The Connemara/Retriever Disaster of 1916

This post is one of a continuing series to showcase some of the special objects we have in Holyhead Maritime Museum’s collection.

Our museum is no different to many other maritime museum in that we have on display many models of ships, past and present. Among our collection is a large scale model of ‘SS Connemara’, a ship built by William Denny and Brothers at Dumbarton in 1896. This model has come to represent a tragic story of loss at sea.

The model of ‘SS Connemara’ at the museum

At 8:00pm on the 3rd November 1916, the ‘SS Connemara’, a twin-screw mail packet steamer, owned by the LNWR company, left her berth at Greenore in Ireland and started her daily run to Holyhead in Wales. Her crew of 32 were mostly from Holyhead and on that journey, she carried 51 passengers and a general cargo including livestock.

Captain Doeg on the bridge of the ‘Connemara’ knew of the south-westerly gale blowing in the Irish Sea, and that he must take particular care navigating the narrow exit from Carlingford Lough, whilst showing only limited lights in case of U-boat attack. He was also aware of the 8-knot ebb tide, but as he approached the Haulbowline lighthouse he did not know that the ‘Retriever’ – a three-masted, steel-screwed coaster with a crew of 9 – was about to enter the lough bound for Newry, having sailed from Garston on the Mersey and heavily laden with coal.

‘SS Connemara’ on passage across the Irish Sea

Unfortunately the cargo of coal had shifted as the ‘Retriever’ made for her home port and the ship experienced extreme difficulties maintaining her course in the heavy seas. The lighthouse keeper at Haulbowline noticed that the ‘Retriever’ was not in her allotted shipping lane and he fired a warning rocket, but to no avail. The ebbing tide and the gale force wind forced the ‘Retriever’s’ bow to turn and she struck the ‘Connemara’ amidships on her port side. Water poured in and the boilers of the mail packet steamer exploded. The vessel sank almost immediately and the ‘Retriever’, badly damaged, floundered some minutes later.

Name plate from ‘SS Connemara’ kindly donated by our friends at the Greenore Maritime Museum

There was only one survivor (a crewman from the ‘Retriever’) and over 90 people, crew and passengers from both ships, lost their lives, including 26 from Holyhead. A subsequent Board of Trade inquiry judged this to be a tragic accident and that no blame could be apportioned, but the terrible tragedy added to the grief of so many families already trying to cope with the horrors of the Great War.

This sad episode exemplifies the dangers ever-present when ships are at sea, but also highlights the clearly defined trade routes of the north Irish Sea – the Mersey ports, the Irish ports of Greenore and Newry, and the Welsh port of Holyhead – all playing crucial roles during this time in history.

Contributed by Dr. Gareth Huws.

© Holyhead Maritime Museum

This series of posts is to showcase items from the museum’s collection and to support the ‘Ports, Past and Present’ project that features and promotes five ports of the Irish Sea connecting Wales with Ireland – Rosslare, Dublin Port, Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke. More information here –

5 thoughts on “The Connemara/Retriever Disaster of 1916

  1. Edwyn Hughes August 9, 2020 / 8:19 pm

    Diolch am y cyfraniad / Thank you for the contribution Gareth.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wyn Edwards August 9, 2020 / 9:26 pm

    Another tragic maritime event unfortunately with loss of life
    Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brian Jemmette August 10, 2020 / 7:17 am

    Very interesting and informative. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gillian Brownson Thompson August 10, 2020 / 8:47 am

    One of the many amazing stories of our channel – a small body of water in comparison to the world’s vast oceans, but so full of epic historic moments. Mawr diolch!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s