Belfast and the Lusitania Disaster

Updated: Oct 7, 2019

RMS Lusitania was a British ocean liner, and briefly the world’s largest passenger ship. She was launched by the Cunard Line in 1906, at a time of fierce competition for the North Atlantic trade. In May 1915, during the First World War she was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, causing the deaths of a staggering 1,198 passengers and crew.

However there were some survivors; some of which I was surprised to learn came from East Belfast...

Patrick McGinley was a passenger on board the Lusitania and was on a visit home to his mother who resided at 233 Albertbridge Road. Patrick was formerly a teacher at a school in Clonard, but later gained a position in New York in 1910. He was interviewed by the Belfast News Letter and said that this was his first visit to his native country (Ireland) since leaving. Describing the terrible events Patrick said: “I had luncheon at the first table at one o’clock and then went on deck and chatted with a gentleman friend. Shortly after two o’clock as I was talking to my friend, I noticed a white object about 400 yards off on the landside. It was directly at right angles to the liner. I called my friend’s attention to it, and he said: “That appears to me to be a periscope.” No sooner had he uttered those words than a submarine turret appeared on the surface. It remained above water for around a minute and then disappeared again. They saw a white streak coming towards the ship and heard a hissing noise. “My God, there’s a torpedo” exclaimed the friend. McGinley saw it come quickly through the water until it struck the ship, which shook like a reed in the wind and heaved on to one side.

Patrick described the scene as the passengers rushed to the lifeboats and said they were ordered to get out again as the ship (apparently) seemed to be in no immediate danger. The vessel was turned in the direction of Queenstown and just then a second torpedo struck the ship. He went down to his room and secured two life belts, he put one on his sister Mrs Murray, who was already in a lifeboat, and then put the other vest on himself. He entered the boat which contained around 100 people. Orders were given to lower all the boats quickly as the ship was sinking very fast. Something went wrong with a pulley on the boat in which they were situated, and a young man cut the ropes thinking that the boat would fall on its keel in the water. Instead it turned upside down and they were all thrown headlong into the water. When he rose to the surface he felt something on the top of his head, and upon putting up his hand discovered that it was the upturned boat from which we had fallen. With great difficulty he managed to get from under it, and then started swimming around in the hope of finding his sister.

“The scene as the Lusitania went down, just about 50 yards from me was awful. There was a deafening explosion and all the 4 funnels flew out of the ship. In fact, she seemed to burst to pieces as she sank. There was a lifeboat 150 yards from me, upside down, and with about 40 people standing on her. I swam over and was dragged aboard. We were on the boat for almost an hour – 7 women and the rest all men. One of the men had an arm torn almost completely off, and a young fellow severed it for him with a pocketknife.

As we were floating about I saw a lady and gentleman clinging to a piece of raft and coming in our direction. When they came near the boat the lady lifted one hand, and in a piteous voice said “For God’s sake, save me”. One man on the boat said “If we bring any more on the boat will go down”, McGinley said “I cant see people drown. Lets get them on.” Mr Wylie (a steward) and I helped the lady on and also the man.”

Patrick continued: “We saw 3 torpedo destroyers coming along at great speed 5 miles off and start to pick up the survivors within a radius of 2-3 miles. Then a trawler came over from Kinsale Head and sighted our little white signal and they came towards us. The ship was the Katarina flying a Greek flag. They took us all off inside 10 minutes and we arrived at Queenstown at midnight. I was taken to a clothing store and secured clothes, and afterwards I went to Mr Cavanagh’s Hotel, Cott’s Square where I spent the night. Early in the morning I went to 7 different morgues seeking my sister. I failed to find her and I went back to the store to get some more clothes. On going into the street I met my sister a few yards away she became quite hysteric on seeing me and I was overwhelmed.”

Another East Belfast survivor of the terrible tragedy was Margaret McClintock who left Belfast in c.1912 for New York. She was making a trip home to see her sister who was living at 3 Georges Terrace, Castlereagh Street.

Margaret observed that the effect of the first torpedo was to cause the ship to heel over to such an extent that the water came over the 3rd deck of the 2nd cabin, just above the dining room where she was sitting at the time. Miss McClintock went at once to the starboard side of the vessel to get into a lifeboat but they saw the first of the boats to be lowered break apart, many people being thrown into the water. She was advised to go to the port side, and she did, though not without much difficulty owing to the extent of the list on the vessel. She managed to get into a boat and they got clear just in time, thanks to the plucky work of a pantry man who pushed them off with an oar. One of the ladies in the lifeboat drew the attention of a male passenger to the liner as it was sinking, but he refused to turn his head declaring that he could not look at such a horrible spectacle.

There were about 65 people in the lifeboat, and after cruising around for two and a half hours they were picked up by a trawler, the extraction of survivors being a difficult task owing to the exhausted condition and serious injuries of the people. Later the party were picked up by a government boat, and landed at Queenstown about 8:30pm on Friday evening.

The scenes ashore were described as ‘intensely pathetic’. Large numbers of people were wandering about the streets and quays looking for friends. The officials of the Cunard Line gave every possible assistance, and telegrams were sent to relatives and friends to relieve their minds in cases where information was available concerning survivors. Margaret McClintock maintained that many of the deaths were due to shock and excitement.

Some, however, were not quite as fortunate.  Amongst the many victims of the Lusitania disaster was Henry William Stanley, son of Mr R.O. Stanley of ‘Hillview’, Knockbreda Road.

Mr Stanley went to Canada c.1910 and he had since been employed in the Bank of Montreal. He was coming home on a short holiday and was a passenger on the Lusitania. Mr Stanley was previously in the service of the Belfast Banking Company. Described as being ‘of a bright and cheerful disposition’ he was a great favourite in the social circles in which he moved and was welcomed all the more because of his outstanding gifts as a musician. He was a very capable pianist and also excelled as a vocalist. Although only 23 years old he had won the respect and esteem of the heads of the very important banking company that he served, his prospects were apparently ‘exceedingly promising’. His two brothers were, at the time, serving in the Great War. The elder Mr R.O. Stanley holds a commission in the 10th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and is at present stationed in the south of England whilst the younger Mr C Stanley is in the 8th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles. The news of Mr Stanley’s tragic death naturally came as a terrible shock to his parents.

In a bizarre irony, the commander of the German U-20 submarine who ordered the torpedo attack on the Lusitania, Captain Walther Schweiger, had been earmarked to transport Roger Casement (in the same U-20 submarine) from Germany to rendezvous with a weapons cargo for the Easter Rising in 1916. The U-20 subsequently developed mechanical problems and the task was instead given to U-19 which did eventually bring Casement to Banna Strand where he was arrested. Furthermore, if you go to Ward Park in Bangor today you will see the actual gun from the U-19 submarine; donated to the people of Bangor.

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