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Queenstown locals believed Titanic touched by devil

Assembling on the quayside on the sunny afternoon of April 11, 1912, to watch the RMS Titanic embark on its final doomed journey, the superstitious burghers of Queenstown had no doubt.

The great ship was cursed. None knew that within days its steel hull would be fatally filletted by an iceberg and 1,517 souls lost. But they feared the worst for the largest ocean liner.

And the reason for the primitive anxiety of the townspeople of what is now Cobh as they stared out to Roche's Point, where the great ship was anchored, was a curious image captured by the camera of a young Jesuit novitiate, Fr Frank Browne.

The locals had seen what Fr Browne captured on film. His picture portrayed a tiny black dot on the fourth of the ship's enormous four funnels.

Says Fr Browne's biographer, fellow Jesuit Eddie O'Donnell: "It shows a man climbing one of the ship's large funnels. At the time it was regarded as a bad omen.

"The superstitious people of Cobh said when they saw it that no good could come out of the ship's journey and that the man in the picture was not a man at all .They claimed that he was the devil."

But it wasn't the devil. It was an Irish stowaway, stoker John Coffey, 23, who had boarded the ship at Southampton and climbed down the fourth funnel, actually a ventilation shaft, into the room where the mail was being kept. He managed to hide in a mail bag and was unloaded on to the Ireland, the last tender for shore, having managed to successfully get home to his native Queenstown. Afterwards he claimed he had smuggled himself off the liner because he had a foreboding about the voyage.

The spurious appearance of the devil is just one of the myriad of myths which continue to surround the Titanic. What is certain is that Frank Browne photographed the interior and exterior of the vast vessel along with its soon to perish passengers, the captain and crew. And it is only by a remarkable twist of fate that his pictures survive.

For the tender, Ireland, which carried Coffey to Queenstown, also ferried Fr Browne from the doomed ship.

The 32-year-old camera enthusiast had been given his first-class ticket from Southampton to Queenstown as a gift by his wealthy uncle Robert Browne, the Lord Bishop of Cloyne.

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Fr Browne had sailed on the Titanic on April 10 from Southampton via Cherbourg. Before his planned disembarkation at Queenstown, the young clerical student had been invited by a wealthy American family to travel to New York at their expense. On their insistence, he had gone to the Marconi Room and telegraphed his Provincial in Dublin for permission.

And when the ship anchored off Queenstown before beginning her journey to New York, he received his answer.

Recalls Fr O'Donnell: "The tender Ireland had set off towards the Titanic with bags of mail and the 123 Irish passengers who boarded the ship. Captain Tobin was in charge of the Ireland and he had a small envelope addressed to Fr Browne.

"Inside was a note with five words on it -- it read: 'Get Off That Ship -- Provincial'.

"Fr Browne kept the note in his wallet for the rest of his life and said that it was the only time that holy obedience saved a man's life."

It also ensured that Fr Browne's astonishing photographic chronicle of life on board the Titanic survived.

Unearthed in a dusty trunk in the Dublin HQ of the Jesuits by Fr O'Donnell in 1985 (in the same month Robert Ballard found the broken Titanic on the Atlantic seabed), the photographs depict a lost era.

Fr Browne had journeyed via the boat train from Waterloo to Southampton. He photographed John Jacob Astor on the platform at Waterloo. He was one of the millionaires who perished just days later. Among those who also boarded the ship and never disembarked were Isidor Strauss and his wife Ida (who owned the Macy's chain), industrialist and philanthropist Benjamin Guggenheim, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon (a friend of both British and German royalty), the Countess of Rothes and Major Archibald Willingham Butt, who was an aide to US presidents including Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

After booking into his cabin A24 on the Promenade Deck, Fr Browne immediately set off with his camera to explore the ship.

Fr Browne, subsequently described as the Irish Cartier-Bresson, took dozens of photographs of life aboard Titanic on her first two days at sea.

He shot pictures of the gymnasium, the Marconi room, the first-class dining saloon, his own cabin, and of passengers enjoying walks on the promenade and boat decks. He also captured the last known images of many crew and passengers, including Captain Edward Smith, gymnasium manager TW McCawley, engineer William Parr, Major Archibold Butt and numerous third-class passengers whose names are unknown.

Fr O'Donnell is convinced that the published photographs represent only about half of Fr Browne's total Titanic collection. In the archive of 42,500 negatives he unearthed in 1985, there were few from the Titanic. The pictures had been printed, but where were the negatives?

He believes that somewhere in long forgotten photographic archives lies this treasure trove of previously unpublished images of the Titanic. They would be worth millions, says Fr O'Donnell.

"We know he visited the steerage accommodation, the mail room, the Turkish bath, the swimming pool, purser's office, smoking room and reading room," he says.

Indeed, such are his mentions of the orchestra and his penchant for photographs of people in activity, that he may have snapped the Titanic's band in action. Where might these priceless negatives be now?

"No-one knows where those negatives are. We know he sold the pictures within days of the disaster, and the purchasers may have wanted the negatives as well to ensure that they had full exclusivity."

It is possible that there are many other Titanic negatives taken by Fr Browne still in existence, which we have not seen because he did not print them up.

"Everything that was in the photo album was printed in Fr Browne's Titanic Album. But I would consider that it is likely he took many other pictures which he did not print up, for whatever reason."

After his narrow escape, Fr Browne wrote an article for the local Cork Constitution describing his time on the Titanic:

"Deck over deck and apartment after apartment lent their deceitful aid to persuade us that instead of being on the sea we were still on terra firma. It is useless for me to attempt a description of the wonders of the saloon -- the smoking room with its inlaid mother-of-pearl, the lounge with its green velvet and dull polished oak, the reading room with its marble fireplace and deep soft chairs and rich carpet of old rose hue -- all these things have been told over and over again and only lose in the telling. So vast was it all that after several hours on board some of us were still uncertain of our way about, though we must state that, with commendable alacrity and accuracy, some 325 found their way to the great dining room at 7.32, when the bugle sounded the call to dinner. After dinner, as we sat in the beautiful lounge listening to the White Star orchestra playing the Tales of Hoffman and Cavalleria Rusticana selection, more than once we heard the remark: 'You would never imagine you were on a ship.'

"Then the morning plunge in the great swimming bath, where the ceaseless ripple of the tepid sea water was almost the only indication that somewhere in the distance 72,000 horses in the guise of steam engines fretted and strained under the skilful guidance of the engineers, and after the plunge, a half-hour in the gymnasium helped to send one's blood coursing freely, and created a big appetite for the morning meal."

Long after his death, Fr Browne's photographs helped Dr Robert D Ballard, the former US Navy officer who discovered the wreck, to confirm that the ship had in fact split in half.

Explains Fr O'Donnell: "Ballard used photographs taken by Fr Browne to explain why the ship split in two. It was because of the grand staircase that the ship split -- it was nine storeys high and was the weakest part of the ship. If the Titanic was going to split anywhere it was going to be where the grand staircase was."

Fr Browne's bedroom was in one half of the wreckage and his living room was in the other half, almost half a mile away.

After the disaster, Fr Browne embarked on a series of Titanic lectures with slides.

He subsequently received a letter from the White Star HQ in Liverpool asking him to desist from any mention of the Titanic disaster, explaining: "We do not want the calamity to be perpetuated. Abstain from any reference to the loss of the Titanic." He desisted.

But the Titanic was not the only adventure in the full life of Frank Browne. Born in 1880 in Cork, the youngest of eight children, his mother died of puerperal fever eight days after his birth. He was nine when his father died in a swimming accident. He was taken under the wing of his uncle, the bishop, who not only paid for his education but bought him his first camera shortly before the young man embarked on a tour of Europe in 1897.

Before entering the Jesuit novitiate, he had studied at Dublin's Royal University where he was a classmate of James Joyce, who featured him as 'Mr Browne the Jesuit' in his impenetrable Finnegan's Wake.

After his ordination in 1915, he was sent to France as chaplain to the Irish Guards and remained for the duration of the war, not being demobbed until 1920.

Wounded five times, he was the most decorated Roman Catholic padre of the war, receiving the Military Cross and bar, the French Croix du Guerre and the Belgian Croix du Guerre, presented personally by the King of Belgium. During these wartime adventures, he was always accompanied by his camera.

After the war, Fr Browne returned to Ireland. In 1922, he was appointed superior of Gardiner Street Church in Dublin. Ill health dogged him, however, and in 1924 he was sent on an extended visit to Australia. During his travels, he continued to take photographs. On his return to Dublin in 1929, he became the Superior of St Xavier's Church in Dublin and was appointed to the Retreats and Mission staff of the Irish Jesuits. He died in Dublin in 1960 and is buried in the Jesuit plot in Dublin's Glasnevin cemetery.

There is no doubt his brief time on the Titanic changed his life. Three years after the tragedy, he wrote a poem beginning:

'A ship rode forth on the Noonday tide/Rode forth to the open sea/and high sun shone on the good ship's side/, And all seemed gladness, and hope, and pride.'

The verse concluded: 'The Ship that rode on noonday tide/Rode forth to open sea/, But gone are the gladness, and hope, and pride/ For the Northern Ocean's depths could hide/ A mightier power than she.'


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