Wednesday 23 January 2019

War comes to Irish shores

Damian Corless on local shock and anger at the Leinster's horrific sinking

Helping hands: The few drivers still on the road during the war years because of fuel shortages were press ganged into ferrying the victims of the RMS Leinster tragedy to hospitals Photo: National Library of Ireland
Helping hands: The few drivers still on the road during the war years because of fuel shortages were press ganged into ferrying the victims of the RMS Leinster tragedy to hospitals Photo: National Library of Ireland

The Irish Independent's editions in the days leading up to the sinking of the RMS Leinster were full of grim reports from the fronts, but those fronts were mercifully all a long way away, in dank mucky foreign fields with strange names like Amiens and Ypres, and the sun-scorched hotspots of the Middle East.

It was all terrifyingly brutal, but it was all happening somewhere else, somewhere over there.

That all changed with a stark headline in the Irish Independent of October 11, 1918. It said 'Holyhead Mail Boat Torpedoed', and it was a horrible psychological blow, the more so because it came out of the blue.

Ireland had been on a war footing for four years, and the Irish Sea had earned the name U-boat Alley because of the number of German submarines on the prowl, but no passenger mailboat had ever before been attacked. As word spread that the Leinster had been sunk, and with the confirmed deaths rising by the hour, a shudder ran through the capital.

The vessels of the Leinster's owners, the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company, had been allowed to provide a busy wartime shuttle service between Ireland and Britain. Sailing between Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) and Holyhead, they connected families, friends and businesses on opposite sides of the Irish Sea.

Nobody knew that the end of the Great War was just weeks away. No-one suspected the Germans would suddenly and shockingly collapse. (When it happened, no one was more surprised than the Germans themselves). For many people in Ireland, it seemed the conflict had taken a calamitous new turn, one which threatened to cut us off from the rest of the world.

And chronic shortages were already the order of the day. With winter just around the corner, Dublin Corporation announced new rationing on "coal and lighting".

The headline 'Milk Crisis Grows Acute' led off a report that a strike in Cork would mean milk shortages in Dublin. All forms of fuel had been rationed for years. Biting petrol shortages meant there were far fewer private cars on Irish roads than four years earlier, and they were strictly for the very well heeled. As every available vessel was being dispatched from Kingstown harbour on a rescue mission for survivors of the Leinster, the car owners of the greater Dublin area, Wicklow and further afield were being press-ganged into providing emergency transport to and from hospitals and rescue centres.

Few motorists turned down the call to help. To do so would probably result in having their vehicle commandeered anyway. Volunteers of the Red Cross and St John Ambulance Brigade made their way to Victoria Wharf in Kingstown, where boats of all sizes arrived from afternoon to night bearing the living and the dead. Frozen survivors were given warm clothing and blankets, and revived with Bovril, coffee and spirits.

The dying and the dead were conveyed to the local hospital. Those fortunate enough be just traumatised were taken to recoup at the Royal Marine and Royal Victoria hotels in Kingstown. By chance, both establishments had adverts in the Irish Independent of October 11, targeting visitors with promises of untold luxury and comfort.

Over the following days and weeks, the Irish Independent carried notices of contributions to the Lord Mayor's Leinster Relief Fund. Big companies including Jameson Whiskey and Bank of Ireland were joined on the list by members of the aristocracy and football clubs including Bohemians FC. These were hard times in a world wracked by four years of war and want, which provides the context for a number of letters sent to the Irish Independent in the wake of the tragedy. These missives were largely from residents of Kingstown and the surrounding area, seeking the return of blankets, coats and other items given to shivering survivors.

The Irish Independent's immediate response to the Leinster sinking was to publish something which looked like a large advert, but read like a furious editorial. Separatist Sinn Féin had been steadily on the rise, agitating against the war and Westminster rule, and were on the verge of an electoral landslide just weeks after the Leinster tragedy. Without naming any party, the advert/editorial thundered: "Their blood (the Leinster victims) is on your heads, you unthinking men who have not only deserted your soldiers, but have detained in this country troops by whose presence in the field Germany would have been beaten before she committed these murders. Redeem your fault now. Join up today. UP IRELAND!"

Away from the outrage and shock and the fear, people still had to go about their daily lives. There were auctions for everything, from furniture to farm animals. There were prominent adverts for army surplus boots, and indeed army surplus everything. As was usual for the time of year, the stores were pushing their latest ranges of winter hats, coats and gloves.

Snake oil cures were everywhere, including one baldness treatment promising 'Surpassing Hair Growth'. Meanwhile, the people behind 'Bad Legs Cured' even claimed they could fix "diseased bones". One entrepreneur promised 'Highest Prices Paid For Old False Teeth', while another asked 'Why Wear A Truss?'

An answer was provided, but really, that's too much information.

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