Assessing Titanic's Irish Connections Part 2: A 'Titanic' Legacy, In Film and Story

By John Walsh

Lovers Jack Dawson (Leo DiCaprio) and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) take to the floor at a hooley in steerage in James Cameron's epic film "Titanic." Click on image to see a larger view.

The last landfall seen by passengers on Titanic was Ireland. After embarking passengers at Southampton and Cherbourg, Titanic took on passengers at Cobh (called Queenstown then). The list of the Queenstown passengers includes three Kellys, three Murphys, six Rices, a McCormack and an O'Connell.

These 113 Irish passengers were a part of the total steerage list of approximately 712 passengers, with seven other Irish boarding at Southampton. Only thirty-four of the Titanic's Irish were rescued.

Class distinction, steerage vis-à-vis first class, most likely affected the rescue effort, not ethnic origins. Sixty-two percent of first-class passengers were rescued while only 25 percent of those traveling in steerage survived. The rescue effort's chief priorities were women and children, regardless of ethnicity.

"Unsinkable" Molly Brown. Click on image to see a larger view.

One of the best-known Irish-American survivors of Titanic was not a steerage passenger — but a first-class passenger travelling with the Astors. She was the legendary "Unsinkable" Molly Brown. Margaret Tobin, as she was born, was a Narrowback, a daughter of Irish immigrants. Her husband J.J. Brown, also a child of Irish immigrants, became a millionaire through gold mining in Colorado.

Margaret spent much of her wealth in self-improvement and on the arts. In fact, she boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg after visiting Egypt. She is credited with taking command of Boat 6 and insisting that the lifeboat attempt to rescue passengers in the water, an attempt that was rebuffed. Aboard the Carpathia, the rescue vessel for most of Titanic survivors, Margaret raised money for the less-fortunate survivors. Over the years, she kept in touch with some survivors and aided them financially.

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Played by Tammy Grimes on Broadway and in the movies by Debbie Reynolds and Kathy Bates, Molly Brown seems to have had an Irish sense of humor as noted in a letter to her daughter after the rescue: "After being brined, salted, and pickled in mid-ocean, I am now high and dry."

Margaret Tobin Brown lived her last days as a resident of the Barbizon Plaza Hotel in New York City and is buried in Holy Rood Cemetery, Westbury, Long Island. Hers is a Titanic story of courage and unselfishness of which the Irish can be proud.

The 'Titanic' films — ever more Irish

How Irish do movies make the Titanic story? As time goes on, quite, it would seem.

In the 1964 film "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," about the only Irish touch is the accent of Margaret's father. The only Irish accent in the 1953 "Titanic" belongs to a defrocked, alcoholic priest, played by Richard Basehart, returning to America. He finds his 'inner priest' in the last hours of the sinking. In "A Night to Remember" (1958), there is a realistic scene of a priest and the others in an Irish village seeing parishioners off on their voyage to America, and in steerage scenes, the audience sees many Irish faces, the performance of a jig, and hears Irish music and lyrics.

The blockbuster James Cameron "Titanic" is the most Irish of the Titanic films. Irish music, from Gaelic Storm, plays as Leonardo DiCaprio runs to catch the about-to-depart Titanic. Molly Brown, played by Kathy Bates, is an important figure in the film. There is a lengthy scene of a céilí in steerage with a lively jig, tin whistles, a bodhrán, pipes and a squeeze box adding to the Irish flavor of the scene, complemented by pints of Guinness. This film, owing to its popularity, has probably done more to write an Irish chapter into the Titanic story than any other influence.

The Titanic saga was not a part of the oral history of my family. We heard plenty about "the Black and Tans," the great sport of hurling, Eamon de Valera, the Shannon Scheme, holy wells, how to read tea leaves, turf, but no Titanic. Only many years later did this writer learn that Titanic was built in Ireland, something to be proud of.

Even later, as I researched this article, did I learn of the job discrimination against Irish Catholics in the Harland & Wolff shipyards. No one in our Irish ghetto in Brooklyn spoke about Titanic; apparently, no one's descendents earned any sweat equity by working on Titanic. Some of us who are descendents of Irish Catholic immigrants heard something about Titanic from their parents. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn's grandmother, Ellen Shine, survived the harrowing voyage at age 17, and lived to 101 years of age, leaving the story of those days as part of her legacy both to her family and to historians.

Certainly, this great, hugely dramatic tragedy and landmark historic event merits the huge amount of attention it is garnering on the 100th anniversary of its demise. It is, above all, while not an inherently Irish tragedy, another potent reminder of human fallibility

Read Part 1: 'From Titanic. Good Bye all.' 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/.

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Tags: Cherbourg, France, History of Ireland, Ireland, New York, New York City, Seafaring, United States, Westbury

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