Ireland’s maritime history is filled with a rich supporting cast of impressive ships. And amongst this fine lineage, whether through fortune, duty or infamy, there are a number of ships that stand out from the crowd. These ships have transcended their moment on the waves and will be remembered as icons, significant in Ireland’s history as any other protagonist.
But which ships are they, which were most important in Irish history? Well we’ve given it a go and put together a collection of what we think are Ireland’s most important ships.
(Before the Lynch mob descends, we’re covering traditional boats in a forthcoming article!)
1. The Asgard
The Asgard was built in 1905 by Colin Archer, a celebrated Norwegian naval architect and was given as a wedding present by Dr Hamilton and Margaret Cushing Osgood to their daughter Molly and her husband Erskine Childers. It was launched on the 1st of August 1905.
The Asgard is most famous for its role in the Howth Gun running. In July of 1914 the ship made its way to Howth holding a cargo of weapons that was crucial to 1916 rising. These weapons would reach the hands of the Irish Volunteers who had pledged to defend Home Rule for Ireland. They landed at Howth on 26 July 1914 and were met by a 800 members of the Irish Volunteers. The Asgard now resides, beautifully restored, in Collins Barracks.
2. M Series Torpedo Boats
Ok, not a single boat but a series of six. Let’s not be too strict about this!
The M Series Torpedo boats were sensibly numbered ‘M1’ to ‘M6’. All six boats were built by Thornycraft at Hampton on the Thames in England. M1 and M2 had originally been built for the Estonian and Latvian Navy’s respectively but were not delivered as the countries had fallen under the Soviet sphere of influence. The first three boats were 22 metres long and had petrol engines. With 2300 horse power they could achieve a max speed of 40 knots. The last three boats were larger and heavier and were each equipped with a 20 mm Madsen machine gun. The boats functioned mainly in a patrolling role during the war, regulating merchant ships and protecting fisheries. They were also used to place defensive sea mines.
3. Jeanie Johnston
The Jeanie Johnston made her maiden emigrant voyage from Blennervile, Co. Kerry to Quebec on 24 April 1848, with 193 emigrants on board, as the effects of the Famine continued to impact Ireland and force emigration. Between 1848 and 1855, the Jeanie Johnston made 16 voyages to North America, sailing to Quebec, Baltimore and New York.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, often referred to as coffin ships, no crew or passenger lives were ever lost on board the Jeanie Johnston. In 1858, en route to Quebec from England with a cargo of timber, she became waterlogged. The crew climbed into the rigging, and after nine days clinging to their slowly sinking ship, they were rescued by a Dutch ship. Even in her loss, she maintained her perfect safety record.
A fully functional replica of Jeanie Johnston is now permanently docked on the Dublin Quays and acts as a living history museum on 19th century emigration.
4. RMS Titanic
One of the most famous ships ever to sail, the RMS Titanic was built in the dockyards of Harland and Wolff in Belfast. Her two sisters Olympic and Britannic had far longer careers but it’s the Titanic and its maiden voyage tragedy that is most remembered.
The largest ship of her day and feted as unsinkable, she struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on the 14th April 1912 on her maiden voyage and sank a few hours later. Titanic has transcended maritime history into global legend. For many she remains a high water mark in maritime grandeur and splendor. Of those abroad, 710 people survived while 1,503 people lost their lives.
5. SS Canberra
Another Harland and Wolf legend. Built in 1960, SS Canberra was originally commissioned by P&O as an ocean liner to operate between the UK and Australia. She cost €17 million to produce, was 250 metre in length and had a gross tonnage of about 45,000. As emigration declined in the early 70’s, and with the Suez canal temporarily closed, she was repurposed as a cruiser and had a long and successful career.
Notably, she was used as troop carrier in the 1982 Falklands war. She transported the Parachute regiment and Royal marines the 17,000 km from the Uk to the Falkland islands. After a considerable refit, she returned to cruising more popular than ever with the British public, endeared by iconic images that had circulated of her with troops on board. She was eventually decommissioned in 1997.
6. HMY Helga / Muirchú
HMY Helga is infamously known for the her role in shelling Dublin during the 1916 Rising but she would later be owned by the Free state, renamed Muirchu (Seahound) and was one of the first ships in the newly formed Irish Navy.
She served with distinction for a further 24 years patrolling the Irish coast and in defense of the Irish state. On the 8th of May 1947, she sank off Saltee Islands in Wexford. All her crew managed to get off safely.
7. RMS Leinster
The RMS Leinster was launched 12th September 1896and chiefly served as the Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) mail boat. She was one of four ships named after the provinces of Ireland and was commissioned by City of Dublin Steam Packet Company for Royal Mail Service. Her vital stats read impressive: 378 feet long, 2,646 tonnage and could travel at up to 24 knots. The RMS Leinster was sunk October 10th, 1918 by German submarine with the loss of 501 lives. This remains single greatest loss of life in the Irish sea.
8. RMS Lusitania
The Lusitania was not built in Ireland but its ultimate fate makes it a significant ship in Irish history. The RMS Lusitania made her maiden voyage on the 7th of September 1907. For nearly 8 years she made 101 round voyages and for a time she was one of the largest, fastest and most luxurious cruise liners around, until she was eclipsed by her rivals the Olympic and Titanic.
On the 7th of May 1915, nearing the end of what would be her final voyage from New York to Liverpool, about 11 miles off Old Head of Kinsale, the Lusitania crossed paths with the German submarine U-20. A single torpedo was all it took. It stuck on the starboard bow and moments later a second explosion erupted from within the hull. The ship began to list steeply and within 18 mins the Lusitania was gone. Of the 1960 on board only 767 survived, and four of which died over the following months.
9. RMS Tayleur
The RMS Tayleur is often called the Victorian Titanic; both were highly promoted ships before they has ever set sail and both would meet an untimely end on their maiden voyages.
On the 19th of January 1854 the Tayleur departed Liverpool on her maiden voyage with 650 passengers including crew. She was a state of the art ship but there was numerous flaws in her design. The ship was never tested on open waters, the masts were unbalanced, the rudder was too small, the ropes jammed as they were too new and stiff. Worst of all the iron hull interfered with the compass readings. They thought they had been travelling South but instead she’d been travelling due West straight towards the rocks of Lambay Island.
The Tayleur dashed and broken by the rocks sunk to the ocean floor taking with her 350 passengers. Women and children suffered the greatest loss, out of the 290 survivors only 3 women and 3 children made it shore alive.
Think we’ve missed a significant ship? Please let us know in the comments below!