Timothy Heenan was working as a horse shoer in King’s county (now County Offaly), Ireland in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War 1. It’s likely that he learned the trade from his father who was a blacksmith and shoer farming on land at Belhill in the parish of Suirkieran, County Offaly.

The date at which he joined the army is not known but ee was a natural fit for the South Irish Horse regiment where he became a Shoeing Smith Corporal. Until the phasing out of horse transport after World War 1, shoeing smiths supported cavalry and artillery regiments as well as the engineers, ordnance and service Corps.

According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Timothy Heenan was 25 years old when he was killed at sea in the final month of the conflict. He was a victim of a German torpedo attack that resulted in the greatest ever loss of life in the Irish Sea and the highest ever casualty rate on an Irish-owned ship.

The RMS Leinster Attack

The RMS Leinster was a Royal Mail Ship that was one of four vessels operating a regular mail and passenger service between Dún Laoghaire (then Kingstown) and Holyhead, Wales. A little before 9 am on October 10th, 1918, the RMS Leinster left Kingstown, under the command of Captain William Birch.

On board were 771 passengers.  Some were crew members. Twenty-two were postal sorters. Others were civilians from Ireland and Britain. By far the largest group were military personnel: soldiers, sailors, airmen and nurses from Ireland, Britain, AustraliaNew ZealandCanada and the United States. Among them was Shoeing Smith Timothy Heenan. 

The weather was fare though the seas were rough after a period of storms. Earlier that morning a number of Royal Navy ships at sea off Holyhead were forced to return to port because of the rough seas.

Drawing from contemporary magazine depicting how the sinking of the RMS Leinster might have looked

About an hour into the crossing, just 16 miles from Dun Laoghaire, the Leinster came under attack from a German submarine.  It launched a torpedo which missed the target, passing over the ship’s bow. But a second torpedo struck the port side near the engine room. As it turned in an attempt to return to port, the Leinster was struck on the starboard side by third torpedo. It sank, bow first. The North Wales Chronicle reported the following day that the ship took less than 15 minutes to sink.

Many of the passengers were killed on board. Those who survived clung desperately to life-rafts, pieces of wreckage. Some managed to get into crowded life boats, tossed about in stormy waters until Royal Naval ships and destroyers arrived to rescue them. They were taken to hospitals, hotels and guest houses in Dublin for treatment. In the days that followed numerous bodies were recovered from the sea.

The two funnels were blown right into the air and, in the graphic words of a member of the crew, the ship seemed to crumble into ashes, going down by the head. …

Some of the boats were so packed that they became filled with water and overturned, and many of the survivors were rescued clinging to the keels of up turned craft.

Official figures put the number of deaths at 501. They included all but one of the postal workers and 115 civilians. Philip Lecane, author of “Torpedoed! The RMS Leinster Disaster”  has identified the fact that Timothy Heenan was one of four South Irish Horse soldiers who were on the RMS Leinster, only one of whom survived.

Within a few days of the attack, Members of Parliament demanded an explanation. Why, they asked the Government,  was no convoy escort provided for the Leinster during its journey.  They were told that the Admiralty didn’t have any ships available that were capable of escorting a vessel of the Leinster’s speed given the weather and sea conditions at the time. The Admiralty’s view was that the Leinster was probably safer proceeding on its own than being hampered by the slower naval vessels. 

Remembering Shoeing Smith Timothy Heenan

Whether Timothy Heenan was one of the passengers killed on board or whether he died while awaiting rescue, is unknown. He has no grave so the implication is that his body was never recovered.

Instead he is commemorated on the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, England.

Timothy Heenan’s family

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records indicate that Timothy Heenan was the son of Patrick and Sarah Heenan, of Clareen, King’s Co. Ireland.

My own research has found that Timothy Heenan was born in 1892 – his birth is registered in Parsonstown registration district in the fourth quarter of that year.

The 1901 census indicates that Patrick Heenan and his wife Sarah are living in Belhill, Kings County. Patrick is aged 42, a blacksmith and farmer born in Kings County. Living with them is their son Timothy aged 8.

Sarah died sometime between 1901 and 1911 because by the 1911 census Patrick is recorded as a widower. The census records indicate he had been married for 18 years and had six children.

One member of the extended family was James Carmel Heenan, a civil servant in the patent office near London. A month after Timothy Heenan’s death, a letter from James Carmel Heenan was published in  the King’s County Chronicle, in which he said he was the boy’s uncle and had only recently seen him during a visit to London.

… this brave young man …. was then looking the picture of perfect Irish manhood, standing well over six feet in height, and built in proportion, reminding me of his cousin, the late “benecia Boy. ” 

This letter provides some clues that Timothy Heenan was connected with a family that achieved world wide public recognition. The “benecia Boy” is John Carmel Heenan, a bare-knuckle boxer from New York, whose colourful exploits made headline news around the globe in the 1860s. Another cousin, John, the son of the letter writer James Carmel Heenan, went on to become a Cardinal and Archbishop of Westminster.

Who knows what Timothy Heenan might have achieved if his life hadn’t been brought to a sudden end at a relatively young age.

Sources

  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission [https://www.cwgc.org]
  • Ireland: Birth Index, 1864-1958. Accessed via Find My Past
  • Census of Ireland: 1901, 1911. Accessed via Find My Past
  • History of the South Irish Horse: http://www.southirishhorse.com/documents/sih_dead.htm
  • Sinking of the Leinster: RMS Leinster websiteThe Irish Times . 
  • House of Commons question: reported in North Wales Chronicle Oct 19, 1918. Page 3
  • Letter from John Carmel Heenan: Kings County Chronicle, November 1918. Accessed via Find My Past

 

A note of appreciation

I’ve had significant help from Philip Lecane, author of “Torpedoed! The RMS Leinster Disaster”  who kindly provided me with the photograph of the Leinster and Dough Vaugh, who kindly corrected the information on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, His own website http://southirishhorse.com/ provides fascinating information about this regiment.