Nowadays we celebrate human disaster almost as much as success, except we call it commemoration. That’s the rationale behind the magnificent Titanic Experience in Belfast. Remembrance = tragedy + time. You’d have thought the citizens of Belfast would not be so keen to remind the world that the RMS Titanic, which sank in 1912 in the North Atlantic with the loss of 1513 lives was built in the Harland and Wolff shipyard in East Belfast. But somebody has to cater for our fascination with this doomed vessel so why not the descendants of the people who built it?
The facts of this marine catastrophe are well-known. The White Star liner R.M.S. Titanic was the largest ship afloat when it collided with an iceberg on its maiden voyage at 11.40pm on 14 April 1912 and, to the shock of all concerned, sank at 2.20 the following morning, bringing the majority of its passengers with it. Just as Belfast is the port associated with its birth Cork is the harbour closest to its demise.
The Titanic arrived in Cork Harbour on its maiden voyage from Southampton on Thursday 11 April. It was too big to land in Cobh so tenders were used to bring passengers on board. One of the travellers who had made the trip from England was the Jesuit priest Father Francis Browne one of the most enthusiastic amateur photographers of the early years of the 20th century. He was only booked for the first leg of the journey and spent most of the trip taking the last pictures ever seen of the ship and many of its passengers. An American couple offered to pay his way to New York and back. Browne telegraphed the provincial of the Jesuit order to seek permission. The response was rapid, terse and probably saved Browne’s life – the telegram read simply ‘Get off that ship’. Think of the amazing pictures we would have lost had Browne’s boss been a fuzzy indulgent type.
Even more fortunate was Titanic stoker John Coffey, a native of Cobh, or Queenstown as it was then known. Stricken by homesickness he sneaked off the ship by hiding among the mailbags being taken back by one of the tenders to the Cobh dock.
Among the more prominent citizens who went down with the ship were its designer, Thomas Andrews, its Captain, Edward Smith, the multi-millionaires John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, and the campaigning journalist W.T.Stead. The gazillionaire J.P.Morgan was also supposed to make the trip but cancelled at the last minute.
One prominent citizen who did not go down with the ship was J.Bruce Ismay, Managing Director of the White Star Line. That meant he was around to field all the awkward questions about how the apparently unsinkable should have succumbed to a mere iceberg. There were also a number of awkward questions about how he managed to survive the sinking to field the other awkward questions.
Most of the Irish passengers were travelling in third class – or steerage – having paid just over £7 for the privilege. Contemporary reports suggest that they were enjoying the trip until rudely interrupted by the iceberg. One account has Irish steerage passengers chasing a rat around the lower decks – presumably it was exercising that unerring rodent instinct and was already on its way to deserting the sinking ship.
In case this all seems like a remote historic event removed from us by over a century it should be pointed out that the last surviving passenger of the ill-fated vessel, Elizabeth Dean, died in 2009 aged 97. She had been a babe in arms when rescued.
Sorry to disappoint but Jack Dawson and Rose Calvert never sailed on the Titanic – they are both merely lucrative figments of the imagination of filmmaker James Cameron.
The R.M.S. Titanic, pride of the White Star line sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean one hundred and four years ago, on this day.
This wonderful infographic has been designed by Emin Sinanyan – if you want to see the full graphic (and more besides) go to …