As many readers will be aware, I have had a number of “side projects” which I try to advance periodically through the years. One that I haven’t previously highlighted relates to Irish emigrants who lost their lives aboard the USS Maine in 1898. Many of the men who served on the cruiser were Irish emigrants, and some of their families were still back in Ireland. During my research I have uncovered a number of their letters. Perhaps the most fascinating–and certainly the most moving– was penned by Mike Harrington, a 36-year-old United States Marine. Mike’s mother and some of his siblings lived on the family farm, which clung to a mountainside on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork. His long, detailed letter speaks of them, of other relatives, and of Ireland. He regaled those at home with a vivid description of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and described the extreme tensions on the streets of Havana, off which he was anchored. Eleven days after he sealed his envelope, he and at least 260 of his shipmates were dead.
Mike and the others lost their lives on the night of 15th February 1898, when an explosion ripped through her forward compartments. Many of the men were in their bunks, where those not killed in the blast were trapped and drowned. The cause of the explosion remains disputed. The Maine had been anchored in Havana Harbor, off Spanish Cuba, ostensibly to protect American interests. Back in the United States, the finger of blame was was firmly pointed at the Spaniards, and within weeks the Spanish-American War had erupted.
Feb 4th 98
Annie I received your kind and loving letter on Tuesday I was very glad to hear that you were all well. I was very glad to hear that you had a letter from home and Mother’s health [is] so good this time a year. I hope it will continue so poor Kate it is two bad and she such a beautiful little child as you said she was a neat crafty cunning little child but I suppose that ill bred dog of a father broke her healt[h] he should never have got her in the first place I mean after he went home.
Well Annie Dear I suppose poor Con will have to go to the Skelligs with us this year I expected to see him and you drop out this year but it seems ye want to follow the old guides Joe and myself and I suppose poor Julia will be there of course. Give them all my best love and regards when you write to them also brother Johnny. I am very glad to hear that there is an increase in the family one more name added to the lost of Harringtons in the country. I think it would be safe enough to go to the Klondike next Spring that is if he has enough to pay his way back in case of ill luck otherwise I would advise him to stay home wishing him every success tell Joe to give him my regards when she writes.
Well Annie Dearest as you asked me to send one of my pictures home to mother to tell the truth I have not got one fit to send the one I have got it is slightly damaged. It is not fit to send anywhere so I hope you will excuse me this time give them my love and regarded when you write to them.
Annie Dear I had a letter from Mary since your last letter stating that John’s health was not good owing to a cold but I see by your letter where he is all right again. Annie Dear you cannot be two careful of yourself this time of the year I hope you and Joe will be good to yourself during the winter do not deny yourself anything in the line of comfort if you can possible reach it. If you do not look out for yourself nobody else will of course except your Bean give him my Best regards (and also Joes).
Well Annie Dear I hope your not uneasy about me being down here in Havana of course people think where there is war there is danger but there is no danger here at present we are laying at anchor as peacefully as if we was in Newport the only thing we dread is sickness there is none as yet I hope there wont be any.
Annie Dear there was nothing but excitement the night that we was ordered down here we left Key West on Sunday and went to Dry Tortugas we got there on Monday night with the fleet we had no sooner dropped anchor then we were ordered to proceed to Havana we did not know what to make of it as every body was guessing we thought that the American Consul was killed or some Americans we did not have any sleep that night as we got everything ready for action. We was prepared for the worst we have the guns ready to load in about too seconds but we did not need it a good job for some of them as I tell you they was purty well scared especially the married men.
Well Annie Dear I cannot tell you much about this place except it is a very nice climate but the Harbour is very unhealthy the entrance is very narrow and no outlets it is like a stagnant pond we had to pass right under Morro Castle and also…where the Spanish keep all their Cuban prisoners they shoot 2 or 3 every morning. There is nobody allowed on shore except the Officers I was ashore once for mail with the Captain we went to the American Consul office he is well guarded with Spanish troops there was half dozen police men followed us all round until w got to the boat that is for protection. Havana is full of troops we had to push our way through them in the streets as I guess they thought we were Indians but we are getting more settled down every day. I dont know how long we will be here the papers got us leaving here on the 15th of this month for New Orleans. There is a French Carnival called the Mardi Gras there on 21st we are invited as was there last year us and the Texas. We had a jolly good time there made lots of friends as it is something new to see a man of war up the Mississippi. The Carnival lasts three days everybody is crazy men and women they dont do nothing for a week after they dress up in all sorts of costumes you do not know whether you are talking to a man or a woman. They took charge of our ship last year they went up the rigging and all over. New Orleans is 150 miles up the Mississippi. Annie Dear you will get sick of reading this scribbling. I hope you will excuse it as I am in a hurry to catch the mail steamer it leaves in the morning. We get 2 mails a week one on Wednesday and one on Saturday we has to send our mail through the American Consul as it would be opened otherwise. I think it would be better to address the mail to Key West then I will get it alright. Give my regards to Katie Shea, Mary and family and all inquiring friends.
With lots of love to yourself from your loving brother,
Key West Fla
Curraduve Waterfall (Curraduff)
Good Bye X xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx X
Mike was described as having been 5 feet 6 1/2 inches tall, with a fresh complexion, dark hair inclining to fair, large blue eyes, a plump face, regular nose and a stout build. He had arrived in America in 1889, and had worked as a waiter in Springfield, Massachusetts prior to his enlistment. Crucially, he chose not to enlist under his real name, instead using the alias “John Bennett”. He always wrote “Mike” in his letter before adding his assumed name below. The “Annie Dear” he was corresponding with was his 23-year-old younger sister. She was living in Fall River, Massachusetts, as was their other sister “Joe”, 28-year-old Johanna. Both worked as domestics.
When the Maine had docked in Newport, Rhode Island in August 1897, Mike had taken the opportunity to visit his sisters. Afterwards, he wrote frequently, corresponding with Annie every two weeks. She received his last letter–the one you have just read–immediately before he died. She later recalled the moment she heard news of the explosion:
as soon as I learned that the Maine was blown up I sent a telegram to…the Navy asking as to the welfare of John Bennett and immediately received a reply by telegram that my brother was killed.
Mike, Annie and Joe were three of the seven surviving children of Kate Harrington. Their father, also called Mike, had died in Co. Cork in 1888. Kate was 64 when her son sank beneath the waves off Cuba. Still on her small farm at Curraduff, Waterfall on the Beara Peninsula, she managed only a marginal existence. Though it was 45 acres, it was made up of “rough mountain land”, and only allowed her to support five cattle. She rented it for £7 10 Shillings a year from Lady Charles Pelham-Pelham Clinton, and painted a far from idyllic picture of her lot:
myself and the other members of the family eke a miserable existence as owing to the poor and impoverished state of the land in this locality, one of the most backward spots in Ireland. I am continually in debt to the traders in the neigbouring town of Castletownbere the little produce got by our industry obtaining but a very small price
Kate’s daughters Annie and Joe sought to intercede on her behalf in order to secure her a pension. Unsurprisingly, major problems were caused by Mike’s decision to enlist under an alias. It transpired he had previously been in the British service (either the army or navy) and it may be that he had deserted. Whatever the truth of it, Annie offered a different explanation for his decision:
he did’nt want to worry mother or any of the family as we all objected to his being in the navy as he had been in the English Army and mother worried so about him, to please her my brother bought him out
Kate eventually received her pension, and would ultimately spend her final years with some of her children in Massachusetts. She was still there at the age of 93. The Maine was raised in 1910, and the remainder of the bodies aboard were interred at Arlington National Cemetery, where a memorial stands to those who lost their lives. Unfortunately, as with so many other Irishmen who died while serving under an alias, Mike lies beneath the name he adopted to enlist. Today, he is remembered not as Mike Harrington from Beara, but as John Bennett of New York City.
If you would like to support the work and upkeep of this site you can do so via my Patreon site for as little as $1 a month at patreon.com/irishacw, or by making a one-off donation to the site’s running costs via the PayPal button in the sidebar.
Mike Harrington Navy Pension File.