For those in peril on the sea – Lt-Cmdr Ralph Ireland (8 February 1884 – 19 January 1917)

Taken from Ralph Ireland's entry in De Ruvigny's roll of honour, the photo was presumably submitted by his parents. Photographer unknown


Another digression into family history

At about 6:30 am on 19 January 1917 water was reported in the capstan flat of HMS Southampton, flagship of 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron, on patrol in the North Sea approximately 100 miles due east of the Isle of May (in the mouth of the Firth of Forth). At 7:05 am it was realised that this was due to the metal cover for the navel pipe (through which the anchor chain passed) having washed loose. The ship’s navigating officer (and acting executive officer/1st Lieutenant), Lieutenant Commander Ralph Ireland, gathered a party of three able seamen, Tom Ralph Knight, Roland Ernest Starkey and William Meaghan, and set off for the forecastle to try and secure the cover. They were also joined by the ship’s gunnery officer, Burroughs, and mate, Davis.

At about 7:15 am another wave broke over the bow of the ship. Once it had passed, Burroughs and Davis were lying winded in the breakwater, but of the other four there was no sign. “Man overboard” was signalled to HMAS Sydney at 7:21 am, lifeboats manned, life buoys thrown and men sent aloft. No sightings were made and the search was abandoned at 7:50 am at 56° 13.5′ N, 1° 0′ E. The ship’s log records the air temperature as 39 Fahrenheit, and the North Sea is rarely warm. In the days before modern survival suits and locator beacons they had had little chance, and of course it would still have been pretty dark (sunrise today was 8:28 am in Edinburgh, though it would have been a little earlier 100 miles east). Ireland’s fellow officer, Stephen King-Hall, recorded in his diary:

we turned for home, and read the burial service in the waist. Driving snowstorm added to the melancholy nature of the ceremony. Rarely, if ever, have I felt so depressed and knocked over. When I looked at the cold grey rough sea, and thought of No. 1, one of my best friends, with whom only a few hours before I had been yarning on the bridge, and with whom only 12 hours before I had been rehearsing my part in a Revue which I had written, and in which we both took leading roles, I went to my cabin and cried like a child.

Extract from the log of HMS Southampton for 19 January 1917. The National Archives: ADM 53/60695. Crown Copyright.

Ralph Ireland was the eldest child of Adam Liddell Ireland and Isabella, née McHinch.  Isabella was the sister of my great-great-grandmother, Matilda Antoinette “Nettie” McHinch (their father was the Revd William McHinch, a Presbyterian minister).  Ralph was born on 8 February 1888 in Belfast, and was followed by Norah Isabel Ireland in 1891 and Denis Liddell Ireland in 1894.  The family were fairly prosperous linen merchants. In 1901 they were living in Eglantine Avenue, Belfast, and had two servants (Alice McCamley and Mary McGinley) Both boys were educated at Belfast’s Royal Acadmeical Institution (often known simply as Inst). Ralph then went on to Eastman’s Naval Academy in Winchester.

On 19 November 1902 Ralph took the competitive examination for a Naval Cadetship, placing 8th out of over 150 entrants. He took up his place on the training ship Britannia on 15 January 1903. On passing out 15 months later he was second in his intake and received the King’s Gold Medal.

Then followed a succession of postings as a midshipman to ships stationed around the world, initially joining HMS Terrible on the China Station on 28 June 1904. He was appointed Acting Sub Lieutenant while aboard HMS Hindustan on 15 July 1907, and his commission was confirmed on 24 September 1907, by which time he was at the Royal Naval College (Greenwich?). After a short spell on HMS Prince of Wales he headed for HMS Dryad on 2 August 1909 to qualify as a navigator, having just been promoted lieutenant. After the course he returned to Prince of Wales to gain the required practical experience. He then spent some time on various smaller vessels on the Africa Station, and returned to Dryad for a short course on 9 August 1913. Soon after the completion of that course he was appointed to the light cruiser HMS Birmingham. He was still with her on the outbreak of war. Birmingham became the first Royal Navy vessel to sink a German submarine, ramming U-15 while she was surfaced (and attempting to dive) on 9 August 1914 (just 4 days after the declaration of war). With her he also saw action in the Battle of Heligoland (28 August 1914) and the Battle of Dogger Bank (January 1915). He transferred to HMS Southampton on 17 February 1916. Southampton received heavy damage and casualties at the Battle of Jutland, but it was apparently due to Ralph’s course calculations and orders for zig-zags that worse was avoided. King-Hall records that the ship’s company were surprised he did not receive the DSO following the battle. He was promoted to lieutenant commander shortly afterwards though, on 15 July 1916, and was recommended for further promotion in December 1916 by both Goodenough (who had led 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron at Jutland) and Captain Craufurd.

The reports of his death must have been some what overshadowed as the Silvertown Explosion in East London occurred the same day, several tons of TNT exploded at a munitions works, killing 73, severely wounding 98, and wounding hundreds more, as well as leaving many homeless.

Ralph is remembered on the war memorials at Inst, Elmwood Presbyterian Church and Malone Park Golf Club (his naval record mentions his skill at both golf and football), and on the family grave in one of Belfast’s main cemeteries (recently tidied up by local volunteers).

His death reminds us that even in time of war, mariners’ greatest opponent can still be the sea itself, rather than the human enemy.