Fr Kevin Hegarty
Eighty years ago, World War II was raging throughout Europe. France had fallen to a German onslaught and the British Army had been evacuated from Dunkirk. Though Ireland was neutral in the conflict, its repercussions were felt along the western seaboard in the summer of 1940.
In late June of the year, the SS Arandora Star, a cruise ship commandeered for the British war effort, left Liverpool for Canada. The purpose of the journey was to bring Italians and Germans to internment camps in Canada.
Apart from 86 German prisoners of war, the vast majority of the passengers were innocent civilians who had settled in Britain. Typical of them were Hans Moeller, a Jewish refugee who had escaped Nazi terror in Germany, and Ernesto Moruzzi, an Italian chip shop owner in Glamorgan. The British government, suspicious of their loyalty in the war, decided to incarcerate them.
The ship was dangerously overcrowded. A vessel, designed to carry 500 passengers, had on-board 754 Italians, 479 Germans, the 86 prisoners of war, 200 military guards and a crew of 147. The ship captain, Edward Moulton, believed that the Arandora Star was a potential death trap. If it were to sink he feared ‘we shall all be drowned like rats’.
For over half of the passengers, including himself, his dire prophecy was fulfilled. On July 2, 75 miles west of Bloody Foreland in Donegal, the ship was torpedoed by a German V Boat. Pandemonium followed.
The ships lights failed, glass shattered and damaged pipes spewed out noxious fumes. A few of the lifeboats proved faulty. The passengers had not been given any training in emergency drills. Those trying to escape had their way impeded by the barbed wire that had been put in place to keep the internees below deck. Sergeant Norman Price, who survived the ordeal, later recalled:
“I could see the hundreds of men clinging to the ship. They were like ants and then the ship went up at once and slid rapidly down, taking the men with her. Many men had broken their necks jumping or diving into the water. Others injured themselves by landing on drifting wreckage and floating debris near the sinking ship”.
Later that day, Canadian destroyer, the St Laurent, rescued 868 survivors. Over 800 hundred had perished in the tragedy, over 400 of the were Italians.
By August, some of the bodies began to come ashore in Scotland and along the western seaboard from Malin Head to Blacksod Bay. The Mayo News reported that 100 dead bodies were floating in the sea of the Inishkea Islands in Erris, but as the conditions were turbulent they could not be recovered.
On August 6, Garda William Cullen, on duty in the Belmullet station, took a call from the Annagh Head lookout post. Such lookout posts were established all along the coast of Ireland by the Government as one of the measures to protect Irish neutrality. The coast watchers informed Cullen that a body had come ashore.
Cullen cycled to Annagh where he identified the man as 21-year-old Private Donald Domican of the Welsh Regiment, from his army pay book. Also found on him were an English half penny, a toy lead soldier and some letters and photographs.
After an autopsy in Belmullet hospital he was buried in the Church of Ireland cemetery in the town. The next day at Annagh, Garda Sergeant Burns identified another body as Trooper Frank Carter of the Royal Dragoons, a married man from Kilburn in London. Both Domican and Carter were guards from the Arandora Star.
Bodies continued to come ashore until December 1940. In all, 213 were buried in Termoncarragh graveyard on the Mullet peninsula. Their headstones are a mute testimony to the suffering of innocent people in war.
An inquiry into the sinking of the Arandora Star absolved the British Government of responsibility for the disaster. The tragedy did, however, change its policy on the interment of foreigners.