Jutland dead remembered at relaunch of HMS Caroline
Royalty, politicians and relatives gather to commemorate Irish sailors killed in biggest naval engagement of the Great War and other theatres
Wreaths in honour of the Irish sailors who died in the First World War were dropped into Belfast Lough yesterday beside the last surviving warship from the Battle of Jutland.
The ceremony, marking the centenary of the pivotal sea battle, took place on Alexandra Dock next to the newly refurbished HMS Caroline.
Prince Michael of Kent and other dignitaries attended the event, which heard testimonies from descendants of those who fought at sea and brought together British, Irish and German naval representatives and 200 relatives of those killed.
At the close of the event Prince Michael cut a ribbon to mark the completion of the £15m-plus Lottery-backed restoration of the warship.
The restored vessel today opens to the public as the latest maritime-themed visitor attraction in Belfast's dockland.
Prince Michael said: "It is fitting that we remember and commemorate the sacrifice made by Irish sailors at Jutland and throughout World War One in the presence of Caroline in her Jutland grey paint scheme.
"The story of HMS Caroline is the story of her people. It is the telling of the stories of all those who served in Caroline for over 100 years that makes the life of this ship so compelling."
The ceremony paid tribute to sailors from across the island of Ireland and was attended by Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, First Minister Arlene Foster and Irish Government minister Paul Kehoe.
The Battle of Jutland was fought between May 31 and June 1, 1916 and involved about 250 ships. It saw the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet, based at Scapa Flow in Orkney, clash with the German High Seas Fleet. Of the 8,000-plus who died in the 36-hour battle, 358 were from Ireland. Some 10,000 Irish sailors saw action in the Great War.
Britain and Germany both claimed victory following the engagement. Despite the terrible British death toll, it was seen as the battle that won the war, allowing the blockading of German ports to succeed.
Commodore Martin Quinn of the Royal Navy said yesterday was a huge day. "In 1916, of course, Ireland wasn't partitioned, so we were all one nation at that point," he added. "Many thousands of Irishmen served at sea including the merchants and the fishermen. The community involvement with the sea has been huge for 100-odd years and for thousands before that, so this is a massive day for all of us."
Among the descendants who addressed the audience was Marie McCarthy, whose Co Cork-born grandfather Daniel Fitzgerald was a stoker on Caroline. "My grandfather experienced the horror of the Battle of Jutland while shovelling tons of coal in this ship," she said. "I suppose one could conclude he survived because he was buried deep in a coal dust-laden atmosphere within the confines of the stokers' area, tolerating temperatures of 150°F. There was poor ventilation and it was exhausting, backbreaking work."
Gillian Davies' grandfather James Weddick was a gunner on Caroline. He was born in Co Limerick but moved to Liverpool as a child. Ms Davies told the commemoration: "It is an honour for the Weddick family to remember not just our grandfather and great-grandfather, but all Irish sailors who lived and died in the 1914-18 war."
HMS Caroline, which weighs 3,750 tons and is 136m long, was built on Merseyside in 1914 and was part of the screening force that sailed out ahead of the Grand Fleet to establish the position of the enemy.
Six years after the war ended she was moved from Portsmouth to Belfast to become a training vessel for Royal Navy Reserves. Most of the rest of the fleet was decommissioned and broken up.
HMS Caroline performed her function as a drill ship up until 2011, apart from during the Second World War, when she was used as an operations headquarters for the Allied efforts to protect the Atlantic convoys from German U-boats.
The vessel, which is docked in the same shipyards where Titanic was built, was in danger of rusting away or being scrapped before moves to save it started to build up steam three years ago.
The £12.5m grant awarded to the restoration project by the Heritage Lottery Fund represents the biggest single contribution in Northern Ireland.
Sir Peter Luff, from the Heritage Lottery Fund, said: "Caroline is a hugely important ship for the Royal Navy. It's one of only three survivors from the First World War and the only survivor of the Battle of Jutland.
"It's also hugely important to Belfast, because she has been here for 92 years.
"I think her restoration not only is a mark of her enormous contribution to the events of the tumultuous last century, but also it significantly increases Belfast's maritime tourist attraction."