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 highlights the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.
On the evening of October 13, Tony McCarthy delivered a well-attended lecture, sponsored by Dúchus Clonakilty, entitled ‘The Battle of Jutland – A Cork Tragedy’ in The Parish Centre, Clonakilty. Amongst those in attendance were a number of individuals whose relatives had taken part in what has been described as one of, if not the, largest sea battle to ever take place. McCarthy, a Skibbereen-based Garda sergeant, lived the first 15 years of his life in Donoughmore in Barryroe. His initial interest in the Battle of Jutland came from his grandfather, who told him about three of his friends, from Lehina in Barryroe, who had died in the battle. In recent years, as part of his dissertation for a diploma in Genealogy in UCC, Tony discovered eyewitness accounts of the battle and located a photograph of one of the ships involved, the HMS Defence, taken seconds before it exploded killing all 904 sailors on board, including the three Lehina men. Speaking to Tom MacSweeney recently on the ‘This Island Nation’ podcast, McCarthy reflected on the battle’s significance, noting “It was a very pivotal battle because it changed the course of sea battles after, after the Battle of Jutland, the Germans went back to unrestricted submarine warfare and sank merchant ships indiscriminately…before that, they’d give a warning to a ship. The main reason for this was that after the battle, the German fleet was very badly damaged and the Kaiser wouldn’t allow them out to sea again afterwards, and they stayed in port for the rest of the war, more or less.” He added further context, remarking that unlike the German fleet which became somewhat stationary thereafter, “The British navy was back on the water again within 38 hours, and they continued what they had been from the beginning of the war, which was imposing a distant blockade on Germany. They had a fleet off of Scotland near the Orkney Islands, which was stopping things going to Germany by sea, and a fleet between France and England, which was implementing the same restrictions on them.”
McCarthy’s ability to contextualise the period helps to clear up many of the misconceptions that remain about Irish involvement in the first World War, and provide credit to the many men whose service has hitherto either gone unrecognised or, at the time, drew disdain. Speaking to MacSweeney, McCarthy provided insight into why many coastal communities, like West Cork, had particularly strong ties to the Royal Navy, noting, “Being in the British Navy at the end of the last century and the beginning of the 1900s was like working at Facebook or Google today. When you think about the ships, and the amount of employment they provided: From the steel to make the ships, the armaments, and even just to run the ships. They were huge coal guzzling machines. At full steam, they burnt 25 tons of coal an hour, so you can imagine the amount of manpower it took to shovel coal into the furnaces for these ships and the amount of miners it took to mine enough coal to keep one of these ships going for a year. It provided work not only just here, but in Wales, and all throughout the British Empire.” Amongst the aspects of the conflict that McCarthy has researched are the naval arms race in the buildup to the war, the socioeconomic backgrounds of the local sailors involved, the harsh working conditions endured by those on board the ships, and the aftermath and commemorations of the Battle of Jutland.
However, aside from his own research, the recent lecture is indicative of larger community efforts to recognise those from West Cork who participated in WWI. On May 31, 2016, a memorial consisting of three standing stones was erected in Lislevane Cemetery in Barryroe, to coincide with the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. Many of the organisers of the monument, representing the historical group in Courtmacsherry and Barryroe, had also been active in the commemorations to mark the sinking of the Lusitania, before turning their attention to shedding light on the memories of their overlooked forbearers, who had participated in the war effort on the side of Allies. McCarthy notes that many other maritime communities have similar stories to be uncovered, whether their inhabitants’ heroic efforts occurred on land or sea. There is a trove of information connecting local narratives to the major events in world history. Who will tell your community’s story?
*Many thanks to Sergeant Tony McCarthy for information provided in this article.