Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The sinking of RMS Leinster and Athy man William Keegan

On 10th October 1918 the Royal Mail Steamer Leinster left the harbour at Kingstown, as Dun Laoghaire was then called, for the Welsh port of Holyhead. It was embarking on a dangerous journey as since the previous year German submarines had attacked ships making that same journey. On board the RMS Leinster were civilian passengers, military personnel, post office sorters and the ships crew, totalling all, it is now believed to be almost 780 persons. Shortly after 9.30am a German torpedo struck the ship’s port side. An account of the tragedy given by London civilian Arthur Lewis was published in the Royal National Lifeboats Institute magazine, ‘The Lifeboat’ on 1st November 1918. Lewis reported that the ship began to dip slightly forward when first struck and about 12 minutes later a second torpedo struck causing a tremendous explosion amidship. He described how after the first torpedo struck the ships crew began to lower the life boats, with calls for ‘women and children first’. When the second torpedo struck the ship began to sink quickly. With cries of ‘jump’ and realising there was little prospect of getting into lifeboats the sea was soon full of struggling men and women. When RMS Leinster sank more than 500 persons lost their lives. There is still uncertainty as to the numbers lost in the Irish Seas greatest maritime tragedy as no passenger lists existed and rather strangely the military authorities were aware that 18 soldiers had boarded the Leinster without their names being recorded. Philip Lecane, whose excellent account of the tragedy ‘Torpedoed – The RMS Leinster Disaster’ was published in 2005 claims that for reasons not explained the military authorities did not want the presence on board of the unnamed 18 soldiers to be known. Amongst the passengers may have been Athy man William Keegan. The local paper, The Leinster Leader, reported on 19th October 1918 ‘2nd Lieutenant W. Keegan R.F.A. Ballyroe House travelled on the ill fated Leinster. He is safe.’ However he is not listed in Lecane’s comprehensive list of the 493 military personnel who were on board the ship, 340 of whom perished in the disaster. Was Keegan perhaps one of the 18 unlisted soldiers whose presence on board were known to the authorities, but who for whatever reason were never identified? William Keegan of Ballyroe Lodge was the son of the late Martin Keegan who had died on 31st March 1915. Martin was a farmer and a district councillor for Athy No. 1 rural district. I believe he may also have been the proprietor of Keegans brickworks, but this has yet to be confirmed. His son William attended the Christian Brothers School in Athy, and later Mount St. Joseph’s, Roscrea before graduating from Queens University Galway. He joined the firm of Kaye, Parrys and Ross of Kildare Street, Dublin and later joined the British Army’s Royal Engineers in 1915. The Kildare Observer of 13th May 1916 carried a report of William Keegan of Ballyroe, Athy and his part in the defence of Trinity College. There is some confusion as to whether the reference incorrectly referred to William Keegan rather than to his brother James. The mystery of William Keegan’s involvement in the defence of Trinity College and whether or not he was on board the RMS Leinster may never be resolved. Keegan left the army in 1920 with the rank of Captain and took up an appointment as chief engineer to the public works department in Hong Kong. He died on 14th May 1929, after falling from the veranda of the government civil hospital in Hong Kong. The Nationalist and Leinster Times of 18th May 1929 reported his death and noted ‘Captain Keegan was a general favourite with old and young and was the idol of his home where his death leaves a great shadow of loneliness’. This October the sinking of RMS Leinster will be remembered in Dun Laoghaire with a series of events to commemorate the men, women and children who died in the Irish Sea 100 years ago. The National Maritime Museum located in the former Mariner’s Church in Dun Laoghaire is hosting an exhibition on the RMS Leinster disaster. An official commemoration will take place in Dun Laoghaire on Wednesday 10th October with a wreath laying ceremony and involvement of members of the defence forces. In a fitting tribute to the 21 postal sorters who perished in the Leinster An Post will issue in October a special edition stamp to mark the centenary. Finally, at 8 p.m. on 10th October there will be a one night only performance of ‘Fatal Voyage’ at the Pavilion theatre Dun Laoghaire. The Athy man, William Keegan, may or may not have escaped from the sinking ship RMS Leinster on 10th October 1918, the same day that James Mullen of Kilcock and Richard Mooney of Naas were killed in action in France.

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