Saturday, June 22, 2024

Alphonsus O'Leary, Straw Island and the Lusitania


The Old Head of Kinsale (photo from Afloat)

On 7th May 1915, the Lusitania was nearing the end of her 202nd transatlantic voyage and was passing the Old Head of Kinsale  en route from New York to Liverpool. It is said that many people picknicking on the grassy slopes next to the lighthouse watched her pass (this was long before the golf club restricted access) although why there should be picknickers there on a Friday afternoon is unclear.
Suddenly the air was rent by an explosion from a torpedo fired by a German U-Boat, followed by a second explosion within the ship. It is said the ship sank in 18 minutes, watched by the crowd on the Old Head. Of the 1,960 people on board, 1,197 lost their lives, primarily because all but a few lifeboats had been disabled in the two explosions.
Very shortly thereafter, the bodies began to wash up on the south coast of Ireland. Mass graves were dug, the victims photographed and buried. After a time, some more bodies drifted around to the west coast. Five weeks after the tragedy, Assistant Keeper Alphonsus O'Leary, stationed at Straw Island lighthouse off Inis Mór in Galway Bay found the body of a woman washed up on his shoreline. He immediately contacted his superiors in Irish Lights: -

Alphonsus O'Leary had been born in Sligo (Irish Lights records) or Cork (1911 Census) in 1881 and joined Irish Lights in 1902 with the Service number 193. He was on the Tuskar on the 1911 Census and, as seen, on Straw Island in 1915. Presumably he had a sister or a mother with him, as Straw Island was a single family station. He was transferred to Sligo Lights in August 1916, was made PK in 1929 and appointed to Blackrock Mayo. Stints at Fanad, Wicklow, Sligo (again), Rotten Island, and Duncannon followed until his retirement in 1941, when he was made attendant at the latter station. He retired to Wicklow where he died in 1954 aged 73, still unmarried.

The unfortunate lady was apparently not the only Lusitania victim to have washed up in the vicinity.

(Incidentally, the registrar recorded the date of the finding of the body incorrectly. It should have been the 11th June)

Further examination at Kilronan, revealed further details about the body: -

1. #4. Female. 45 years. Recovered at Straw Island. Very decomposed. Wore blue
linen dress, black boots and stockings. Hair short, turning grey.
Property.- 1 ring, apparently gold with three stones: 2 blue, 1 supposed
diamond; 1 expanding bracelet and watch (latter damaged) apparently
gold, initials 
Buried Kilronan Graveyard, June 11, 1915.

Irish Lights inspectors walking the beach to the lighthouse in 1903 (photo National Library of Ireland)

109 years after the sinking, the lady, like over fifty others, remains unidentified.

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