Opinion David Robbins

Monday 24 June 2019

David Robbins: We found ourselves lost in tragedy, but will we survive the Titanic class divide?

My replica Titanic ticket informed me that I was John James Lamb. I decided to call myself "J J" for short.

I was 30 years of age on April 11, 1912, when I boarded the ship in Cobh. Apparently, I was involved in the theatrical world in Rhode Island and I was returning there after a visit home.

My daughter became Mary Lennon, an 18-year-old romantic from Galway, and my wife was transformed into Lillian Minihan, a doctor's wife from Wisconsin.

We had received our new identities at the ticket hatch of the Titanic Experience in Cobh, which focuses on the experiences of the 123 Irish passengers who boarded the ship at its last port of call. We would have to wait to the end of the exhibition to see if we were among the 44 who survived.

At first, we were happily occupied in admiring our boarding passes. On the back, it gave the modern equivalent of the cost of passage. A first-class, one-way ticket cost almost £870 back then (more than €50,000 in today's money), while steerage cost £8 (€489).

But before long, class envy took hold. J J Lamb and Mary Lennon were third-class passengers; Lillian Minihan was first-class.

Myself and my daughter felt a kind of below-decks solidarity as we were shown the luxurious accommodation of the upper decks. We instinctively shrank back from "Mrs Minihan".

The Titanic Experience is housed in the old White Star Line ticket office on the quay at Cobh. From the upper storey of the old ticket office, you can see Roche's Point, where the great vessel lay anchored off shore.

On Sunday last, the small building was swamped with visitors, the long queue a testament to our enduring fascination with the ship and its passengers.

The Titanic was designed to be the equivalent of a floating country house. The problem was that they spent too much on the country house side of things and not enough on the floating part.

It was a tragedy, but it was also a failure. So why do we want to remember, to commemorate it so much? Is it part of the recent craze for period drama, part of a nostalgia for a time when existence seemed so ordered and, paradoxically, so safe?

Or is it the hubris of it all? The ship that claimed it was unsinkable actually sinks, and on its maiden voyage too? Or the idea of such a cross-section of Edwardian society preserved together in death?

Mary Mullin was 18 when she ran away with a young fellow who worked in her father's pub in Galway. They decided to elope, and just managed to evade Mary's brother, who was prowling the quay with a shotgun.

Her lover was Denis Lennon, and they signed the ship's manifest under the name of Lennon, pretending to be brother and sister.

Meanwhile, Lillian Minihan was travelling with her husband Dr William Minihan and his sister Daisy. Earlier on the evening of the tragedy (according to Daisy's evidence to the inquiry in New York), they had dined at the Café Parisien, and had been seated at the captain's table.

But what happened to them when the iceberg struck? We rushed to a bank of screens at the end of the exhibition to find out.

Poor Mary Lennon drowned, one hopes in the arms of her lover Denis. John James Lennon also perished. My daughter and I commiserated with each other, and waited to discover the final fate of "Mrs Minihan".

Lillian Minihan was 37 at the time of the voyage, and on her second marriage. The family was sharing a cabin, and decided to get dressed when they heard a woman crying in the companionway outside.

After several attempts, Lillian got a place in Lifeboat No 14 on the port side. As it was being winched into the water, several men on lower decks tried to jump into it. The officer in charge threatened to shoot any more who did so.

Lillian survived. In fact, one might say she thrived. She lived for another 50 years, and married twice more.

"What about us?" my daughter asked. "Are we still just dead? It's not fair." We hardly spoke to "Mrs Minihan" all the way back to Dublin.


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