Thursday, April 12, 2012

Helen Corr and Bruce Ismay - Titanic survivors

At 11.40 p.m. on 14th April 1912 the Titanic, the world’s largest passenger ship, struck an iceberg while on its maiden voyage to New York.  Two hours and forty minutes later the gigantic ship, which was believed to be unsinkable, plunged to the bottom of the Atlantic.  More than 1500 persons lost their lives that night.  Amongst the 705 survivors was Helen Corr, a third class passenger.

Helen was just 16 years of age when she embarked at Queenstown, now Cobh, on the emigrant trail to America.  Her younger sister Theresa was the wife of my father’s younger brother Frank Taaffe from Legga, Moyne, Co. Longford.  Our branch of the Taaffe family has lived in that part of North County Longford for generations.  I never met my Aunt’s sister Helen who having escaped from the sinking Titanic lived out her long life in New York.  She died in 1980, just a year before I made my first transatlantic trip to the United States.

I am told that in common with most other survivors of that awful night, she never spoke of her experiences on the Titanic.  If questioned she merely confined herself to explaining that she was saved because she walked from the third class passenger area to the first class passengers deck.  How or why she did this was never explained, nor did she ever give any further details of the events of that night. 

She was accommodated with some second and many other third class female passengers in Lifeboat No. 16 which was lowered from the port side of the Titanic almost an hour and a half after the Titanic struck the iceberg.  It was one of the few lifeboats still available, ten having already departed, many with spare capacity and none of them carrying third class passengers.  Lifeboats 16 and 13 which were launched at approximately the same time carried a full complement of mostly third class female passengers.  They were amongst the last lifeboats to be launched.  Amongst those in these lifeboats were a high percentage of girls from County Longford and Cavan, many of whom had shared third class cabins.  These included Katie Connolly, the McCoy sisters Agnes and Alice, Mary McGovern, Katie Mullen, Kate Kilnagh, the Murphy sisters Margaret and Kate, Julia Smith, as well as Helen Corr.  The Murphy sisters and Katie Mullen shared a cabin, as did Mary McGovern, Julia Smith and Mary Glynn from County Clare.  They were among the 40 third class Irish passengers who survived.  73 Irish third class passengers died that night. 

Evidence before the American and British enquiries spoke of third class passengers not being allowed to come up on deck while the lifeboats were being launched.  Reference was also made to gates blocking the third class passengers but obviously the Longford girls made their way to the lifeboat decks in a group.  Theirs, I believe, was the group of third class passengers which one sympathetic steward had led to the lifeboats, as was later reported to the Titanic enquiry. 

Most of the Titanic’s 1,523 victims were never found.  Of the 328 bodies recovered after the Titanic sank 118 remained unidentified.  A total of 150 bodies were brought to Halifax, Nova Scotia and buried there, while 59 bodies were taken elsewhere for burial.  Another 119 bodies taken from the water were later reburied at sea.

I believe that Helen Corr never returned to Ireland, but married an Irishman Patrick Sweeney in 1922.  Tragically her husband died in 1928 following a railway accident and the Titanic survivor who had no children never re-married.  She sponsored no less than five members of the Longford Taaffes to go to America in the 1940s and the 1950s and three of them married and remained in New York. 

Another survivor of that night was Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line which owned the Titanic.  He escaped from the sinking ship in circumstances which remain controversial even to this day.  The ship’s officers in filling the lifeboats gave priority to women and children and many stories were subsequently told of heroic behaviour by some of the men on the Titanic who met certain death with grim courage.  Not so Ismay who left in one of the first lifeboats to be lowered from the Titanic.  The American Enquiry which started the day after the survivors reached New York was particularly scathing of Ismay.  He subsequently resigned as Chairman of the White Star Line. 

Following his retirement Bruce Ismay bought Costello Lodge and Fishery in Connemara and lived there on and off until his death in 1936.  His next door neighbour was my father-in-law John Spellman who managed the nearby Fermoyle Fishery and I often heard him talk of the quiet man who survived the Titanic and lived in virtual isolation in neighbouring Costello Lodge.  The Connemara people knew of the ignominy which attached to Ismay, but nevertheless they spoke not unkindly of the man whose wife was extremely good to the poor of the locality. 

On 15th April at 2.20 a.m. a bell will be tolled in St. Patrick’s Church, Lahardane, Co. Mayo to commemorate the 11 parishioners from the small Mayo parish who died when the Titanic sank.  14 persons from the parish, 3 men and 11 women, boarded the Titanic at Queenstown on 11th April 1912.  Lahardane is today known as ‘Ireland’s Titanic village’ and it is there that the unspeakable tragedy that was the loss of so many lives on the night of 15th April 1912 is remembered each year.

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