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Archives show human tragedy and truth behind Titanic sinking

National Library of Ireland resources give Irish perspective on shipping disaster which has its centenary in April this year.

La Lecon du Titanic: This illustration from Le Petit Journal, a Parisian newspaper, in June 1912, shows that safety lessons were learned following the sinking of the Titanic.
La Lecon du Titanic: This illustration from Le Petit Journal, a Parisian newspaper, in June 1912, shows that safety lessons were learned following the sinking of the Titanic.
Image: National Library of Ireland

Áine Finegan is a reference team student at the National Library of Ireland. As this year marks the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912, she writes about how the NLI’s archive and online resources give an Irish perspective on a disaster which continues to intrigue.

THE STORY OF the Titanic has strong links to Ireland, having been built in Belfast by Harland and Wolff and making her final stop in Cobh (formerly Queenstown), Co Cork. Around 120 Irish passengers travelled on the doomed ship, many of whom were emigrating to North America in search of new beginnings. In addition to passengers, a number of Titanic staff and key figures onboard were Irish, such as the ship’s designer Thomas Andrews and the infamous stewardess Violet Jessop, who survived the sinking of both the Titanic and its sister ship the Britannic.

Browsing the online Irish Newspaper Archives (available to all readers when you visit the NLI), it is clear from the level of newspaper coverage of the disaster how much attention the sinking received in Ireland. Lists of surviving passengers and crew members were a key source of information for anxious families waiting for news.

For a more personal perspective on the tragedy, Roger Casement’s letters to Gertrude Bannister from Belfast on the 20 and 23 of April 1912 give us an indication of how prominent the fate of the Titanic was in the public mind; “Nobody talks of Home Rule … as everyone is thinking of the ‘Titanic’ … This dreadful ‘Titanic’ disaster overhangs all minds here in Belfast.” (NLI Ms. 31,725). Indeed the sinking was referred to at the Home Rule National Convention a fortnight after the sinking, with John Redmond expressing the sympathies of the Irish Parliamentary Party to all those affected. (Letters, photos, documents, etc. by and about Roger Casement, John Redmond and many other key figures in the Easter Rising are all available to view in our online exhibititionThe 1916 Rising: Personalities and Perspectives.)

I was curious to see if the findings of the British Parliamentary inquiry into the sinking would have information on the experiences of Irish passengers onboard the Titanic. Presented to the British Parliament in July 1912 with the catchy title Shipping casualties (loss of the steamship “Titanic”). Report of a formal investigation into the circumstances attending the foundering on 15th April, 1912, of the British steamship “Titanic”, of Liverpool, after striking ice in or near latitude 410 46′ N., Longitude 500 14′ W., North Atlantic Ocean, whereby loss of life ensued, this report aimed to understand how the disaster unfolded and what measures could be taken to safeguard against future tragedies at sea.

The British Parliament report claimed that third class passengers “were not unfairly treated”

The vast majority of Irish passengers travelling on the Titanic were travelling in third class and the story of their evacuation being prevented until it was too late is well known to us today, but the British Parliamentary report found that the low rate of survival among third class passengers was accounted for “by the great reluctance of the third class passengers to leave the ship [and] by their unwillingness to part with their baggage”. In response to rumours that the third class passengers had been discriminated against, the report states with no ambiguity that “They were not unfairly treated”, thus dismissing all accusations of prejudice against those in the lower decks.

It all makes for fascinating reading and you can access this report online when you visit the NLI through the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers online. (This HCPP resource allows you to access Parliamentary Papers from 1801 to 2003/04 and Hansard from 1803-2005 online!)

Finally, if you’re looking to learn about individual Irish passengers and crew on the Titanic, Senan Molony’s book The Irish Aboard Titanic is a fascinating read. It features amazing tales of survival and tragedy, such as the account of 21-year-old Daniel Buckley, who managed to escape on a lifeboat after being disguised with a woman’s shawl, only to be killed in action on the French-Belgian border shortly before the end of World War I.

Another standout story is of a message-in-a-bottle which was reportedly washed up near the Cork home of Jeremiah Burke, a 19-year-old who did not survive the disaster. The message simply said “From Titanic. Good Bye all. Burke of Glanmire, Cork”. His family believed it to be genuine and still possess it today.

Even one hundred years after the event, the story of the Titanic is such a universally well-known one that we may perhaps feel we’ve heard it all before. However, exploring primary resources like contemporary newspapers and Parliamentary reports give us a new perspective on the memorable events of April 1912.

The following images appear courtesy of the National Library of Ireland:

Archives show human tragedy and truth behind Titanic sinking
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  • La Lecon du Titanic

    Safety lessons were learned from the Titanic sinking, according to this June 1912 supplement from Le Petit Journal, a Parisian newspaper.
  • Sunday Independent 21 April 1912

    A report on some of the survivors of the Titanic sinking on 21 April 1912.
  • Shipping casualties

    Title page of the British Parliamentary report on the sinking of the Titanic.
  • Ballad lamentation on the loss of the Titanic

    This is one of the vast selection of street ballads held by the NLI. The illustration is probably the only block of a ship that the printer had and is inappropriate to represent what was the most modern ship in the world at the time.

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About the author:

Áine Finegan

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