We tend to assume that the first Irishmen to die in the Great War must have been soldiers, members of the British Expeditionary Force on the retreat from Mons that bought the French army vital time to mount a counter-attack against the German forces.
They were cutting a great swathe across Belgium and northern France in August and early September 1914 en route to Paris, but the first who died were in fact sailors.
Joseph Pierce Murphy of Ringsend, Dublin, died at 6.35am on August 6th, 1914, when the cruiser Amphion sank in the North Sea along with 150 other sailors, including 13 Irishmen, seven of them from Cork. The cruiser was the first Royal Navy vessel to be lost in action. Most of those who died were young men having breakfast in the mess, in the forward part of the vessel, when the cruiser ran over a mine.
Murphy and his comrades will be remembered at a special commemorative service in St Patrick’s Church, Ringsend, Dublin, this evening at 6.30pm, just around the corner from his home at 2 Thorncastle Place.
Ironically the German warship that laid the mine, the KöniginLuise, had been sunk after being pursued by the Amphion and other elements of the Third Destroyer Flotilla on the previous day.
Among those who died were 20 German sailors picked up by the Amphion from their own stricken vessel. They, too, will be remembered on Wednesday.
Just over 150 members of the Amphion's crew were rescued by other ships in the flotilla, which had taken to sea from its base at Harwich less than four hours after war was declared on the night of August 4th, 1914. The flotilla's task was to keep the eastern approaches to the English Channel clear of enemy minesweepers and submarines, exposing its officers and men to almost constant danger whenever they put to sea.
On the previous day, an English trawler reported seeing a ship dumping items overboard and the flotilla soon spotted and overtook the KöniginLuise auxiliary mine layer.
Although confronted by the cruiser and at least six destroyers, the German captain decided to fight; his crew only abandoned their ship as it began to keel over into the North Sea. Five officers and 70 men were rescued. Germany had lost its first vessel to enemy action but the humble auxiliary mine-layer would have its revenge on the Amphion less than 24 hours later.
Joseph Pierce Murphy had joined the Royal Navy in 1910 as a boy sailor and had signed up for 12 years. He trained as a signaller and, although he failed his first examination, he qualified on his second attempt nine months later. His character was consistently rated “VG” and he qualified for promotion to petty officer in June 1914.
A photograph of him was taken with shipmates while serving on board the HMS Vivid in 1910,when he was still rated a boy sailor. All four look as if they should still be at school and Murphy (front right) looks the slightest and youngest of the lot. Yet he appears to have a confidence beyond his years or stature.
By the time the war broke out four years later, he could look forward to promotion, to seeing the world and to having a secure career ashore afterwards away from the teeming slums where he grew up. All that ended at breakfast time on August 6th, 1914
His family still lives in Ringsend. His grand-niece Kathleen Redmond, now 70 years old, jokes: “There are so many of us we’re like a bunch of grapes around her.” She never knew her grand-uncle but says her father and other family members were fiercely proud of him, that he was always known in the family as Pierce and looked up to as someone who would make his mark in the world.
The pride in a lost family member is palpable and an affinity with the sea is not surprising in a community where so many members have depended on it for a livelihood over long generations as sailors, dockers or fishermen.
Locals served in the naval forces and merchant marines of Ireland and Britain in two world wars, fighting in two battles of the Atlantic and serving on the Artic convoys.
A photographic exhibition opened d in Pearse Street library on yesterday, Ringsend Seamen in the Great War: 70 faces from 1918, celebrating the links between the community, the port and the sea. It will remain there until August 30th.
Another sailor, Able Seaman Charles McConaghy, was remembered at Ballymena’s Drumhead service on Monday. Meanwhile, those Cork sailors who died were remembered at a Mass in the Star of the Sea Garrison Church at the Naval base and dockyard at Haulbowline, Cork, on Sunday.