The RMS Leinster

The Athlone man who visited his own grave

By Tadhg Carey

Thursday last marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the mailboat, RMS Leinster.

Just before 9am on the morning of Thursday, October 10, 1918, the RMS Leinster began its final voyage from Carlisle Pier in Dún Laoghaire (then Kingstown) to Holyhead in Wales, carrying some 770 passengers and crew. The ship was owned and operated by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. Between 9.30am and 9.40am, the RMS Leinster passed the Kish Lighthouse. Shortly afterwards, it was struck by two torpedoes, fired by German submarine, UB-123, with the loss of over 560 people.

The disaster has faded from public consciousness strangely, particularly, as more Irish people died on the RMS Leinster than on the Titanic or the Lusitania.
A number of events have been held in recent days to mark the centenary and to draw public attention back on this somewhat forgotten war tragedy.
In this area, the disaster gave rise to one of the most peculiar and bizarre stories in local history; the tale of Frank Graham, the soldier who visited his own grave.

Graham was born in around 1900, son of Martin and Mary (nee Conroy) in the Irishtown area of Athlone.

The Graham family, including parents, sister Bridget and brother John, at that time were staying with Mary's parents and their family in Irishtown, Athlone. 
By 1911, mother Mary, daughter Bridget and sons Francis and Patrick were living in Chapel Lane on the westside of Athlone.

The Westmeath Independent in January 1919 reported the story of Graham and the sinking of the RMS Leinster, under the headlines: “Extraordinary story: Supposed victim of Leinster; Buried in Cornamagh; Arrives to his friends”.

The newspaper report read, as follows: “The appearance of Private Frank Graham of the Royal Irish Regiment at his home in Athlone on Friday occasioned something like a sensation in the town town.

“He was supposed to be on the steamship Leinster when torpedoed outside Kingstown in the concluding days for the war and official information of his death was conveyed to this mother, with a request as to her wishes for the disposal of the body, which it was stated was recovered from the sea.
“Mrs Graham intimated that she wanted her son buried with his father, also a soldier in Athlone.

“The remains were to arrive the following Sunday morning. They did not. It was understood at the time by some mistake they had been sent to England. 
“What purported to be the remains of Private Graham arrived the following Wednesday. They were met at the railway station by the priest and relatives and were accounted a military funeral, being taken direct from the station to the interment place at Cornamagh.

“This morning, the soldier returned from Dublin and was greatly amused and surprised to learn that he was officially dead and buried. His young brother was brought away from the local schools to rejoice with the rest of the family at his resurrection. The Burial Board have the matter in hands to ascertain if possible who was the solider who was buried by mistake for the now very much alive Private Graham.

“In an interview with Private Graham, he stated to our representatives that he had never been on the RMS nor did he know anything about his alleged drowning or burial in the local cemetery until his arrival home this morning.

“He had been stationed with his unit at Salisbury Plains and had not communicated with his mother since October as he had been sent from place to place on escort and other duties. He could only account for the mystery by the fact that about the time of the sinking of the Leinster, an escort consisting of Corporal Galvin and Private Hickman left for Ireland to bring back a deserter.

“He had been on friendly terms with both men and during their four years' service they had been in communication with each other by post. The escort and the prisoner never arrived at Salisbury and letters from him must have been found on some of their bodies.

Mrs Graham, had no knowledge of his son's homecoming and received a shock when he arrived at the door at 10am after coming off the down mail train Private Graham, during the day, proceeded to Cornamagh to see the place in which he is supposed to belong.”

A number of queries have been raised about the facts of the story, not least by Philip Lecane, in the book Torpedoed, the RMS Leinster Disaster.
He understandably queries a slightly different version of the story which was published in a military magazine and which has a number of inconsistencies.

What can be corroborated 100 years later is that there is an entry in the Cornamagh Cemetery registry for a burial on October 17, 1918 of Frank Graham aged 19, single, in a plot also housing the remains of another family member. Serg. W. Robinson of the Royal Field Artillery is named as the person having the management of the interment. 

This clearly vindicates the fact that there was a burial of remains believed to be Frank Graham in Cornamagh at the time.
The Cork Examiner of October 12, 1918, also lists F. Graham among the names of victims of the RMS Leinster disaster who were identified and whose remains were being kept at the King George V Hospital.

The tale has a second telling in 1954 when Graham, who in the intervening years had served with the British Army in World War II, during a visit back to Athlone was again interviewed by a Westmeath Independent reporter.

On this occasion, he identified Hickman, a native of Tralee, as the person who was wrongly buried in Cornamagh. Private James Hickman was son of John and Catherine Hickman from Tralee and was, aged 11 at the 1911 census. 

This time, he said he had given Hickman his tunic, which contained his identity number as well as letters from home and as a result when Hickman's body was taken from the sea after the sinking of The Leinster, it was wrongly identified as Private Graham.

The story added: “Frank told me that some years later he rectified the mistake in a sworn statement to the War Office to enable Private Hickman's mother to obtain a pension.”

However, Hickman was listed in a Kerry newspaper immediately after the sinking as being one of the victims, which would deem it unlikely that he had been mistaken as Graham.

The mystery of who is actually buried in Cornamagh cemetery may not be fully cleared up, but it's evident that it definitely wasn't Frank Graham.
In the 1954 interview with this paper, Graham went on to outline some of the adventures he had packed into his life, including enlisting with the Connaught Rangers initially, at the age of 15, before later serving with the Royal Irish Regiment.

Back in the Athlone barracks in 1922 as a British Army private, he opened the gates to allow in the first Free State troops. He then joined the Free State Army and held the rank of Company Adjutant and took part in the engagements in the Civil War. He rejoined the British Army in 1940, fought in Dunkirk and was invalided out of the army in 1943. In 1954, at the time of the interview, he was a charge hand in an iron foundry in Kent.

A prominent boxer in his youth, he trained several football teams including the Athlone team which won the Free State Junior Cup in 1935, the 1954 newspaper said.