Just 14 years before the end of the Twentieth century, an unthinkable tragedy occurred when the Challenger space shuttle exploded on its maiden voyage. That disaster echoed another unthinkable tragedy, which had taken place only 12 years into the century when the great ocean liner, Titanic, went to the bottom of the Atlantic on her maiden voyage. Both events shook the world, because each represented the epitome of modern technology, each was believed disaster-proof and each forced us to pause and reflect on our fallibility.
The earlier tragedy occurred 99 years ago this month, on April 15, 1912, when the largest and ‘safest’ ocean liner ever built, sank to the ocean floor. Taller than an 11-story building, that marvel of engineering slipped beneath the icy waters of the north Atlantic carrying almost 1500 souls to a watery grave. By 1999, the shock and horror had been largely forgotten as millions flocked to see Titanic sink twice nightly in a Las Vegas stage production, a Broadway musical based on the disaster broke box office records, and the movie Titanic became the biggest money maker to date. But then, it always was a good story!
As strange as it seems, the story fascinated the public before it ever happened. Back in 1898, a full 13 years before Titanic was even built, the novel, Futility by Morgan Robertson, was published which portrayed the futility of man’s obsession with technology in spite of his own mortality. It was the story of a fictitious ocean liner of 70,000 tons displacement (Titanic was 66,000 tons) and 800 feet long (Titanic was 882 feet). Both Robertson’s fictional ship and Titanic were triple prop driven, both could make 25 knots and each carried about 3,000 people. Significantly, each only had life boats for a fraction of that number since each was considered unsinkable. Robertson loaded his ship with rich, complacent passengers, and sailed it into the Atlantic, also in April, where it collided with an iceberg and went down with a tremendous loss of life. If it sounds like an uncanny coincidence, consider this: the name of the fictional ship in Robertson’s novel was Titan.
Fascination with Titanic was revived in 1985 with the discovery of her wreckage. Photos showed opulent, modest and meager accommodations based on the ability to pay. The wealthy traveled first class; they played shuffleboard or strolled the airy deck until cocktail time was announced in one of the luxury salons where they occupied their time until gourmet meals were served in a spacious dining room. Dancing in the ballroom then capped off their evenings. Second class passengers occupied comfortable, but unpretentious, smaller cabins on the middle levels and those least able to pay were lodged in steerage or third class, at the lowest level, in multiple occupancy quarters. Filling these accommodations were many Irish immigrants reflecting this era of extremes in wealth and poverty. However, that was not the only connection with Ireland.
Designed by Irishman Thomas Andrews of Co Down, Titanic’s first keel plate was laid on March 31, 1909 in Belfast, at Harland and Wolfe’s shipyard. Workers there were known for their anti-Catholic attitude. It was even claimed that the folio number of the plan of Titanic was 390904 which, when viewed in a mirror roughly read nOPOPE. Launched on April 1, 1911, her maiden voyage took her to Cobh, Co. Cork before crossing the Atlantic to America on April 9. Advertised as the marvel of the age, some said God himself couldn’t sink her; others said that such arrogance had placed a curse on her. Built to carry 3400 people, it was fortunate that only 2200 were on her maiden voyage, but it was unfortunate that there were only enough lifeboats for 900.
There were 322 passengers in first class, 277 in second class, and 709 in third classes, most of whom boarded at Cobh. The rest were crew. Four and a half days out of Cork, Titanic hit an iceberg; two and a half hours later, she slipped below the icy waters taking 1500 with her – most of those were trapped in steerage where access gates had been locked to insure that first class passengers could depart on the available life boats first. It was later stated that during evacuation, women and children from all classes were given preference in the lifeboats. Facts later showed that only 3% of the women and none of the children from first class perished, while 45% of the women and 70% of the children in steerage were lost. Further, 34% of the men in first class survived, but only 12% from steerage. In all, fully 75% of Titanic’s steerage passengers drowned.
One survivor, the daughter of Irish immigrants, became known as ‘the unsinkable Molly Brown.’ She kept up the spirits of the survivors and later raised money to aid the survivors of Titanic’s third class. Another of Titanic’s more fortunate passengers was also named Brown, only with an ‘e’. He was Irish Jesuit Father Frank Browne, a native of Cork whose ticket was a gift from his uncle, Bishop Robert Browne. The Bishop provided passage from Southampton to Cobh, where he resided. Knowing of his nephew’s interest in photography, the Bishop gave his nephew the opportunity to photograph the maiden voyage of the world’s largest ship while returning to Ireland for a visit. On board, Father Browne befriended an American family who offered to finance the remainder of his trip to New York. He cabled the Jesuit Provincial Superior in Dublin for permission to accept the offer. The four word reply read, Get off that ship. Years later, he remarked that holy obedience had saved his life. It also saved some remarkable photographs, for the photos taken by Father Browne aboard the Titanic during her two day voyage to Cork, are the only record of the liner at sea. They were seen in newspapers around the world after the tragedy and were used in 1986 by the salvage crew to confirm the wreck’s identity.
One of Fr Browne’s photos even led to a heartwarming story. A wealthy Frenchman had run away with the family maid, taking his two sons, aged four and two, with him. He booked passage on the Titanic under an assumed name. Both he and his lover were lost when the ship sank, but the boys were lifted into a lifeboat and saved. Arriving in New York, they were called the Titanic Orphans and were asked for in adoption by Mrs. Benjamin Guggenheim, widow of one of the Titanic victims. In France, the boys’ mother saw one of Father Browne’s photos in a newspaper and recognized her lost sons. Finally aware of where they’d been taken, she sailed to New York, and reclaimed them before their adoption became final, providing at least one happy ending to the Titanic story due to an Irish connection from a photo taken by an Irish priest aboard a ship that had been built in Ireland.