The Christmas Eve Lifeboat Disaster

Pic: Dún Laoghaire Lifeboat and crew. Christmas Eve, 2018

Christmas is traditionally a time for jubilation, but Christmas Eve in 1895 was a dark day in Dún Laoghaire’s history, then known as the thriving Victorian municipality of Kingstown.

A ferocious storm, starkly described as “the most severe of the century”, caused waves to crash over the lighthouse and piers. In March 2018, Storm Emma also unleashed vicious waves over the piers and caused terrible damage, but fortunately, the entire country was on a red alert shutdown. Not so in 1895.  

A Finnish ship called the Palmé got into difficulty. Civil Service Number Seven, a lifeboat deployed from Dún Laoghaire to come to its aid was destroyed by a single devastating wave. Fifteen lifeboat men drowned, their families cruelly struck by grief on what is supposed to be the happiest day of the year. The harbour was littered with debris, wreckage, and bodies.

The funerals are said to be the largest ever seen in Dún Laoghaire. At every European port flags were lowered to half mast. The bodies of the fifteen victims were buried in Deansgrange cemetery. They were aged between 22 to 60, and many were married with children.

Every year at noon on Christmas Eve, a short memorial ceremony takes place. Last Christmas, it was very well attended, including members of the Coast Guard, Lifeboat Service, and local elected representatives. A song, a few short prayers, a moment’s silence, a mournful lone piper, a Coast Guard of Honour, and the wreath laying itself, featured in a poignant ceremony.

As I was making my way down the East Pier, I spotted a seal swimming towards the ceremony. Another seal swam on the other side of the pier, around the exact spot where the Civil Service Number Seven perished.

An old seafaring tradition claims seeing a seal is good luck because they are reincarnated sailors who died at sea. Seeing them on Christmas Eve, 2018, on the 123rd anniversary of the Dún Laoghaire Lifeboat Disaster, where fifteen lives were lost in the duty of saving lives, I’d like to think there is some truth in this.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha…

Alex Williams – Henry Williams – Francis Saunders – George Saunders – Edward Shannon – Patrick Power – Edward Crowe – John Baker – Henry Underhill – John Bartley – William Dunphy – Thomas Dunphy – Edward Murphy – Francis McDonald – James Ryan


  1. Thank you for this tribute, my great great Grandfather Thomas Dunphy and his Brother William Dunphy, died in that disaster, it was a life changing tragic tale that had a huge effect on my family

  2. This is a long held tradition in my family. I’m the great granddaughter of Thomas Dunphy. My maternal grandmother was his only daughter. Sarah. He also had two sons Tom and Jack. The events of this terrible disaster was always told to successive generations of our family by my grandmother and the terrible consequences of their lives following the tragedy . Thank you for keeping the memories of these lifeboat men alive.

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