The historic Costello Lodge in Casla, Co Galway once hid the taunted and despised owner of the HMS Titanic as he sought refuge in the Connemara wilderness from the backlash over his fatal decisions in the building of the ship.
J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, moved to Galway, to Costello Lodge in 1913 accompanied by his wife. There he found some relief from the ostracization he had experienced in both the UK and the US in the wake of the Titanic tragedy.
After the 1906 launches of the liners RMC Lusitania and the RMS Mauretania by White Star's primary rivals, Cunard, Ismay found that his business was no longer competitive. So Ismay undertook a massive new project, one he hoped would launch the next wave of luxury sea travel.
Three giant ships were his vision – RMS Olympic, HMS Britannic and HMS Titanic – that he hoped would attract the wealthier classes looking for perfection as they crossed the Atlantic as quickly as possible but would also be large enough to cater for the poorer classes who would fill the lower decks.
The Titanic was Ismay’s pet project. The great ship was designed to provide luxury unparalleled in the history of ocean-going steamships. In order to accomplish this, however, certain compromises were made and as the Titanic left Cobh (then known as Queenstown) in April 1912, it had on board just 16 lifeboats. Although this was the minimum allowed at the time by the UK Board of Trade, those 16 lifeboats provided insufficient space to save all those on board. As Ismay was the man who made the decision to reduce the lifeboat number from 46 to 16, in the aftermath of the tragedy he became one of the most hated men in America and Britain during the early 20th century.
It wasn't just the reduced number of lifeboats that set people against Ismay, however. He was despised for saving himself while 1,500 others died when the Titanic sank. Ismay survived by jumping into one of the lifeboats and claiming one of the precious spots for himself. It was a fateful decision, one that led to him being vilified in the media and cast as “the Coward of the Titanic” or ‘J Brute Ismay.”
When Ismay was rescued from the lifeboat, he was placed under heavy sedation and his hair was rumored to have turned white overnight from the shock of what had happened to his beloved ship, but this did not quiet the public, who wanted answers as to why such an avoidable tragedy had occurred.
Stories were soon circulating of Ismay disguising himself as a woman in order to board the lifeboat. One American politician demanded that Ismay be brought before Congress "to explain how he left hundreds of passengers to die, while he took not the last boat but the very first boat, that left the sinking ship."
Ismay fully co-operated with the congressional inquiry, but nothing could stop the jeering on the streets in both the US and the UK. London society would have nothing more to do with him and he resigned from all his company positions, hoping to disappear, as the media continued to label him as the biggest coward in history.
With his wife Julia, Ismay was to find comfort in Costello Lodge, however, and among the local people who looked upon the pair as a solid source of employment, although the locals referred to Ismay in Irish as “Brú síos mé” (‘lower me down’ i.e. into a lifeboat ). He was said by the locals to be a kind, warm-hearted man, even inquiring of the fisherman he’d fish with on a Sunday if they had had time to go to Mass.
Casla Lodge was burned down by the IRA in 1922, but the home was rebuilt on an even grander scale. Ismay remained a Connemara resident for 25 years before moving back to England after he was diagnosed with diabetes. He died in London in 1937, aged 74.
"I never want to see a ship again and I loved them so. What an ending to my life,'' he is believed to have said near the end of his life.
Julia Ismay remained in Casla after her husband’s death and she erected a monument of limestone in his honor in the garden. The inscription on the monument can still be read: “He loved all wild and solitary places where we taste the pleasure of believing what we see is boundless as we wish our souls to be…”
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* Originally published in 2016. Updated in 2022.