Did the great Ulster novel go down with the Lusitania?
I only ask today because celebrated author Archibald McIlroy was sailing home on the ill-fated cruise liner with the manuscript of his latest book in his suitcase when tragedy struck that May day of wartime 1915.
She was attacked and sunk by a German submarine eight miles off the Irish coast and Ballyclare celebrity McIlroy was one of the 1,198 souls who perished on the civilian vessel that turned public opinion against the Germans.
McIlroy was said to be returning home in triumph after establishing himself as a major writing force in New York where his books had been well received.
His name resurfaced today as some of his novels are expected to go on sale at a Belfast Antiquarian Book Fair in the Wellington Park Hotel in Belfast later in the year.
His tragic death all those years ago plunged Ballyclare where McIlroy who dabbled in banking and insurance, had offices and was frequently seen in the tea houses and local hostelries, into mourning for a well-liked personality.
Especially as books like A Banker's Love Story (1901) that he wrote as a hobby were well read and had him recognised as the Jeffrey Archer of his time.
McIlroy (1860-1915) in fact was in demand as a writer all over the British Isles and his novels like Lint was in the Bell and The Humour of Druid's Island were top of the bestsellers's lists. He became so successful as a novelist that banking and insurance were pushed into the background. Arcibald who lived in Drumbo for a while and also had a spell of residence in Canada, was frequently invited to give lectures to local church societies and reading groups.
So it was no surprise when his friends learned that publishers had encouraged this writer to sail to New York to meet Irish exiles who enjoyed his yarns and short stories.
Albert was well received and spent several months travelling around the States before returning to New York on May 1 to board the Lusitania.
“Mr McIlroy and all the other passengers were warned of the dangers of the crossing of the Atlantic during a state of war,” says New York book dealer Winnard Hope who from time to time comes across old copies of McIlroy thrillers in the Big Apple.
Passengers who decided to exercise caution and not to sail on the Lusitania were still awaiting another ship in New York when word filtered back that she had been attacked off Kinsale with terrible loss of life as the ship sank in just eight minutes.
The point is that during his time in America McIlroy wrote his final novel and was returning to his publishers in London with the manuscript when disaster struck.
But dealer Hope has searched in vain for secondary copies of the manuscript of that missing novel and is now resigned to the fact that the only copy went to the bottom with the liner.
In 1993 American scientific explorer Robert Ballard who found the wreck of the Titanic conducted a dive to the Lusitania which was rumoured to have been carrying armaments to aid the war effort.