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Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Indomitable Irish Survivors of the Titanic

April’s blog post commemorates the anniversary month of the loss of the Titanic, and also looks back at March, Irish Heritage month, with stories of plucky Irish women who survived the sinking.
The Titanic departing from Queenstown, Ireland

Staatsburgh’s owners, Ruth and Ogden Mills, had tickets for the Titanic. It was their good fortune to have tickets for the ship’s planned second trip, not the fatal first. Mr. and Mrs Mills intended to board the Titanic in New York after its arrival from Europe. But, in the most famous maritime disaster in history, the ship sank on its maiden voyage. Ruth Mills lost her cousin John Jacob Astor in the tragedy; he was the wealthiest man to perish on the Titanic.

The White Star Line, the company that owned the Titanic, catered to rich first class passengers like the Astors and the Millses. Yet it was in serving the great masses of third class passengers that shipping firms made their profits. The waves of immigrants flooding from the Old World to the New paid far less for their tickets than did the wealthy elite; but there were far more of them. The steamship lines hired salespeople to peddle tickets door to door to potential third class travelers; villagers going to their local shop for bread or milk would find steamship tickets for sale there as well.

With an eye to attracting third class passengers, the Titanic revolutionized third class accommodations. Before the Titanic, steerage passengers slept and ate in cramped dormitories below decks. The Titanic provided staterooms for third class passengers and a well-appointed dining room, complete with waiters and linen tablecloths.

One such third class passenger was Catherine McGowan. Months before sailing on the Titanic, she returned to her native Irish parish of Addergoole from her new home in the United States. To her old neighbors, Catherine was the living embodiment of the immigrant dream. Dressed in fine clothes, with enough spending money to buy a roundtrip ticket from the U.S. to Ireland just to come for a visit, she told her fellow villagers wonderful stories of the opportunities waiting for them in America. Inspired by Catherine McGowan, 13 impoverished Addergoole residents borrowed enough money to return with her on the Titanic.

A melancholy tradition in Ireland was to hold what was called an “American wake” for family members about to emigrate. The relatives all gathered to say farewell; unlike Catherine McGowan, few ever returned; their families expected that they would never see them again.

Surely the American wakes in Addergoole were as melancholy as any in Ireland as family members said goodbye to Catherine McGowan and the 13 pilgrims she had gathered. But that melancholy was soon to be dwarfed by unimaginable heartbreak. When the Titanic went down, 11 of the 14 were lost, including McGowan.

One survivor of the Addergoole 14 was Bridget Delia McDermott. As she prepared for her voyage on the Titanic, Delia’s mother told her that to be a real American lady, she must arrive in the United States wearing a hat and gloves. So on the day before Delia left Ireland, her mother took her to town and bought her the first hat and the first pair of gloves that Delia had ever owned.

There’s a family legend that says that Delia’s shopping trip was interrupted by a stranger, an old man dressed in black, who tapped her on the shoulder. He told her she was going on a long journey and that there would be a disaster, but she would be saved.

The next day, Delia boarded the Titanic where she found that even third class boasted luxuries that were unknown to poor Irish girls: electric lights and flush toilets and a bed of her own that she didn’t have to share with siblings. At dinner there were linen napkins and silverware, and above all, enough to eat. To Delia, it all seemed like a promise of the riches she would enjoy in the new world.
Titanic's Third Class Dining Room

And then, three days after leaving Ireland, the Titanic hit the famous iceberg.

The collision was much more noticeable in third class than far above in first class, where some passengers felt only a shudder. The ship halted, started up, and then stopped again. The third class passengers had no idea what was happening. There was no public address system to inform them that the ship was fatally injured. There had been no evacuation drills to familiarize them with the rabbit warren of passages leading to the lifeboats on the uppermost deck. The ship’s third class stewards, in charge of their passengers’ well-being, received no instructions.

Some of the Addergoole men, whose cabins were in the front of the ship, came aft to warn the women of danger – the men’s cabins were already filling with water.

It was two and a half hours from the time the ship hit the iceberg until it sank. In the absence of word from the ship’s officers, the third class passengers must have been oppressed by an ever-increasing realization of their peril, as the front of the ship sank lower and the Titanic began to list, first to the starboard side and then to the port.

Many passengers...and some stewards...took matters into their own hands. One brave steward shepherded a group of 30 women through the complicated geography from the lower decks to the lifeboats on the boat deck at the top of the ship; then went back down into the depths of the sinking ship and brought up 30 more. But by then it was too late for a third trip.
Lowering Titanic's Lifeboats

Passengers found their way through the maze of corridors as best they could. Many of the gates that divided the classes from one another remained locked. Unable to get past the gates, some men found a steam winch on a third class deck, jumped aboard, and made a perilous climb, inching their way up the winch’s long arm all the way to the boat deck.

Irishman Dan Buckley testified before a Senate committee that he was following another third class passenger up a flight of stairs towards the first class deck when a crew member forcibly stopped the trespasser, threw the man back down the stairs, and locked the gate at the top of the stairs. The enraged man ran back up the stairs, charged the gate and broke the lock. Buckley and other passengers then followed their hero to the boat deck.

Three young Irish women, all named Katherine (Gilnagh, Mullin and Murphy), found themselves blocked at a locked and guarded gate. Irishman Jim Farrell shouted at the crewman, “Good God, man! Open the gate and let the girls through!” To their surprise, the cowed crewman did just that.

One of the three girls, 17-year-old Kate Gilnagh, got separated from her friends and found herself on the deserted second class promenade deck. The boat deck with the lifeboats was just above her, but she couldn’t find a way up. Finally she discovered one other person on the promenade deck, a man leaning against the rail, staring out into the night, calmly awaiting his fate. The man boosted Kate onto his shoulders; from there, she climbed up to the boat deck.

But Kate’s life was not yet saved. She arrived at the boat deck just as the crew started to lower Lifeboat No. 16. A crewman told her the boat was full and wouldn’t let her get in. “But I want to go with my sister!” she cried. The resourceful Katherine Gilnagh had no sister. The crewman relented and allowed Kate into the lifeboat.

And what of Addergoole’s Delia McDermott, the Irish girl whose mother sent her off to the New World with her very first hat and very first pair of gloves? Delia found her way through the maze of unmarked passageways from 3d class up top to the boat deck, only to find that most of the lifeboats were already gone and the deck was awash with people, chaos, confusion, and barely suppressed panic.

Delia must have been a very determined young woman, because she somehow forged her way through the crowd to the side of a lifeboat...and got a seat in the lifeboat…and her life was to be saved…until she suddenly realized that she had forgotten her hat, the very hat her mother had bought her so she could be a real American lady.

Delia McDermott got out of the lifeboat, somehow found her way back down the labyrinth of corridors in the sinking ship to her stateroom, retrieved her hat, and once more navigated her way back up to the boat deck…only to find that she was too late! The very last lifeboat had just been launched. It bears repeating that Delia must have been a very determined young woman, for she then climbed down the side of the sinking ship on a rope and jumped 15 feet into the lifeboat…wearing her hat, like a real American lady. And we know that story because Delia survived, came to America wearing her hat and gloves, and her American granddaughter tells the story to this day.
Wearing hat and gloves

For one last example of the indomitable Irish spirit, consider the story of an Irishwoman who was among the survivors aboard the Carpathia, the rescue ship that picked up Titanic’s lifeboats in the early morning hours after the sinking. When the Carpathia docked in New York, immigration officials boarded to process the immigrants. Asked if she had her emigration card from Ireland, the young colleen gave a sharp retort: “Divil (Devil) a bit of card have I, I’m lucky to have me own life!”

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