Siblings Agnes (29), Alice (26), and Bernard McCoy (24) huddled together on the deck of the Titanic shivering in the cold. It was about 1:15 am on April 15, 1912. They were on the port side of the doomed ship, which now was decidedly tilted toward the bow, causing everyone to lean toward the stern. Looking forward, Bernard could see that the entire bow was now underwater and the waterline was slowly creeping in their direction. There was no question in anyone’s mind anymore that the ship was sinking, as they looked out onto the dark, icy, foreboding waters of the Atlantic, contemplating whether they might soon be in it.
Like most of the 3rd Class passengers, the McCoys had gotten a late start coming up onto the lifeboat deck, being told for some time after the collision with the iceberg that there was no reason for concern. Unlike most of those steerage passengers, the McCoys had at first disregarded those assurances and had dressed and come up on deck. There, however, they were once again reassured by an officer, and seeing no panic there, they started back down to steerage.
Once there, the situation had obviously changed. Now stewards were ordering everyone to get dressed, put on their lifebelts, and go up to the deck. The McCoys quickly got their lifebelts and reversed their course back up the stairs. They soon found the second trip would not be so easy, with over 700 of their panicking fellow 3rd Class passengers trying to go the same way this time. The delay in getting steerage passengers to the deck is reflected in the casualty statistics. While 97 percent women and 86 percent of children from the 1st Class area survived, only 49 percent of women and 31 percent of children from 3rd Class survived.
(Below: Bernard McCoy)
The McCoys, encountering none of the locked gates or other obstacles some other steerage passengers later described, emerged into the chaos of the boat deck to see that most of the lifeboats had already launched. Clutching each other’s hands to avoid being separated in the screaming mass of people, they headed toward Lifeboat #16, on the port side of the ship. (Various sources claim they may have boarded #2, #14, or #15.) They saw Sixth Officer Paul Moody directing people into the boat. Women and children from steerage, who were just now crowding the deck, finally had a chance to be saved.
The McCoy sisters were about to board it when Bernard was told he would not be allowed on with them. Beg as they might, they could not convince Moody to allow him to board. Both sisters were refusing to go without him but after some cajoling by Bernard, and the application of some physical force by crew members, they were put on the boat. Agnes later said, “We were literally thrown into the lifeboat and while we fought and cried, it was lowered over the side.”
Before the boat was lowered, Moody handed off an infant to stewardess Violet Jessop, who was born in Argentina but was the daughter of Irish immigrants, William and Katherine Jessop. What became of the infant is unknown, but the baby was in luck to be handed to such a “survivor.” The fortunate Jessop would go on to survive the sinking of the Titanic’s Olympic-class sister ship, the Britannic when it struck a mine in 1916. The sisters wept uncontrollably as they were lowered down, looking up at Bernard standing by the rail. They were sure it was the last time they would see him alive.
(Below: Agnes and Alice with their parents, John and Bridget.)
The McCoys were three of the 13 (two of which died as infants) children of John McCoy and Bridget Cole They were from the small village of Ballinamuck in County Longford, Ireland, famous for being the site of the climatic defeat of “The Year of the French” in 1798, when French General Jean Humbert was defeated by Lord Cornwallis.
By 1912, eight of the McCoy children were living in the New York area in the United States. This “chain migration,” whereby the first member of a family to emigrate to America sent money home to finance the emigration of other members of their family, was a well-established tradition by 1912. It was populating the United States with young Irishmen and women who were willing and eager to work hard to take advantage of the seemingly unlimited opportunities of the new world. But it was a cause of much loneliness and sorrow for the parents like John and Bridget, who expected to never see their children again once they sailed for America.
In 1912, however, they had the joy of once again seeing daughters Catherine, now going by her middle name of Agnes, and Alice. The meeting was bittersweet, however, as the sisters had not come home to stay but to escort yet another of the children, Bernard, back to America. This would leave the parents with just 21-year-old John and 14-year-old Luke at home -- one perhaps to inherit the modest family farm, and the other likely to be the last link in the “chain” to America.
How excited Bernard must have been on April 10th, as he and his sisters loaded the wagon that would take them to the railway station in Longford to begin a great adventure. From there it would be on to Queenstown, now Cobh, in County Cork, where they were to board one of the newest wonders of the world, the ocean liner RMS Titanic. Bernard had likely never traveled far from Ballinamuck. But Bernard’s excitement at the beginning of this trek must have been matched by his mother and father’s sorrow.
(Below: Thomas McCormack)
As the McCoys boarded the train for Cobh, they were joined by several friends from the local area. There was Thomas McCormack (19) from Glenmore, Ellen Corr (17) from Corglass, the Murphy sisters, Margaret (24) and Kate (17), and the Kiernan brothers, John (25) and Philip (22), from Fostra, Jim Farrell (25) from Clonee, and Kate Gilnagh (17)and Kate Mullen (21) from Killoe. Going to America on the most famous ocean liner in the world would have been a grand escapade for the McCoys on their own, but now it was a celebration of life by a group of teenagers and young adults. Though they were from more widespread parts of their county, they were similar to the ill-fated group that was leaving from the village of Lahardane, County Mayo around the same time.
How they must have talked and laughed and probably sang songs as they watched the beautiful Irish landscape flowing past the windows on that long train trip to Cobh. No doubt there was some remorse at the thought of leaving this beautiful landscape behind and perhaps never seeing Ireland again, but the future must have seemed so bright and full of hope for the opportunities of “the land of the free” for these happy, healthy young people.
The bustling, confusing crowds around the White Star Line on the quay at Cobh must have been bewildering for most of the country bumpkins from rural County Longford. Agnes and Alice McCoy, however, and also young Tom McCormack, who was going back to America after visiting his family, were making their 3rd cross-Atlantic trip and would have been a great help to others in their group in navigating the process. The quay near the offices of the White Star Line was full of people, conversing and laughing happily. But for some, there were hugs and kisses for loved ones they might never see again and tears. One hundred and twenty three passengers boarded the luxury liner at Cobh, all but 10 had 3rd Class tickets.
They then boarded the postal ship America, which was ferrying the 3rd Class passengers out to the massive ocean liner. As the tender moved out into the harbor, they were suddenly startled by the sound of a musical instrument they knew well. It was 29-year-old Westmeath man, Eugene Daly, who began to play familiar tunes on his uilleann pipes as the view of Cobh grew smaller and smaller behind them. Daly was said to have played "A Nation Once Again,” "Boolavogue,” and a few other nationalist songs. The tune most seemed to remember him playing was "Erin's Lament” as they approached the Titanic. There must have been many a damp eye and aching heart on the America and on the Titanic and perhaps even back in Cobh as the sound of that air wafted across the water of Cobh harbor to relatives left behind.
(Left: Eugene Daly)
As they came round Spike Island, they saw the Titanic for the first time, anchored just outside of the harbor near Roche’s Point. What a sight it must have been for those young Irishmen and women as their small ship approached this wonder of the modern world. There were small ships from Cobh that carried local merchants out to the liner buzzing around her like bees around the hive as the Longford travelers climbed onboard.
(Below, Erin's Lament also known as "a Spailpin a Run.)
Around 1:30 p.m. April 11th, the giant ocean liner weighed anchor and set sail on the most famous passenger liner trip in history. They had only been at anchor for about 2 hours. On the deck, as the ship pulled away from Ireland, Daly began to play again. Now that their homeland was fading into the distance, they must have all wondered if they would ever see it again. Most would not, and many would never see dry land again at all.
(Below: A replica of a 3rd Class berth on the Titanic.)
The Longford group went below deck to find their berths; the women in the stern and the men near the bow. Surely, Bernard McCoy and most of the rest of the Longford group must have been amazed. These were far better living conditions than Bernard had ever known at the McCoy’s overcrowded farmhouse. And even his sisters, who has sailed before and spent time already in America, must have been impressed by the accommodations, which were far better than those in most 3rd Class berths of the time.
Their first trip to the 3rd Class dining salon would have held even more delights. The menu must have seemed too good to be true for most of them. They got meat with breakfast and dinner every day, something unknown at the tables of most poor Irish families. There was fresh fruit, some of which, like oranges, many of them had probably never tasted or even seen before. It may have been the first time in their lives that most of them could eat until they were full at every meal.
For three days the McCoys lived as if they were in some marvelous dream. They had comfortable, warm sleeping quarters, all the food they could want. And every night in the 3rd Class General Room the young people in steerage would gather for a “hooley,” with many playing various instruments and people singing and dancing. Perhaps the revelries even attracted a visit from the big, genial Chief Purser, Hugh McElroy, getting in touch with his Irish roots.
(Left: The 3rd Class menu.)
Many survivors recalled that final “hooley” and remembered that the same piper they had heard playing in Cobh Harbor, and on the ship since then, was once again entertaining them. James Cameron would have his young lovers, Jack and Rose (who were fictitious) attend that final night “hooley” in his 1997 movie.
This fantasy world that the McCoys and their friends were enjoying would come to a jolting end at 11:40 the night of April 14th, when the Titanic’s hull scraped along that iceberg. Her starboard side was ripped open -- damaging six of her 16 compartments. The dream was over. They were about to enter Dante’s Inferno on the high seas. The mighty craic would give way to a desperate fight for survival that two-thirds of the people onboard would lose.
As Bernard McCoy watched his sister’s lifeboat disappear along the side of the ship, he must have been as sure as they were that he would never see them again. And though it is seldom talked about, it must have been extremely frustrating to the young men, with so much of life ahead of them, to be denied a place in a lifeboat that launched with the capacity to hold over 20 more people, as was the case with Lifeboat #16, which was commanded by Master-at-Arms Joseph Henry Bailey. One of the crewmen who worked tirelessly saving passengers on that deck and then was lost himself was McElroy.
Rather amazingly, most of the County Longford group would survive, some of them because of the actions of their friend James Farrell. He was together with a Longford group that included Kate Gilnagh, Kate Murphy, and Kate Mullen, and perhaps others when they encountered a locked barrier with a member of the crew guarding it. James intervened, shouting "For God's sake man, let the girls get past to the boats, at least!" Farrell was said to be a burly young man, with a booming voice, and apparently, he intimidated the crewmen into opening the barrier.
The three Kates would all board Lifeboat #16 and survive. Farrell’s last act was to give his friend Kate Gilnagh his hat to help keep her warm, telling her, “Goodbye, forever.” Farrell’s body was later found and identified. He had a set of rosary bead clutched in his stiff hand.
(Right: Kate Gilnagh)
As he watched his weeping sister's lifeboat lowered to the ice-cold North Atlantic, Bernard McCoy’s odds of sharing Farrell’s fate were very high. Only 9 percent of the male steerage passengers who boarded in Cobh survived. The launched boats were all moving away from the ship, and only two were known to have later come back looking for survivors.
Bernard did not wait for the ship to sink. With his lifebelt on, he jumped over the side into the icy ocean. This was a wise decision on his part. The clock was ticking on your life once you were in the water, which was about 28 degrees. Many factors can determine how long a certain individual could live in that water, age, health, how many layers of clothes you have on, etc, but it was estimated that the average person would die of hypothermia in about 30 minutes. Everyone on the ship would be in the water eventually, but later all the lifeboats would be far removed from the ship.
Men weren’t being allowed to board before launching, but would they be refused entry into a launched boat with open seats if they swam to one? Bernard would now test that. As he swam toward Lifeboat #16, his sisters recognized him. Agnes later related what happened next:
“When the form came up, I recognized it as Bernard. I cited to my sister, who was nearer to him than I, to help him. The poor boy took hold of the side of the boat and I staggered to his rescue. Several persons pushed me back and I saw a seaman strike Bernard's hands with an oar. Then he tried to beat him off by striking him on the head and shoulders. It was more than I could stand, and calling for Alice, I made for the seaman. With more strength than I thought I ever possessed, I threw the man to the bottom of the boat and held him there fast. Yes, maybe I did hit him once or twice, but I think I was justified under the circumstances. In the meantime, Alice helped the poor boy over the side and lifted him to safety. I think everyone on board the lifeboat was highly elated and perfectly satisfied that our brother was safe with us. We need him here with us as any two sisters do."
The McCoy sisters huddled together around Bernard warming their nearly frozen brother. The danger was not past, several men who were pulled from the water alive died shortly after that. Bernard, however, would survive.
(Below: Lifeboat #16 unloading passengers to the Carpathia.)
Some might say he found a way to circumvent the “women and children” directive by immediately jumping over the side and boarding a lifeboat that just launched, but how was anyone helped by the numerous empty spots in the launched boats? How does one really blame a young man for looking down at empty seats in a lifeboat and thinking someone should jump off the ship and fill the seats if they are capable of doing it? No woman or child was going to take that place in the lifeboat once it was launched. Refusing to jump into the ocean and swim to a boat at that point would not make you any kind of dead “hero,” it would simply mean you were dead.
And so, against all odds, given that only 25 percent of 3rd Class passengers lived, all three McCoys made it to the rescue ship, Carpathia, alive. The Longford friends over all fared much better than the famous Lahardane group, as nine of the 12 in the Longford group, 75 percent, survived. The Kiernan brothers and Farrell were the three who were lost. Piper Eugene Daly was one of the men who survived, by swimming to overturned Collapsible Boat B and clinging to the top of it for hours before being taken onto other lifeboats.
(Below: Eugene Daly)
The hour or so after the Titanic broke in two and sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic were excruciating for those in the water, as they slowly died of hypothermia, and for the survivors in the lifeboats. as they listened to the mournful pleading of the struggling in the frigid water. The crew in the lifeboats had immediately rowed as quickly as they could away from the ship. Then they were afraid that if they rowed back to attempt to save those in the water, their boats might be swamped. Only lifeboats 4 and 14 attempted to save anyone in the water. And so the survivors sat shivering in the lifeboats, listening to the cries for help slowly get weaker and weaker, as more and more fell unconscious and then passed away. It must have been similar to the cries of the wounded and dying soldiers on a battlefield.
Fate has shined on the McCoy family on that “night to remember” but would not be so kind to them in the years to come. Things went well for Agnes at first. She found work as a domestic for some prominent New Yorkers, including working for the actor Douglas Fairbanks for a time.
(Below: Agnes McCoy)
Agnes became the matriarch of the many McCoy siblings all living in the New York / New Jersey area, but she never married. When they brought over young brother John, things began to go wrong. John simply disappeared and was never seen again. Another brother, Patrick, was tragically killed in a chemical plant accident in 1929.
After this, Agnes became more withdrawn and the family began to drift apart. Now retired and living isolated from the family that had been her life, she was found dead in her apartment on January 14, 1957. Though the cause of death was called “heart attack” by the coroner, she had bruises around her neck and the family believed she was murdered by a burglar.
Things went very well for Alice in the years immediately after the Titanic, as well, finding good jobs as a cook for several wealthy New York families. But she was unlucky in love, divorcing twice. Her first marriage produced a beloved daughter, Colaine. After the 2nd failed marriage, she moved to Connecticut and became estranged from the rest of the family. When her beloved daughter committed suicide in 1959, it was more than she could bear. She was committed to an asylum in Fairfield, Connecticut, and died a lonely death there just four months later.
(Below: Bernard McCoy)
The shortest, and most tragic of their post-Titanic lives was that of Bernard. He developed a stutter after the sinking that never went away. He worked on the trolley system in New York City for a time, until he was drafted and served in the U.S. Army in World War 1. He was a victim of mustard gas in France during the war and suffered health problems from that for the rest of his life. His last job was working in a laundry.
Bernard never married, and family members said his stuttering caused him to be socially isolated. He developed spinal cancer in his '50s and died in the Veterans Administration hospital in the Bronx on July 19, 1945.
The McCoys had been extremely lucky during the sinking of the Titanic, as only 35 percent of the Irish passengers on the ship survived. But as many soldiers who made it home alive from war have learned, not all injuries from traumatic events are physical. Bernard was the only one of the three siblings who showed a physical manifestation of this trauma with his stuttering problem. Still, all of them seemed to suffer in their relationships through the rest of their lives. Was it perhaps a form of post-traumatic stress? That question will never be answered.
Waking the Titanic Trailer (Video)
Newspaper Headlines of the Sinking (some not close to accurate, example to the right)
Crooning the Irish Experience:
Q&A With ‘Titanic’ Songwriter Padraig Lalor
"Guide to the Crew of Titanic" by Günter Bäbler