Saturday, March 31, 2012

An American Wake

It's amazing, when you start following up your family history, how many world events which you might have learned about in your school history suddenly become personal.

The First World War is a typical one of these. Almost everybody in Ireland who starts out tracing their family history, from rabid Republicans to West Brits, will find some relation somewhere who went to war. Some families will come up with a clatter of them. WWI had an insatiable hunger for cannon fodder.

Another event, whose 100th anniversary is coming up, is the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912. You can see the impact of this event on a sample local community, the Mayo village of Lahardane, on that community's commemorative website.

These were times of large families and high emigration, much of it to America (USA and Canada). Emigrants tended to cluster. That is to say, those from a particular parish would emigrate together as a group. When tragedy occurred it then had a disproportionate effect on certain communities. A good example in the case of the Titanic was the village of Lahardane in the parish of Addergoole, from where a group of 14 went on the Titanic; only 3 survived.

While none of those who left might ever have come back anyway, hence the "American Wake", the emigrant was never completely lost to the local community. There were always letters from America, which would be passed around all those mentioned in them. There were food and clothes parcels, which kept many a family going in times of hardship. And, of course, the remittances: money sent home when the emigrants got established in their new country. In Ireland's case there was even a special line in the national accounts for emigrants' remittances, and it was a significant line even in macro economic terms.

When it came to crossing the Atlantic, my family was more fortunate than some of those in Addergoole. My aunt Jane sailed from Cobh in 1908 on the White Star Line's then flagship the Baltic. At the time, this was the largest ship afloat, just as the Titanic was to be 4 years later.

Unlike the Titanic, the Baltic made it, and was one of the ships which radioed the Titanic an ice warning on the day the latter sank.

Jane was accompanied by a group from Ballyhaunis, her home town, and not a thousand miles from Lahardane. She settled in New York and had family, some of whom did come back to Ireland and visit. She was one of the lucky ones.


  1. My great-grandparents Thomas and Jane Butler, who lived in Belfast, were in the United States in April 1912 when the Titanic met its fate. They were visiting their eldest son who had emigrated to the US a few years earlier. Such a journey was a remarkable undertaking for persons of their relatively modest circumstances; Thomas had been a stationmaster. In April 1912, the youngest of their children, Joseph, died in Belfast of natural causes and sadly his parents were not present at his death or funeral.

  2. Thanks Felix.

    I'm sure there are Titanic survivors' support groups out there, but clearly we don't qualify.

    Maybe there should be a support group/fan club for those who were not on the Cobh/Iceberg leg of the maiden voyage, but in different circumstances might have been.

    If Father Browne had continued his journey; if your great-grandparents had travelled a little later; if my aunt had emigrated four years later; and so on.

    There are so many accidents for which such groups could be formed. For instance, my uncle was originally scheduled to be on the Staines/Brussels Trident which crashed in 1972, but missed it due to a late change of plans on his part.


  3. Donald Clarke has some interesting reflections on the centenary commemorations in the Irish Times:

    Insofar as we can judge, the Titanic Belfast Festival is, of course, not taking the mickey out of the tragedy. But the tone of frivolity that hangs around many of the events is disconcerting. Immediate descendants of the survivors still walk the planet.

  4. I had a great (great?) aunt who was due to sail on the Titanic to go into service in the USA, but luckily had to transfer to another ship.
    (By the way - I've added a link to here from my own Titanic piece.)

  5. Nice balanced piece on the commemorations by an NI born writer, including the local apologia about the ship's condition when she set out on her maiden voyage.

    Thanks for the near-miss contribution. Didn't think of your piece when doing the post above. Too self-centered.

    Incidentally my proofreading reflexes kicked in (wrongly) when I saw "wont" in your piece. Amazing how context produces reflexes. Semper vigilanda est.