Faces of the Titanic: Kate Gilnagh was saved because she told a "white lie"

The Gilnagh sisters

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PHOTOS - photographs of some of the Irish on board

Profile taken from Senan Molony's book "The Irish Aboard the Titanic"

Ticket number 35851. Paid £7 14s 8d.
Boarded at Queenstown. Third Class.
From: Rhyne, Esker, County Longford.
Destination: 230 East 55th Street, New York city.

Katie Gilnagh survived because of a white lie. When she finally gained the upper deck, she was told that lifeboat No. 16 was too full and she could not go. As the boat began to descend, Katie cried: ‘But I want to go with my sister!’ The crewman hesitated and suddenly relented. She could get in.

‘God help me, I told a lie,’ she told the New York Daily News on the fiftieth anniversary of the sinking in 1962. ‘At first they didn’t want to let anyone else into it because it was overcrowded. I said that I wanted to go with my sister. I had no sister aboard. They let me get in, but I had to stand because we were so crowded.’

Katie did have a sister in New York – who was inconsolably arranging for a Requiem
Mass when Katie walked through the door.

Besides the lie, Miss Gilnagh had also lived because of her beauty and the effect it had in winning sympathy and securing help. On two separate occasions men acted to ensure that Katie made progress to the upper decks.

During the crossing she had occupied compartment Q161 on E deck, all the way aft on the starboard side, five decks down from the boats. Her cabin partners are believed to have been sisters Margaret and Kate Murphy, and Katie Mullen, all fellow County Longford travellers. All four were saved on boat No. 16, launched from the port side.

Relatives tell that a week before sailing, a gypsy woman called to the Gilnagh house and was being turned away by her father, Hughie, when Katie demanded that her fortune be read. She was told she would soon be crossing water and there would be danger, but that she would come to no harm. The palm reading cost her sixpence.

Author Walter Lord, in A Night to Remember, described how years later Gilnagh told of attending a party in steerage on the Sunday night of the disaster. At one point a rat scurried across the room. The boys gave chase and the girls squealed with excitement. Then the party was on again. Lord describes what happened for Katie after the berg impact:

Katherine Gilnagh, a pert colleen not quite sixteen [sic], heard a knock on the door. It was the young man who had caught her eye earlier that day playing the bagpipes on deck. He told her to get up – something was wrong with the ship …

At another barrier a seaman held back Kathy Gilnagh, Kate Mullins and Kate Murphy. (On the Titanic all Irish girls seemed to be named Katherine.)

The report goes on to recount the story of how James Farrell got them through the gate (see James Farrell) and then continues:

Even then, Kathy Gilnagh’s troubles weren’t over. She took a wrong turn … lost her friends … found herself alone on the Second-Class promenade, with no idea how to reach the boats. The deck was deserted, except for a single man leaning against the rail, staring moodily into the night. He let her stand on his shoulders, and she managed to climb to the next deck up. When she finally reached the boat deck, No. 16 was just starting down. A man warned her off – there was no more room. ‘But I want to go with my sister!’ Kathy cried … ‘All right, get in,’ he sighed, and she slipped into the boat as it dropped to the sea – another Third-Class passenger safely away.

Gilnagh described James Farrell as her ‘guardian angel’. He appears to have reached the upper decks, according to an Irish Independent report of 15 May 1912, about a letter written home by Katie  concerning the ‘sad fate of fellow-passengers from her district’:

(She) states that James Farrell of Clonee was very kind to her and another girl. As they were leaving the ill-fated vessel he gave her his cap to cover her head, and shouted ‘goodbye forever’.

An Irish Post article from 25 May 1912 records:

A County Longford survivor

Among the passengers who were saved from the ill-fated Titanic was a young lady named Miss Katie Gilnagh, of Killoe, County Longford, whose photo we reproduce. She has written to her parents in Longford giving a graphic narrative of her experience.

In her letter she states that she and another girl named McCoy were the last two girls taken on the last boat, and a young man who had previously got into the boat was taken out of it. She further states that she was wearing a small shawl on her head which got blown off, when a person named Mr James Farrell of Clonee, gave her his cap.