Discovery sheds new light on WW1 seaman’s death

In the last five months of World War 1, the O’Donnell family, of Stroove, lost 3 sons at sea but the story of one of them has only recently been discovered by Caroline Carr of Donegal County Museum.

Friday, 2nd August 2019, 8:38 am
Maritime Museum & Planetarium, Greencastle cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Kenneth Allen -

Edward and Annie O’Donnell (née Griffith), Gortgowan, Moville, then Stroove, had 4 sons in the Merchant Navy during World War 1. Their son Mark died whilst serving as mate on S.S.Saint Barchan, of Glasgow, when she was torpedoed, without warning, by the German submarine, UB-94, on October 21, 1918.

She was on passage from Ayr to Dublin, with a cargo of coal, when she was attacked four miles off St John’s Point, Co Down. She sank with the loss of eight crewmen. She had previously survived a torpedo attack on April 5, 1918, when the torpedo missed. Attacked just three weeks before the war ended, the S.S. Saint Barchan was the last merchant vessel to be lost in home waters.

In June of the same year their son John had been serving as seaman on the SS Ardgarth, of Greenock. Whilst on passage from Dublin to Belfast, he contracted pneumonia and was landed in Belfast. He was put on a train to Derry but died there before he could make it home.

Another son, James, was serving as a seaman on the SS Ibis when she was lost, with all hands, in a collision on May 12, 1918. Ibis was on passage from Bilbao to Glasgow, with a cargo of ore, when she was in collision with SS Whimbrel, six miles West of Lizard Point.

The fourth brother, Eddie, survived both WW1 and WW2 at sea. His medals are on display in the Maritime Museum, in Greencastle.

James’ loss, however, was always a mystery to his family at home as they never received official notification of his death. He was simply another unknown casualty of war. Over the years various members of his family searched records and war memorials for mention of his loss. Thankfully due to a recent discovery by Caroline Carr of the Donegal County Museum, the family now have some information regarding his loss.

Caroline was doing research on another project when she found the only piece of evidence referring to James and his tragic loss. What she found was an article in the Belfast Telegraph telling the sad story of the sacrifice of the three brothers. It is likely that this article was included in the Belfast Telegraph due to the fact that the family would have been well-known in Belfast shipping circles as the father and four sons had worked in the cross-channel steamer services.

Caroline was aware of the search being conducted by the Inishowen Maritime Museum into the names of Inishowen people lost at sea. So she passed the article on to museum staff who were able to pass it on to family relatives. At last, while not a story to be celebrated, the family can have a certain amount of closure to this story of courage and loss.

The discovery comes at a time when the Maritime Museum is refreshing the names on the Inishowen Maritime Memorial. Over 100 new names will be added to the memorial, which will be re-dedicated at the Blessing of the Fleet service on August 9.

Thanking the County Museum for the discovery, Maritime Museum manager, Rosemarie Doherty, said “that while these snippets of information may seem trivial to some, they give us a valuable insight into the past and can be of huge significance to a family such as the O’Donnells”.

Rosemarie also stated that “the Maritime welcomes any information regarding the maritime heritage of Inishowen as it greatly adds to our understanding of our place and our people in the past”.