Thousands of people gathered in Kinsale, The Old Head, Cobh, and Courtmacsherry yesterday to commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania 11.5 miles off the Irish coast, gunned down by a German U-boat torpedo.
Those gathered included close to 100 descendants of the 128 Americans who died in the sinking, RTÉ reports.
Irish president Michael D. Higgins called upon people to remember the civilian victims who died “in the cold water of the Celtic sea on a beautiful summer day.”
“All wars have their forgotten or unsung victims; those whose deaths do not bring forth posthumous medals or tributes,” he said while leading the commemoration ceremony in Cobh, Co. Cork, according to The Irish Times. One hundred and seventy of the Lusitania’s victims are buried in mass graves at the Old Church Cemetery in Cobh.
He also used the occasion to emphasize the importance of acknowledging all civilian casualties of that war, which often go under-recognized.
“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,” he said.
“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 honored and remembered with due respect.
“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, U.S. Ambassador Kevin O’Malley, British Ambassador Dominick Chilcott, Charge d’Affairs from the German Embassy in Ireland, and a representative from the Cunard Line, which owned the Lusitania, each laid wreaths at the memorial in Cobh.
Wolfram von Heynitz, the German representative, told RTÉ it was a very emotional day. It was also one that demonstrated the united state of modern Europe, which has come a long way to embrace its diversity, he said.
Cunard’s representative, Commodore Christopher Rynd, master of the Queen Victoria, Cunard’s current flag ship, quoted Lusitania 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 also took the Queen Victoria over the site of the wreck earlier in the day, en route to Cobh.
“We wanted to pay tribute over the wreck of the Lusitania which of course was the Cunard flagship. We were all aware that 60 meters below us lay the Lusitania and those who were lost – it was a very poignant and emotional moment,” he said.
Cunard, which built the Lusitania, dedicated a memorial plaque at Liverpool Parish Church during a service.
“There is hardly a street in the Vauxhall area that wasn't affected” by the disaster, Rev. Dr. Crispin Pailing, rector of Liverpool, said during the ceremony, according to BBC. “A significant number of the crew and passengers had Liverpool connections.”
The ceremonies at Cobh and Kinsale also paid tribute to the Cork coast residents whose response to the disaster was swift and selfless.
The great-grandson of survivor Albert Jackson Byington traveled to Kinsale from Atlanta to pay tribute, reported The Irish Times.
“For those of us who went out to the wreck site, the missing link for us was how far off land the ship went down and how far these communities had to travel to give this aid.
“It was a very somber time out there on the wreck site as we looked back on land and could only imagine the fear in the hearts of those people in those waters as they looked back, imagining what their fate would be.
“The people of these communities dropped what they were doing, went out and brought people back and for that we are eternally grateful,” he said.
Michael Dow, the grandson of the Irish captain of the Lusitania, who survived, shared how his grandfather ran away to sea at 16 after being enamored of the passing ships at the Old Head of Kinsale 130 years ago.
“The Lusitania was his favorite ship,” he said. “He was brought up here in Ireland. His nickname was Paddy Dow, Cunard’s Irish skipper.”
Eleven and a half nautical miles out to sea, several boats also converged to lay wreaths and pay respect at the wreckage, including the Courtmacsherry lifeboat crew, whose 1915 crew was among the first responders to the Lusitania’s S.O.S. call.
Many of the passengers were both descendants of the victims of the disaster and descendants of those who came to the aid of the 764 survivors left hanging onto flotsam in the frigid waters of the Irish Sea.
“My great-grandmother couldn't afford to travel to Ireland for his funeral or to visit his grave at the time. I was told she died five years after him of a broken heart. I've come here to remember them,” one woman told the Irish Examiner. She had traveled from England to honor her great-grandfather, who was a crewmember on the Lusitania.
Gregg Bemis, the owner to the salvage rights to the Lusitania also took a boat out, from which a lone diver laid a plaque at the wreckage site shortly after 2:10 p.m., the time the torpedo fatally struck the ship's hull.
The plaque reads:
“Gregg Bemis and Eoin McGarry on behalf of the international diving community wish to pay solemn tribute to the 1201 victims of the tragic sinking of the RMS Lusitania on the 7th May 1915, 100 years after the sinking. To those 1201 souls: you will never be forgotten. Hopefully someday the truth around the sinking will be revealed.”