Waterford’s greatest maritime tragedy

Next weekend in Waterford we will remember our greatest maritime tragedy when, within two days in December 1917, Clyde Shipping’s SS Formby and SS Coningbeg were sunk by a U Boat. Of the 83 souls who perished 67 were from the city, the harbour and hinterland. It commences on Friday 15th Dec with an official opening by the Mayor at City Hall followed by a series of talks and continues on Saturday 16th with a number of events including an ecumenical service in Christchurch and a wreath laying ceremony.

The first to be lost was the SS Formby. She was built by Caledon SB. & Eng. Co. Ltd., Dundee in 1914 and was considered the flagship of the Clyde shipping company. She was 270 feet long, 1283 tons and had a top speed of 14.5 knots. Although primarily a cattle transport vessel she could accommodate 39 first class and 45 steerage passengers.  
Photo of a ghostlike SS Formby
via Shaun McGuire who had it from a daughter of Thomas Coffey

The SS Coningbeg was originally SS Clodagh built for the Waterford Steamship company by Ailsa shipbuilders in Troon, Scotland, August 1903. When the company was sold to the Clyde in 1912 she was renamed. In 1913 she underwent a total refit. She was also 270 feet long, 1278 tons and capable of a top speed of 16.5 knots, and could carry up to 600 head of cattle and 86 first class and 74 steerage passengers. 

SS Coningbeg by AH Poole (Poole WP 2167, NLI)
At 11am on Saturday 15th December the SS Formby slipped her moorings and travelled out the Mersey and into the Irish sea. Aboard were 37 crew and 2 passengers. She was due into Waterford the following morning, but when she did not arrive there was only minor concern. As Saturday had progressed a storm of sleet and snow had developed and had become a gale overnight, causing widespread damage. In Waterford it was presumed the Formby was sheltering and would be in to port later on Sunday. Having sat out the storm in Liverpool, the Coningbeg set sail on Monday 17th December at 1pm with a crew of 40 and 4 passengers. Neither ship sailed into Waterford port again. 

Family, relatives, neighbours and friends gathered at the Clyde company offices for any scrap of news. Over Christmas the vigil continued but on Thursday 27th December the company felt obliged to write to each family confirming everyone’s worst fears, that they could no longer hold any hopes for their loved ones return.
I wrote in detail about the incidents previously and I had a tremendous response from family members. A sample included Rose Egan who’s great granddad John Sullivan, a winchman on SS Coningbeg. After the trauma of the Sullivan family’s loss, John’s son William was killed in France three months later in March 1918. Neil White’s relative James Manning was lost aboard the SS Formby and he sent on a song he wrote about the incident. Shaun McGuire(1) sent on this information and photo (below) Thomas Coffey’s wife Mary (nee McGuire) and the two children she was left with when he was lost on the SS Formby. Mary died in 1950, her son Thomas in 1990 and her daughter also named Mary but known as May Walsh (nee Coffey) of Ballytruckle died in 2005. 
The Coffey family courtesy of Shaun McGuire
This is only a small sample of the responses last year, but I think they highlight the tremendous loss, the depth of feeling and the residual memories of this tragedy that has never been truly forgotten in our city and harbour area. 

The sailors are remembered with this significant and poignant memorial, situated on the quay of Waterford (above) which lists all the names and was unveiled by the then president of Ireland Mary Robinson in February 1997. But as I said at the start, next weekend they will be remembered in a more personal way in a series of events aimed at bringing the families together and offering a public opportunity to remember and acknowledge their lives, their work and the impact of the incidents. Full details here and a facebook event page here hosted by Waterford City & County Archive.  My own highlights I think will be the free guided tour of memorabilia in the Bishops palace commencing on Friday at 4pm and a series of talks on Friday night in the Large Room of City Hall with speakers including Julian Walton, Ray McGrath, Richard McElwee and Des Griffin.

(1) Shaun regularly remembers Waterford’s War Dead on facebook.

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