You’d think that the 100th anniversary of the sinking of a Royal Mail ship – torpedoed in the Irish Sea in 1918 with the loss of 569 lives – would cause a few ripples in Brexit Britain. Most of the 771 passengers aboard were British soldiers heading back to the Western Front to fight for France. One of the engineers came from Birkenhead, a ship’s trimmer from Holyhead. There were Americans, Canadians and New Zealanders among the dead. So revolted was US president Woodrow Wilson by the sinking – for the RMS Leinster was also carrying more than a hundred civilians – that he delayed replying to a German request for an armistice.
The Leinster, the regular daily ferry to Holyhead, was sunk 100 years and a day ago, the greatest ever disaster in the Irish Sea, and scarcely a month before the end of the First World War. But yesterday in Britain, only a mention in the Welsh press, a local BBC report and a minute’s silence at the Holyhead cenotaph commemorated the event. Obversely, the nation which suffered the greatest loss of life aboard the Leinster hardly bothered to remember its sinking until recent years. And the reason is simple. For most of the British soldiers aboard were Irishmen and the ship was a Dublin vessel and the 22 postal sorters killed were Irish and it sank less than an hour after it left the Irish port of Kingstown which is now called Dun Laoghaire.
And this has produced an extraordinary irony of both history and politics. An independent Ireland which deliberately erased its First World War history after its brutal war for freedom from Britain – then a civil war within its 26 county borders – has only in recent decades felt able to acknowledge its people’s sacrifice in British uniform on the Somme, Flanders and at Gallipoli. And aboard the Leinster. And so it was that yesterday morning, led by the Irish naval service patrol ship Orla, a small flotilla of boats set sail from Dun Laoghaire – once a great royal navy port – so that descendants of the dead could scatter wreaths only a hundred feet above the wreckage of the Leinster. The Irish Times devoted a whole page to the disaster. Irish national television carried a prime time documentary on the Leinster.