helped them to cling to it for four hours, cracking jokes to keep their spirits up. There is a phenomenon which first responders know about where a survivor can slip away on the point of rescue. In the relief and confusion that followed arrival of a rescue ship, young Dorothy was swept away.

Bravery

The memento is one of a number of exhibits currently on display in the National Maritime Museum in Dún Laoghaire to mark the centenary of the greatest maritime disaster on record in Irish waters.

There are keys of the ship’s galley, which chef Henry Loughlin managed to hang on to, and brass portholes, and a “spittoon” used in Victorian times when chewing tobacco was the norm. There is a beautifully polished brass ship’s bell.

There is a photograph of Oberleutnant sur Zee Robert Heinrich Ramm, commander of the UB123 which had been lying in wait for the mail ship. He and his German crew of 19- and 20 year-olds never made it home. The submarine’s last recorded signal was picked up from a minefield in the North Sea.

Centenary

Leinster

In 1941, when British ships would no longer transport goods to and from a neutral Irish state, Branigan was one of a crew which sailed to Portugal on the Palgrave Murphy-owned City of Dublin to collect the first vessel acquired by the State’s newly formed Irish Shipping company. The Greek-owned ship salvaged by Spanish fishermen in the Bay of Biscay and renamed Irish Poplar (italics) was a “rust bucket”, he recalled.

A painting of the ship commissioned by him from artist Kenneth King is one of a number of exhibits displayed in the National Maritime Museum’s neighbour, the DLR Lexicon, as a tribute to the life of the seaman, trade unionist, archaeological diver and maritime historian. Curated by Joe Ryan, formerly of the Irish Coast Guard, the exhibition is a snapshot of Branigan’s very full life until his death almost two years ago. It includes up to 50 photographs, along with awards such as a certificate from the Spanish government recognising his work on Spanish Armada wrecks in these waters.

Branigan acquired the rights to the Leinster, and ensured one of the ship’s anchors was recovered. It was thanks to his pioneering work in maritime archaeology that the hull will become a national monument from October 10th under legislation covering all shipwrecks over 100 years old.

There’s a plethora of events in and around the Leinster’s centenary, including a talk by Philip Lecane of the National Maritime Museum, author of another book on the event, this morning (August 20th) at 11am in the DLR Lexicon. The Branigan exhibition, which also opens today in the same venue, runs until October 22nd. Music will mark the occasion, with Shay Page playing a refrain from The Lonesome Boatman and Denise Scanlon reciting A Red, Red Rose by Branigan’s favourite poet, Scotland’s Robert Burns.

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