by Ed Forry
At the turn of the 19th century, a British steamship company, White Star Line, operated passenger service between Liverpool and Canada.
In 1908 the company launched the two largest ships built at that time for the service – the SS Megantic and SS Laurentic. The Laurentic was the fastest ship yet built for the trans-Atlantic crossings, sailing regularly between Liverpool and Quebec City.
At the onset of the Great War, the Laurentic was commissioned in Montreal as a troop transport for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and began service as a merchant cruiser in 1915.
On Jan. 25, 1917, the ship was in Ireland’s Lough Swilley, a glacial fjord in County Donegal between the Inishowen and the Fanad peninsulas, when it struck two German mines. The ship was carrying 475 passengers and crew, and 43 tons of gold ingots. It sank in less than one hour, and 354 souls perished.
In late May, Boston philanthropist John Cullinane made an emotional voyage to Donegal to visit the site where the ship sank those many years ago. It was a trip he had long hoped to make, to pay a memorial tribute to an uncle he never knew, Walter Fitzgerald, a Royal Navy seaman who went down with the ship that day. Cullinane, who carried a photo of his lost uncle with him to the site, told the Irish News newspaper in an interview:
“Walter was my mother’s brother. The picture shows him seated at left with two of his friends from Ballymacaw, which is just outside Dunmore East on the ocean off Waterford, a very beautiful place, It’s incredible to think that this townland, effectively a crossroads, lost three of its sons on the SS Laurentic.”
His plan was to take a boat out onto the lough and hold a brief memorial service for his uncle, laying a wreath on the waters near the sunken ship. “It was quite emotional and touching,” he said in the interview. “We went out on a small dingy to the spot where the Laurentic had gone down and we could actually see the ship on a sonar image. I must say it was immensely touching.”
In a later e-mail to the BIR, Cullinane said he “had an incredibly good trip on multiple fronts to NI. However, primary reason for going was to lay wreath over my uncle’s ship, the SS Laurentic lost off Lough Swilley in WW I after hitting German mines.
“It was quite an emotional experience particularly because our little fishing boat had sonar and you could see the ship. Also, the captain’s grandfather actually heard the explosion. Neither of these did I expect.
“I thought we would be laying a wreath in the general area. Michael O’Heaney, a South Boston guy, arranged the trip and joined me along with Frank Costello and Mike’s assistant, Kathryn Moody (maiden name), a true asset. Donegal is a wild and beautiful place.”
Cullinane was a special economic advisor to Belfast during the Clinton administration, and was founder of a “Friends of Belfast” group, a business network promoting social and business ties between the US, Canada, and Northern Ireland. During his visit last month to Belfast, he gave a lecture at Queen’s Universty entitled “The economics of conflict resolutions: Northern Ireland and the Clinton peace efforts.”