Today is the sombre centenary of the worst maritime disaster in Irish waters; on 7 May 1915 the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat, with the loss of 1,198 lives, as she neared the end of her journey from New York to Liverpool. It was an event that was instrumental in bringing America into the First World War and it was the subject of accusation and counter accusation in the propaganda war between England and Germany. The Germans asserted that the ship was a legitimate target as it carried munitions; the English denied this but eventually confirmed that it carried small arms ammunition. Rumours persisted of the presence of dangerous high explosives.
The wreck has for years been the subject of legal tussles between the Irish government and the owner of the site, American venture capitalist Gregg Bemis. As Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in 1995, Michael D. Higgins imposed a heritage order on the wreck, saying it should be protected as though it were a war grave; Bemis successfully challenged this and established his ownership, although the heritage order still stands and the ship is considered to be an archaeological site. Bemis’ sale of objects taken from the site, which influenced Higgins’ action, has been controversial; allegedly one of the propellers was melted down to make a personalised set of golf-clubs. Can this be true? If it is, it surely represents the best possible argument against any further removal of material from the wreck. As a result of Michael D’s heritage order, the Bemis/ National Geographic diving expedition, that recovered fixtures and fittings in 2011, had to surrender the objects to the Irish Receiver of Wrecks.
Oddly enough Trinity College Library is home to a few poignant artefacts.
The sinking of the ship has always attracted dedicated researchers. One of these was a Canadian called Terence Robson, whose family presented his research papers to the Library after his death in 1991. While most of this collection of papers comprises copies of records – drawings of the ship, passenger lists, photographs and so on – there is some memorabilia which Robson may have acquired from the sale of objects removed from the wreck in 1982. Among the items sold at that time were 6000 Kitchener commemorative spoons, which were to have been presented to the first-class passengers as a memento of the voyage, and a box of watches.