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Wednesday 19 December 2018

The fate of the Irish aboard the Titanic

The Titanic, which sank on the 15th April 1912 with the loss of over 1,500 lives, was built, crewed and travelled on for the most part by Irish...

The Titanic, which sank on the 15th April 1912 with the loss of over 1,500 lives, was built, crewed and travelled on for the most part by Irish people. A new book by Irish Independent Political Correspondent Senan Molony tells for the first time the stories of tragedy, luck, self-sacrifice and heroism of the Irish who survived and died on that night to remember

It could be said that some people never learn! Or that some, like cats have nine lives. One of them has to have been Violet Jessop. She was born in Buenos Aries to Dubliner William Jessop, who had emigrated to Argentina in the 1880s to try his hand at sheep farming.

Violet had an adventurous streak and joined the White Star Line as a stewardess to see the world.Her unique claim to fame is that she was aboard all three of the White Star's three Olympic-class ships when they came to grief. She was working on board the Olympic when it had a costly collision with HMS Hawke in 1911, and six months later survived the last, ghastly hours of the Titanic. To cap everything she was also on board the Britannica in 1916 when it hit a mine in the Aegean Sea and went to the bottom.

She spent more than 40 years at sea before retiring to a country cottage in Suffolk where she died in 1977 aged 83.

William Clarke from Co Louth was also an extraordinarily fortunate man. No one knows how he managed to survive the Titanic, on which he served as a fireman or stoker. Only 36 firemen, less than 25% of the 167 stokers on board, were saved, most condemned to die in the bowels of the ship. But two years later Clarke also managed to scramble from the belly of the Empress of Ireland when it was struck by another ship in the St Lawrence River. The ship sank in just 15 minutes, taking the lives of 1,014 of her 1,477 passengers and crew.

The luck of the Irish also came the way of Daniel Buckley, 21, from Ballydesmond in Co Cork. He survived because Madeleine Astor, the young wife of the richest man in the world, threw him a shawl to cover his head as officers attempted to remove male passengers from the lifeboats. His luck deserted him just six years later when, a month before the end of WW1 he was killed by a German bullet.

Seventeen-year-old Julia Smyth, on the other hand, always believed it was a combination of her long legs, which enabled her to jump into a lifeboat, and clay from the grave of St Mogue. This clay, she had been told, protected those who carried it from drowning.

Not so lucky was a strapping youth of 6 2", 19-year-old Jeremiah Burke from Glanmire, Co Cork. He is the passenger fabled to have thrown a despairing message in a bottle from the decks of the sinking Titanic. The message, which astonishingly washed up on the shore only a mile from his home in Ireland, read From Titanic. Good Bye all. Burke of Glanmire, Cork.

The British Inquiry into the disaster, which was chaired by Lord Mersey, was a whitewash of disgraceful proportions. Anything that implied criticism of British engineering or British behaviour was rejected out of hand. The majority of the Irish passengers who survived were among the last to leave the ship they had been held virtual prisoners in Third Class by officers and crew and saw the final moments of the liner.

Many were clear in their recollection that it snapped in two minutes before it sank. Katie McCarthy of Ballygurtin, Co Tipperary, was the second last person to put into the last lifeboat that left the Titanic.

``This was a short time before the boat went down,'' she wrote to her father. ``We were only just out of the way when the ship split in two and sank.''

All who made such allegations were branded liars by the inquiry. They were not vindicated until 1985, when photographs taken then clearly show the wreck of the Titanic lying on the seabed in two widely separated pieces.

There were many witness reports that passengers and crew were shot by officers as they scrambled for safety.

The official line had always been that any shots that were fired were only warning shots to prevent panic spreading. The Chief Purser, Hugh McElroy, originally from Tullacanna, Co Wexford, was seen by first-class passenger Jack Thayer firing his pistol at two dining room stewards who had jumped into a lifeboat.

In 1940 Thayer wrote: ``Purser McElroy, as brave and as fine a man as ever lived, was standing in the next-to-last boat loading it. Two men, I think they were dining room stewards, dropped into the boat from the deck above. As they jumped, he fired twice in the air. I do not believe they were hit, but they were quickly thrown out." McElroy went down with the Titanic but his body was recovered from the ocean and his remains buried at sea.

One young survivor, 17-year-old Ellen Shine from Newmarket, Co Cork, was quoted in American newspapers as having witnessed four men from steerage getting into a lifeboat. When ordered out by an officer they refused to leave. Then an officer jumped into the boat and, drawing a revolver, shot all four dead. Their bodies were picked from the bottom of the boat and thrown overboard.

Many of the Irish survivors told harrowing tales of how White Star officers and crew did all they could to prevent survivors bobbing in the freezing sea gaining access to the lifeboats that had launched safely. Thomas McCormack, a 19-year-old Co Longford youth, made a statement that during 80 minutes in the sea he had tried to get on board two lifeboats. On each occasion he had been beaten about the head, hands and shoulders by crewmen until two sisters, Mary and Kate Murphy, pulled him on board and sat on him to prevent him being thrown back into the sea.

* Adapted by Myles McWeeney from The Irish Aboard Titanic, by Senan Molony. Published by Wolfhound Press £16.99R

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