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Friday 21 October 2016

Good souls are neither saints nor sinners

Fiona O'Connell

Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30

RMS Lusitania
RMS Lusitania

Today's All Saints Day is spiritually sandwiched between the spooky high jinks of Halloween and All Souls Day. The latter shifts the focus from the saintly to the rest of us sinners, who must pass through purgatory before we are pure enough for heaven.

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But many question the existence of this intermediate state. As one philosopher said: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward."

Yet rarely is the experience black and white.

So I was reminded, ironically, by 60 black and white images from the Poole Lusitania collection in Cobh, Co Cork, marking the 100th anniversary of the infamous sinking of that passenger ship. What struck me was how haunted the survivors appeared. Most looked lost instead of lucky.

Like Captain Turner. The gold braid of his uniform saved him, when a sailor saw its glint after he had been in the water for three hours. Yet Turner looks in turmoil, hurrying along with his head down. Did he torture himself with the belief that a captain should go down with his ship? Or was he remembering the warnings that were issued before the Lusitania set sail? They caused ripples of unease, but were chalked up to wartime intimidation. Turner reportedly called it "the best joke I've heard in days".

Surely all struggled with the randomness of life's lottery. Which might explain the uneasy expressions of parents Annie and Edward Riley and their two children, Ethel and Sutcliffe. Apparently they were the only full family to survive the tragedy intact. In contrast to orphaned Helen Smith, aged six, pictured with the US Consul. She was playing on deck, away from her parents, when the torpedo struck.

And there is a titanic difference between fiction and fact. The captioned image 'A shipboard romance' shows survivors Gerda Neilson and John Welsh. Gerda, a milliner, met and fell in love with mechanical engineer John during the voyage, who proposed marriage. John kept Gerda afloat until they were rescued. They married soon after. However, Gerda was so traumatised by the tragedy that she went insane and lived in a mental hospital until her death in 1961.

Maybe we are saints and sinners simultaneously. Millionaire Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt was in the dining saloon when disaster struck. Coming on deck, he encountered a woman and child who were without life jackets. Vanderbilt gave the panicked woman his belt, despite the fact that he could not swim. As the ship sank, he urged his valet to "find all the kiddies you can".

He was last seen at the railing as the ship went down, standing calmly with two elderly passengers whose fates were similarly sealed. His widow and three young sons survived him.

Vanderbilt's body was never found. But undoubtedly his soul was.

Sunday Independent

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