Everybody knows the story of the Titanic. If you’re too young (or too old) to have seen the legendary film that was one of the biggest box office hits of all time, you will definitely have come across it in many a history book. Alternatively, if you have visited Ireland any time in the last few years, you’ll know that the tragic story of the Titanic began here. Both Belfast and Cobh have strong associations with the Titanic which now draw oodles of visitors to Irish shores to see how it all began.
Titanic’s Irish History
The Titanic was built at the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast, with the initial concept beginning in 1907. The company who commissioned and operated the ship, the White Star Line, worked with Harland and Wolff to create a state of the art, no expenses spared luxury ship that would be the best the world had ever seen. They needed to compete with their biggest rivals, Cunard, Hamburg America and Norddeutscher Lloyd, all of whom had the fastest and biggest ships in the world at the time. Along with its sister ship the Olympia, the Titanic was intended to replace two older ships and would be used for trans-Atlantic passenger journeys. White Star Line gave Harland and Wolff free reign with design and as much money as they needed to finalise the concept. Once the final design was signed off, construction began in the shipyards in Belfast, then a thriving industrial city.
The Titanic was planned to be the biggest ship in the world at a massive 269 metres in length and 32 metres in height, with ten decks. When it was finished and ready to sail, it weighed 46,328 tonnes. So, naturally it posed quite the challenge for Harland and Wolff, who had to demolish three existing slipways and build two new ones to accommodate the Titanic and the Olympia, which were constructed simultaneously. Construction began in 1909 and finished in 1912: the hull was put in place first, with the keel acting as a backbone while 2,000 steel plates were laid down. The whole structure was held together with over 3 million iron and steel rivets, hammered in by hand. Health and safety was not as strict then as it is now, and with so much metal and handwork, casualties were inevitable. During the construction of the two ships there were 246 injuries, 28 of which were ‘severe’ (usually resulting in limb amputations), and six deaths, one of which occurred just before the launch.
Once the ‘shell’ of the ship was finished, it was towed out to the river Lagan to be fitted out with engines, funnels and the various interior aspects that made it a functioning passenger ship. The next step was sea trials, when a full crew took the ship into Belfast Lough and then further into the Irish Sea to make sure it was seaworthy. It was returned to Belfast harbour one last time before setting out on its first official voyage to Southhampton to pick up passengers and set off across the Atlantic.
Having picked up the majority of its passengers in Southhampton, Titanic then stopped off in Cherbourg in northern France and its last port of call before its fateful end, Cobh in county Cork – then known as Queenstown. The dock facilities in Cobh’s harbour were not big enough to accommodate the ship, so tenders were used to bring the 113 third class passengers and 7 second class passengers on board. Another 7 people also disembarked the ship at Cobh, including a stoker named John Coffey who quite possibly made the luckiest escape in history: he sneaked off the ship by hiding under mail bags that were being delivered to the shore. At 1.30pm on Thursday 11th April, the world got its last look at the magnificent ship as it set sail for New York from Cobh on its maiden and only voyage.
Why did the Titanic really sink?
Of course, everyone knows the answer to this question – it hit an iceberg! However, the Titanic was a state of the art ship built by the biggest and best construction company in the world at the time. No other ship of its kind had ever had such a disastrous end; one German ship had even hit an iceberg in a head-on collision and managed to survive and complete the journey. Needless to say, people were shocked to hear of the disaster.
In actual fact, it’s not very surprising that the Titanic met such a catastrophic end. Contrary to popular belief, however, this was not because of faulty construction. Harland and Wolff used the most innovative technology in the industry at the time, only top grade materials and craftsmen, and tested the ship relentlessly for any potential problems before letting it became officially seaworthy. Although nobody ever outright stated that it was unsinkable, the general consensus from everyone was that it was.
If anything, what sunk the Titanic was inadequate protocols and the bad health and safety regulations of the time. The captain had been warned by other ships in the area to steer clear due to masses of floating ice, but the procedure for many ships at that time was to carry on at full speed regardless, because time-keeping was a major priority and ice was really just frozen water, after all! It was also commonplace for ships to use lookout men at various points to spot oncoming obstacles, and while the Titanic did use these, the human eye just isn’t up to scratch in the dark – not when compared with today’s technology at least. Finally, the lifeboats on board could only cater for a third of the ship’s total population, because the belief at the time was that the biggest risk of nautical accidents was when ships were close to land, where other boats would be readily available to assist in rescue operations; the chances of anything happening when crossing an empty and endless ocean were, for the people of the early 20th century at least, minimal.
Lastly, the crew had not been adequately briefed on emergency procedures as delays in the ship’s construction had led to a last-minute rush to finish it in time for its maiden voyage. When the time came to transport passengers to the lifeboats, they had no idea how many people could safely fit in each. Had all of the above been different, the Titanic may not have had such a bad collision, most likely would not have sank as quickly as it did, and there would most definitely have been many more survivors.
The fate of Irish Titanic Passengers
In total there were 32 Irish born people on the Titanic and a further 117 people who had been residing in Ireland (i.e Irish people who couldn’t prove their citizenship or were raised but not born there) when it set off. Almost all of them were third class passengers, many of whom were either emigrating to America or returning there having made short trips home to visit family. As has been well documented, the class system was firmly in place on the Titanic, even when it came to sinking. Lifeboats were reserved for first and second class passengers while third class passengers were largely left to fend for themselves – particularly the men, as women and children were a rescue priority. Unfortunately, this meant that there weren’t many Irish survivors. However, the ones that did make it out alive certainly have some interesting stories.
The most amazing of the Irish survivor stories has to be Violet Jessop, who worked as a stewardess on Titanic. Not only did she survive its sinking, she also miraculously made it out of two other White Star Line shipwrecks – the Olympic in 1911 and the Britannica in 1916. A 19-year old from Longford named Thomas McCormack had another extremely lucky escape. After landing in the chilling water having jumped off the boat, he attempted to get on board two lifeboats over the course of 80 minutes. On both occasions he was beaten on the head and hands by crewmen until two sisters pulled him aboard and sat on him so he could not be thrown back into the sea. One story from a not so lucky Irish passenger, Jeremiah Burke from Glanmire in Cork, is particularly poignant. While the ship was sinking, he allegedly wrote ‘From Titanic. Good bye all. Burke of Glanmire, Cork’, on a piece of paper, stuck in a bottle and threw it from the deck. It supposedly washed up on shore only a mile from his hometown.
Titanic Attractions in Ireland
There is so much more to the Titanic story than the short summary above, so if you happen to be in Belfast or Cobh, a trip to any of the following places is well worth a visit.
Titanic Belfast: Belfast has a dedicated Titanic Quarter that has been developed on the site where the ship was built. The premier visitor attraction in the city, Titanic Belfast, is an insightful look into the construction of the ship, its sumptuous interiors, many more incredible passenger stories and of course, lots of artefacts from the ship itself.
Titanic Pump and Dock House: Also in Belfast in the Titanic Quarter, you can see the actual dock where the Titanic was built from the ground up. Apart from the wreck itself deep at the bottom of the ocean, it’s the biggest remaining evidence of the Titanic itself. The dry dock is the largest ever constructed, and is still exactly as it would have been when the men were working on the Titanic.
Titanic Experience Cobh: The Titanic Experience in Cobh is the newest Irish Titanic attraction, opening in 2012 for the 100th anniversary of the sinking. Situated in the original offices of the White Star Line, it tells the story of the ship with cinematic shows, scene sets, holographic imagery and touch screen technology.