It is impossible to avoid the Titanic this week so this column might as well steam straight in and join the rest of the fleet of books, films and documentaries following in the wake of the liner and its ill-fated passengers and crew.
- The Looking Back Column with Liam Kenny appears every week in the Leinster Leader -
There was a great deal happening in the world in 1912 and the sinking of the Titanic was not the only story to demand public attention. In Europe in 1912 the tensions were building and a major war seemed inevitable – this ominous prospect was fulfilled in 1914 which triggered four years of slaughter. On the island of Ireland the political drama was intensifying with the introduction of a Home Rule Bill in Westminster which promised a long sought independence for Ireland. The news was met by a virulent reaction from Ulster Unionists who were prepared to take arms to retain their status within the United Kingdom. This situation was to have far more consequences for the Irish public than the sinking of a ship in the distant western Atlantic.
Indeed the Titanic had vno impact on the social and economic realities of peoples’ lives in that era. There was no let up in sea travel or in ship building. Indeed for the remainder of 1912 the pages of local newspapers such as the Leinster Leader and the Kildare Observer are full of advertisements from shipping agents vying for the business of emigrants travelling to the new world.
So why then has the story of the Titanic emerged in modern times with such all-pervasive impact? Part of the explanation might be that the Titanic delivers by the shipload the attributes that make for a good story – it has drama and plotlines, survivors and fatalities, lots of costumes, sharply delineated class distinctions, and, most essentially, oceans of human interest. Like some kind of a maritime costume drama the Titanic story has transcended the generations in a way that many other stories – of much greater consequence – have failed to do. So while the historian might wish for context and proportion as the Titanic convoy sails across the TV screens of the nation there is no doubt that the story of the Belfast-built liner is headed for box office immortality.
It is important in all the centenary commemoration to remember the fact that the sinking was a time of terror and bleak death for those on board the ship. The human interest was all too real for those who found themselves without rescue on that dark night far away from the reassuring lights of shoreline and safety.
In this context of the human dimension of the story a book which should feature strongly in any Titanic reading list is “The Irish aboard the Titanic” by Senan Molony and published this year by the Mercier Press in Cork – something of a coincidence given that Cobh was the last port of call for the great liner on its maiden but final voyage.
An experienced journalist and Titanic researcher Senan Molony’s opening line probably sum up as well as anybody the enduring nature of the doomed ship’s story: “ The tumult began when the waters closed over the Titanic, and it has hardly ceased since.” His book documents the large numbers of Irish who were on board as passengers and as crew. Some stories stand out with particular poignancy – that of Margaret Rice of Athlone and her five children aged two to ten years who were all drowned is grief personified.
There was also the cluster of young people from a County Mayo townsland who died together. They were representative of the legions of emigrants whose custom kept the great liners in business. Senan Molony’s research in a diversity of sources has built up a biography of many of those on board – both lost and saved. From a Kildare point of view there is mention of James Kelly of Leixlip, an emigrant who left behind a widow and six young children. There are a number of Kildare connections on the crew list who perished.
Ernest King, the Assistant Purser, had grown up in Straffan; William O’Loughlin, the Senior Surgeon on board, as a young doctor had practised at Clane dispensary; and Patrick Gill, a ship’s cook, hailed from the Timahoe area. No doubt their souls are at rest with the countless others claimed by the sea over the centuries. For a guide to navigating the Titanic and its human dimension “The Irish and the Titanic” by Senan Molony is worth recommending.
Series no: 276.