FEW people are lucky enough to be able to pin point exactly where their ancestors where 100 years ago to the day the Titanic sunk, or what they were doing.
I am one of the fortunate ones – as in my efforts to trace my family tree, I unearthed a bittersweet love story, a brush with a world-famous tragedy and a tale of immigration that resonates with all Irish people who have made their home in Yorkshire over the past centuries.
It is, in all senses, a story of ships that pass in the night.
My image of my grandmother, Margaret Boyle, née Martin, was of an old woman with her fine grey hair scraped back in a bun. A widow for many years, she dressed in the regulation black and white of her generation with the occasional navy blue thrown in as a nod to high days and holidays.
When we stayed at the family farm outside Milltown, Co Galway, in the 1960s and 1970s, she wore workman-like black boots and I’d stare at them thinking back in Wakefield, I didn’t know any women who wore such footwear.
Life halted at 6pm in her bungalow as Irish TV played the Angelus – the prayer of devotion traditionally recited in devout Catholic households three times a day. My grandmother stopped whatever she was doing and prayed. I also recall her kneeling at her bedside and praying every night before she got into bed with me.
Her careworn face was lined and tanned – probably from years of running the farm, raising her seven children, caring for a disabled husband and tending the orphaned children on the neighbouring farm.
But though the top of her back was stooped as age took hold, her blue eyes always had a twinkle in them. Today, her story would probably register as shocking. Back then, and in the harsh times of life in the first half of the 1900s, it was undoubtedly one replicated in all Ireland’s counties.
Occasionally, it would be mentioned that Margaret had been to America as a young woman. And more shockingly, she had been due to sail on the Titanic, joining the hundreds with a third class ticket hoping it would transport them to a better life across the Atlantic.
It was a story I never, regrettably, asked her about. But it is said that on the anniversary of the ship’s sinking she would never talk about it and would feel ill.
I have spent years researching my family tree – long before the internet – and my doggedness helped me get quite far back on my mother’s Mayo-based Costello and Leitrim-rooted McPartland lineage.
The Boyle and Martin (my paternal grandmother’s maiden name) side was not looked at seriously until the past two years.
But as I garnered information, it made me reassess the old woman staring stoically into the camera in our family photos and see through fresh eyes the once beautiful young woman she was.
Since the 1840 famine, Irish people were forced to leave their homeland to survive. They really only had two choices – America or England. And so my ancestors emigrated to both lands. By 1890, two of every five Irish-born people were living abroad. By the end of the century the population of Ireland had almost halved, and it never regained its pre-famine level. Second and third generations of my family settled in Yorkshire working in the mills, mines and construction industry. My maternal grandfather Patrick Costello recalls the sign “No Irish Need Apply” displayed at several Wakefield boarding establishments. Over half of my ancestors went to the US. Margaret was the seventh of 12 children born to Thomas and Ellen Martin, on a small farmstead in Irishtown, Co Mayo.
When the brown-haired young woman, just 20, decided to try for a new life in America, where at least three siblings had already emigrated, she and another local girl, Celia Sheridan, paid £7 for their steerage class tickets and were booked to sail along with the 120 other Irish folk on April 11, 1912 on the Titanic.
Thanks to Celia being late leaving her family home, the duo missed the boat – finally leaving 24 hours later on the SS Celtic.
Though she never discussed her brush with that fateful journey, you do think she must have put herself in the place of those who perished on the ship that night. Her chances of survival were slim with 44 per cent of steerage passengers dying. However, when the “unsinkable” Titanic careered into an iceberg, Margaret was fast asleep in her cabin 700 miles away.
News of the sinking – in which 1,517 passengers died and 700 saved – was kept from the Celtic passengers. And so as Margaret was among the first passengers to sail into New York on April 20, docking in the very bay the Titanic should have been in, it must have been a gloomy New World she entered.
But she must have thought how lucky she was to have missed the ship, in the very saddest sense. She went on to a new life – working as a maid in Hartford, Connecticut, for a prosperous family. It was while in America, she posed for a handsome black and white photo with her siblings and their spouses. The family story then goes that she won a prize of a trip to Ireland – so she went home – and in 1923, she wed my grandfather Michael Boyle, a man older than herself.
It was thought to be an arranged match. After fathering seven children, the youngest being twins, Michael succumbed to arthritis – so severe that my own father Michael could never recall seeing his father walk. And so Margaret’s effort to carve out a new life in the bright New World ended not as maybe she hoped. But the redoubtable Margaret coped with her lot in Galway, staying on the small farm and watched – as countless other families had to – three sons and three daughters leave for the UK and US, the youngest staying behind to run the family farm.
After my gran’s death – at the great age of 92 in 1982 – her wedding ring and Michael’s ring were passed to her daughter Mary, in Philadelphia. It is now left to us, the ancestors she left behind, to ponder how different life would have been if Margaret Martin had boarded the Titanic.