Kevin Myers: Belfast is making a fuss about the Titanic but for decades there was no memorial to the greatest peacetime maritime disaster
Published 03/04/2012 | 17:00
The centenary of the sinking of the Titanic is rounding the bend: already the cliches and the fictions are being trotted out as if they were actual truths, which is always the mark of a real myth. Belfast Catholics and Protestants do not have many legends in common, but one they share is that the all-Protestant workforce in the die-hard unionist shipbuilders that was Harland and Wolff created a numerical code to put on the bows of the Titanic, which when translated read "No Pope Here".
That none of this is true is irrelevant. Catholics cherish the myth that they weren't allowed to work in the shipyards, and Protestants cherish the myth that they were a dynamic, innovative and hard-working people, unlike the lazy feckless Fenians.
In fact, until the disastrous decision to give home rule to Northern Ireland, the workforce of the shipyard was pretty much divided on demographic lines. And far from the company being "unionist", its chairman, William Pirrie, was a keen Home Ruler who acted as Winston Churchill's host during a nationalist rally in Belfast; and for this, he was roundly hissed by unionists in the streets. Moreover, he shut the yard down when there was an attempt to eject Catholics, and warned it would remain closed until guarantees were given about the safety of the Catholic workforce.
Belfast might be making a large fuss about the Titanic these days, but for decades the liner existed only in the folklore of the people: there was no major monument or memorial to the greatest peacetime maritime disaster in history. In a way, this merely echoed southern Ireland's neglect of two other great maritime disasters, the sinking by U-boats of the Lusitania and the Leinster in 1915 and 1917.
Is it not extraordinary that the three great shipping disasters of the 20th century, within five years of each other, and all so intimately associated with Ireland, should have been so neglected for so long within the official narratives of the two parts of the island?
Perhaps most people accept the story that survival of the Titanic sinking was based on class: that the first class passengers fared better than third class. And that is true, to a degree: but the largest factor in survival was sex. Some 67pc of all first-class male passengers died, which is 13pc MORE than the proportion of women in third class who died. And only 3pc of women in first class died: contrast that with the 66pc of children from 3rd class who died. Yet none of the 22 children in second class perished, which suggests that the stewards in that section of the vessel did a very good job. There was price to be paid: 92pc of men in second class died, compared to 14pc of women. This gender-disparity was reflected amongst the crew-casualties. Seventy-eight per cent of male crew members died, and only 13pc of crew-women. In other words, whatever their class or function, men showed a heroic self-sacrifice, which in all the Titanic mythology is still taken curiously for granted.
And of course, there is the myth that the Titanic was unique, when she wasn't. She had two sister ships, the Olympic and the Britannic. The latter was sunk by enemy action in the Aegean in 1915 with 30 lives lost. The former, having later served as a troopship in the Great War, survived into the 1930s. Yet she too nearly had her Titanic moment. On sea-trials off Southampton in 1911, she collided with the cruiser HMS Hawke, seriously damaging both vessels.
One of the stewardesses on board was an Argentinian-born Irishwoman, Violet Jessop, whose family had emigrated from Dublin. Despite her Protestant- sounding name, she was a Catholic, her mother was a Katherine Kelly. Violet then transferred to the Titanic, and was on the tragic maiden voyage 100 years ago this month. She was in the 87pc of crew-women to survive the sinking, and was transferred to the Britannic hospital ship, on which she worked as a military nurse. And she was on that vessel when it was torpedoed and sunk in the Aegean. She survived that too, and lived into her eighties.
But the crewmen of the Hawke, who had that unnerving encounter with Violet in the Olympic, were not so favoured. Their vessel was hit by a German torpedo in November 1915, and was lost with over 500 hands. Of the 85 boy sailors on the cruiser, only seven were saved.
Almost nothing about this time makes any sense to us now: if we are unable to conceive of a recent past in this country, where the sale of condoms and all homosexual acts were unlawful, as they were up until 20 years ago, how can we possibly imagine the culture of a century ago, in which beardless boys went to war and men stoically said goodbye to their wives and children, remaining behind to die? Moreover, we know now what far greater catastrophe this great event foreshadowed. That is why the tale of the Titanic will always remain one of the most compelling myths in world history: it was in itself both a hideous tragedy, and a terrible omen.