On this day, 11th April, in 1912, Titanic departed from it's final embarkation point; Queenstown, in County Cork, Ireland. She set sail across the Atlantic Ocean, heading for New York. It was in Queenstown where the characters in my novel The Girl Who Came Home boarded Titanic. For the next five days, I will share an extract from the novel to provide a sense of life on board Titanic and both during and after the tragic sinking.
Private journal of Maggie Murphy
RMS Titanic, 11th April, 1912. Day 1 at sea.
With the ‘Ireland’ in front of ours, the two tender boats left the wharf then, chugging back along the waterfront of Queenstown, passing the White Star Wharf again. We each blessed ourselves with the sign of the cross as we sailed past the Cathedral, and a tall man standing just near to me began to play ‘A Nation Once Again’ on his Uilleann pipes. He played well and the gathered passengers sang along and clapped when he finished. He smiled at me and played ‘Spancil Hill’ then, a sadder tune which made some people cry. I didn’t look at any of our group, afraid that I would take to weeping again if I did.
As we moved further away from the wharf, the boat became quieter. The men shuffled their feet and the women cuddled their children into them or stared into the distance. Everyone had their own private thoughts at that moment; mine were of Séamus and the time we had danced at Maura and Jack Brennans’ wedding. I wondered if he was thinking of me at all.
The boats then turned a bend in the channel, and that was when we saw her.
All that could be heard were gasps. The piper stopped his playing altogether.
Not one person spoke, stunned into silence by the towering mass of this ship which was anchored in the waters before us. I have never, and doubt that I will ever again, witness a sight so astonishing.
Some of our group, who have travelled on steam liners before, seemed less impressed than the rest of us who have rarely seen a row boat on Loch Conn, but I even heard Aunt Kathleen comment on how large and magnificent the ship appeared.
As our now tiny tender ‘America’ pulled alongside the wall of steel, a door opened in the side of the ship and a gangway was lowered. At the top of the gangway were the ticket inspectors and the doctors who carried out the health inspections. Slowly, we started to make our way up the gangplank, not one of us able to stop ourselves from craning our necks to take in the height of the decks and masts soaring high, high into the clouds above. I didn’t want to look down; didn’t want to see the swell of the ocean under my feet.
There was a delay in the inspection line ahead and I heard another passenger tell their friend that a girl up ahead had a rash and was being refused entry. Then I saw who the person was. It was the Mayo girl I had spoken to on the wharf; the girl who was going to join her brothers. As she walked back down the gangway, sobbing, I heard a crew member explain to her that she would have to travel on another ship when her rash was healed. ‘The Celtic sails tomorrow miss and the Oceanic next week. A few days won’t make much of a difference.’ I wanted to call to her but didn’t even know her name. My heart was so sorry for her and I hope she can board the Celtic tomorrow.
We waited more anxiously then for our own inspections, wondering what would happen if one of us was to be turned away. The doctors examined our eyes and our hair and checked our faces and hands. All fourteen of us passed with a clean bill of health and finally, one by one, we stepped onto the deck of the ship which would take us to America.
As we boarded, I noticed a priest leaving the boat. He had a camera in his hands. I thought it strange that he was getting off here – surely there were less expensive ways to travel from Southampton to Cork? He continued to take pictures as he walked down the gangplank and as he stepped aboard the tender we had just left. He seemed interested in the long line of us waiting for our health inspections and in the mailbags being loaded onto Titanic and unloaded from her onto the tender. He must have sensed me staring at him anyway, because he turned at the bottom of the gangway and caught my eye. ‘She is a magnificent ship miss,’ he said to me. ‘God bless you and keep you safe.’
Ellen Joyce told me later that she’d actually seen a man hiding among the mailbags to be taken back to Queenstown – a stoker or a boiler man she said, judging by his dress and the muck on his face. She claims she saw him walking off Titanic and covering himself with the grey mailbags. ‘I saw him and he saw me,’ she said as we waited in line. ‘He had the fear of God in his eyes – he looked like a man who was running away from something. Maybe he was in trouble.’ When I watched the tender chug back to the quayside, I wondered what the man was running from and hoped that it was for good reason he didn’t want to sail to New York.
The passengers who had already boarded in England and France watched us from the decks above, and from benches and seating areas scattered around the deck we stood on. We were the new arrivals. I felt as though we had arrived late to a grand party. These people had already been aboard for a day and looked comfortable in their surroundings. An old lady smiled at me as we followed a steward who was to show us to our cabins. I smiled back and swapped my case into my right hand, the left growing tired of the weight. The steward noticed.
‘Let me take that for you miss,’ he said, taking the case from me. ‘You’ve probably carried that case far enough already.’
I smiled, relieved to have the bulky case out of my hands and no longer banging against my shins which were black and blue by now from heaving it across half of Ireland. He had a kind face and I noticed the shiny new crew member badge on his arm. Number 23, whatever that meant.
Our cabins are quite fine. Ours is number 115. There are four beds; two bunk beds. Me and Peggy have the two top bunks and Aunt Kathleen and Katie have the two bottom ones. They all have proper mattresses and are as comfortable as any bed I have ever slept in. There is a hand wash basin in the cabin itself with two White Star Line hand towels hanging from a silver hook on either side. There is even a bar of White Star Line soap for us to use! We have placed our cases under the bottom bunks but I have kept the packet of letters from Séamus in my coat pocket and my coat is folded up at the foot of my own bed.
When we were settled, the steward, Harry is his name, showed us where the life jackets were kept and took us up to see one of the sixteen lifeboats. Pat said the lifeboat was almost as big as the tender we had just left and how could anyone imagine that a ship could be built which was big enough to hold sixteen of them? Pat is like a child walking around this ship, he has the poor steward’s ear half bent off by asking so many questions about it!
We set sail at 1.30pm according to Ellen’s gleaming, gold watch which she takes out to tell the time at every possible opportunity. The thrust of the engines sent a shudder through my bones and a steady vibration through the wooden benches we were sitting on in the General Room. Realising we were setting sail, we all rushed back out to the deck, eager to catch a last glimpse of Ireland.
Our excitement faded then and we stood for a long while at the white railings at the stern of the ship, silently watching our homeland fade from view, each crashing wave taking us further away from everyone we loved and everything we knew.
The man with the Uilleann pipes stood next to me for a good while, but neither of us spoke.
She’s a mighty fine land,’ he said eventually, ‘you should be very proud to have known her, wherever life might take you.’
I turned to him. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Yes, I am. Very proud indeed.’ I remember feeling for the precious packet of letters in my coat pocket, still bound by their packaging and string. Grasping them and my rosary beads, I said a silent prayer.
Titanic followed the coastline of Ireland for the rest of the afternoon, past Old Kinsale Head and on, following the cliffs and the mountains. We returned to our cabins now and again, coming back up to the deck occasionally to catch a last glimpse of our country. The sun was setting as the boat turned to head out across the ocean and we were silent once again as Ireland’s coastline faded into the sea mist and was obscured from view.
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