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

The Gilnagh sisters

As they were being lowered, he shouted: ‘Goodbye for ever’ and that was the last she saw of him.

Katie may have been identified aboard Carpathia by fellow survivor Lawrence Beesley in his 1912 book The Loss of the SS Titanic:

Among the Irish group was one girl of really remarkable beauty, black hair and deep violet eyes with long lashes, perfectly shaped features, and quite young, not more than eighteen or twenty; I think she lost no relatives on the Titanic.

Joyously welcomed by sister Molly in New York, Katie was photographed to reassure the family back home. She sat on a chair, smiling sweetly, as Molly stood protectively alongside.

Katie was born in Rhyne, County Longford, on 13 October 1894, appearing in the 1901 census as the second eldest child of parents Hugh (35) and Johanna (33) Gilnagh. Katie was aged just six, and had an elder sister Mary (7), the selfsame Molly who was waiting anxiously in New York eleven years later. Four other children listed were Ellen (5), Thomas (3), Bridget (2) and one-year-old Elizabeth.

Katie was initially assisted by the Jewish Emigrant Society in New York and was aided to the tune of $100 by the American Red Cross, which described her as an Irish domestic servant, 17 years old. She later married John J. Manning from Roscommon. Heartbreak came to Katie with the death of her brother William in 1917, while her adoring sister Molly died in 1933. Katie also lost her husband before they could grow old together. He died in April 1955, not yet 60.

She went back to Ireland only once, in 1962, on the fiftieth anniversary of the sinking, and crossed the Atlantic for only the second time in her life – this time on an airliner. Her nephew Johnny Thompson recalls that a soothing voice which came over the intercom had the opposite effect on Katie: ‘Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Smith … ’ Horribly alarmed and distressed, Katie had to be brought to the cockpit to verify that it wasn’t the same Captain Smith who was in charge on her first Atlantic journey.

Earlier that year, as a 67-year-old grandmother, Katie had attended a 50th anniversary memorial service at the Merchant Marine Institute in South Street, Manhattan. She told the Daily News of her memories of the sinking:

When we had gotten away from the ship I could see its lights but it was so dark I didn’t know what was happening. The man in the boat kept saying ‘I can see it sinking’. Then I did see it sink. It went down bow first. The water crept up to the portholes, extinguishing the lights. When it went under it made a loud frightening noise. About eight hours later we were rescued by the liner Carpathia. My relatives thought I was dead, and when I got to my sister’s house they were preparing for my funeral.

She told her family that there had been epithets about the pope on steel girders about the Titanic, written by the ‘Orangemen’ among the Belfast builders, but made no claims about seeing them herself.

Unlike other Irish survivors, Kate was not haunted by memories of Titanic and talked freely to those interested. She believed that she was spared for a reason and was intent on enjoying the years given to her after 1912. However, she never set foot on a ship again. Even when seeing off friends and family she would only ever go as far as the gangway. She died on 1 March 1971, aged 76. Her death certificate gave a date of birth at odds with Irish records (29 October 1895), making her 75 years old.

1911 census – Rhyne, Killoe, County Longford.
Hugh (46), farmer. Wife Johanna (44).
Married 18 years, ten children, nine surviving.
Mary (18), Kate (17), Ellen (15), Thomas (14), Bridget (12),
Elizabeth (11), Margaret (9), Johanna (7), Hugh (5).

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