Saturday, May 5, 2012

April 1912 - The Journey (Mayo's Titanic connection)

Imagine them then, all fourteen of them, with probably another two dozen or more family and friends, fresh from the 'American Wake', ruddy-faced in the night air, all walking together on that 10th of April in the very early morning in 1912, having made it over the 'windy gap', from Lahardane to Castlebar, a last trek on the winding pathway through the lonely mountain pass, at night, like they were heading for the Mairgead Mor in Castlebar, only they weren't, were they? And sure didn't they all stop for one last look back at Nephin towering behind them, his head separating the scudding clouds, not wanting to see them leave. The valley below still with its winter hues and lovely Lough Conn in the distance beyond Nephin, glistening blue and silver in the weak spring sunshine. They were talkative, chattering about the possibilities, the wonders and the chance to make it big in that land of opportunity that America ever was for those strong and brave enough to make the journey.  They were headed to New York, New Jersey, St. Louis and Chicago, but first they had to cross the wild Atlantic.

They were a motley group, young and not so young, some barefoot, some sad, all expectant, in trepidation, scared yet excited, butterfly-stomached all the 14 winding, bohareen-miles to Castlebar. One of the ladies looked beautiful and proud wearing the new hat she had bought the week before from the shop in Crossmolina. Another brooded a little, troubled by the warning she had been given by the dark stranger at the last fair day in Lahardane.

No taxis back then, or cars, they likely walked most of it, in the dark, with their small suitcases, bags or whatever little possessions most of them carried, piled up on the train of five horse-drawn sidecars, the reliable carriages bumping over the rough road. Some of the group had bought new steamer trunks, wooden suit-cases, no wheels on them back then, nor smooth road to wheel them on either. How hard would that journey have been, walking behind the laden horse and carts, badly lighted by carburundum lamps, a silent procession as they made their way through the Windy Gap in the early dawn, to the town Castlebar, to the Railway Station and the waiting steam train. Most of them had never even seen a train before. They chatted quietly, nervously, their anxieties only matched by their excitement. Their companions on this first part of the journey were quiet too, thinking of the many times they had made this trip to Castlebar already only to return alone, another emigrant on their way, rarely to be seen again.

They arrive early for the 8.20am train and stand about the station watching as they engine is stoked into life, the steam hissing from the wheel pistons, the belching of black smoke from the stack, while the men have one last deoch a dorais in McGraths bar, well known to them from the cold fair days in October and November. Then finally it is time, and as the shrill whistle blows and the steam clouds billow about their feet, the final hugs, the bittersweet farewells, hands reaching up from the station platform, the tears and hand-shakes, their last kisses, (did they even kiss), and the train departs for Queenstown, white handkerchiefs fluttering from the departing windows.

It was to be an interminably long journey, over 12 hours, changing trains several times, going from one railway system to another, the Great Western, the Midland, the Southern. The passengers and their baggage move as one, from platform to platform, following the 3 experienced travellers in their group who have done this journey before, marvelling at their knowlege. Ireland was so big, who knew? The carriages were no better than carts, no in-carriage service, no bar-car, no soft seats, smoke and cinders from the engine's smoke stack sparking in the steam trail above the carriages, occasionally coming into the carriages through an opened window. They watched in wonder as an Ireland they did not know passed them by, the rich fields of Munster, nothing like their hard-scrabble holdings on the lower slopes of Nephin.

The pangs of hunger are now replacing the butterflies, as the trains wend their way south, through the counties of Mayo, Galway, Clare, Limerick, then Tipperary and finally Cork. Did the train tracks connect, or did they have to change trains each time, at Claremorris, or Athenry or Limerick, or Limerick Junction? Had they time to buy hot food at the stations, or did they carry just a bit of hard bread and a bottle of milk or cold tae? Very possibly they were tempted to buy something along the way, with the couple of farthings or ha'pennies they had in their pocai. They might have spent them, but not the bright sovereigns or guineas sewn into the lining of their jackets, ar eagla na h-eagla, jealously guarded for the long journey and the necessary grub-stake when they arrived over yonder! No, they likely nibbled whatever bread they had in their packs, drank a little milk from a glass bottle. It was a long, wearying journey indeed.

And then finally, at last, after an exhausting day's travel, they come to Cork, the first city most of them have ever seen. The bustle and din of the busy railway station in the centre of the cathedral city is amazing to them, but their fascination had to be ignored and bags guarded while they waited for the boat-train to Cobh, or Queenstown as it was then known, and a night's lodgings, 2/6 (two shillings and six about 15cents, but back then, a full weeks wages, if you had a job) for each person, so much money for a hard bed for one night. Cobh was an amazing transit station, the place full of boarding-houses, each crammed with travellers just like them, eager for their ships to come and take them away across the sea to hope.

Next morning, after a final prayer in the cathedral overlooking the harbour they settle in for the long wait. Ticket agents wandered to and fro amongst the crowds, bargaining, touting, urging groups of passengers to buy passage on the various liners that are due that day. Yet the Addergoole group were patient amidst the bustle of the steamer quay there, finally shuffling in line with over a hundred others, all waiting for the next tender, out to the ship itself which is far out in the great harbour, unseen. Finally they are all walking unsteadily up a ganway from the quayside onto their tender, itself huge, their ship surely, 'is this it'? No it is either The America or The Ireland, both of them ships in their own right, but here in Cobh, merely tenders, taxis to the Titanic, nothing like the mighty ocean liner that awaits off Roches Point. Underway now, they all cling to the rail, holding firm against the unfamiliar sway of the deck, the shudder of unimagined power from the engines, the rush of adrenaline, leaving Ireland, leaving home, perhaps forever.

A piper aboard pipes Erin's Lament and as the melancholic air floats across the waves, they huddle together on deck, looking shorewards, waving their kerchiefs to the well-wishers on steamers quay.

Despite their excitement, the tears flow.

Then out onto the harbour they steam, as in a dream, looking back at the church spire, a prayer on everyone's lips. Behind them the cathedral spire fades into the landscape as the vessel clears the harbour and steams towards Titanic.

The engines slow, a silence, the sea-mist clears and suddenly, looming above them, the huge black hulk of the Titanic, soaring high, like Nephin from the surface of the sea, a sea most of them have never even seen before, nor smelled nor tasted, such salt, the spray on their faces, carefully across the gangway into the hold, and now the 'luxury' of the steerage cabins, the music, the personalities, the food and warmth, the style and fashion, the electricity! The lights, so bright, each room ablaze with light and hope, how they must have blazed with pride and already a fairytale had come true, sure only a half-dozen floors now separated them from first class and the super-wealthy, they couldn't even imagine it and now it's true. Unbelievable!

Three days out, seasoned sailors all now, their sea-legs fashioned from the dancing they were doing each night, yet the doors to the stairs and the rooms above were locked, no promenading the deck for the girls from Addergoole. Their's was a journey of confinement, they could only look out the port-holes at the infinite sea beyond the steel hull of the ship. Tonight the 14th of April the Addergoole fourteen gathered together to celebrate Nora Flemmings 22nd birthday. Songs were sung and they danced a few steps to the tunes the piper from Athlone played. In third class that night there were 10 birthdays celebrated. The songs of travellers from Turkey, Ireland, England, Gernmany, Norway, Italy and Russia all intermingled and echoed around the great ship as the happy throng sailed on westward to their new destiny.

The din of their fellow travelers harmonised with the hum of the deck plates and the throb of the engines far below them in the hold of the ship, a not unpleasant sound, hypnotic, re-assuring, constant, lulling them to sleep far from Nephin's watchful gaze. As they rested and slept, their thoughts were with their families at home. What were they doing now, at home, were they asleep too, under the thatch, listening to the crickets by the fire-place, was it raining, did they miss them.

Suddenly, as in the distance, the mighty ship is groaning like a living being, an injured animal, the calamity has happened, the panic begun. Now the alarms sound, lights flicker, the floor tilts, no one down here knows the truth, the few crew are ashen, and do not tell. Most are awake and in their night attire, some wearing coats, all in corridors now, dozens of languages, all shouting, seeking their friends, their families amid the panic and the flickering lights. There is banging at the steerage exits but the doors are still locked, the men are wild-eyed, the women and children are crying and praying. The din and noise is louder now, the mighty ship is in it's death rattle, a metallic moan fills the ships cabins from stem to stern, momentarily silencing the panicked chorus from passengers and crew. Nothing can help them now, the ship is sinking and they are trapped below decks.

Finally, in answer to their prayers, better late than never, an opened door is discovered, or remembered, a door that leads to a ladder and allows them up on deck, the Addergoole fourteen move as one, holding hands, white-faced against the bitter cold, huddled against the wind. The scene that awaits them up on deck is shocking, from the slanting deck by the light of the stars, movement is reflected on the ocean where already some lifeboats float, now and then brightly illuminated by the intermittent white flares the crew set off. Some life-jackets are found and hurriedly donned, though there are none for the men. The cold is biting, but the trembling is from fear, fear of water, none of them ever swam and the water is a cliff-face down the side of the ship away. The deck lights are flickering on and off now, slowly dimming, their hopes fading.

Frightened knots of men struggle to lift two heavy lifeboats from one side to the other side of the tilting ship. Another group are fighting each other, frantically attempting to assemble a canvas kit-boat that has been hauled up onto the deck. Another of the lifeboat dangles helplessly over the side, trapped by tangled ropes on the davitts. Everywhere the screams and shouts of men and women is confusing and frightening.

One of the Lahardane group finds a pen-knife in her bag, a gift from her father. It is tossed to the boats mate, and he succeeds in freeing the tangled hawser. There is space on the boat and they are exhorted to jump in. Now the harried hesitation, who shall be saved? 'No, we will not be separated'. Three of the girls are persuaded to go and now the last lifeboat's lowered, there are no more. Stranded, the remaining eleven huddle together and pray, the dread certainty and the realisation of the journey's tragic end, the loneliness as the darkness and the salt sea soaks them for the last time, the moon reflects the cries, a last prayer, a plea for mercy, 'A Dhia, dhean trocaire, a Dhia na ghrasta, a Dhia, a Dhia!' The last few weak cries peter out as Titanic slips below the water and the darkness and the silence of the mighty Atlantic closes in. Oh the humanity!

Brian Nolan, April 15, 2012.

Note; For the full story see the Addergoole-Titanic Society's wonderful website on Facebook see 'Mayo Link' for the full story of the celebration of the centenary of the Titanic's sinking and this little villages outstanding memorial to their fourteen brothers and sisters who sailed on Titanic. Eleven of them drowned. three survived.

If you are ever in Mayo and at a loose end, please take a moment to visit the village of Lahardane. There is a beautiful 'Titanic Memorial Park' in the centre of the village, with 2 bronze statues, a bronze Titanic ship's prow, two partially re-built cottages and a view of Nephin that will take your breath away. They also built a one-tenth scale (88 feet long) replica of the Titanic that was anchored off Addergoole cemetary for most of Summer 2012. It drew quite a crowd.

If you have time go to the Addergoole cemetary where the families of the Addergoole fourteen have been traditionally buried. None of our fourteen were buried here, indeed the bodies of the eleven who were lost on the Titanic were never recovered for burial anywhere. It is a beautiful and poignant place, over-looked by Nephin to the west and sloping down to the shores of Lough Conn to the east, beyond the little 9th century monastic ruin of the original Addergoole Church. Take a moment to remember our young hopeful emigrants and say a prayer for them, their hopes and lives bundled up in a small bag, off in search of a better so many millions of Irish men and women before and since.


Unknown said...

Wonderful expose of the human longing indelibly imprinted on the human heart.
A journey on land legs traversing soft bogs reflecting soft innocence, much awe and comhra, a belching iron horse as noisy as tin cans on a tinkers ass cart, innocent wonderment at new visioned landscapes, where the land legs rested in anticipation of long walkings in the great USA, the bent knee lighting candles of hope pointing to an energy forward and memory pointing to Lahardane, faith trumping scepticism and anguished fear. Then sea legs to traverse the broad Atlantic.
Ass cart to iron horse to gigantic ship, a journey complete in and of itself.Experience to be pidgeon holed for more magnificent exploits to be recorded as a dream promised is birthed and given new legs to satisfy the meanderings of the Gaelic Spirit.
Many left before them and many after. Yet their unexpected experience on board the ill fated Titanic is the living experience that to-day breaths a new birthing in their Mayo village and kinsfolk. The candles litin Cobh, with hope pointed forward become an anticipated journey that is reversed as the memory of the Lahardane folk now lights a candle of rememberance, that a century on, tells us that all losses have meaning. Even in premature death, a srean-sceal
(terrible news)lives on to-day.
news that both frightens us and emboldens us.
This rememberance has legs that continue to take us on a journey.
Long may we walk in their memory and they in ours.

Brian Nolan said...

Thanks Noel. I meant to reply earlier, but disremembered to. Emigration again stalks this land, 90,000 left in 2012 alone. You know ther profile too well, young, talented, frustrated, angry, lonely, disapointed. Many will succeed beyond their dreams, many more will not. Lahardane has scattered her seeds to Australia this time round and the young men have found work in the ore-fields there, driving trucks and diggers big as Breaffy House. Many more will follow. Will it take a disaster such as Titanic was back then for us to place a value on their skills and lives, theeir laughter and their children's children.