One hundred years ago, a seventeen year old Irish boy stood on the docks of Belfast and watched a newly-constructed ship depart for its maiden voyage to New York. The boy wanted to be on that enormous ship and change his world, which at the time was the typically bleak existence of a young Irish Catholic in the north of Ireland (the country we today refer to as “Northern Ireland” came into existence years later).
The ship was the Titanic, and the boy was very fortunate that he couldn’t afford a ticket and was forced to watch the gigantic ship recede into the horizon, only a few days away from its tragic destiny. The boy’s momentary misfortune also proved to be very fortunate for me, his grandson.
I was always fascinated that my grandfather saw the Titanic as it was being built in Belfast. Growing up, I was drawn to books about the disaster, and still remember him telling stories about the ship. He couldn’t work in the dangerous shipbuilding yard itself, which was perhaps another hidden blessing, because he was Catholic, and the Harland and Wolff shipbuilding operation was largely a Protestant affair. Many Catholics found jobs supporting the construction project in other ways however. In the case of my grandfather, he got a job as a grocer’s apprentice near the shipyard and brought food to the workers.
There were other ways that the complexities of the northern Irish political situation were at play during the construction process. My grandfather told me about how anti-papacy graffiti was written on the hull of the ship while it was being constructed, and he still recalled a graffiti rejoinder that also was written on the hull: “Whoever wrote this wrote it well. Now he stands at the gates of hell”.
Although my grandfather said that a number of Catholics believed the anti-Catholic graffiti was what doomed the ship, it is clear that a combination of bad luck and hubris – not papal retribution –was the cause of the disaster. The Titanic was commonly thought to be unsinkable, and the captain himself remarked that the days of ships sinking in the ocean were a thing of the past. The satirical publication “The Onion” issued a book some years ago with a number of faux headlines from the twentieth century. Their headline for April 15, 1912, was: “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg: Titanic, Representation of Man’s Hubris, Sinks in North Atlantic”.
Like many avoidable tragedies, the Titanic disaster ushered in significant regulation and improved safety standards, and it is interesting to note that for the remaining years of passenger service on ocean vessels there was never a similar disaster. Its sister ship, the Britannic, struck a mine and sank in Greece in November of 1916, but although the ship had over 1,000 passengers and sank faster than the Titanic, only 30 people perished largely due to much improved lifeboat capacity and practices.
The current record of safe maritime and air travel is enviable. It is safer to fly in a commercial plane in a thunderstorm than drive your car on a sunny day. However, history shows that safety is a combination of designing redundant systems, strong regulation and inspection, and responsible people and processes. Just when we are tempted to believe that we have moved beyond the days of maritime disasters, we are confronted with pictures of the cruise liner Costa Concordia, which is still lying on its side off the coast of Italy.
Today’s air industry borrows many of the traditions and vocabulary of earlier maritime eras. The fact that airlines today separate passengers by “class” would seem ridiculous to all of us if we weren’t already used to the vocabulary.
But class was very much a part of early twentieth century life, and the Titanic was no different. As it turned out however, the scope of the disaster was so large that money couldn’t guarantee safety. The body of its richest passenger, John Jacob Astor, was later recovered with over two thousand dollars in his pocket. Of the twenty-two hundred people on board, over fifteen hundred people lost their lives in the tragedy. A century later, the numbers continue to stagger.
As for my young grandfather, two years after watching the Titanic depart without him, he jumped on a last-second opportunity to board a ship bound for Ellis Island, and with little more than a hope and a prayer he headed for a new life in a new world.
Published April, 2012 as the world marked the 100 year anniversary of the Titanic disaster.