So often do I hear my friends say: ‘I wish my father were here now to see/hear this’. Indeed many of us who have lost our parents find ourselves often, in our later years, thinking of them and wishing we could spend even half an hour in their company once more, telling them all the things we wished we had said when we had them with us. Every June, as the shops fill with gifts and cards for Fathers’ Day, I experience that fleeting twinge of anxiety as I wonder if I have bought anything for my dad – then my memory catches up with me and I realise my dad is no longer with us.
How lucky I was, though, to have known my handsome and good-humoured, book-loving father for thirty-six of his sixty-eight years. Dad was just two years old when he lost his own father and so had no recollection at all of the equally handsome sailor in the curling sepia photographs. ‘Drowned, in Hamburg’ was all my grandmother, Mary Kelly, would say of her husband’s demise before her cornflower blue eyes would fill with tears and we would tactfully change the subject. And as for his own paternal grandmother, Dad didn’t even know her name. All he knew of his grandfather was that his name was William Henry Kelly and that he had worked in Harland & Wolff’s Belfast shipyard. None of my father’s siblings could contribute anything more to the family history. In 1967, when my weary, forty-four years widowed grandmother passed away, my grieving father made me promise that one day, no matter how long it took, I would go in search of the truth about his father’s death and perhaps find out more about the Kelly ancestry – about William Henry and his shipbuilding career, and about his mysterious unnamed wife. Little did I know that it would be forty years before I discovered the truth, and that my lovely father would no longer be here to hear me recount it.
The coming of the internet age and the releasing of official documents under Freedom of Information legislation enabled me to discover that the cause of my grandfather’s early death was, just as my father had supposed, suspicious. His drowning in Hamburg Harbour was not a simple and tragic accident but was a result of violence during the 1923 Hamburg Uprising. I further learned that this drowned mariner’s mother, the mysterious wife of William Henry Kelly and my great grandmother, had also been murdered just thirteen years before her son would meet a similar fate. I now discovered that her name was Isabella, though she was known to all as Belle. From the press and police reports on her death, I further learned that William Henry was, at that time – 1910, engaged in building a certain ship, the RMS Titanic. To the shock of uncovering my great grandmother’s fate was added the surprise of discovering a family link to history’s most iconic, ill-fated superliner.
As I browsed the research papers, I imagined myself breaking all this devastating news to my father. Would he be disturbed by these revelations, or would he be pleased that I had unlocked this particular box of family secrets? Knowing him as I did – he was an armchair adventurer who loved reading a good murder mystery - I felt he would wish me to record the events in order to share them with my daughter and with future generations, so I decided to write an account of them. Rather than preserving my research papers to be consigned to the attic, however, I chose to turn them into a book, a novel, with my ancestors’ characters portrayed as their actions suggested they would have been and with motives explored and explained.
I visited Belfast to tread the paths my ancestors would have trodden and I researched their lives and times. My cousins and I erected a granite headstone on the unmarked grave of William Henry Kelly and Belle Kelly, engaging, with deliberate irony, Hamilton’s the monumental masons who had supplied all the marble fittings for Titanic. On 21 April 2010 – the centenary of Belle’s tragic death – we gathered at the graveside to think of William Henry and Belle and of our own parents – their grandchildren.
So, as another Fathers’ Day approaches and I am saddened by the thought that I have no father for whom to buy a gift, instead I fondly gaze at the dedication to him which I inscribed in my novel – ‘A Wistful Eye – The Tragedy of a Titanic Shipwright’ – and I try to imagine his reaction if I were to present him with the book. This is definitely the Fathers’ Day gift which I would wish to give to my late father and which, I think, he would be pleased to receive. Happy Fathers’ Day, Dad – wherever you are. ['A Wistful Eye' is featured in The Green Pages, complete with a photo of Titanic shipwright, William Henry]