Remembering a Cork sea tragedy that left 24 dead

One of the worst Cork tragedies of the 20th century occurred in November, 1940. RONNIE HERLIHY, who lost two uncles in the disaster, tells the terrible story of the SS Ardmore
Remembering a Cork sea tragedy that left 24 dead
SS Ardmore

THE SS Ardmore sailed out of the Port of Cork on the night of Monday, November 11, 1940.

Her destination was Fishguard, but she would never make it, creating a mystery that would not be solved for almost six decades.

She was the third ship to hold the name Ardmore belonging to the City of Cork Steam Packet Company, whose office building can still be seen today on Penrose Quay, with its distinctive columns and St George and the Dragon mounted on top.

Built in 1921, until 1939 the vessel traded mainly between Cork and Liverpool, primarily as a cattle ship. Then she began trading on the Cork to Fishguard route.

What would prove to be her final voyage took place on that fateful November night, when she left her berth at Penrose Quay with her crew of 24 men — 16 from Cork — and a cargo of about 1,000 cattle and pigs, and other agricultural goods. Among the crew were my uncles John and James Power, brothers of my mother.

The Ardmore’s last reported sightings were off Ballycotton at 10.20pm, and just over 30 minutes later she passed Knockadoon Head. She was due into Fishguard the next morning, but never arrived.

In the days after, air and sea searches of her route could find no trace of her crew or any wreckage from the ship.

But over the ensuing weeks, some wreckage and livestock were washed ashore, both on the Welsh Pembrokeshire coast and on the Saltee Islands, off Co. Wexford.

One of the vessel’s lifeboats was found on the Welsh coast on November 26, and a month later the bodies of Captain Thomas Ford, Able Seaman Frank O’Shea and Cattleman Michael Raymond were found on the Pembrokeshire coast.

No other bodies were ever recovered and mystery enveloped the whereabouts of the wreck or what catastrophe had befallen the ship that she was unable to get off a mayday call before she was lost.

In the days immediately after her disappearance, a constant stream of relatives of the lost crewmen called to the company’s Cork offices to see if there was any news.

An Irish Independent article on November 15, 1940, gives us a sense of the grief felt by the families and the general feeling of melancholy that surrounded the city at the time.

It began: “Another day has passed without lifting the veil of mystery surrounding the fate of the Cork Steam Packet Company’s Ardmore, of which nothing has been heard since Monday night when the vessel left Cork for Fishguard.

“Throughout the day, the offices of the company at 10 Penrose Quay had been visited by streams of relatives of the crew and by persons who had either goods or livestock consigned on the ship.”

The same day, the Cork Examiner carried a detailed article on her disappearance, in which Cork Labour TD Jeremiah Hurley said: “They were men who did their duty fearlessly and had faced the terrors of the deep in order to earn a livelihood for their families. We are all anxiously awaiting news in the hope that our worst fears will not be realised.”

Unfortunately, as the days went by and no news was forthcoming, all hope was lost for the safe return of the crew.

Some time later, while walking along a strand a few miles from Wexford Harbour, a postman found a bottle that contained a few badly scrawled messages on pieces of cigarette boxes, one of which said: “Goodbye to all at home. From M. Ford. Send help quick, ship sinking fast. Ardmore, Cork.”

It was a final scribbled note from the captain, a native of Liverpool, but who became well known in shipping circles in Cork and Dublin and had taken command of the Ardmore just a few months earlier.

Among the tragic personal stories was that of Frank O’Shea, of 16, Lower Oliver Plunket Street, Cork city. The 39-year-old had left behind his heavily pregnant wife, Julia and four young children that November day and never returned. Julia gave birth to a daughter soon after.

Although it was generally accepted at the time that the vessel had struck a mine — this being during World War II — the mystery of her fate or her whereabouts would not be solved for another 58 years.

It wasn’t until 1998 that the wreck of the SS Ardmore was officially identified, lying in around 83 feet of water with her mid-ship blown out, a couple of miles south of the Saltee Islands and just under six miles from the harbour at Kilmore Quay, Co. Wexford. She had indeed struck a mine.

It was divers from Kilmore Quay who had originally discovered the wreck, and after a lot of research by Dubliner Peter Mulvany, in conjunction with diver Eugene Kehoe, she was formally identified.

On April 25, 1998, a special mass of remembrance was held in the North Cathedral to honour the crew of the SS Ardmore, and allow the remaining relatives to bring some closure to the tragedy that had befallen their families all those years before.

There was a real feeling in the North Cathedral that day, that while she may have left Cork in November, 1940, she was now finally coming home and her crew could rest in peace.

Those relatives later had a bronze plaque commissioned to commemorate the lost crew of the SS Ardmore, placing it at her berth on Penrose Quay, where today stands the Michael Collins Bridge.

Ironically, the first SS Ardmore, built in 1909, had been lost in the previous world war, on November 13, 1917, sunk by a German torpedo off the Wexford coast, with the loss of 19 of her 27 crew. The second Ardmore was built in 1920 but in 1923 she went to the B&I Line in Dublin and was renamed Lady Longford.

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