Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Discovering Cobh: The Last Port of Call for the Titanic!

For millions of Irish, Cobh (pronounced Cove) or Queenstown as it was then known, was the exit point for a better life in America, Australia, the UK, Argentina, New Zealand…or Canada. 
The unpretentious potato was both the cause of the largest population explosion as well as the cause for the largest drop in population in Ireland.  More than a million Irish perished from starvation and disease but the famine also resulted in a huge exodus of more than a million who fled to greener pastures in search of a better life.  What I hadn’t known till we got here was that Cobh was the last port of call for the Titanic.  It was also the place where 3 years after the Titanic disaster, survivors from the Lusitania were brought ashore when she was torpedoed in 1915 by a German U-boat, killing over a thousand people during the First World War. 

So - we find Cobh to be a town steeped in history with plenty to discover.   It is also an attractive town,
situated on the edge of the water with colourful houses and buildings that add an extra vibrancy in the bright sunshine of a summer’s day.  A giant cathedral looks down on it all from atop the hill where it is perched but we begin our discovery by lunching at a pub which is home to the U2 fan club (I love their music) and where ‘American Wakes’ were held regularly for those who emigrated.

Cobh is a day trip from Cork and we have travelled down here by train.   After lunch we walk across to the Titanic experience, situated in the original offices of the White Star Line and the place where the
123 passengers from Cobh (then Queenstown) boarded the ship on that ill-fated voyage.   I am already feeling a sense of poignancy.  We have just eaten across the road where many bittersweet goodbyes were held.  Migration in those days meant that you might never see your family again so many tears were shed and much Guinness was drunk to celebrate the hopes and dreams for a better life. 

As we enter the Titanic experience each of us are given a postcard with the name of a passenger.  I am a 40-year old woman, Mary Bourke.  At the end of this experience, I will discover if I survived…

As a traveller and migrant myself, I can connect with the sense of anticipation that Mary must have felt on boarding.  I was 25 when I left home for America to further my studies.  I had never been on an airplane before and this would have been Mary’s first voyage.  This personal touch is already bringing alive to me the real story of the Titanic. 
Mary was a third class passenger (just as I had been, travelling in economy) and paid $40, the equivalent of $640 today, for her ticket.   It must have been a huge sum of money and I wonder how long her family saved for her to make this journey?  I still remember how sad my parents had been when I had said goodbye more than 25 years ago.  I had always meant to go back though but as fate would have it, I never did. 

Most of us know the facts of the Titanic.  We’ve watched countless documentaries and seen the movie.  In 1912, she was the largest passenger steamship afloat.  Together with her two sister ships, the Titanic was constructed in Belfast in what was then the largest shipbuilding yard in the world.  It took 3 years for her to be constructed and cost the equivalent of $7.5 million! 

About fifteen thousand men worked on her construction and many ended up with hearing problems due to the incredible din made when hammering rivets.  The photos of these ships being constructed side by side are amazing and as an engineer I can appreciate that it was designed using the most advanced technology at the time.   I love the photos from the design offices and can feel the sense of achievement the engineers must have felt when completing those drawings.  While Titanic did not have enough lifeboats for all the passengers on board, she had more than was required by the regulations of the time, which was only based on the tonnage of the ship.   The Titanic was required to have sixteen lifeboats on board – she had twenty.   In the words of her captain;

I cannot imagine any condition which would caused a modern ship to founder …… Shipbuilding has gone beyond that…”

On 14th April 1912, just over 100 years ago, she hit an iceberg.   Having watched the movie I already have a sense of the horror, the sheer panic that must have prevailed when her passengers eventually realised what was happening.  How does a ship that was meant to be unsinkable, go down?  Well, five of her watertight compartments breached during that collision with the iceberg! 

There were 123 mostly third class Irish passengers who boarded the ship at Cork and a total of 2,228 passengers and crew when she sailed from Cobh.   Only 705 of these people survived in what was one of the greatest peacetime maritime disasters.  While there were certainly not enough lifeboats for all those aboard, many of the lifeboats that were launched were under capacity.  It is distressing to learn there were 400 places on the lifeboats that remained empty.  Those who were lucky enough to be in a boat were terrified that those in the water might cause them to capsize while scrambling to get aboard so they quietly moved away from the Titanic despite the pleas and shouts for help from the desperate passengers in the water begging to be saved.  I still remember that scene from the movie and it is all the more poignant when I discover the personal stories and the fate of so many… 

I listen to the story of a lady on one of the lifeboats as it is retold in one of the audio-visual displays.  She had just watched the Titanic go down with her husband still on it and so was obviously grieving.  Some time later, a survivor in the water begged to come aboard their boat.  No one on her boat was prepared to let him on but she persuaded them to do so.  In the dark of the night, they could not see his face but when dawn broke she recognised the man she had saved to be her husband who she had feared dead.  It is a spine tingling story and there were hundreds such as this…many with unhappy endings.  

We hear of 3 sailors who missed the boat because they were still in the pub having one Guinness too many.  We hear about the Irish sailor who boarded in England as a stoker but jumped ship at Cobh.  He later claimed he had a feeling that something would go wrong with this voyage but most believe he was just homesick.  We read the message in a bottle that 19 year-old Jeremiah who had boarded at Cork threw in the water as the ship went down.  Both he and his cousin Nora perished on their way to a better life in America.  Jeremiah wrote his goodbye message in the bottle filled with Holy Water that his mother had given him just before he boarded.   Then there was the story of Margaret Rice who perished with her 5 young children on her way back to America.  She was in steerage and many people in third class did not survive the sinking, partly because they were prevented from getting to the lifeboats till those in first and second class had left.  Your station in society had governed every facet of life in those days, which is why a huge proportion of the women who died in this tragedy were those in third class.   I am intrigued by the story of Milvina Dean who had been the youngest passenger at just 2-month old.  Her family had meant to board another vessel but fate decided otherwise.  She lost her dad in the sinking and didn’t learn she was a passenger on the Titanic till she was 8 years old.  She was the longest surviving passenger on board and lived to be 96!  I love reading the letters that had been mailed from Cobh to far ever places, that once again bring alive the experiences and dreams of those aboard.

A visit to the Heritage Centre brought alive the stories of the early Irish immigrants escaping the famine and the hardships of life and was in stark comparison to life aboard the Titanic.  The Titanic was a luxury ship and even those who were travelling third class were doing so in relative luxury when compared to the ‘coffin ships’ that had preceded them.  Many of the earlier emigrants travelled in incredibly poor conditions, forced to bring aboard their own meagre food supplies (of which they didn’t have much to begin with) while already suffering from disease and starvation.   The conditions were appalling and more than 30% died at sea and were thrown overboard in must have been a horrendous experience.  We listen to the sound of wind howling and waves lashing against the boats and get a sense of how terrifying that voyage must have been.  It was Hobson’s choice for many but if they made it, it was certainly a chance to give themselves and their families a shot at life.  I think I would have taken my chances…

The stories are harsh and it is inevitable that I am reminded of the migrants who still come in boats to Australia today.   Some of them are economic refuges but others are escaping the ravages of war.  All of them have dreams of a better life and the courage to seek it and yet we lock them up in detention centres, treating them like criminals for not following procedures. 

I realise how different my own migrant story is and am hugely thankful.  Mary Bourke did not survive the collision.  Being a female in steerage meant she had a far smaller chance of getting on a lifeboat than her counterparts in first and second-class.  The statistics speak for themselves, despite the ‘women and children’ first policy.  Only 4 of the 123 females in first class perished and 3 of these were by choice.  15 of the 93 in second class and 81 of the 179 in third class were lost at sea.  Mary Bourke was one of them.  

Be careful to leave your sons well instructed rather than rich, for the hopes of the instructed are better than the wealth of the ignorant”.  Epictetus

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