At least 79 of the 1,517 passengers and crew who died when RMS Titanic sank were born in Ireland. Built in Belfast, the Irish connections of the White Star liner were many and varied.
Shortly before noon on a Thursday 11th April 1912, the Titanic dropped her screw-anchors into the murky seabed off Ringabella Bay, off Cork Harbour, seven nautical miles out from the County Cork seaport of Queenstown (now better known as Cobh). She apparently could have come closer to the harbour, or even docked there, but Cunard were eager to win a postal contract and speed was of the essence. Had the ship gone closer to Cobh, it would have slowed the voyage down and they may not have won the contract.
Queenstown had been a vital port for Britain’s Navy for several centuries. During the 19th century, it evolved into the foremost port in Ireland, despatching convicts by the hundred to Australia and emigrants by the thousand to North America. With the evolution of luxury travel, it became one of the key trans-Atlantic ports ocean liners to’ing and fro’ing between the USA and Europe.And now, the sun-drenched town was bedecked in celebratory bunting as people poured in from miles around to get a glimpse of the biggest steamer in existence.
They had every right to marvel. The Titanic was, after all, very much an Irish ship. It was designed by an Irishman and built by Irishmen, mainly Protestant, at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast. The Titanic’s carpets were made in Abbeyleix, Co. Laois, and the ginger ale and soda water was provided by the venerable Dublin firm of Cantrell & Cochrane.
Those in the crowd with a good vision might just have seen the smaller boats that buzzed around the colossal eleven-storey ocean liner. Some may even have correctly guessed that most of these boats were delivering luggage. Others were probably related to the chancers who had set forth to try and flog linen and lace to the well-heeled passengers on board.
Many of them would have watched as two rickety ship-tenders from the White Star line set out through the deep waters of the harbour towards the ship. The smarter one was the PS Ireland which escorted Dr. Minahan, his wife and his sister from Wisconsin to their first class cabins on the luxury liner. Also on board were seven-second class passengers, five of whom were Irish.
The second, rather more aged tender, the PS America, carried 113 steerage class passengers, the majority of whom were Irish.
Margaret Rice, a widowed housekeeper from Athlone, was making the journey along with her five sons, the eldest of whom was ten. They were returning to Washington after their first visit home since their father’s death in a railway accident two years earlier.
Also returning to the USA from Athlone was 24-year-old Bertha Mulvihill, bound for a new chapter with her impending marriage to a welder from Rhode Island. She shared a 3rd class cabin with her friend with Maggie Daly whose younger brother Eugene, an uilleann piper, was also on board.
Fourteen young men and women from the parish of Addergoole near Lahardane, Co. Mayo, were also planning a new life in America. So too were a group of five from the small Galway village of Caltra.
Ellen Shine, a 20-year-old from Newmarket, Co. Cork, was aiming for New York City. Annie Kelly from Cuilmullagh, Co Mayo was going to join cousins in to Chicago. Katie McCarthy, a farmer’s daughter from Bansha, Co. Tipperary, was heading for New Jersey with her friends Roger Tobin and Katie Peters.
Tom McCormack, a 20-year-old from Aghnacliffe, Co Longford, was also bound for New Jersey where he worked as a bartender in Bayonne. He was travelling with his cousins Philip and John Kiernan.
As well as passengers, the American also delivered 1,400 bags of mail to the Titanic. And on its return to Queenstown, the tender delivered several bags of mail which the Titanic’s passengers had already written in the 24 hours since their departure from Southampton.
One of these letters was written by Eddie Colley, a civil engineer from Dublin to his sister-in-law. Eddie Colley, who was taking up a job in North West Canada, was my grandmother’s uncle. In his letter, he indulged in a degree of star-spotting, noting the likes of the New York millionaire John Astor, railway tycoon Charles Melville Hays and the controversial English journalist W. T. Stead. ‘How I wish someone I liked was on board’, sighed the bachelor Colley. ‘But then nice people don’t sit at tables for two unless they’re engaged or married.’
As it happens, he was to find himself invited into the coterie of the inimitable American socialite Helen Churchill Candee shortly after the ship left Cobh, along with US President Taft’s military aide, Major Archibald Butt, and the painter Francis Millet.
While the America brought the mail onshore, the Ireland also carried some passengers to land whose journey on the Titanic had, for one reason or another, already come to an end. Amongst these was Frank Browne, a 32-year-old theology student and amateur photographer from Cork. During his time on board he had managed to snap 159 invaluable photographs of the ship’s interior, passengers and crew, including its captain, Edward Smith, who had sailed over two million miles for The White Star Line who was due to retire after this final voyage.[i]
Approximately ninety minutes after its arrival in Cobh, Captain Smith gave orders to haul anchor and make for America. The next stop should have been New York. As the mighty ship steamed westwards along the Irish coast, Eugene Daly began playing ‘Erin’s Lament’ on his Uilleann Pipes. His timing was epic. Jeremiah Burke, a lanky 19-year-old from Glanmire, Co. Cork, seized the moment to hurl a bottle into the sea with a message inside. “Goodbye all: Burke of Glanmire, Cork”. The bottle was found washed up on the shingle shore of his native county the following year, an eerie reminder of his short life.
The people who watched the Titanic passing up the coast of West Cork are all dead now. But the image was so striking that the coastal communities are planning to ignite bonfires on every headland the ship passed to mark the centenary of its fateful departure. As Lawrence Beesley, a 2nd class passenger and science teacher later recalled, “The last we saw of Europe was the Irish mountains dim and faint in the dropping darkness.”
Three and a half days later, just before midnight, the Titanic struck an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland off her starboard bow with such force that it ripped a 300-foot long series of punctures along her hull.
Precisely two hours and 40 minutes later, at 2:27 a.m., the Titanic split and sank. To borrow a some words from Derek Mahon’s marvellous poem ‘Bruce Ismay Laments’, or ‘After the Titanic’, she went ‘thundering down in a pandemonium of prams, pianos, sideboards, winches, boilers bursting and shredded ragtime.’
Katie McCarthy survived but her travelling companions Roger Tobin and Katie Peters did not. She watched the ship snap in two but, for many decades, the “split theory” was denied by the authorities and those who stated it were castigated as liars. In 1985, oceanographer Robert Ballard’s first photographs of the sunken vessel emerged and Katie McCarthy was vindicated.
Eighteen-year-old Albert Ervine from Merryfield, Belfast, was one of six electricians on duty when the ship struck the iceberg. All six died trying to maintain the power which was so vital to both the wireless and the night light.
Amongst the other Irish-born crew-members who died was Dublin-born trimmer Joseph Dawson. It is thought his name might have inspired Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Jack Dawson in the Oscar-winning 1997 film, ‘Titanic’.
Annie Kelly was among the first third class passengers to suspect trouble. She later stated that the stewards did not wake the steerage passengers in time and that when she went up on deck to see what was happening, she was told to go back down and that there was no danger. Annie was saved in lifeboat 16 after, she claimed, the Bourkes vacated and made room for her to enter. She later became a nun and told how she would always be haunted by the “wild scenes on the boat just before it went down.”
Twenty-one-year old Daniel Buckley from Ballydesmond in Co Cork awoke to find his cabin-floor ankle deep in water. He tried to rouse his pals who he shared a room with but they refused to believe him so he headed out to investigate further. He never saw his friends again. He later testified that the crew tried to stop the third class passengers from coming upstairs but that they forced their way through.
He jumped into a lifeboat and would have been thrown out if one of the well-to-do ladies beside him hadn’t thrown her shawl over his head. (His luck ran out six years later when he was killed by a German bullet on the Western Front.)
The White Star Line had a strict policy that lifeboats were for women and children only. First-class passenger Jack Thayer claimed he saw Chief Purser, Hugh McElroy, originally from Tullacanna, Co Wexford, coaxing two dining room stewards out of a lifeboat by firing his pistol over their heads. McElroy’s body was later found and he was buried at sea.
Ellen Shine, who claimed to be the last woman to leave the Titanic, also produced one of the more dramatic stories of the night saying she saw an officer shoot dead four men from steerage because they refused to get out of a lifeboat. (By other accounts, the four men were simply ousted). When she died in New York in 1993, aged 101, Ellen was the last remaining Titanic survivor from Ireland.
Violet Jessop, a stewardess, had been born in Buenos Aries to a Dublin couple who ran a sheep farm on the Argentine pampas. She recalled standing on the deck watching the harrowing sight of husbands and fathers saying farewell to their wives and children as the crew assigned people to their lifeboats. She not only survived the night but would later survive being on the Britannica when it hit a mine in the Aegean Sea in 1916 and sank to the bottom.
Eleven of the fourteen passengers from Addergoole and three of the five from Caltra perished. Jeremiah Burke from Glanmire died, as did his 18-year-old cousin Nora Hegarty from Whitechurch who had been planning to join an order of nuns in America.
Margaret Rice was last seen holding her three-year-old son Eugene while her other four children clung onto her skirt. None survived.
When the ship struck the iceberg, the band played Irving Berlin’s ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’ Towards the end, Violet Jessop heard them they playing ‘Nearer my God to Thee.’ Not one of the eight members of the band survived.
Eugene Daly dived overboard and clambered onto one of the collapsible lifeboats in the water. Tom McCormack spent 80 minutes in the freezing sea. When he attempted to board a lifeboat, he claimed that one of the crew began whacking him over the head and shoulders with his paddle. Mary and Kate Murphy, two sisters from Co. Longford, intervened and heaved him on board. Within a week or two he was back pulling pints at his pub in New Jersey. His cousins Philip and John Kiernan were not so fortunate. Their bodies were never recovered.
Bertha Mulvihill broke a rib while leaving the ship but managed to survive and marry her man. She remembered the cheers ringing out through when “two big green lights broke through the mist” the following morning. The rescue ship Carpathia had finally arrived. ‘We cheered and cheered’, she wrote. ‘Some cried but I just sat still and offered up a little prayer.’
1,517 of the 2,223 passengers on board died in the tragedy. Not surprisingly the statistics favoured the first class of whom two-thirds survived, including Helen Churchill Candee and Margaret Tobin Brown, an Irish-American known as thereafter as the “Unsinkable Molly Brown.” (Molly’s roots were in Fermoy, County Cork, as per here). But many of the upper class men died including Dr. Minahan, Major Butt and Messrs. Astor, Stead, Hays and Millet. Nor did they ever find Eddie Colley of Corkagh. The “roly poly Irishman who laughed a lot but said little” turned 37 years old on the very day the ship sank. As it happens, my grandmother Noreen Colley, his niece, celebrated her second birthday at Corkagh that same day.
The survival rate for 706 third class passengers was considerably smaller. Three-quarters of them perished, including fifty children and 74 of the 113 third classers who boarded at Queenstown. Five of the ten Irish who boarded at Southampton also died, bringing the total number of Irish-born Titanic victims to 79. Another tragedy was John Young, a soldier in the Connaught Rangers, who shot himself in the mistaken belief that his brother Francis had died in the sinking.
J. Bruce Ismay, the flamboyant owner of the White Star line, was savaged by papers both sides of the Atlantic for deserting the sinking ship and taking one of the coveted lifeboat spaces. He later settled in Connemara where he died in 1937, a haunted man until the end.
MADE IN BELFAST
The world’s largest ship was constructed at the world’s largest shipyard, the Protestant enclave of Harland and Wolff in Belfast. Completed by a 15,000-strong workforce in 1912, it was 882 feet long and had a gross tonnage of 45,000 ton. There were 254 accidents during its construction, including eight fatalities.
The ship was designed by County Down-born Thomas Andrews, Managing Director of Harland & Wolff, and a nephew of Lord Pirrie, the Company Chairman. Mr. Andrews headed up the company’s eight-strong “Guarantee Group” who went on the maiden voyage to advise Captain Smith and his crew should any problems arise. None of them survived.
After a gala launching, Titanic left Belfast on April 2, 1912 and traveled to Southampton, England, where ten Irish-born passengers boarded. On April 10 the ship took on nearly a thousand passengers and steamed for Cherbourg, France. After picking up 200 or so more passengers, the ship headed for Queenstown (Cobh) off the south coast of Co. Cork. That was her last port of call.
This article was first published in February 2012 to mark the centenary of the sinking of RMS Titanic.
Titanic & Australia by Turtle Bunbury (The Australian, April 2012)
Titanic & Ireland by Turtle Bunbury (Ireland of the Welcomes, March 2012)
Titanic & South Africa by Turtle Bunbury (Mail & Guardian, South Africa, 13 April 2012 – see online version here)
Who sank the Titanic? by Turtle Bunbury
Violet Jessop – The Luckiest Stewardess Afloat by Turtle Bunbury (Irish Daily Mail, 12 April 2012)
Senan Molony, The Irish Aboard the Titanic (Wolfhound Press, 2000).
Father Browne’s Titanic Album, edited by E. E O’Donnell. (Messenger, 2011)
[i] All of Fr. Browne’s Titanic images are on www.titanicphotographs.com. It is to be noted that only those identified as Titanic are of that ship, others are of the Olympic as no equivalent exists and indeed some of the Olympic images are unique. The book, ‘Father Browne’s Titanic Album’, recently published in a Centenary Edition is the best source of background material.