How was Kingstown affected by the sinking of the Leinster?

The mailboat RMS Leinster was torpedoed by a German submarine just a month before the end of World War I with a loss of 569 lives. It is the worst maritime disaster on the Irish Sea.


For the community of Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire), 10 October 1918 began like any day in a busy port town. The first locals knew of the incident was the sound of the torpedoes. The Royal Mail Ship (and passenger ferry) Leinster was on its regular daily run to Holyhead in Wales. When it was twelve miles out, just past the Kish lightship, disaster struck. The Weekly Irish Times reported ‘residents of Kingstown state that the noise of the explosion was heard in the township.’ It is difficult to know what they thought but they must have been worried. As it was wartime, camouflaged civilian ships often carried soldiers and military cargo unofficially. The Irish sea was patrolled by German U-boats and one of them (UB-123) targeted the Leinster. There were 771 passengers and crew aboard.

The best analysis puts the number of victims at 569: twelve were locals. Ten were staff of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. Many lived in the Tivoli Terrace area of Kingstown (1 on map). Denis Whelan was aboard the sister ship, RMS Connaught, with the later captain of the Leinster, William Birch, who also died in the tragedy. My own ancestor, Michael Joyce, M.P. for Limerick, was aboard but survived.

Kingstown victims of the sinking
William John Brennan Henry Longmore Frances Saunders
Michael Harvey John Loughlin Adam Smyth
James Hickey Bernard Murphy William Warren
Patrick Horan Patrick Joseph O’Toole Denis Whelan

The Kingstown lifeboat was not launched due to the time it would take to assemble the crew. Several destroyers were in the vicinity and altered course to assist. H.M.S. Mallard reached the site of the wreck just over an hour after the explosion, followed by H.M.S. Lively. There was a fear that they might crush survivors who were floating in the water. Leinster stoker, William Maher, another Kingstown man, swam several times from a life raft to an upturned boat to rescue survivors who were clinging to it. This father of eight was later commended for his bravery by the Kingstown Urban Council. He was awarded a silver medal by the Royal Humane Society. One of the people he saved, a London girl called Dorothy Toppin (with family links to Kingstown), presented Maher with a watch as a token of her appreciation, which he wore proudly for the rest of his life.

As rescue ships began to return, many victims were brought to St. Michael’s Hospital (2) on Lower George’s street. The Spanish Flu pandemic meant the hospital had only two vacant beds at the time. They scrambled to discharge anyone who could be sent home to convalesce. The hospital was soon besieged by terrified relatives and the Dublin Metropolitan Police had to assist with crowd control. Dr J.A. Maloney was the surgeon. The hospital’s chaplain, Reverend Father Young was ‘untiring in his devotion’ to his congregation during this period. Another stalwart helper was local general practitioner, Dr McDermott. Both doctors were called to give evidence in the ensuing inquest.

On Victoria Wharf (now St. Michael’s Wharf:3), volunteers assisted rescue ships returning with bodies and survivors. As the day wore on, thousands converged to hear news of loved ones. The St John’s Ambulance and Red Cross provided hot beverages. Uninjured passengers were taken to the nearby Royal Marine Hotel (4) and other establishments. A temporary mortuary was set up on Carlisle Pier. Newspapers carried descriptions of the unidentified dead. The descendant of a woman who had intended to travel aboard the Leinster, but had not, told of his grandfather searching the bodies on the pier before he knew she was safe. Several newspaper accounts speak of the great kindness of locals in the aftermath.

Reports of the Leinster often include the phrase ‘Passed by the Press Censor’. References to military cargo and personnel were omitted, though it was an open secret that the mail boats carried soldiers. The inquest for Georgina O’Brien was held in Kingstown, meaning that the community was able to attend. In lieu of an official enquiry, this inquest became a focal point, representing the interests of all parties.

Even as news of the tragedy and rescue of survivors was ongoing, another sister ship, the Ulster, set sail the same afternoon as normal. This perhaps shows the stoic nature of Kingstown people. The Ulster postal sorters must have worked with heavy hearts, knowing that so many colleagues had lost their lives earlier that day. Twenty-one postal workers aboard the Leinster died when the first torpedo directly collided with the mailroom. They are commemorated today on a plaque in Dun Laoghaire’s post office (5).

The anchor of the Leinster was raised in 1991. It is now situated on the seafront in Dun Laoghaire (6). The extensive centenary events were covered in the Irish Times with a video showing descendants visiting the site of the wreck.

Twenty-four victims were crew who came from Holyhead. At the centenary commemorations, the then First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, represented their loss showing how the two communities across the Irish sea were united by this tragedy.