OPINION: No nearer to solving ‘the Lusitania's last mystery'

May 20th, 2019 11:45 AM

By Southern Star Team

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IN May 1915, during the First World War, the Germans torpedoed the Lusitania off the coast of Kinsale with the loss of 1,200 lives, having considered the vessel to be a legitimate target on the grounds that it was transporting armaments to the Allies.

The  saga recently got a new lease of life with the announcement by millionaire owner, Gregg Bemis, that he intended to donate ownership of the wreck and artefacts to the Lusitania Museum-Old Head Signal Tower Heritage Committee. Bemis acquired possession of the sunken vessel in 1968.

According to an exclusive report in this newspaper, he declared he would hand over rights to the vessel sometime in the future: after he died or whenever he formally requested the transfer to take place, or in the event of the proposed museum being built. Bemis also said it was important to get all possible artefacts into the museum,

A noble gesture, indeed! Yet, controversy has long been part of the Lusitania story; and Mr Bemis on several occasions has accused the State of obstructing his efforts to solve the mystery of what caused the devastating second explosion that sank the vessel in 18 minutes.

He claims that licence conditions relating to diving on the vessel have hampered his research and he has described the Underwater Archaeological Unit of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht as ‘a collection of academics who, although well meaning, are well beyond their depth in this project.’


Global significance

He’s found fault also with the Department for failing to protect the wreck from fishermen’s nets that become entangled and tear apart the remains of the vessel; and he criticised the Department for ‘failing to work with him to solve the Lusitania’s last mystery,’ the puzzling explosion aboard the ship.

For its part the Department defended its stance on diving licences as best practice, arguing that the conditions attached to Bemis’ licences were no more onerous than was necessary to safeguard a wreck of global significance.

The Lusitania is protected by an Underwater Heritage Order made by the State in 1995 under the National Monuments Act. All explorations or removal of artefacts from the wreck have to be licensed by the relevant Minister.

Bemis was the recipient of several five-year licenses to recover specific artefacts that would add to the knowledge of the wreck as well as the lives of passengers and crew.  (Any personal effects belong to the descendants of the original owners).

The background is interesting: When Bemis bought the wreck in 1967, it lay in international waters, a situation that changed in 1987 when the International Law of the Sea extended national control of local waters from three to 12 nautical miles. 

The Lusitania is about 11.5 nautical miles off land. Consequently it became the State’s responsibility to licence, monitor and control all activities relating to the wreck.


Sensitive topic

As part of the requirements, a Department archaeologist has to be present during a dive in search of artefacts. Two years ago, when a telegraph machine from the vessel was being hauled to the surface, it fell to the bottom and was lost. The machine was thought to hold vital information regarding the sinking after the ship was torpedoed.

Peadar Tóibín, chairman of a parliamentary watchdog committee, was informed of the incident and urgently sought details as to why an unsupervised dive was undertaken without ‘archaeological methodology.’ 

The fact is that acute public sensitivities relating to the Lusitania can be traced to the early 1980s when the sale of artefacts obtained from the ship rankled with the Irish public.  The Lusitania’s bow, three brass propellers and two bow anchors, as well as thousands of random items such as clocks, spoons (8,000 embossed with the head of General Kitchener) and crockery, including a complete dinner service bearing the name Cunard, were hauled up and sold in Britain and America.

A price tag of £20,000 was put on one of the propellers and was bought by Merseyside Maritime Museum. Another propeller was purchased by a Saudi businessman and a third was melted down to make a personalised set of golf clubs for a rich American. Cobh’s Queenstown Heritage Centre was unable to afford the £20,000 asking price.

One of the ship’s bells was flogged for £10,000 and a ship’s whistle went for £4,000.

No artefacts were handed over to the Irish authorities or to an Irish museum, and there was no legal obligation on the part of the owners of the wreck to do so. It was a situation that angered those people who wanted objects of historical value to remain in Ireland.

The situation today is different, as was evidenced by a project in 2011 involving National Geographic.  In addition to filming the wreck, some significant objects were recovered, but since the Lusitania is now a designated national monument, approval from the Irish Underwater Archaeological Unit and the National Museum of Ireland had to be obtained.  The work was monitored by the Irish Naval Service.

The items recovered were the bridge telemotor, two large square window type portholes and two round type portholes. The artefacts were expected to be donated to Irish museums.


Believe it or not

And now for something different: Sinn Féin strongly opposes Vlad’s madcap €3billion National Broadband Plan and has moved a Dáil motion opposing its introduction. The Republicans want a new agency within the ESB to roll out broadband, thus ensuring that the infrastructure remains in public ownership.

The ESB-SF broadband plan already has put pressure on Fianna Fáil leader, Mickey Martin. Either he backs the SF motion or he again throws his lot in with the Blueshirts, swallowing in the process the fact that the three billion-euro cost of the project will impact heavily on funding for housing, social welfare, health, education, etc, etc. 

‘It’s time for Fianna Fail to put up or shut up,’ said the indomitable Mary Lou McDonald. She’s wrong, of course! 

Martin already has an ingenious plan.  What is it?  It’s this: he wants a new agency within the ESB to roll out broadband!!


Scalded cats!

Like scalded cats, two Fianna Fáil MEP candidates, Billy Kelleher and Malcolm Byrne have been hissing at each other over the divvy-up for electoral purposes of the Ireland South constituency.  Bryne claimed Kelleher has been encroaching on his electoral territory, canvassing in his area as part of what he calls the ‘Billy One Seat Strategy.’ Predictable and sad!


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