The Sinking of the Kenbane Head

By Sam McAughtry

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This memoir traces the threads that led to Sam McAughtry’s brother Mart’s death, weaving together a tough, funny and intimate account of life in the McAughtry home in Belfast’s Tiger’s Bay with a controversial re-telling of the events leading up to the famous naval encounter in which Mart would meet his death.

Whenever his ship tied up my father followed a strict ritual. As soon as he had finished wiping down the engines he came up on deck from the engine room and collected a bucket of hot water from the galley. He carried this up to the fo’c’sle head, stepping over the two-foot-high breakwater that ran slantwise across the deck. Then he descended into the port side of the fo’c’sle, where the engine crew had their quarters. There he undressed and scrubbed himself pink-clean.

Dressed in his shore-going navy blue suit, white shirt and black tie, he hoisted his long, seaman’s bag on to his shoulder and went down the gangway, out into Whitla Street, and into Phil Maguire’s pub nearby. With him usually were his pals the bo’sun and lamptrimmer. In Phil Maguire’s they bevied for a couple of hours.

Around about this time, his family were in a fine state of excitement, back in Cosgrave Street. The street was built on a steep hill that looked straight down on the docks, where the ocean-going ships tied up. Often it was possible to see from our street Dad’s ship move slowly into view as she berthed. Her outline was unmistakeable – all the Head Line ships carried the emblem of the Ulster Steamship Company, the Red Hand of Ulster on a white shield. The funnel and hull were painted black, and the upper works were white and yellow.

The shipping news in the Belfast Telegraph would have alerted us the day before the ship was due in any case, but all he way along the last leg of her journey I would have been following her course. Pinned up in the reading room of the Belfast Public Library was a copy of Lloyd’s Shipping Gazette, and the noon position of Dad’s ship was there. It was only a matter, for a school kid like me, of standing on tiptoe and looking for it.

Dunaff Head, noon 25 January. Bar 40, vis. 15, NW Force 3, bound Belfast,’ it would say, giving the ship’s position. I would sit on the hot pipes in the reading room, get my atlas out of my schoolbag, and check the noon position myself.

Sam McAughtry, The Sinking of the Kenbane Head, (Blackstaff Press, 2004) reproduced by permission of Blackstaff Press.

A moving memorial to Sam’s brother Mart who died when the Kenbane Head was sunk by a German battleship during World War II.

McAughtry has often been motivated in his writing to demonstrate that Protestant and Catholic communities in Belfast had more to unite than divide them. He has sought to describe and explain a Protestant working class background in its social and economic contexts.

Further Infomation




“His classic work, so far as this writer is concerned, is The Sinking of the Kenbane Head.
The Kenbane Head was sunk on 5 November 1940, by the German battleship Admiral Scheer. But this book is more than the poignant story of how Sam’s brother Mart McAughtry, aged twenty-seven years, serving as a fireman on The Kenbane Head lost his life that day in the grey, cold Atlantic waters.
It is a memoir of a Belfast family growing up in the city’s Tiger Bay, a family with a seafaring tradition. Sam and Matt’s father first went to sea in 1897 and Matt was named after a seafaring McAughtry buried in Carrickfergus nearly 200 years ago.
The book is about the road that led to the death of one of them on a 5,155 tons, elderly cargo ship off Greenland. There were twenty survivors out of the 44 souls on board.
After the continued ignorant attacks and comments from people like Lord Tebbit, who claimed the Irish nations was pro-Nazi in WWII (by which he refers to Ireland’s neutrality), this book is a timely reminder of the countless Irish merchant sailors who gave their lives in that struggle.
The Kenbane Head was an Irish ship crewed by Irishmen. The captain was T.F. Milner from Islandmagee and its crew consisted of men not only from Belfast, Ballyhalbert, and Carrickfergus but from Cork, Limerick and Clonakilty.”
Peter Berresford Ellis





Blackstaff Press