Assessing Titanic's Irish Connections: Part 1 -- 'From Titanic. Good Bye all.'

By John Walsh

"Titanic Sinking" by Willy Stöwer. Click on image to see a larger view.

The sinking of RMS Titanic is not an Irish event, though it has come to have Celtic overtones with the increasing emphasis in film depictions of its many Irish passengers aboard. Well known, of course, is that the Titanic collided with an iceberg in the mid-Atlantic on the "Night to Be Remembered," April 14, 1912, sinking the next morning within several hours, with the loss of two-thirds of its 2,200 passengers and crew.

The White Star Line, the ship's owner, was American since 1902, when the line was absorbed into International Mercantile Marine Co. (IMM), a large American shipping conglomerate. The ship's management was British, and it flew under a British flag. A J.P. Morgan company was the majority owner of the vessel -- indeed, Morgan had a stateroom especially built for him on the ship but cancelled his passage on the maiden voyage owing to illness. He escaped the death at sea suffered by other wealthy people like John Jacob Astor.

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The ship, according to testimony at a United States Senate hearing, was travelling far too fast in a sea holding icebergs that had been identified and reported by nearby ships. In waters as still as a pond, the watch on deck only detected the fateful iceberg when it was 500 yards away, giving the ship barely 60 seconds to avert disaster. As it was, it managed to avoid a head-on collision, only to take a glancing blow that created a 300-foot gash amidships, which proved fatal to the nearly 900-foot-long vessel.

A decision to push for maximum speed arguably contributed to the catastrophe, a call driven by the intense international competition for dominance in the trans-Atlantic passenger trade. The Titanic, with its outsized name, was a product of those wars, which led to construction of such legendary ocean liners as Cunard Line's Mauretania and Hamburg-America Line's Amerika and Deutschland.

White Star Line, fatefully, also decided to minimize the number of lifeboats she carried, in order to optimize the space passengers could enjoy on the ship's public areas, particularly those for those in first-class. From the 64 lifeboats envisioned, the line's planners provided only 16 of wood, plus four "collapsible" rafts, providing seats for little more than half the 2,223 passengers and crew. Adding to the tragedy, because of passengers' fears of taking to the sea in these 30-foot-long vessels, plus misguided faith in Titanic's survivability, the lifeboats were not filled even close to capacity. [706, 711, 712 are three of the estimates of those carried on the ship's lifeboats.]

Titanic ready for launch on Queen's Island, Belfast. Click on image to see a larger view.

A word about the numbers associated with the Titanic disaster: Depending on the source, the total number of people on Titanic is reported as high as 2,265 and as low as 2,201. The number who lost their lives also varies among official reports: 1,517 [Senate]; 1,503 [British Board of Trade]; 1,490 [British Enquiry].

Since we are citizens of the land into which we are born, the Titanic is certainly Irish by birth, as she was born in Belfast. She was built by Irish laborers and mechanics at the Harland & Wolff shipyards. In a footnote to this history, the Irish who built the Titanic were almost largely Irish of the Protestant persuasion.

The lot of the Roman Catholic working class in Belfast was not a happy one in the time of the Titanic and before and after the Titanic, for that matter. The tenor of intolerance in Ulster in that time can be gauged in the sermon of Dr. William McKean on Ulster Day, September 28, 1912: "The Irish question is at bottom a war against Protestantism; it is an attempt to establish a Roman Catholic ascendency in Ireland."

'Let God sink this vessel if he can'

Clemson University Professor Stephanie Barczewski, a specialist in modern British cultural history, writes in her 2004 history "Titanic: A Night Remembered," that "Almost all … workers were Protestant … defending their privileges … from the flood of predominantly Catholic emigrants pouring into Belfast." In 1912, she reports, the Catholic Irish held 9 percent of the jobs in shipbuilding and engineering, though 24 percent of the Northern Irish population.

Tracing conflict back to 1864, Barczewski relates an incident in which Harland & Wolff shipwrights demanded the dismissal of all Catholic navvies who attended the unveiling of a statue of Daniel O'Connell in Dublin. Harland rebuffed the demands. Home Rule agitation, in 1886, led to shipbuilders loyal to the Orange Order roaming the streets of Belfast armed with scraps of metal pipe in Catholic neighborhoods.

The sectarian atmosphere at Harland & Wolff assured that relatively few Irish Catholic laborers helped to construct Titanic. There is no doubt that Titanic was built by an Irish workforce, though an Irish workforce more attracted to the Orange than the Green.

Workers leaving Harland & Wolff shipyard, in Belfast, with Titanic in the background. Click on image to see a larger view.

Many stories and legends sprang from the sinking of 'unsinkable' Titanic, perhaps in a human effort to explain the unexplainable. One tale has an apprentice painter daubing "Let God sink this vessel if he can!" on Titanic's side while it was under construction, a challenge he then painted over.

Michael McCaughan, author of the newly published history "Titanic: Icon of An Age," recalled in an op-ed piece in Saturday's Irish Times another apocryphal story of Titanic:

"After sectarian assaults on Catholic shipyard workers in the highly charged political atmosphere of 1912, a belief spread among many Catholics that the sunken ship had enshrined anti-Catholic messages, such as the alleged ship number 3909 ON."

McCaughan points out that this number was a mirror image of the sectarian slogan "No Pope." In fact, Titanic had never had the 'No Pope' number assigned to it. Its registry was 131,428 and its yard number was 401. Still, revenge, in some people's minds at least, was thought to be sweet.

There is also a message-in-a-bottle story related to Titanic, with considerably more credence, as related by the BBC and other news media in November. Jeremiah Burke, who did not survive the tragedy, is said to have put a note in a bottle of holy water given him by his mother before he embarked. The scribbled note, now in the hands of Cobh Heritage Center, reads: "From Titanic. Good Bye all. Burke of Glanmire, Cork." The bottle and note washed up on shore a year after his death, near his home. WG

Part 2: A 'Titanic' Legacy, In Film and Story of the two-part series, 'The Titanic's Irish Connections.'

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article first appeared in The Hedgemaster, the newsletter of The Irish Cultural Society of Garden City (N.Y.) Area, and is reproduced here with the author's kind permission. To learn more about the group, visit http://www.irish-society.org/. To connect with John M. Walsh via The Wild Geese, visit the author's memberprofile.

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Tags: Belfast, Cobh, Cork, Dublin, Glanmire, History of Ireland, Ireland, Seafaring, United States

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