100 Years On But Never Forgotten

I watched the Titanic Spiritual Ceremony; an interfaith memorial service that took place at the Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Nova Scotia to mark the 100th anniversary of the tragedy and in remembrance of the 121 Titanic victims buried at the cemetery; with a mixture of both pride and sadness.

I never knew until recently the extent to which fellow Irish and Canadians played such a huge role in events, both during the disaster itself and in its aftermath. 

I've watched every grisly account you can imagine in the run-up to the centenary, but the one that stood out for me was Titanic: The Aftermath - a powerful docudrama detailing the remarkable efforts to recover and identify bodies in Nova Scotia, and the virtual invention of today’s CSI approach to forensics by little known John Barnstead Sr., who was then Halifax’s registrar for deaths.

Based on the book “And the Band Played On” by Christopher Ward, grandchild of Scottish violinist Jock Hume of the Titanic band, Titanic: The Aftermath explored the beleaguered White Star Line company hiring Canadian cable laying ship Mackay-Bennet to look for the 1,500 missing bodies two days after the sinking. The wreck itself was discovered about 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, in 1985 by a team of American and French scientists, led by oceanographer Robert Ballard.

For the first time on TV and in another of my favourite CBC series, Doc Zone, Titanic: The Canadian Story revealed the often otherwise ignored stories of the 130 men, women and children bound for Canada. Charles Hays, a visionary railway magnate and a member of Canada's business elite who was on board that fateful night, foresaw at the time that; "The race to build the fastest transatlantic ship will result in the greatest and most appalling disaster," while Bridget Bradley, a young woman leaving poverty in Ireland for a new life in a new world, was one of the lucky few who lived to tell the tale.

Saving the Titanic, an Irish-German co-production shown as part of another epic CBC series, The Passionate Eye, is the first-ever documentary special to focus on the heroes behind the disaster, and told the story of those workers in the underbelly of the ship who sacrificed their own lives in order to save others. Most of these boys were only teenagers themselves, and most of them were Irish or British with the usual Catholic / Protestant conflicts that were even more prevalent at the time than now, but were quickly cast aside by the power of Mother Nature that fateful night.

It was interesting to see that most of the fireman and stokers were Irish - predominately from Northern Ireland where the ship was built - while those higher up in the engineering crew were mostly British, including chief engineer James Bell whose harrowing story was played brilliantly by actor David Wilmot who, coincidentally, is actually Irish. A memorial to commemorate these men's bravery was erected in Liverpool, England, and unveiled four years later in 1916 - the year of the Easter Rising in Ireland.

The Passionate Eye again hit the right note with Waking The Titanic which told the story of the 'Addergoole Fourteen,' a group from the small parish of that name just outside Killala in County Mayo, Ireland. They had boarded the Titanic at Queenstown, intent on making a better life in America. However, only three survived and Addergoole has since dubbed itself 'Ireland’s Titanic Village' as this tiny rural hamlet lost a greater proportion of its people in the disaster than any other community. Gillian Marsh, a local producer, raised $78,000 (60,000 euro) to film this poignant documentary, which aired in Canada. I could relate most closely to this story as an emigrant myself 'in search of a better life' and it's awful to think how all my compatriots' dreams could be shattered within two hours.

One of the descendants in the film is Patrick Canavan, named after his ancestor who became a local hero when, at only twenty-one, he guided other passengers from third-class steerage through to the lifeboats but was barred from taking a place himself. Delia McDermott, on the other hand, was one of the three who survived, despite risking death by going back to her room to retrieve a hat her mother had bought her for her new life abroad.

A commemorative plaque was this week unveiled in Castlebar, the main town in County Mayo, from which the emigrants departed by train. The plaque is in both the Irish and English languages - a further fitting tribute to their kinsfolk, most of whom only spoke Irish when they departed the homeland.

The Addergoole Titanic Society has used the tale of the Addergoole Fourteen as a template from which to undertake research into the characteristics of Irish emigration. For example, they found that from 1856-1921 Ireland lost between 4.1 million to 4.5 million people to emigration, and by 1890 only three/fifths of those Irish born had remained in Ireland. In fact, by 1901 more Irish men and women (including second generation) were living in the U.S. alone than in Ireland.

The New York Times also covered their story, pointing out that the town’s decision to go so public with its grief comes as Addergoole is once again part of a drama bigger than itself. The debilitating financial crisis in the euro zone is chasing young Irish abroad after a brief period when, for the first time in decades, many emigrants returned home for better job prospects. In the last year, Addergoole, with a population of fewer than 1,000 people, has lost at least 50 men and women in their twenties to emigration. Among residents making plans to emigrate: the son of the man who conceived the Titanic remembrances.

Undeterred, the society has reinstated the local church’s bell, which had been silent for twenty years, and now descendants gather before midnight every April 15 to toll the bell until 2:20a.m. One member, Patricia Keigher, was quoted as saying; “When my two children are grown, the chances of them remaining here in Ireland are slim. The bell ringing out across the lake and the mountain is a call to say: You may not be here, but we are still thinking of you.”

One final unlikely favourite marking the centenary was The Titanic with Len Goodman - yes, Simon Cowell's replica judge for the older generation on Strictly Come Dancing. Who knew, but Len was once a welder in Harland & Wolff, the company that built the Titanic, over fifty years ago. Here, Len visits modern day descendants of the shipbuilders, passengers and crew in Southampton and Belfast in the UK, as produced by 360 Productions in Derry, Northern Ireland. 

He points out that eight people actually lost their lives during Titanic's construction, including a 15-year-old boy who fell from a ladder and, the part that always plays at my heart strings, Len tells the story of the musicians who famously kept playing on deck until the boat sank. The 19th century Christian hymn by Sarah Flower Adams 'Nearer, My God, to Thee' is most famous as the alleged last song they played as the ship disappeared under the water.


Some critics view the slew of TV specials with a more cynical eye, and say society is merely cashing in on the human tragedy, with 'Titanic tat' memorabilia shops cropping up near iconic landmarks and weeks of activities taking place around the world to 'celebrate' the centenary.

Many might agree with the likes of Bernice Harrison of the Irish Times who says quite fittingly that it feels like we've all been in training for Mastermind - specialist subject Titanic - but I must disagree that the TV giants are going overboard -- pardon the unfortunate pun -- with tales of Titanic proportions as I was horrifed to see that many Twitter troglodytes thought the Romeo & Juliet-esque romp of the same name, starring Leo DiCaprio and an almost unrecognizable Kate Winslet back in 1997, was merely a film plot, as reported by the Globe & Mail here in Canada.

A plague o' both our houses is right, dear Shakespeare!

I also found it quite macabre that some descendants of those who died in the Titanic disaster opted to set sail on a memorial cruise to the site of the wreck. The MS Balmoral held two memorial services at the site 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, with many passengers dressed in period costume to bid a final farewell to their ancestors. In a potential PR disaster, after the ship had left Cobh and was heading out into the Atlantic, a BBC cameraman suffered a suspected heart attack and had to be airlifted from the cruise ship by an Irish Coast Guard helicopter.

Photos of the deadly iceberg that may have sunk the Titanic have today emerged, as taken by the chief steward on board  the morning of the sinking and preserved by Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images. Reports say a line of red paint can be spotted along the bottom of the iceberg, which experts believe show where it had made contact with Titanic.

Bonhams auction house even sold an original ticket for Titanic's launch which fetched $56,250 and a dinner menu, touting choices like the tongue of a castrated rooster and beef sirloin with horseradish, sold for $31,250. Both went to private American buyers.

Other doozies included Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron which was a horribly clinical view of the sinking of the ship, with some over-the-top animations and even a demonstration of the physical destruction using a banana, with Canadian director Cameron joking about his 'banana peel theory.'

The History Channel also showed Nazi Titanic - simply called Titanic to them, understandably - made in 1943 by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels who used men, material and ships from their war WWII effort in order to complete the lavish film. The film features a fictional German hero in the role of the ship's first officer and, according to Channel 5, was "one of the most expensive and amibitious movies ever made" at the time. Bizarrely, the passenger ship used in the filming of Titanic, the SS Cap Arcona, itself sank just three years after filming on May 3 1945, though its sinking in the Baltic Sea was due not to an iceberg but the Royal Air Force. Over clashes on the film’s vision, the movie’s director Herbert Selpin was arrested by the Gestapo and found dead the next day.

In the Republic of Ireland, thousands turned up for a ceremony in Co. Cork on April 11th, 2012, exactly 100 years to the day since the Titanic docked in Cobh, which was then known as Queenstown. Cobh was the last port of call for the ship after it had docked at Southampton and Cherbourg in France, and it was here that the final 123 passengers boarded the liner. Our poetic President Michael D. Higgins said on the day; "The story of Titanic, her construction, her short life and tragic loss, will be carried forward for many generations. It is because it is a very human story. It is rooted in our instinct for advancement and progress. It illustrates the limits of human endeavour and the overwhelming forces of nature which we ignore at our peril."

Up North, a minute's silence was upheld as the world's first memorial to Titanic's victims that includes the names of all passengers and crew was unveiled in Belfast. Listed in alphabetical order - from Mr. Anthony Abbing to Mr. Leo Zimmermann - the victims are not ranked in terms of class or rank.

A crowd of 16,000 young music fans even gathered at free music festival MTV Presents Titanic Sounds on the 13th April, with the gig taking place against the backdrop of the iconic Titanic Belfast attraction, and broadcast across 63 MTV channels and 153 territories around the world.

BBC Ireland Correspondent Mark Simpson perhaps put it best when he pointed out that Titanic has replaced the Troubles in Northern Ireland as the new T-word on everyone's lips. More than 50,000 people have visited the £97 million Titanic Belfast visitor attraction in less than three weeks and it's clear to see, Simpson writes, that; "Northern Ireland has battled hard to change its international image. It wants to be known across the globe for tourism rather than terrorism."

He concluded; "What has been striking about how the Titanic anniversary has been handled in Belfast is the absence of any significant political controversy. Politicians on all sides have worked together. They have actively avoided controversy. At the various commemorative events, unionists and republicans have sat together. Literally and metaphorically, they have been singing off the same hymn sheet."

And that, it could be said for those of us watching from afar with a renewed sense of national pride, is the real legacy of the RMS Titanic.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Rachel, this is a great piece – you have clearly been doing a lot of Titanic research!

    You may be interested to know that the Metropolitan Arts Centre in Belfast is putting on a new Titanic play, based on the transcripts from the British Wreck Commissioners Inquiry. This compelling courtroom drama, by playwright Owen McCafferty, is the opening production in Belfast’s newest arts venue located in the heart of the city’s Cathedral Quarter.