US owner of ‘Lusitania’ calls for more flexibility from State

Anniversary of ship’s 1915 sinking off Kinsale marks need for recovery

The US owner of the HMS Lusitania which was sunk by a German U-boat off Kinsale, Co Cork, 99 years ago today has called on the Government to "work with" rather than "against" him on his research and artefact recovery project.

US businessman Gregg Bemis (85) has told The Irish Times it would be an "absolute shame" if the centenary of the ship's sinking next year could not be marked adequately due to "ongoing difficulties" he was experiencing with authorities here.

The centenary of the deaths of 1,198 people in the sinking 11 miles off Kinsale could be an ideal joint Anglo-Irish project, if handled in the right manner, according to diver Eoin McGarry from Dungarvan, who has led expeditions for Mr Bemis.

Mr McGarry and colleagues hope that items they plan to recover this summer, including the ship's triple chime whistle, could be displayed in a designated Lusitania museum in Kinsale, Co Cork.

The ship’s bridge telegraph, which was discovered during last year’s dive, could shed light on the state of engines as it sank, he says.


Court proceedings
Mr Bemis has established his title to the wreck in a number of court proceedings.

A cultural heritage order, requiring licensed dives, was placed on the wreck by then arts minister Michael D Higgins in 1995, following an unauthorised British expedition.

Mr Higgins said that the heritage order was designed to protect the site as a grave and to protect artefacts on board which might include paintings carried by Sir Hugh Lane.

Mr Bemis describes as “insane” the subsequent classification of a 20th-century wreck as an archaeological site, which had resulted in imposition of what he termed “impossible” dive licence conditions.

One such condition required him to indemnify the State, Mr Bemis said, while another required him to pay for the conservation of items recovered – even though he accepted that any ship’s fixtures and fittings were to be declared to the receiver of wrecks.


Artefacts
Mr Bemis said he would like to be able to include certain artefacts in a travelling exhibition, but had been informed that he would not be permitted to take any fittings out of the State's jurisdiction.

“The Government’s continued attempt to tie my hands when all I am trying to do is to resolve major questions around this sinking makes the diving licences worthless,” Mr Bemis said.

He added that he was “rather amused” at the “big deal” being made of recent UK National Archive file correspondence indicating the possibility of explosives on board when he had already read this information into court records.


'Seminal moment'
Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan called in September 2012 for a "major commemoration" in Ireland in 2015 involving Britain, Germany and the US, and described the sinking as a "seminal moment in world history".

Mr Deenihan’s department said yesterday that terms issued in July 2013 were similar to previous licences and “fully in accordance with a memorandum of understanding” with Mr Bemis in April 2013.

Mr Deenihan was “considering” Mr Bemis’s most recent correspondence on the issue, it said.