NOT much is left to salvage from the Lusitania, torpedoed near the Old Head of Kinsale in 1915 – anything of value has long ago been carted off.
Years of indiscriminate salvaging of the wreck by a diversity of divers eventually led to such a public outcry that in 1994 the then Minister for the Arts, Michael D Higgins, slapped Ireland’s first Underwater Heritage Order on the sunken liner.
He declared it a war grave and part of the nation’s heritage. The Minister also prohibited unlicenced dives, thus ensuring no material could be removed without proper authorisation.
In a curious twist, the Lusitania wreck itself belongs to a private individual, Santa Fé millionaire Gregg Bemis. His claim to the vessel goes back to 1969 when he and a Mr McComber of Boston and John Light, a US military diver, formed the Kinvara Shipping Company and bought the wreck for £1,000 from the Liverpool and War Risks Company. The plan was to recover non-ferrous metals from the vessel, but the venture failed and eventually the company was declared insolvent.
John Light, who remained for some time in Kinsale, was under the impression the salvage rights belonged to him and subsequently his share in the company was transferred to his widow, Muriel Acton of Kinsale. In 1995, Ms Acton challenged Mr Bemis’ right to the wreck, but in an American court, she failed in her action to establish that she was the owner of the vessel.
In this country, after a marathon ten-year legal action at a cost to the Irish taxpayer of almost €1m in legal fees, Bemis had his rights to the wreck and to the contents of the vessel legally confirmed. The State had argued that it was for Ireland to decide the future of what was on board.
Mr Bemis currently is putting forward the argument that sections of the port side of the wreck ‘should be opened up to gain access to the inside for an analysis of where and what happened when the German torpedo hit’. He seeks an authoritative explanation for the ‘second explosion’ and its role in sending the vessel to a watery grave in just 18 minutes.
In a public letter, he claims that for over 40 years he has been trying to resolve issues surrounding the liner’s ‘demise,’ but has been “thwarted” in his efforts by the Underwater Archeology Unit (UAU) of the Monuments department of the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, which insists on treating the Lusitania as an archeological site.
He says a forensic dive he had planned this year for the centenary could not go ahead because of ‘impossible conditions’ that the State imposed. However, the Department defended its stance in a statement to the Irish Examiner. It said that the conditions attached to Bemis’s diving licence were largely the same as earlier licences and that the licence runs to the end of 2015. Quite rightly it states that the Lusitania is one of the world’s best-known shipwrecks and that the conditions attached to the licence are ‘no more onerous than is absolutely necessary to protect a wreck of global significance’.
Local historian, Paddy O’Sullivan disagrees. Last week, in comments to this newspaper, he called for the Department to stop obstructing dives to the Lusitania site – a point endorsed by commercial diver Eoin McGarry, who is familiar with the wreck. He accused the State of frustrating Bemis’s legitimate efforts to explore the vessel and said the State must take a fair share of the blame for failing to resolve the mystery of the second explosion.
Mr McGarry had hoped to be able to salvage the ship’s whistle and ‘incorporate it in some of the land-based centenary commemorations’ – which indeed would be a nice gesture, considering that not one artefact salvaged from the Lusitania has gone to an Irish museum.
What’s more, unless the ship had more than one whistle, Mr McGarry might have some problems carrying out his altruistic offer. Bemis flogged the Lusitania’s whistle for £4,000 at an auction in Sotheby’s in 1989!
At the same auction he sold the ship’s bell to a private buyer for the tidy sum of £10,000. For some time, it was displayed at the British Imperial War Museum at Lambeth in South-east London.
Thousands of other items, including a clock, spoons embossed with the likeness of General Kitchener’s head, and a complete dinner service bearing the name ‘Cunard’ also went under the hammer, and were lost forever to this country.
The sale intensely annoyed Irish museums, but what really got up their noses was the fate of the ship’s propellers, three of which went on sale (the fourth remains trapped under the hull). An American businessman purchased one propeller and had it melted down to make a personalised set of golf clubs. Another went to a Maritime Museum in Liverpool and the third was broken up for scrap in a yard in Pembroke.
The Sotheby anchors went for £20,000 a pop – much to the disappointment of Cobh’s Queenstown Heritage Centre, which could not raise the funds to bid for it. With some justification, the Heritage Centre complained that salvaged artefacts should remain in this country, unless they were going to the families of the victims.
In 2011, a Gregg Bemis-National Geographic examination of the wreck concluded. In addition to the filming of the remains of the liner, the dive team removed significant items. They included a telegraph that controlled the speed and direction of the ship, two large square window-type portholes with detailed filigree and two round-type portholes.
Unlike other occasions, the receiver of wrecks and Customs and Excise Officer for Cork, Paddy O’Sullivan, took possession of the items until such time as title was established.
As a result of the Underwater Heritage Order (UHO), no artefacts from the Lusitania can be removed from the jurisdiction of the state without authorisation.
In the meantime Mr Bemis’s proposal to cut away part of the hull in order to discover what caused the ‘second explosion’ seems unnecessary – if American historians Mitch Peeke, Steve Jones and Kevin Walsh-Johnson are correct.
In their republished book, ‘The Lusitania Story,’ in which they acknowledge the assistance of Gregg Bemis, they refer to the importance of the Lusitania’s 27-page supplementary manifest that they discovered in the Franklin D Roosevelt Presidential Archive. Listed on page 2 of the manifest were 1,250 cases of shrapnel, sent from Bethlehem Steel to the Woolwich Arsenal, and 4,200 cases of cartridges from Remington and Union Munitions Company, weighing over 125 tons.
In addition large quantities of aluminum, nickel, copper, brass and rubber were stowed inside the cargo hold, as well as a large consignment of guncotton. Hence, the second explosion!
Mystery solved! QED.