Illuminations: The Sinking of the Irish Pine

Illuminations:  Sinking of the Irish Pine
By:  J. Michael Finn

In 1939, the 26-county Irish Free State, also known as Éire, declared its intent to remain neutral during World War II.  The declaration, however, did not shield the citizens of Éire from experiencing the harmful effects of the war on land or at sea.

Between August 26, 1940 and January 3, 1941, Ireland was bombed on four occasions. The most damaging and deadly bombing raid on Dublin occurred on May 31, 1941, in the area around the North Strand. This claimed the lives of twenty-eight people, injured ninety, and left over 400 people homeless. The German government later paid reparations to the neutral Irish government as the bombings were considered an “accident of war.”

Irish Shipping Limited was an Irish state-owned deep sea shipping company, founded in 1941 for the purpose of supplying the country’s import needs during the war. The company was needed due to the stoppage of vital imports to Ireland by non-neutral countries.

The new shipping company began acquiring cargo ships in whatever condition they could find them. In its first year the company purchased eight cargo ships and chartered five more.

The first ship Ireland acquired was originally a Greek owned ship. It had been abandoned in Spain following an attack by German aircraft during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). It was purchased by Irish Shipping Ltd. and renamed the Irish Poplar (Irish merchant ships were named after trees native to Ireland).  The leaking ship was so badly damaged that it nearly sank on the trip to Ireland, where it underwent extensive repairs before being placed in service.

The Long Watch
Allied ships traveled in convoys crossing the Atlantic as a way of avoiding the danger presented by German U-Boats. Irish ships were generally not permitted to travel in Allied convoys.  Because they traveled alone, Irish ships were well marked. The hull of the ships bore the Irish tricolor, ‘ÉIRE’ was painted on the hulls in large letters and the ships were floodlit at night.  In addition, U-boat captains were under orders not to attack unarmed neutral vessels. Irish mariners referred to the period of the war as The Long Watch.

Despite precautions against attack, sixteen Irish merchant ships were sunk during the war due to belligerent action; 149 Irish merchant sailors were killed and thirty-two were wounded. While the Irish government did register formal complaints regarding provable loses, the German government did not offer any reparations for damages or loss of life.

The Irish Pine was a cargo ship that was built in 1919 for the United States Maritime Commission, and originally named West Hematite. The ship was built by J. F. Duthie & Company, of Seattle, Washington, and was launched on April 26, 1919. The ship was 409 feet 7 inches long, and propelled by a triple expansion steam engine. The US had withdrawn the ship from active service and placed it in the reserve fleet.

On September 26, 1941, the West Hematite was chartered by Irish Shipping Ltd. and renamed Irish Pine. For the next twelve months, the Irish Pine crossed the Atlantic carrying grain from Canada to Ireland. The ship was under the command of Captain Matthew O’Neill of Wexford.


Allied ships in convoy did not stop to pick up survivors. Irish merchant ships regularly answered SOS signals and stopped to rescue survivors (Irish merchant ships rescued 534 seamen during the war).

While on passage from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Limerick on August 13, 1942, the Irish Pine was involved in the rescue of nineteen crew members from a British ship, Richmond Castle that had been torpedoed off the north coast of Ireland. TheIrish Pine rescued the survivors and took them on board in heavy weather. To show their gratitude, the crew of the Richmond Castle later presented Captain O’Neill with an inscribed silver tray.  

The Final Tour, Maybe
The Irish Pine sailed from Dublin on October 29, 1942 with a crew of thirty-three, to pick up a load of phosphate rock at Tampa, Florida for delivery to Dublin. The ship was scheduled to stop first at Boston for repairs on November 17.  On November 14, the Irish Pine communicated with the Irish Fir that the ship was on its way to Boston. This was the last communication anyone had with the Irish Pine.

Officials at Boston notified Irish Shipping Ltd. on December 3 that the ship was late and should be presumed lost. A sad announcement was issued to the Irish newspapers on December 4, 1942: “Irish Shipping Ltd. regrets to announce that the Irish Pine is now considerably overdue at her trans-Atlantic port of call and must be presumed lost.”

Exactly what happened to the Irish Pine remained a mystery for thirty-five years. In 1977, author Frank Forde was researching captured German U-boat logs for his 1981 book, The Long Watch, a history of the Irish merchant marine during the Second World War. He discovered that the U-boat logs revealed the Irish Pine was in the North Atlantic south of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, headed southwest for Boston when, at 12:14 a.m. on November 16, 1942, it was sunk by the German submarine U-608, under the command of Kapitan Rolf Struckmeier.

The ship was struck in the stern by a second torpedo fired by U-608 and sank vertically, stern first, within three minutes of being hit. The log noted that a lifeboat was launched but there was no indication that any of the crew actually made it to the lifeboat.  Captain Matthew O’Neill and thirty-two crewmembers went down with their ship.

Seaman E. Donagh of Galway was the youngest crewmember at eighteen years old. No wreckage of the ship or remains of the crew were ever found.

Even though U-608 had been following the Irish Pine for eight hours, no mention was made by the submarine’s captain that any of the neutral makings on the ship were noticed. The sinking was the greatest single loss of life suffered by Irish Shipping Limited during the war.

All the merchant seamen who lost their lives through belligerent action were awarded posthumously the Irish Mercantile Valor Medal with 3 Bars, which is the Irish Government’s highest decoration for service during World War II.

Today, there are two monuments in Ireland memorialize the officers and crew of the Irish merchant marine who lost their lives in service during The Emergency.  One of these is the Irish Merchant Navy Memorial, located on City Quay in Dublin. The other monument is the Seaman’s Memorial, located on Bishop’s Quay in Limerick. There is no memorial dedicated specifically to the thirty-three men lost aboard the Irish Pine.

When the war was over, on May 16, 1945, Éamon de Valera, in his speech to the nation said: “To the men of our Mercantile Marine who faced all the perils of the ocean to bring us essential supplies, the nation is profoundly grateful.”

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history, and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected].

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