Boston philanthropist John J. Cullinane made an emotional voyage to Donegal in May 2013, to visit the site where the Laurentic sank and lay a wreath in memory of Walter Fitzgerald. It was a trip he had long hoped to make, to pay tribute to an uncle he never knew. He carried with him a photograph of his lost uncle.
Walter Fitzgerald was a fisherman from County Waterford and Able Seaman in the Royal Naval Reserve. The R. N. R. provided a pool of experienced seamen to be called on during times of war. Seamen signed up to the R. N. R. as a way of making additional money as they were paid a yearly fee for attending a few weeks of training a year. A number of drill-ships were established at the main seaports around the coasts of Britain and Ireland and seamen left their vessels to undertake gunnery training on these ships.
Walter was born on the 28th of December 1881 in Ballymacaw, near Dunmore East, Waterford, the eldest of John and Catherine Fitzgerald’s five children, named after his paternal Grandfather.
In 1901 Walter’s family lived at House 1, Coolum East, Rathmoylan. Walter wasn’t listed in the census with the family; possibly he was at sea. Later that year, his father died of bronchial pneumonia at the age of 46; Walter’s younger sister Margaret was just 3 years old.
When the census was taken in 1911 Walter was 29 years of age and living with his widowed mother and three of his siblings in Coolum East. His twin brothers William and Michael worked as a Farm Labourer and Groom. Walter was a fisherman.
On September 19th 1914 Walter joined The Royal Naval Division, Anson Battalion. Formed in September 1914, from surplus naval men, the Division fought on land alongside the Army. It consisted of personnel brought together from the Royal Naval Reserve, Royal Fleet Reserve, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, a brigade of Royal Marines, Royal Navy and Army personnel. The division participated in the defence of the Belgian city of Antwerp in late 1914 and was shipped to Egypt for training prior to serving in the Battle of Gallipoli.
In an interview in the Irish News John J Cullinane said:-
“Walter was my mother’s brother. The picture shows him seated at left with two of his friends from Ballymacaw, which is just outside Dunmore East on the ocean off Waterford, a very beautiful place, it’s incredible to think that this townland, effectively a crossroads, lost three of its sons on the SS Laurentic.”
(The other two men in the photograph were John Fleming and Thomas Quinlan)
Walter’s body was never recovered.