Lifestyle – Community remembers merchant seaman Lawrence Curtis, whose body washed up near Carna in June 1918 after his ship was torpedoed more than 600 miles south of Cork. Judy Murphy reports.
When the SS Ausonia, which sailed out of Liverpool, was torpedoed more than 600 miles of the Fastnet Rock on the Cork coast on May 30, 1918, the 44 crew on board took to the ship’s life-rafts. Several of them survived for a number of days, but distance from shore and bad weather meant that they ran out of supplies, especially water and, in the end, none survived. According to a subsequent inquest report in the Connacht Tribune, “one by one, they died of thirst”.
Nearly a month later on June 21, three fishermen from Letterard, a tiny community between Cashel and Carna, were working on the beach when they noticed a body on a raft. It was that of Lawrence Curtis, who had been fourth engineer on the refrigeration and passenger vessel.
The three men, Mark Keely, Michael Seán Mór Conneely and Pádraic Colm Green, were able to establish the merchant seaman’s identity because, attached to his lifejacket was a crucifix and a bottle, which contained two notes. One was to his mother and one to his wife – Lawrence, the father of three young children had written on June 6, when he realised that death was imminent, despite initially surviving the attack on the 450.6ft x 54.2ft Ausonia.
The story of Lawrence Curtis was one that Clifden-born archaeologist Erin Gibbons grew up with, because her grandfather Mark Keely, was one of those who had found his body.
Mark had often spoken of it to his daughter Peg, who was Erin’s mother, and the tragedy left a profound impression on the older woman.
“When I was a little girl, I remember her praying by her bed during November for someone called Laurie Curtis and asked her who he was,” recalls Erin. Peg told her that Curtis had been a Liverpool seaman whose body had washed up in Letterard on a raft towards the end of World War I
Peg Keely-Gibbons was not a conventionally devout Catholic, adds Erin, but she was concerned that Lawrence Curtis might not have anybody else to pray for him during the month of the holy souls – and Erin’s older brother Seán also recalls those prayers from his childhood in the 1950s.
Peg was born in 1929, 11 years after the event but was intimate with the story because of her father’s involvement.
The events surrounding the discovery of Lawrence Curtis’s body proves that fact can be stranger, and more upsetting, than fiction.
For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.