Saturday 23 March 2019

Lusitania... Going down with the ship

Jerome B Murphy was the Cunard area manager for Queenstown (now Cobh) when the 'Lusitania' sank 100 years ago next week. His great-granddaughter Bayveen O'Connell recalls how his small, heroic part in the Great War would scar Jerome for life, destroy his career, leave him broken, estranged from his family and lost in drink

Jerome and Anna Teresa (Annetta), around the time of their marriage, August 30, 1897
Jerome and Anna Teresa (Annetta), around the time of their marriage, August 30, 1897
All Jerome could do was wait for the fishing boats to bring in the survivors and the dead - shocked survivors of the disaster walk around Cobh
The majority were buried in three mass graves, with 80 remaining nameless. Playing on his mind as he marched was, perhaps, the question: 'Could I have done more to find out who they were' - a funeral service in Cobh held for some of the victims
The reality for Jerome was that he couldn't cope with life very well upon his return and his family couldn't cope with his drinking - Jerome's grave in Cobh

There's a man whose picture and MBE medal are displayed in Cobh Heritage Centre as part of the Lusitania exhibit. A big, broad man with deep-set eyes, he was a husband, and father to eight children who flank him in the photo, as he stares out earnestly. Not only was he, at one time, the hub of his family, but he was also part of the heart of the community and, as the Cunard area manager for Queenstown, he was pivotal in dealing with the horrific aftermath of the sinking of the Lusitania.

His name was Jeremiah Bernard Murphy, known as Jerome (pronounced Jerum), and he was my great-grandfather. This is the story of how the Great War came to him and left its scars.

It isn't just Jerome's story, it is his legacy. There are generations of his descendants who never met him, but, upon hearing his tale, channel his suffering and incorporate it as part of themselves. My grandmother spoke of her father to my father, and my father, in turn, passed her recollections on to me. I first heard about Jerome's life when I was in my early teenage years. Two words struck me at the time: brave and alone. Now, a hundred years after the Lusitania tragedy, I am going to share Jerome's experiences of that time.

Used to organising the transfer of passengers on to and off ships, coordinating arrival and launch times, dispatching boats to load and unload goods and dealing with customs paperwork as part of his duties, Jerome was not expecting any word from the passenger liner on the afternoon of May 7, 1915, as she was scheduled to sail directly to Liverpool without a stop. When news came that the Lusitania had been torpedoed by a U-boat off the Old Head of Kinsale, Jerome, instead of preparing to issue mail and supply boats, found himself appealing to the British Admiralty to mobilise its ships - which were on manoeuvres in Queenstown harbour - to reach and rescue the crew and civilians from the stricken vessel.

The sight of the Admiralty ships continuing to circle the harbour galled him. The men, women and children on board the Lusitania were his charges, Queenstown was his town, and the liner had been attacked in the Celtic Sea. If he had been some mythic giant like Fionn Mac Cumhaill, I believe he'd have raced through the waves and saved each passenger, scooping them up in his bare hands.

In reality, he was further paralysed by the fact that his telegram to the Cunard head office in London, announcing the loss of the Lusitania, was delayed by Admiralty intelligence. Bearing the bad news, almost all alone, it began to mount on his shoulders very quickly. All he could do was wait for the fishing boats to bring in the survivors and the dead, busying himself with booking rooms for the survivors, organising a makeshift hospital and ordering wooden coffins.

During those times when there are too many people and factors to blame, it seems easier to absorb the blame yourself. That was what my grandmother - Jerome's youngest daughter, Dorothy - maintained. Or perhaps modern psychology would interpret it as survivor's guilt, an aspect of post-traumatic stress disorder. From my family's stories, Jerome's accounts and Cunard records, we know he held his composure and went beyond the call of duty for all of those who reached Queenstown, living and dead.

There were so many bodies that rows of them had to be stored in the Cunard shed, which became an impromptu mortuary, and the sheer quantity meant that the supply of coffins couldn't meet the demand. A new responsibility was thrust upon him, that of interviewing bereaved relatives and reuniting them with their loved ones.

Jerome devised a cataloguing system, using the personal effects of the deceased for identification, sparing the relatives from having to view any remains. He took painstaking notes of the features of the deceased, recording details such eye and hair colour, body size and approximate age, and everything down to the jewellery and watches they were wearing. Once identifications were made, Jerome set about commissioning local tailors to make clothes for the victims' burials.

Sadly, unknown to my great-grandfather at the time, not all of the survivors were given the compassion and welcome they deserved. Those on the first rescue vessel to dock in Queenstown claimed that instead of getting off immediately, they were told not to disembark the Stopcock until the captain had reported to the relevant authority on duty at the harbour, and given them permission to do so.

My grandmother recounted a memory to her own children of being held up to see out an attic window. Passing by below her was a slow, dark stream of carriages and makeshift hearses, pulling coffin after coffin. Walking somewhere amongst townsfolk and mourners in the procession was her father, Jerome.

It must have been May 10, the day 169 of the victims made their last journey and were laid to rest in the Old Church Cemetery in Cobh. The majority were buried in three mass graves, with 80 remaining nameless. Playing on Jerome's mind as he marched with the black procession was, perhaps, the question: "Could I have done more to find out who they were?"

After the harrowing burials, he checked on the survivors and helped them reach relatives at other destinations. In the following months, bodies that had been claimed by the sea continued to wash up on the beaches of the south and west coasts, including that of one of Jerome's close friends who had been on the ship. Taking it on as his tragedy, it would never be over. He saw the faces of the dead, and the faces of the people who had no body to bury. Of the 1,198 deaths, each one took a chink out of his heart. He felt inseparable from them. Thus, knotted around this branch of my family tree are the families of 1,000 and more.

When acknowledgements for citizens who provided a service to humanity became available in the form of honours from the monarchy through the British government, the Cunard company nominated Jerome, and he was awarded an MBE. Upon being called to claim the award, he was greatly conflicted. Where they saw honour and good deeds, he could see what he had failed to do. The king and country granting the honour to him "for God and Empire" were the very powers whose inaction left innocent people floundering in the water.

It was known to those closest to Jerome, his wife Annetta and eldest children, that he did not want to accept the MBE, but to do so would have been professional and political suicide.

He travelled to London for the award in 1918 and, after receiving it, failed to return home or contact his loved ones in the house facing the harbour in Queenstown. He didn't report to Cunard, his employer either. We don't know exactly how long he was missing for, but it was certainly more than a few weeks. Annetta was desperate to find him and she and her eldest son, Angelo, enlisted the help of the Salvation Army, who eventually located Jerome in Manchester. When Angelo went to retrieve his father, he discovered that Jerome was going through a breakdown and had been drowning his sorrows in bars.

Jerome physically returned from Britain, but he was never the man he had been before. He continued searching for something, maybe his heart, maybe his soul, maybe forgiveness in the bottom of a glass. In carrying all the responsibility and the grief for the Lusitania, the pressures of being a husband and a father proved too much. He moved out of the family home to live with his sisters, Lena and Kate. Within the family there was sadness, bitterness and shame. How could he be father to all in a crisis and abandon his own for the drink? How could he leave Annetta, the woman he had married in spite of her father's disapproval? Who was at fault?

Jerome didn't care for the explanations, excuses, tactics and the heartless protocol of officialdom. Rumours about munitions being carried on board, conspiracy theories about trying to get the US to join the war, the fear that the German submarine was still lurking nearby, and the instruction to local fishing boats to bring survivors to Queenstown rather than to the nearest landfall, have all been proffered as reasons why so many passengers and crew perished so quickly. The reality for Jerome was that he couldn't cope with life very well upon his return, and his family couldn't cope with his drinking.

Cunard demoted Jerome from the position to which he had he had climbed, to that of a lowly clerk. Given his problems and what sparked them, we aren't sure if it was a harsh act or one of charity.

Before he died, Jerome had correspondence with Angelo, responding to photos he had sent. Jerome's seven other children had also reopened various lines of communication, either visiting him or writing. There are photographs of major events that he attended with his children: Angelo's wedding, and his daughter Netta taking her vows. Alas, he and Annetta never reconciled. At Dorothy's wedding, one of them attended the church ceremony, the other the reception.

Jerome Bernard Murphy passed away in 1944 and lies in the Old Church Cemetery in Cobh, only a stone's throw from the yew-lined mass graves of the victims of the 'Lusitania' whom he had helped to bury

Sunday Indo Life Magazine

Editors Choice

Also in Life