Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway's Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column will highlight the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.
Midway across the Atlantic on a recent Aer Lingus flight, as I stretched my legs and switched my headrest touchscreen from an array of recent films and past Oasis hits to the flight status screen, I noticed an unusual marker on the approaching map of Ireland. There, listed off the southern coast wasn’t Cape Clear or one of the many other smaller islands that one might expect to see. Rather, the title ominously listed the final resting place of the RMS Lusitania on the ocean floor. The Tipperary man next to me, heading home on holidays with his family from their adopted home in Boston, humorously remarked that the inclusion wasn’t exactly the most reassuring historical reference for us to consider as we soared high above the Atlantic! However, the story of the Lusitania is one that has always held a personal sense of intrigue and wonderment for me. While growing up, I heard many a near mythic retelling of accounts from earlier generations of family, who had relayed that the torpedo blast had shaken the windows as far as Goleen school and that, in addition to their standard catch of mackerel, while fishing on that fateful day, my grandmother’s cousins had also taken in one of the pivotal events in the history of maritime warfare when they reportedly saw the distant outline of the ill-fated liner cut through the morning fog, and later heard the loud boom of the explosions reverberate down the West Cork coastline.
Now, during the decade of centenary commemorations in Ireland, the sinking of the Lusitania has gained a renewed sense of interest on both the national and local levels. The diverse list of commemorative events in the coastal communities of Kinsale, The Old Head, Cobh, and Courtmacsherry will range from reenactments, lectures, and street fairs, to more formal dinners and wreath laying ceremonies that will feature dignitaries including President Michael D. Higgins. Rightfully, the events will focus on the memories of lives lost and the heroic actions of locals in both the immediate aftermath of the tragedy and in the weeks that followed. However, when placed against the complex political backdrop of the historical period, the story of the liner’s sinking, and particularly that of the man whose action had sent the 32,000-ton ship to its end, speaks to the importance of perspective in acts of commemoration and historical memory.
In the spring of 1966, a personal invitation from the Irish government was delivered to the home of then 79-year old Raimund Weisbach in Hamburg, Germany requesting his presence as a part of the 50th anniversary commemorations of the Easter Rising. As a young torpedo officer on the morning of May 7, 1915, Weisbach was beneath the West Cork waves at the periscope of German U-boat SM U-20, watching the aftermath of the attack he had just carried out on the RMS Lusitania. As death tolls soared and eyewitness accounts emerged in the weeks and months following the luxury liner’s sinking, Weisbach and his crewmates were condemned in the Allied media for the destruction of what was deemed a civilian ship. Britain saw the geographical proximity to Ireland’s coast as a useful opportunity for recruiting campaigns, which sought to draw outrage from the general Irish population, and inspire additional Irishmen to take an active role in the war effort.
However, Irish nationalist reactions to the ongoing war off the West Cork coast were varied, and certainly speak to the saying that politics makes for strange bedfellows. Constitutional nationalists, who had supported the allied cause since John Redmond first called upon them to defend “the coasts of Ireland from foreign invasion”, were in agreement with the revamped British recruitment efforts, as evidenced by a statement in the Redmonite organ the ‘Freeman’s Journal’ that the Lusitania marked the “last great violation of the laws of humanity”. However, physical force elements in the nationalist movement were in the early stages of planning their own uprising on Irish soil, and were thus willing to overlook the media’s vilification of their potential German allies, who might yet help to further their cause. Within such circles, Weisbach and his U-boat comrades stood as an embodiment of the historic dictum ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’.
Beyond indirectly helping the Irish cause through his role in the German war on British shipping lanes in the Atlantic, Weisbach made a much more direct contribution. On the night of Holy Thursday, 1916, Weisbach was again off the Irish coast. However, this time, amongst the cargo of his U-boat were three Irish revolutionaries, including Roger Casement. In his personal recollection of the event, Weisbach noted that when the trio came aboard the U-boat, his only order or knowledge of a plan was that he was to land them safely in Ireland. However, the journey was a central part of a scheme to land some 20,000 German guns, ten machine guns, and several million rounds of ammunition into Ireland for the impending insurrection. Ultimately, the plan to land arms failed. However, the capture of Casement and his associates not long after landing near Banna Strand, and the subsequent execution of Casement and the other leaders of the Dublin Easter Rising in the coming months helped to turn the tides and shift public opinion in favour of physical force nationalism.
Looking back upon the presence of Raimund Weisbach arriving on the tarmac at Dublin Airport for the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, one is left to consider one of the difficult questions involved in acts of commemoration: Where do the historical legacies of complex characters like Raimund Weisbach lie? In his particular case, is it in the often romanticized image of the U-boat officer who, acting as a commander on U-19, helped change the course of Irish history when he delivered the soon to be captured Roger Casement into Tralee Bay? Or is it in the image of the young torpedo officer who only a year earlier, was responsible for the death of over 1,190 civilians in an act that turned public opinion against Germany, and ultimately led a then-neutral United States to enter into WWI?