There has been no disaster in the twentieth century quite like the sinking of the Titanic. It was peacetime; the weather conditions were perfect; the ship was the measure of man’s mastery of technology.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the April/May 2012 issue of Irish America magazine, marking the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. For more stories from the issue, click here, and for more of their coverage on the Titanic, like this exploration of its Irish roots and this look at Titanic commemorations in Ireland, click here.
The scope of the tragedy was grand not only in its raw numbers but in naming among its victims members of some of the world’s most famous families, including the Guggenheims and the Astors. Yet, there was a human scale – acts of individual heroism, gallantry and compassion, and fragments of the story of the young Irish in steerage that showed courage and generosity, luck and life-saving wit.
Few of the Irish men and women on board the Titanic were traveling in first and second class. The vast majority were in third class – young immigrants either returning from a rare trip home or journeying to America for the first time. Published accounts of the Titanic’s final night show that these young Irish passengers were thoroughly enjoying their time aboard the ocean liner before disaster struck.
In Jack Winocour’s "The Story of the Titanic, As Told by Its Survivors," Lawrence Beesley, a young English teacher traveling second class, reported: “I often noticed how the third-class passengers were enjoying every minute of the time: a most uproarious skipping game of the mixed double type was the great favorite while in and out and roundabout went a Scotchman with his bagpipes.”
Katherine Gilnagh, a seventeen-year-old girl from Co. Longford quoted in Walter Lord’s "A Night to Remember," recalled “the gay party in steerage that same last night. At one point a rat scurried across the room, the boys gave chase and the girls squealed with excitement.”
Mrs. Natalie Wick told Lord that when chunks of the fatal iceberg landed on the third-class deck space, she watched from her first-class cabin on the starboard side “as the young steerage passengers playfully threw ice at one another.”
The playfulness of the young Irish passengers was consistent with the casual attitude of other passengers during the first hour or so after the ship struck the iceberg at 11:45 p.m. It would be an hour and twenty minutes until the lifeboats were uncovered and then about two hours until the ship sank at 2:20 a.m. From the time when the full danger was realized until the moment the ship went under, the steerage passengers encountered considerably more obstacles than their fellow passengers in the cabin classes in their struggles to survive.
The Titanic was configured like other White Star liners, with the men’s steerage quarters forward and the women’s aft on the lowest passenger deck. As a result of this arrangement, the men in third class were aware that the ship was in danger long before the women. Daniel Buckley recalled how he woke up, jumped out of bed and found water on the floor. He roused his mates, who told him to get back in bed, saying “You’re not in Ireland now.” (Wyn Craig Wade, "The Titanic, End of a Dream.")
Other young Irishmen roused and went to warn the young women that they were in danger. Katherine Gilnagh told Walter Lord that it was Eugene Daly, the young piper she remembered playing “Erin’s Lament” as the Titanic left Queenstown, who alerted her that something was wrong with the ship. Katherine and her friends were among the lucky steerage passengers who were given notice of the ship’s danger. Most were not.
Senator William Alden Smith, Chairman of the Senate Committee that investigated the disaster, concluded that “the small number of steerage survivors was thus due to the fact that they got no definite warning before the ship was really doomed when most of the boats had departed.”
Even those steerage passengers who were informed of the risk were not out of danger. Gilnagh told Lord that steerage passengers were barred by the crew from access to the boat deck, which was located above the A deck. Gilnagh and her friends Kate Mullin and Kate Murphy were rescued by Jim Farrell, a man from their own county, probably Longford, who challenged the crew. “Great God, man!” he roared, “open the gate and let the girls through.” To the girls’ astonishment, the sailor meekly complied.
Farrell’s loyalty to friends from home saved the girls, but he himself perished. His body was one of the few recovered from the North Atlantic on April 24, 1912.
Gilnagh’s troubles were not over when the gate opened to the girls. She took a wrong turn, lost her friends and 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, Lifeboat No. 16 was just starting down. A man warned her off, saying that there was no more room.
“But I want to go with my sister!” Katherine cried. She had no sister, but it seemed a good way to move the man. And it worked. “All right, get in,” he sighed, and she slipped into the boat as it dropped to the sea.
Wit and luck saw Gilnagh safely away at 1:35 a.m. on the stern-most lifeboat on the port side of the Titanic. Gilnagh’s friend Kate Murphy and her sister Margaret escaped in Lifeboat 15, which left at the same time from the starboard side and carried about sixty second and third-class women and children. They too had their adventures marked by courage and luck.
Their childhood friend John Kiernan and his brother Phillip had come home to Ireland for a visit and were returning to America with their cousin Thomas McCormick. Margaret Murphy told a New York Times reporter that John came up to her on the boat deck and fastened a life belt around her, saying, “There is a chance for one of us and you take it.”
Later, Margaret and Kate Murphy would save McCormick, who had leaped overboard as the Titanic foundered. Beaten away from one partially filled lifeboat, he tried to climb aboard another boat only to be attacked again by the boat’s crew. The Murphy sisters reached into the water, grabbed McCormick, and pleaded with the sailors to let him aboard, which they reluctantly did.
Ellen Shine O’Callaghan (the grandmother of New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn), the longest-living Titanic survivor, who died in 1993 at 101, also spoke of the ruthless practices of the crew manning the lifeboats. Two versions of her story circulated in newspapers in the media frenzy following the disaster. In one, she described how four men from third class had made their way to the lifeboat in which she eventually escaped, but were forcibly removed by the officer in charge. In the other version, the four men were shot by the officer, their bodies were then thrown into the ocean. It is impossible to know how the two versions of the story emerged, and which one is correct.
Dan Buckley, the only Irish passenger and one of only three third-class passengers called to testify before the Smith Committee, also described the difficulty steerage passengers had in getting to the boat deck. A crew member threw the man ahead of him down the stairs, locked the gates and fled. The man picked himself up and smashed the lock so that Buckley and other steerage passengers could get to the boat deck. It appears that Buckley may have left in Boat 4, the last boat to leave the Titanic (1:55 a.m.). He threw a woman’s shawl over his head and jumped into the boat.
The charge that steerage passengers were allowed into the lifeboats only after cabin passengers had boarded, and that they were physically denied access to the boat deck was refuted in the Senate hearing by Titanic crewmen; however, a crew member on Boat 15 said that steerage women were accommodated only after first-class passengers. Additionally, there were fewer stewards in third class to help those in steerage make their way to the boat deck. Steward J.E. Hart testified that he had time to bring only two batches of steerage women from their quarters to the lifeboats.
Those who did safely leave the Titanic watched in horror as the ship sank and people around them struggled in the water.
Interviewed at Ellis Island, Margaret Devaney, a young woman from Co. Sligo said she recited the rosary. “For yourself?” asked the reporter. “Ah! no,” was her reply. “I never thought of myself – for those whose drowning cries I heard from the water.” She lost four friends from Ballysodare.
Arriving in New York aboard the Carpathia, which picked up the Titanic’s surviving passengers between 4:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. (and which would itself be sunk en route to America in 1918 by torpedoes from a German U-Boat), rescued steerage passengers were spared the Ellis Island ordeal and were interviewed on board ship by immigration officials. One Irish girl was asked whether she had an emigration card. “Divil a bit of a card have I,” she said, wide-eyed. “I’m lucky to have me own life.”
While these accounts of Irish survivors demonstrate their courage and compassion, other eyewitness records suggest some negative stereotypes of Irish improvidence. In "The Loss of the S.S. Titanic: Its Story and Its Lessons," Lawrence Beesley contrasted Irish and Swedish survivors:
“The Irish girls almost universally had no money. [They were] rescued from the wreck and were going to friends in New York or places near, while the Swedish passengers, among whom there were a considerable number of men, had saved the greater part of their money and in addition had railway tickets through to their destination inland. The saving of their money marked a curious racial difference for which I can offer no explanation: no doubt the Irish girls never had very much money but they must have had the necessary amount fixed by the immigration laws.”
Beesley does not tell us how the Swedish steerage passengers left the Titanic. We know how the Irish girls left. They were alerted only when the ship was close to sinking. Their access to the boat deck was obstructed if not denied, and they ran for their lives to the two remaining lifeboats.
Some observers and Titanic historians have also suggested that some of the steerage passengers who did not survive had themselves to blame. August Wennerstrom, a Swede traveling in steerage, spoke of his horror at the sight of a priest, probably Fr. Thomas Byles, an English convert traveling to officiate at his brother’s wedding, who was surrounded by those who appeared to have given themselves up to death:
“Hundreds were in a circle with a preacher in the middle, praying, crying, and asking God and Mary to help them. They lay there still crying till the water was over their heads. They just prayed and yelled never lifting a hand to help themselves.”
Picking up on Wennerstrom, Wyn Craig Wade, in "The Titanic: End of a Dream" concludes, “Undoubtedly, the most barriers were the ones within the steerage passengers themselves. Years of conditioning as third-class citizens led a great many of them to give up hope as soon as the crisis became evident.”
These accounts helped to justify the poor rate of survival among steerage passengers by suggesting that they did not help themselves. In the end it was a matter of who would share the limited resources that they had, and it came down to class.
The survivors’ statistics speak for themselves. Lord reports the losses among women passengers as:
First Class——4 of 123 (3 by choice)——-2.79%
Second Class—15 of 93———————-16.12%
Third Class—–81 of 179———————45.25%
The White Star Line issued a passenger list for those Irish who embarked at Queenstown: fifty-four men, fifty-four women and five children. Of that group, 45 men (85.18 percent), 22 women (40.74 percent) and five children (100 percent) perished.
The percentage of female survivors for the Irish cohort was slightly higher (59.26 percent) than for third-class women in general (55.75 percent), while the percentage of Irish male survivors (14.82) was barely a percent higher than the general third-class male survival of 14 percent.
Survival rates demonstrate the differences in class:
—————Women & Children——-Men
The greatest difference is the survival rates of second-class women as compared with third-class women, while the real winners appear to be the crew, who survived at rates only slightly lower than first-class passengers.
While the crew of the Titanic was cleared in the official inquiries in Washington and London, their high rate of survival and the refusal of some members of the crew manning lifeboats to pick up survivors argue that the crew put their own welfare first and that passengers, especially those in steerage, were left to fend for themselves.
With the enormous expansion of its steerage traffic on the “Big Four” liners of the 1890s, the White Star Line's fortunes were tied to the class that was least valued on the Titanic – though their tickets were the cheapest, their numbers were the greatest. Not only were these third-class passengers expendable, but they are largely unknown.
In piecing together the stories of the spunky courage of Kathy Gilnagh and the Murphy sisters and the gallantry of James Farrell and John Kiernan, we can begin to claim for these young Irish their part in the night to remember.
WORKS CITED: Lord, Walter, A Night to Remember (Bantam, 1964). Peter and Mary O’Dwyer, A History of Devotion in Ireland (Dublin: Four Court Press, 1988.) Wyn Craig Wade, The Titanic, End of a Dream (New York Penguin,1980.) Jack Winocour, The Story of the Titanic as Told by Its Survivors (New York: Dover Publications, 1960.)
*Originally published April 2012. Updated April 2021.