If you're picking up a glass of Guinness this St. Patrick's Day, savor it while pondering this story from 1917, when Ireland's famous stout was cause for true celebration: It saved lives.
The strange tale takes place in the Irish Sea toward the end of World War I. Besides the traditional dangers of crossing this busy body of water in a small craft, the years 1914 to 1918 featured the additional danger of German submarines, which targeted all enemy vessels (not just military ones) and sunk many.
This was the challenge that Guinness steamships, with cargo full of stout, faced every day crossing the Irish Sea from Dublin to their destination, Liverpool, in the northwest of the United Kingdom. The trip was about 135 miles and took most of a day, depending on the weather.
The W.M. Barkley was the pride of the Guinness fleet. Guinness bought it from Belfast shipbuilder John Kelly & Sons in 1913, just a year before the war erupted. Then, because of the conflict, the ship was requisitioned by the British Admiralty for the war effort. (Ireland was still part of the U.K. at this time, so it was a legal act of government.) By 1917, the ship was deemed unsuitable for its wartime mission and returned to Guinness for commercial use.
On Oct. 12, 1917, the Barkley set off from Dublin on its fateful trip to Liverpool, with its cargo of stout and a crew of 13. Nearly three hours into its journey, disaster struck: A torpedo from the German UC-75 submarine hit the ship and split it in two.