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Courtmacsherry Bay bounded on the east by the Old Head of Kinsale and on the west by the Seven Heads, has a ragged stretch of coastline that has caused many a good ship to flounder, the area being well acquainted with shipwreck and maritime disaster.

The Union shipwrecked off Kilbrittain - 1763
SS City of Chicago shipwrecked at the Old Head of Kinsale - 1892
SS Lusitania torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale - 1915

The Union shipwrecked off Kilbrittain - 1763

The Freeman Journal, Dublin, dated 31st December 1763, reported that on Friday morning 26th December 1763 the good ship Union, under Captain Harvey, on route from Bristol to Limerick, was "lost off Kilbrittain in the violent gale of wind". That same Friday morning, nine boats which lay at anchor near Cove, "were entirely wrecked to pieces", it was feared that some lives were also lost.

SS City of Chicago shipwrecked at the Old Head of Kinsale - 1892

The Inman liner SS City of Chicago was built in Glasgow by Charles Connell & Co., she stretched to 132m in length, was 14m wide and had a gross weight of about 5200 tons, she was powered by a three cylinder compound steam engine. First launched on 23rd May 1883, the City of Chicago started her maiden voyage on the 18th September that same year from Liverpool to New York via Queenstown Cork (now Cobh). In the following nine years she would make regular crossings from Liverpool to New York carrying an average of 600 passengers and on a few occasions even carrying over 1100 passengers. A one way crossing would take about nine days.

On the 22nd June 1892 a heavy fog hung low over the Old Head of Kinsale as the SS City of Chicago under the command of Captain Redford steamed across the southern tip of Courtmacsherry Bay. Unknown to the captain the ship was much further north than he intended and on a direct collision course with the treacherous cliffs of the Old Head of Kinsale. Had he throttled speed sooner and checked the depths there may have been some chance of saving the liner, but the City of Chicago ran aground on the rocks at Ringagurteen Point on the western side of the Old Head of Kinsale.

Luck was surely sailing with those passengers on that foggy day in June 1892, not only were there no serious injuries, but miraculously while the liner had run aground it did not immediately sink. Captain Redford ordered the propellers be kept running to hold the liner firm against the rocks and prevent it from slipping back into deeper waters. All passengers were rescued and surprisingly also the passengers baggage. For three days the 132m long liner withstood the incessant battering of the Atlantic seas, but the proud liner finally succumbed, listed to one side, then began to break up and sink.

One hundred and ten years later the broken wreck of the City of Chicago still lies down there in her watery grave, twenty meters below the surface, at the foot of the cliffs at Ringagurteen Point.

Diving excursions to the wreck take place from Kinsale or Courtmacsherry, for experienced divers only.

SS Lusitania torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale - 1915

On the evening of the 6th May 1915, the Admiralty in Queenstown, Co. Cork, alarmed that three ships had already been lost in the previous two days to German U-boat torpedo fire, sent the following warning to all shipping in the area: "U-boats operating off the South coast of Ireland." Captain Turner of the SS Lusitania received the message at 19:50 that evening and again at 20:30. In response to the warning, the watch was doubled on the Lusitania, the davits were swung out to ease any eventual launch of lifeboats, the lights were doused and the ships speed reduced on the approach to Fastnet by dark. Captain Turner assumed that by daylight of the following day the Lusitania would be picked up by a Royal Navy escort and accompanied possibly into Queenstown.

On the morning of the 7th May 1915 there was still no sign of a Navy escort, instead, more warning messages from the Admiralty concerning the supposed location of the enemy: "U-boats operating in the Southern section of the Irish Channel. Last known enemy position, 20 miles south of Coningbeg lightship. Ensure that Lusitania gets this message." Indeed she did get the message, around 11:00am that morning, and it may well have sealed the fate of the SS Lusitania, because Captain Turner now changed course North-Eastwards towards the Irish coast and towards the sights of the German U-boat.

With four recent kills, the German U-boat U20 Captained by Walther Schwieger had turned East towards home on the morning of the 7th May 1915, when the British warship HMS Juno out of Queenstown crossed its sights. Captain Schwieger with two torpedoes left to fire considered attempting a shot at the Juno but decided against it, the firing position being unsuitable and dangerous. Had he taken that shot it may well have effected the fate of the SS Lusitania and possibly altered the course of the First World War.

At 14:30 Schwiegers U20 first sighted the four funnels of the Lusitania as it steamed from the South West along the Irish Coast towards the Old Head of Kinsale and Queenstown. There seems to have been no hesitation on the part of Captain Schwieger to sink the liner, he immediately set about bringing the U20 into an optimal firing position which manoeuvre was accomplished by about 15:00.

On that same day, the 7th May 1915 at about 15:00, the Henderson family were out on the Old Head of Kinsale admiring the Cunard liner SS Lusitania as she steamed past on her way, it seemed, towards Queenstown. The Hendersons, a father and three sons, were not to know that they would soon witness one of the most horrifying of maritime tragedies unfolding before them out there on the Atlantic.

At 15:10 the Lusitania was about twelve miles off the Old Head of Kinsale when the U20 fired one torpedo from about 700 meters distance. The torpedo shot towards the liner at about 35 Knots and hit starboard. Captain Walther Schwieger later reported "an abnormally strong detonation followed by an enormous cloud of smoke", he also reported seeing a second explosion "as if munitions had detonated". Schwieger denied having fired a second time saying: "I could not have brought myself to fire a second torpedo into the hundreds of passengers who were trying to save themselves".

With fire now raging on the Lusitania, she stopped all forward movement, began to list to starboard and sank within 18 minutes. Of the 1960 on board, 1198 passengers and crew lost their lives.

SS Lusitania by NYTimes

It is still hotly debated whether the SS Lusitania was painted in camouflage colours when she left New York on her final voyage; whether she was transporting munitions, gold bars or priceless paintings; if the SS Lusitania was sacrificed by Sir Winston Churchill to encourage the US to join the war against Germany?. In fact it would be a few more years before the US would join the war, but the sinking of the Lusitania with 128 US citizens on board did strain US-German relations both politically and commercially. Despite the ongoing war, US-German trade had continued up to this point with quite friendly and perhaps profitable relations existing between the countries.

The SS Lusitania now lies at rest at a depth of 90 meters and about 12 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale.

Paddy Shiels, Jun-2004.

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