Buncrana in Donegal will host the 5th Laurentic Conference and Wreath Laying ceremony on the 8th -10th May, 2013 remembering the men who died when SS Laurentic sank in Lough Swilly Co Donegal in 1917. This tribute to the soldiers who lost their lives has resulted in an engagement with Ireland's Canadian diaspora and in fostering relationships and creating trade and economic links between Canada and Ireland. One of the keynote speakers at the conference will be the Canadian Ambassador to Ireland, Loyola Hearn.
The SS Laurentic was built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast, the same shipyard that would launch the infamous Titanic, just a few years later. Like Titanic, she was also a White Star Line steamer, built to service the booming trans-Atlantic passenger trade. The early and regular route for this luxury steamer was from Liverpool to Canada but was later requisitioned as a transport ship for ferrying soldiers and war materials around the globe. It was while carrying out these duties that Laurentic would meet her end and how it was forever linked with County Donegal in Ireland.
In the dead of winter, on January 24th, 1917, Laurentic set sail from Liverpool bound for Halifax, in Canada. It was a normal trans-Atlantic run, one in which she carried 475 men, as well as some 3,211 ingots of gold. The gold, valued at the time at some five million pounds, would be used to buy much-needed munitions to help with the war in Europe.
As it steamed around the northern coast of Ireland, an order was given for Laurentic to put in at Lough Swilly, a sheltered inlet in County Donegal. Captain Reginald Norton eased the huge vessel to moorings off the town of Buncrana, where four sailors who had contracted spotted fever were taken from the ship. In the safe waters of the Swilly, Captain Norton permitted a brief shore leave for some of the crew.
Only a few years earlier, Lough Swilly had been home to the British Grand Fleet, and was still a thriving naval base serving ships headed for the Atlantic. This base made the waters outside of Lough Swilly a target for German U-Boats, the captains of which prowled in the waters along the coast, laying mines or hoping to make a victim of a passing ship.
In the gathering darkness of late afternoon on January 25th, the SS Laurentic nosed out of Lough Swilly, toward the open sea. She passed through the boom that stretched across the Lough, protecting the waters from the U-Boat threat. On her starboard side loomed the great guns of Dunree Fort. On her port side flashed the lighthouse on Fanad Head.
“It was dark and bitterly cold with a black rolling frost,” one sailor on Laurentic recalled. “The ship increased speed to sixteen knots. It was about 6pm, with flurries of snow. There was a sudden explosion, followed quickly by another.”
The SS Laurentic had struck two German mines. Within twenty minutes the great liner sank, barely enough time for lifeboats to be lowered into the frigid waters. For many, however, the lifeboats were of no help. Some 354 men died from wounds, drowning, or exposure in the dreadful weather conditions, which at the time of sinking was described as a full-blown snow storm.
Only 121 survivors made it safely to shore that night. In the days that followed, the largest known funeral in Buncrana’s history would grip the seaside community, while for months afterwards the bodies of Laurentic’s dead washed up on coastlines in Donegal and beyond.
Many of the men are buried at Cockhill cemetery in Buncrana and some are buried at Fahan Parish Church graveyard, just outside Buncrana.
There is also the question as to what happened to the rich cargo as 20-25 bars of the 43 tonnes of gold on board are still not accounted for.
The organisers of the Laurentic conference and events are inviting family members, relatives and government representatives of the countries affected by this disaster including Ireland, UK, USA, Canada, South Africa and Hong Kong along with a cross-border Trans-Atlantic Economic Development Conference. If you wish to reserve a place at the conference please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to John McCarter, Chris Nikkel and Lisa Flanagan for contributing this story.