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A story retold with compassion

Titanic remembered
A story retold with compassion


Book review
Martin Ayres


NEW books have emerged year-on-year about the Titanic and its unbelievable fate and one of the most recent to emerge is ‘Titanic Lives’, written by Richard Davenport-Hines, who purports to shine a new light on the by now familiar story. Sub-titled ‘Migrants, Millionaires, Conmen and Crew’ the book chronicles the lives – and deaths – of many of the people caught up in the tragedy of Titanic. 
The book is full of details on the 14 passengers from Addergoole in north Mayo, who had embarked at Queenstown (Cobh) bound for New York. Five were from Carrowskeheen, near Lahardane, including John and Kate Bourke who had sold their farm in the hope of making a new life in America. Like most of Mayo emigrants, they had bought their third-class tickets from White Star Line agent Thomas Durcan of Castlebar for £7.15. Meanwhile, American property magnate, Jack Astor, who embarked at Cherbourg, paid £247 for his first-class suite.
Third-class passengers’ accommodation was spartan compared to the opulence enjoyed in first-class, but it was a striking improvement on what had gone before. On older vessels there was no water for passengers to wash themselves, and little privacy. Titanic’s third-class (or ‘steerage’) cabins held two, six, eight or ten passengers and were equipped with electricity, showers and baths. For many passengers the voyage was a rare holiday, a break from lives of drudgery and toil. They also enjoyed three good meals a day.
As the light was fading on Friday, April 12, the fifth night of the voyage, Titanic’s wireless station picked up a message from a French vessel, reporting ice in the north Atlantic. Four more ice warnings were received over the next 24 hours but the messages failed to reach the officers on the bridge. Meanwhile Titanic ploughed on at over 20 knots.
The crow’s nest look-out finally spotted the iceberg 500 yards ahead shortly before midnight on April 14. The steersman swung the ship to starboard. It was too late, Titanic’s hull had been fatally holed, and water was pouring in through a 300-foot gash.
It might have been a different story if the ice warnings had been heeded and the captain had cut the speed. And if the boat had steered head-on to the ‘berg, the stern would have taken the shock and many lives would have been saved.
Anxious to avoid panic, officers and crew assured passengers that everything was under control. A freighter, the ‘Californian’, was only a few miles away, but its wireless system had shut down for the night and the captain ignored Titanic’s distress flares. 
There was a lack of urgency in lowering of the lifeboats, there were not enough lifeboats to take all the passengers and crew, and many of the boats pulled away only half full. The order ‘women and children first’ meant that many wives were separated from their husbands never to see them again. Kate Bourke from Carrowskeheen could have taken a place in a life boat but she clung to her husband John, saying that if he must die she would die with him. Another Addergoole passenger, Annie McGowan, 17, survived after being practically thrown into the lifeboat.  “They just grabbed me the way I was, wearing just a dress and shoes; they would not even let me take my purse,” she recalled.
The other Mayo survivors were Annie Kate Kelly, 20, from Cuilmullagh, who was said to have taken a lifeboat place vacated by the Bourkes, and Bridget Delia McDermott, 28, Knockfarnaught, who braved a 15-foot leap from a rope ladder into the boat.
Another Mayo fatality on the Titanic was crew member William Luke Duffy (36) from Castlebar. He was employed as the Chief Engineer’s clerk.
This many-sided story has been meticulously researched by Richard Davenport-Hines, a noted a historian and biographer.  It is a readable and compassionate book, illustrated with some striking photographs, several by Irish priest-photographer Fr FM Browne, SJ. It also benefits from excellent notes and index.

‘Titanic Lives’ (400 pages) is published by Harper Press (UK prices £20 hardback, £8.99 paperback).

Digital Edition