The Ship SS Dundalk was built in Glasgow in 1899 at a cost of £40,000 as a flagship for the Dundalk and Newry Steam Packet Company. Her main trade was in carrying cattle and produce from Dundalk to Liverpool and other goods on the return journey with passengers. Her Captain, Hugh O’Neill from Killowen, Co Down, was a very experienced mariner. Despite considerable loss of shipping from wartime attacks by German submarines in the Irish Sea particularly from 1917 onwards, the SS Dundalk made the journey weekly
In December 1917, fifty-two shells were fired at the steamer, one of which damaged a life boat which was blown to pieces. No lives were lost and the Captain and crew were commended for their bravery.
On the night of 14th October 1918 the SS Dundalk was not so lucky. She left Liverpool at 5:00pm and headed northwest on her regular course between Anglesey and the Isle of Man intending to reach the docks in Dundalk by early morning. Shortly after 11:00pm she was attacked by a German submarine without warning. Captain Hugh O’Neill was on the starboard side of the bridge having just relieved the Mate, John Higgins. The torpedo hit the SS Dundalk amidships on the port side and practically split the steamer in two. She began to sink immediately. Timber and iron were blown into mid-air and the survivors stated that they were blinded with ashes and cinders. The steamer went down by the head in about three minutes. The Captain was on the Bridge when the vessel sank.
It is believed that a number of men working below deck were killed by the explosion while the others had no time to reach the deck. The mate John Higgins (crewing in place of his brother James) and seaman Patrick Byrne succeeded in getting one of the lifeboats released from the davits just as the Dundalk sank. Three others – Frank Deery, Patrick Kearney, James Tuite – managed to get into this lifeboat and Kearney was injured in the effort. This lifeboat was badly damaged and nearly sinking. Two of the gunners – Alexander Ferguson and Timothy Connors – were pulled from the water; Ferguson was very ill with flu and clad only in his underwear.
Another boat was also launched by the deck hands—Pat Moonan and Patrick McCourt. They pulled Thomas Fitzgerald, Hugh O’Neill, and a badly injured John Mulqueen from the water. The submarine, which came to the surface as the men were being pulled from the water, stayed for about five minutes but made no attempt to rescue the men. Almost immediately, the SS Carlingford also came on the scene. It nearly ran over one of the lifeboats. The men shouted and believed they received an answering call but the steamer didn’t stop. The actions of the crew of the SS Carlingford caused controversy in the town and led to families being split in the aftermath.
It was a difficult dilemma for the SS Carlingford since the Admiralty instructions were quite clear; “No ocean-going British merchant vessel is permitted to go to the assistance of a ship which has been torpedoed by a submarine”. The subsequent telegram from Captain Hughes explains the actions of the Carlingford: “Master Hughes, SS Carlingford, reports that, when in position 18 miles North by West of the Skerries at 23:45 on 14 October, he sighted two ship’s boats full of men. After making an effort to pick up survivors, he observed conning tower of submarine; effort abandoned and proceeded on voyage”.
The men, who were very cold and hungry, had no food and very little water. The lifeboats were damaged and water had to be baled throughout the night. Ferguson, the gunner who was sick, helped steer a course for the Welsh coast with a compass. The rudder of the boat was broken. They rowed all day. In the evening they were spotted by a seaplane and shortly afterwards the trawler Stormcock picked them up and brought them to Holyhead. The five men in the other lifeboat, after sixteen hours at sea were picked up by the SS Douglas and brought to the Isle of Man where some men were hospitalised.
Twenty lives were lost in the disaster – nineteen men and one woman and there were twelve survivors. Prior to the fatal voyage, on 8th October, eleven men were taken from the ship at Dundalk suffering from influenza. Substitutes had to be found for these men and also for Patrick Hanratty (Fireman) from the Point Road, who was taken ashore in Liverpool and died there. It was thought that his coffin was on the SS Dundalk when she was torpedoed as this had been reported in one of the newspapers the following week. This was not the case as he had died in Liverpool on the 14th of October, the day of the disaster, and was buried in Ford Cemetery in Liverpool on 21st October.
It was a tragic event, the results of which are remembered in Dundalk to this day.