Fr Kevin Hegarty
History has a way of repeating itself in Ireland. Take our emigration story. For the last two centuries it comes in cycles. Hundreds of young people are now leaving our shores for productive employment elsewhere.
So it was a hundred years ago also. Colm O’Gaora was a travelling teacher of Irish employed by the Gaelic League early in the 20th century. A native of Connemara he spent some time in Mayo. His memoir, ‘Mise’, first published in 1943, has recently been made available by the Mercier Press in an English translation, entitled “On the Run”.
In it he provides a contemporary account of Erris emigration: “The majority of the Erris people emigrated to England and Scotland where they worked as migratory labourers on the large farms there during the summer and autumn months, returning home again for the winter. I often saw the steamship that travelled between Ireland and Britain for this purpose pulling into Erris to fill up with passengers. The ship would always sound its horn as it came into Blacksod Bay. As soon as that horn sounded, you saw people appearing from all the houses and running towards the quay. Young and old, men and women, it made no difference. The people were mad to get onto that boat to earn the money that would tide them over for the rest of the year. On the arrival of this steamship, the only people left behind were the old, the infirm, or children who were too young to work. The sight of that steamship or the blast of that horn saw a new energy infuse the local people. If there’s the same enthusiastic rush on the last day when the angel sounds the trumpet, then there’ll be no necessity to round up all the living and the dead.”
About the same time 14 young people left the parish of Addergoole for America. Addergoole had experienced a severe decimation of its population in the previous 70 years, mainly due to emigration. The 1841 census records 7,379 people living there. By 1911 that number had been reduced to 3,496.
So the 14 were part of a regular pattern. They were booked to travel on the “Titanic” on its maiden voyage. Their stories and the fateful voyage are comprehensively evoked in Pauline Barrett’s, “The Addergoole Titanic Story” and Simon Moloney’s, “The Irish Aboard the Titanic”.
The creation of the Titanic was one of the major news stories of its day. In 1907, Lord Pirrie, Chairman of Harland and Wolff in Belfast, had the idea of building an ocean liner that would outclass all the others.
The Titanic and its sister ship, the Olympic, cost 3 million pounds to build over a period of 3 years. Over 10,000 worked on the construction. The Titanic stood 10 storeys high and stretched for 1/6 of a mile. It had a passenger capacity of 2683 and a crew of 944.
Passengers were divided into 3 classes. A parlour suite for a transatlantic trip cost £870, about £50,000 in today’s terms. Here there was a swimming pool filled with heated sea water; the first ever built into a vessel, a gym, squash court, Turkish baths, first-class dining saloons and state rooms with beautifully designed wood carvings. It was a floating first class hotel.
Second class accommodation was equal to first class on other liners. Aimed at business and professional people it had a dark room for photographers, a lending library and a telephone system.
Steerage class, where the Addergoole fourteen, were berthed, consisted of much more spartan accommodation. Passengers here had to endure the noise of the ship’s 29 boilers. Nonetheless, in the context of its time, it was quite comfortable. Passengers taking their places on the Titanic on April 12, 1912 at Cobh did so with a sense of excitement and yet security. The ship was deemed as unsinkable. Its captain, Edward Smith, claimed that “modern ship building has gone beyond that.”
The early part of the journey augured well. The Titanic was making good time. Annie Kate Kelly, one of the three Addergoole passengers to survive, later recalled:
“The young girls would talk about what they would do in America before they were married. That is they would talk about it when they were not scurrying around the deck laughing and making friends here and there with everybody and joking with stewards.”
However on the night of April 14 as the ship was off the grand Bank of Newfoundland, the temperature dropped steeply. Amazingly the officers on look-out duty had no binoculars. They did not notice, until much too late, an iceberg, the size of the ship. The Titanic suffered a 300 ft puncture below the waterline. It was fatally damaged and, in two hours, would sink.
The lifeboats were lowered but could accommodate less than half the number on board. Panic reigned. Gunshots were fired in an attempt to restore order. In the end only 705 people got on the lifeboats though there was room for another four hundred. Lord Pirrie’s dream had ended in a nightmare.
For the last decade the bell in St Patricks Church, Lahardane, tolls in April in memory of the Addergoole fourteen who had set out with such high hopes. It will do so with especial poignancy this year on April 15, the hundredth anniversary of the disaster.