Castlegregory and The Lusitania
100 years ago, on 7 May, the Cunard ocean liner Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank off the Old Head of Kinsale with the loss of 1,198 lives. For some time after the event, bodies washed up along the shores of the south west of Ireland, one even found as far north as Galway. In July 1915 the tragedy would impact on the local communities in the Castlegregory/Cloghane area. During that month two bodies were washed up on local beaches, both of them victims of German U-boats. On 11 July 1915, a body was discovered on Stradbally Beach and it was immediately assumed to be a victim of the Lusitania. However, it transpired that the body was that of an American by the name of Leon C Thresher who had been on board the SS Falaba which had been torpedoed and sunk on 28 March 1915. As the only American to die on the Falaba, his death became known as the ‘Thresher Incident’ in the American media and almost led to early U.S. involvement in the First World War. Mr Thesher’s body is believed to be buried in the graveyard at Stradbally.
A week later, on 17 July, a badly decomposed body was found by locals on the beach in Brandon Bay. They sent for the R.I.C. (Royal Irish Constabulary) and the local sergeant from Castlegregory, a man by the name of Regan, who promptly took control of the situation. It became clear very quickly that this body was definitely from the Lusitania, as part of the still attached life-jacket bore the name of the ship. Letters and personal belongings found on the body identified it as that of Victor E Shields, a first class passenger on the Lusitania.
Sergeant Regan contacted the coroner in Tralee who informed him that an autopsy would not be necessary; so Regan arranged to have the body buried in the old graveyard in Cloghane. He wrote a letter to the American Consul, Wesley Frost, stating that they had done everything they could and had treated the body with the greatest respect and dignity. He offered his deepest sympathies to Mrs Shields, little realising that she too had perished on the Lusitania. Mrs Shields’ body was never recovered, or at least never identified, and she could possibly be one of the many unidentified females from the Lusitania buried in the Old Church Graveyard in Cobh.
Mr Shields was an American from Cincinnati, Ohio. Aged 45, he lived with his wife, Retta, at 3406 Burnet Avenue in the Avondale area of the city and ran a successful liquor business on East Pearl Street. At the time of his death he left an estate worth over $100,000, a lot of money even now.
The Shields had no children, but on learning of the discovery of the body, the siblings of Shields, like many other families caught in the trauma and grief of the tragedy, wanted to know the exact cause of death; be it by drowning, exposure or injuries suffered in the explosion. They asked for an autopsy to be carried out on the remains. The body was exhumed and Dr John Higgins, from the North Infirmary in Cork, conducted the autopsy at the local undertakers in Cloghane on 23 July, with the American Consul Frost in attendance. The autopsy proved to be inconclusive, as the poor state of the remains made it difficult to establish the true cause of death, with Higgins noting ‘the probability is that death was brought about as a result of shock or exposure, probably the former.’ Mr Shields’ body was returned to the coffin and shipped to America where it was later re-interred.
Frost, in a letter to the American government praised the actions of Sergeant Regan and the locals in the way they had dealt with a very difficult situation and suggested that ‘the estate of Mr. Shields should forward from two to five pounds to the sergeant and his colleagues for the excellent spirit in which they discharged their duties.’
Although America would not enter the First World War until 1917 the sinking of the Lusitania would prove to be a pivotal moment as the loss of American lives, including that of the unfortunate Victor Shields and his wife Retta, helped to turn public opinion in the US against Germany.