The sinking of the RMS Lusitania may well be a critical chapter in the history of the first World War but it was also an immense human tragedy with the loss of almost 1,200 lives and that should never be forgotten, President Michael D Higgins said.
Speaking at a commemoration in Cobh, Co Cork, to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Cunard liner by a German submarine U-20, President Higgins said: "All wars have their forgotten or unsung victims; those whose deaths do not bring forth posthumous medals or tributes."
Addressing a crowd of several thousand on the Cobh promenade, he said: “However, as we engage in a period of commemoration of World War I, it is important we not only focus on those who lost their lives on the battlefields and in the trenches, but recall the millions of civilians whose lives were also cut short during that cataclysmic period.
"Some, like the casualties of the Lusitania, were the victims of deliberate acts of war; others died through malnutrition, famine and related disease. In whatever way they lost their lives, they were victims of a destructive, and indeed bewildering, world war.
"Their tragic deaths should not be reduced to that of collateral damage but should be honoured and remembered with due respect," he said, recalling the human tragedy "in the cold water of the Celtic sea on a beautiful summer day" in 1915.
" We remember the lives cut short and the futures and possibilities denied by the tragedy visited on unsuspecting voyagers who thought they were within safe reach of their destination when the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U boat in May 1915."
President Higgins paid tribute to the courage and compassion of the people of Cobh, Kinsale and Courtmacsherry and everyone who helped in the rescue operation and saved the lives of 700 people.
Commodore Christopher Rynd, master of Cunard's Queen Victoria liner which is on a "Lusitania Remembered" voyage, quoted a survivor, Thomas Snowden. "Since that day, my dreams have been haunted by the terrible scene enacted before my eyes. As far as I could see there were men, women and children floating in the water, some were dead and some were living. The women were screaming for help, the men badly mangled."
Commodore Rynd had earlier paused the Queen Victoria over the exact spot where the Lusitania went down 18kms off the Old Head of Kinsale and dropped a wreath.
"We wanted to pay tribute over the wreck of the Lusitania which of course was the Cunard flagship. We were all aware that 60 metres below us lay the Lusitania and those who were lost – it was a very poignant and emotional moment."
Following prayers by Bishop William Crean of Cloyne and other clergy, President Higgins made his way to the Lusitania Monument by sculptor Jerome Connor in Scott's Square in Cobh where he laid a wreath to all who died in the tragedy.
United States ambassador Kevin O'Malley, British ambassador Dominick Chilcott and German charge d'affaires Wolfram von Heynitz also laid wreaths.
Earlier, there had been an unveiling of four glass headstones commissioned by the Port of Cork and Cunard at the Old Church Cemetery in Cobh where 170 victims of the Lusitania are buried.