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The Mayo village haunted by its Titanic loss


Lahardane, in County Mayo, proportionately lost more lives in the 1912 disaster than anywhere else in the world.

High on the hills above the tiny village of Lahardane in County Mayo, a wooden cross juts from a mound of earth towards the sky. The cross sways back and forth, creaking as gales blow across the valley, through what locals call the “Windy Gap”. As I look towards the village on this April morning, a fine mist has settled low on the hillside.

Little has changed in a hundred years. It was from here, in the shadow of the distant crags of Nephin mountain, that the group known as the Addergoole Fourteen had a last glimpse of home as they made the long journey to board the RMS Titanic. Three men and 11 women left the parish of Addergoole that spring morning in 1912. They travelled 19 miles on foot to the nearest station, where they caught a train to Queenstown, County Cork, 16 hours away. There, they joined 111 other passengers who boarded the Titanic in Ireland, a day after it started its maiden voyage from Southampton.

Seventeen-year-old Annie McGowan was accompanying her aunt Catherine to Chicago. In a letter to relatives, she wrote: “I am coming to America on the nicest ship in the world.” Delia McDermott, 31, was moving to Missouri to work as a housemaid. Before she left, her mother bought her a new hat and gloves, so she would “look like a lady” when the Titanic docked in New York.

Four days later, 11 of the Addergoole Fourteen were dead; their bodies lost at sea. Although the remaining three survived, none returned to live in Ireland. The impact on Lahardane was unique: proportionately more people from this tiny village lost their lives on the Titanic than anywhere else in the world. In a population of 200, 11 deaths was more than a tragedy. It ripped the heart out of the community.

For years, locals refused to talk about the Titanic. All this changed in 2002, when villagers started to hold a bell-ringing ceremony, marking the time the Titanic sank into the Atlantic. Every year, at 2.20am on April 15, relatives of the victims chime the church bell – 11 mournful rings followed by three joyous rings – paying their respects to those who never returned.

This year, things are different in Lahardane. As the village prepares to mark 100 years since the tragedy, locals have started to talk publicly about the impact it had on their families’ lives. For the story of the disaster, once too painful to remember, has become Lahardane’s biggest attraction. Tourists are flocking to the remote spot, now signposted “Ireland’s Titanic village”, to learn more about the untold stories of locals on board the ship.

Bridget Donohue was 21 when she left her job in McHale’s shop to set sail for New York. Her third-class ticket cost £7 15s, equivalent to six months’ wages. Before she left, Bridget asked Maura McHale, the seven-year-old daughter of the shop’s owner, if she would like a gift from America. “I’d like a ring,” Maura replied. Bridget measured the girl’s finger with a piece of string, which she put in her pocket and carried on board. Months later, Maura couldn’t understand why she hadn’t received the ring.

Bridget’s nephew, Davie Donoghue, 80 this year, still lives in Lahardane. He is reluctant to talk about the Titanic. “It was five weeks before my father knew his sister had drowned,” he explains. “Her name was printed wrongly in the passenger log – it was down as 'Burt’, instead of Bridget. They thought she was still alive. Losing her was very emotional.”

McHale’s corner shop, where Bridget worked, is getting a fresh coat of paint this week, along with other buildings that are enjoying a makeover before April 15. A cultural week, with historical re-enactments, has been planned in the village. There’s a new gift shop and a Titanic memorial park with a bronze sculpture shaped like the ship’s bow.

“It only took them 100 years to do the place up,” jokes Donoghue. As one resident says, the “boreens” (narrow tracks) around here don’t know what’s hit them: the past month has seen reporters from as far afield as New York, and television trucks from Brazil and France, trundling through the Windy Gap.

But, behind the Titanic hype, there remains a muted sense of grief; a respect for dead relatives never known. Since childhood, many locals have picked up snippets about the Titanic. They describe listening in at closed doors as older generations grieved.

Vincent O’Callaghan never knew his great aunt, Delia Mahon, who was 20 when she boarded the ship. “I remember my Nana Kate, her sister, crying about it,” he recalls. He treasures a handful of photographs, showing Nana Kate sitting astride a fence with no shoes on. Sadly, there are none of Delia. He has just one memento of his great aunt, from the passenger logs of April 1912: “Miss Bridget Delia Mahon, Ticket No: 330924, Destination: 438 Franklin Avenue, New York”.

According to survivors, Delia was helped into a lifeboat by her neighbour Patrick Canavan, who found a ladder leading from steerage to the upper decks. First, she had to be coaxed out of a cupboard, where she had hidden when she heard the ship was going down. O’Callaghan, 54, says it can be hard to separate fact from folklore. “I’ve heard that her brother Pat read her tea leaves at a party before she left. They spelt out that there would be an accident on the way to America. Delia got angry when Pat told her not to go.”

For local historian Michael Molloy, this anniversary is a chance to learn about the village’s past. “In the early 20th century, around 30,000 Irish emigrants a year left the country to escape extreme poverty,” he explains. The Titanic was one of many such opportunities – the archives of the local Connaught Telegraph show a list of cross-Atlantic liners offering tickets.

As a child, Molloy met Annie Kate Kelly, one of three Addergoole passengers who escaped the Titanic. She became a nun in Michigan but returned home in the 1950s to visit her family. She flew to Ireland – none of the local survivors would travel by ship again. Annie Kate’s memories of what happened on the ship have become symbolic to the residents of Lahardane, who used her account to commission a stained-glass memorial window for St Patrick’s Church.

Inside the church, sunlight streams through the coloured panes, casting a kaleidoscopic glow over the pews. The scene, entitled “Titanic Rescue”, shows a small girl being lowered from the ship in Lifeboat 16. She looks up at grief-stricken figures on the deck above, wailing and clutching rosary beads as they pray to be saved.

Little else is known about the Addergoole group’s final hours on the Titanic. April 14 was 22-year-old Nora Fleming’s birthday, and a survivor from nearby County Sligo remembers hearing singing and dancing down in third class. Nora, she recalls, was a beautiful singer. They may still have been celebrating at 11.40pm, when the ship collided with the iceberg – and perhaps even at 12.05am, when the first lifeboats were lowered. Nora’s nephew, 71-year-old John Lynn, says her loss left his mother devastated. “She never talked about it; not to the day she died.”

Nora’s relatives waited weeks for confirmation from White Star Line, the company that owned the Titanic, that she had drowned. Her name still appears incorrectly in the passenger lists as Norah Hemming.

This centenary year, members of the Addergoole Titanic Society will gather by candlelight in the small churchyard. They will ring the bell and lay a wreath, before heading to nearby Murphy’s pub to share stories until sunrise. One bell-ringer is Willie Cussack, 78, the second-cousin of Annie McGowan. It was Cussack’s uncle Peter who took Annie and her aunt Catherine to the railway station at the start of their journey to America. Annie survived the tragedy but Catherine, 42, drowned after they became separated.

“When he talked, you could see the sadness in his face; his eyes would well up with tears,” Cussack says of his uncle. For Cussack, the bell-ringing is a particularly poignant tribute to Lahardane’s Titanic victims. Years ago, he remembers hearing a boy crying as he cycled through the Addergoole hills; this is how he imagines the cries of grief in 1912 when locals found out their loved ones had died. For him, this is what the bell-ringing represents.

“Do you know what an echo sounds like in these mountains?” he asks, pointing towards the craggy hills. “The cry is gone and it comes back and it is all around you, all over the village. I can imagine the way it echoed across the bog lands that morning. When we hear the bell ringing in the church, we imagine just a tiny piece of what they went through. It’s the most haunting sound you will ever hear.”

The Mayo Titanic Cultural Week takes place in Lahardane, Co Mayo, until April 15; mayo-titanic.com