An Irishman's Diary

 

Throughout much of the past century, generations of youngsters in this country grew up in a cultivated ignorance of the past of their own communities. Entire histories were consigned to a lumber-room which was never again to be mentioned. Behind those double-locked doors were confined the secret narratives of the Irish people, apparently as doomed to be forgotten as the memories of the people of Atlantis.

For the desire to abolish any public narrative other than a purely nationalist and republican one was, until fairly recently, very powerful, as I remember full well: abuse and sneering contempt were the guaranteed portion for those of us who wished to visit a broader, more generous version of history. Yet ultimately it dawned on people that this limited, falsifying version of Irish life not merely comforted their own sense of identity, but was the moral authoriser for IRA violence. And nobody did more to strengthen the revisionist argument than the Enniskillen bombers.

Rush and Skerries

Each community in Ireland now striving to remind itself of the banished past has a particular version of how it came to attend to this task. For Rush and Skerries, in north Co Dublin, there is a small debt to Winston Churchill, and his insane gamble to force the Dardanelles in 1915. On one of the ships in the task force, HMS Goliath, was a young English sailor, Ernest York; it was sunk, and he survived, but 580 sailors didn't.

Some years ago Ernest's grandson, David Snook, a Bristolian who now lives in Rush, decided to look up the death-rolls for the Goliath, and found that 50 of the dead were Irish naval reservists who had been merchant seamen before the war: and the very first name he came across was, extraordinarily, that of William McGee, age 19, from Rush. Thus was David propelled on the chase into the maritime history of Rush and Lusk during the Great War which led to the current exhibition at Skerries Mill.

At the very outset of war, 20 seamen from Skerries and Rush were interned in Hamburg. They spent the next four years in detention camps, as their families, now without any kind of pay, plummeted into poverty. Another 16 men from tiny Rush and four from Skerries were killed by enemy action or lost at sea. A further five men were killed serving with the Royal Navy.

According to David's researches, of the 15,000 UK merchant seaman killed in the Great War who have no known graves, 1,000 were Irish; though many more, of course, would have come from the Irish maritime communities in exile in Glasgow, Liverpool, Cardiff and London.

Extraordinarily, no figures for Irish losses in the Great War have hitherto taken into account dead merchant mariners. The biggest single disaster was the loss of the Lusitania: of the 404 crew members who died, 60 were Irish, from 19 counties, including Sadie Hale, typist, from Ballymena. The next largest disaster for Irish merchant seamen came with the sinking of the Leinster, when 30 Irish crewmen were lost in the death toll of 500.

No official memorial

It says something about the nature of memorialising in independent Ireland that the Irish State could - and rightly - erect a monument to the 329 dead of the Air India flight brought down by terrorist action in June 1985, and yet have managed to overlook two sinkings in Irish waters which took nearly 2,000 lives. There is still no official Irish memorial to these calamities; is it perhaps because there is an odd institutional memory that they were the work of "our gallant allies"?

Those war years were perfectly dreadful for communities like Rush and Skerries. The internment of a score of men in Hamburg in August was followed by the first fatality in action, when Henry Knott from Rush was one of the 1,600 sailors lost in November 1914 when HMS Monmouth and HMS Good Hope were sunk with all hands by German battle cruisers.

Local losses actually increased as war drew to an end, with U-boats scouring coastal waters looking for easier prey than the heavily escorted transatlantic convoys. Among the 1918 dead were two Beashels from Rush, who were either brothers or cousins, and who were lost together on SS Beacon Light, off the Scottish coast.

Powerful continuities

North Co Dublin has changed a great deal in recent years, but powerful continuities remain: the Skerries exhibition was officially opened by a local curate, Kit Sheridan, whose kinsman, the seaman Matthew Leonard, served throughout the Great War and survived it; but he perished in the next one, when his Irish-registered vessel was torpedoed by a U-boat in the Bristol Channel.

One of the visitors present when I visited the Mill the other day was Robert Keaney, a young local man who serves as third deck-officer on the Matco Clyde in the North Sea. His mother is a Beashel, one of the very family who lost two of its members on the Beacon Light nearly 85 years ago.

An astonishing feature of the Skerries exhibition - which runs until November 19th - is that there are contemporary photographs of all the local seamen. The British Board of Trade rules insisted that a seaman's identity cards must contain a photograph, and the PRO in Kew has some 200,000 of them, among which, by hard graft, David was able to locate the local men. It is, as Kit Sheridan described it, a visual DNA, one which could help bring to life the forgotten tales of men who are no longer forgotten. Other Irish local and maritime historians should follow David's splendid example.