Ray Cleere recalls the sinking of the R.M.S. Leinster by a German U-boat 100 years ago that led to the greatest ever loss of life in the Irish Sea.


On Thursday morning, October 10th, 1918, exactly one month and one day, in total 32 days before the First World War ended 100 years ago, at 9.45 a.m., the mail boat, ‘R.M.S. Leinster’ left Carlisle Pier, Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire), in County Dublin.
Bound for Holyhead, Anglesey, in North Wales on a mail run, she carried 771 passengers and crew. The ship was commanded by Captain William Birch, a Dubliner aged 61, who at the time had homes both in Drumcondra, in County Dublin, and in Holyhead.

Apart from Birch, the ‘Leinster’ had a crew of 76 who were drawn from the ports of Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) and Holyhead. Also on board were 22 postal workers from Dublin Post Office who worked in the ship’s onboard postal sorting room. There were 180 civilian passengers, men, women, and children, most of whom came from Ireland and Britain.

On board also were passengers from Dun Laoghaire and Holyhead, a group of Wrens, some clergy including one nun who died, and an unknown number of stowaways.

But by far the greatest number of passengers on board the ‘Leinster’ were military personnel. Many of them were going on leave or were returning from leave.
The Irish Rebellion was then two years old and Home Rule was in the balance. The end of the First World War was imminent, yet the German submarine fleet still desperately tried to salvage some honour by continuing savage assaults on shipping. The conscription of citizens was threatened almost daily, and in an effort to defeat the advancing German Army and Navy, that giant of a nation, the United States of America, finally joined hands across the water with their allies in 1917.

That joint effort against a common enemy forged new European-American friendship which survive to this day. It was also the account of a government’s reckless abandonment in its refusal to protect the travelling public and a commercial shipping company’s vessels at a time when it could easily have done so. On October 4th, 1918, Germany had asked the then American President, Woodrow Wilson for peace terms.

Launched on September 12th, 1896, the ship was christened ‘R.M.S. Leinster’ and mainly served as the Kingstown mail boat. The ship was 378 feet long, 2,646 tons and could travel up to 24 knots. Towards the end of its life, during the First World War, the twin-propellered ship was outfitted with a camouflaged exterior and armed with one 12-pounder and two signal guns.

The ‘Leinster’ was owned by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company (CDSPCo). At the time the company operated a mail and passenger service between the Carlisle Pier in Dun Laoghaire and the Admiralty Pier, Salt Island, in Holyhead. The service used four ships, named after the four Irish provinces: ‘Ulster’, ‘Munster’, ‘Leinster’ and ‘Connaught’.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own