When the Lusitania was struck by a German torpedo off West Cork’s coast 100 years ago, 1,198 lives were lost, but so too was a cargo worth $735,579. Lily P.Murphy recounts the long-forgotten tale of the extraordinary honesty of West Cork fisherman John Hayes.
When the Lusitania set sail from New York, with its passengers of all classes and creed, there was also a disparate mixture of cargo onboard – from simple bacon and butter to costly furs worth over $119,000. Also included were auto parts, dental goods, motorcycle parts, electrical machinery, leather, shoes and wool. In the aftermath of the sinking of the luxury ship, wild rumours spread regarding its precious load – gold bullion, diamonds and expensive paintings had all been lost to the sea off the Old Head.
Four days after the tragedy, a local fisherman by the name of John Hayes, skipper of the fishing boat ‘Pet’, was out fishing some ten miles from Glandore harbour when he made the catch of his life.
As he hauled in his nets, Hayes spotted something tangled in them; on further inspection he discovered a registered postal basket with three parcels inside. He opened the parcels to see what they contained uncovered a batch of priceless diamonds tucked safely inside.
In the following days several more items from the ship washed ashore including deck chairs, clothes and cutlery from the ship’s kitchens, though having been securely locked away in the cargo-hold’s safe, it is surprising that the basket containing the diamonds came loose and floated away.
The honest fisherman handed the parcels over to the coastguard in Castletownsend, who in turn brought them to the Receiver of Wreck at Baltimore village. The diamonds were then forwarded to the General Post Office in London in a simple, unregistered postal packet. Luckily they arrived safely and enquiries were made to find the owners of such expensive gems.
The Lusitania was carrying the diamonds from a firm in New York to jewellers in London and they had been insured for $13,000 with the Union Insurance Company. In the aftermath of the sinking, the insurance company promptly paid out believing the diamonds to have been lost in the depths of the sea. It took another two years before the rightful owners of the diamonds were found and they graciously paid back the insurance claim of $13,000.
Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, Jeremiah McVeagh, a Home Rule MP from County Down, brought the subject of the found diamonds to the attention of the house. McVeagh insisted that a reward be paid to the John Hayes who had made the discovery of the diamonds and in his great candour handed them over.
In the aftermath of his extraordinary find, John Hayes had to give evidence before the American Consul and in return was given only travelling expenses – eventually he received a reward of only £10 pounds for the discovery of gems worth over $23,000! However his story made news all over the world, providing a much-need positive story from what was such a tragic event.