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Tower Museum marks centenary of Laurentic tragedy

18 January 2017

The Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council is calling on local people to take part in a special commemorative event next week marking one of the most significant moments in the city’s maritime history, the sinking of the White Star line SS Laurentic.

Alderman Hilary McClintock was speaking ahead of the launch of a fascinating new exhibition at the Tower Museum charting the story of the ship and the tragic events which unfolded locally on January 25th 2017.

More than 350 people died when the Laurentic was destroyed by a mine off the coast of Donegal. Just an hour before it had stopped off at Buncrana due to a number of cases of illness on board, before it made its way back on course to Nova Scotia. Tragedy however struck as the 565ft liner hit two U-boat mines, sinking the vessel, resulting in most of the crew dying from exposure during the bitter cold January night.

In the days following the disaster survivors were brought to Derry where they were welcomed and cared for by local people before they could be transported home, which will now be remembered on the 100 year anniversary of the event next week.

Mayor McClintock will join relatives of the crew and members of the public for a special lunch and a service remembering the dead, as she explained. “I am really looking forward to the unveiling of this new collection of artefacts from the SS Laurentic, and the opportunity to remember in a fitting way the many crew who lost their lives that day,” she said.

“The sinking of the Laurentic is a significant event in the maritime history of the North West and one which should be documented and remembered. The fact that there are so many memories of the tragedy passed down through families, and that artefacts held privately for years have now been loaned to the museum for the exhibition makes its story all the more compelling.

“Marking the event we hope to re-enact the reception held here in the Guildhall in January 1917 for the survivors of the tragedy and I am inviting people to come along to be part of it. We will also be restaging the famous photograph of the 121 remaining crew in the Great Hall of the Guildhall where they were presented each with a ten shilling Treasury note and a packet of cigarettes. It’s a great opportunity to celebrate their memory.”

The story of the Laurentic is a fascinating one – and the fact that the ship was secretly transporting around £300m of gold bullion on board adds to the mystique of the unfortunate vessel. Despite the ongoing efforts of local divers to salvage the last of its hoard, it’s thought that 22 gold bars still lie on the seabed to this day. Local diver Ray Cossum secured the rights to the wreck from the government in 1968 and has dived the site several times in a bid to recover items from the liner.

Artefacts recovered during dives over the years include the ship’s bell, dented by sailors in their desperate efforts to raise the alarm as the ship sank.

Education Officer with Derry and Strabane District Council, Ronan McConnell, said the exhibition would present the opportunity to view a number of newly discovered artefacts. “We put an open call out to the public in recent months to see if we could unearth some new objects relating to the ship or salvaged from it, and we were overwhelmed by the response. Ray Cossum’s research over the years, including audio recordings from actual survivors, has left us with a fantastic foundation for this exhibition. And some of the stories relating to the events of the day really are fascinating and have been passed down through the generations. “For example, one gentleman has lent us a door knocker from the Captain’s cabin, obtained on the day of the sinking. He had admired it while on board the vessel while it had stopped in Buncrana and the Captain gave it to him saying it would look better on his door than at the bottom of the sea – which sadly turned out to be prophetic.

“Our launch event on Wednesday night is already booked out and I would love to see a great turn out for the commemorative lunch on Friday the 27th in the Guildhall. It’s free and will recapture the moment of 1917 when the city warmly welcomed the survivors of the ship. I also look forward to the follow up events over the coming months when divers of the wreck will tell their gripping tales of the challenge of recovery and salvage throughout the decades.”

The exhibition will run for six months from January 25th and a number of talks will also take place setting the context for the pieces on display. February 2nd sees veteran diver Don McGlinchey give his account of the story of the Laurentic with a series of original images from the wreck. On March 2nd diver Danny Keenan will offer an insight into the wrecks which scatter Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly. Finally on 6th April, Ronan McConnell will deliver a hands on session allowing the public to see original objects from the Laurentic up close.

Complementing the exhibition will be a special education programme delivered in conjunction with the Nerve Centre. Schools are invited to participate in interactive ipad sessions, followed by a tour of the exhibition itself. For information please contact Niall Kerr, Nerve Centre, for more details. [email protected] or phone 028 7126 0562.

To find out more about the Laurentic exhibition, and to reserve a place at Friday’s commemorative lunch please contact the Mayor’s Office on 028 71376508. Spaces are limited so please book early to avoid disappointment.