Category Archives: Irish History

“They froze to death, their hands frozen onto the oars”

Fanad Head Lighthouse guarding the entrance to Lough Swilly, County Donegal, Ireland. (Thesilvervoice).

Fanad Head Lighthouse guarding the entrance to Lough Swilly, County Donegal, Ireland. (Thesilvervoice).

 

Fanad Head lighthouse features regularly on social media because of its splendid location. Whilst it is a major tourist attraction, it has also featured in some dreadful tragedies over the years. One such was the loss of the Laurentic on this day in 1917.

The Laurentic (Wikipedia commons) The Laurentic was an ocean-going liner of the White Star Line and,like their other world famous ship the Titanic, was built at Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. Launched in 1908 she was considered a ‘magnificent ship’ at 570 feet long and she could ‘do’ speed! She plied the Atlantic operating a regular service between Liverpool and Canada, sometimes calling in New York. In August  1914 before the declaration of World War 1, she was filled with refugees fleeing the European situation. In September of that year she was commissioned as a troop carrier for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and subsequently saw service in Sierra Leone, Hong Kong and Singapore.

On 23 January 1917 she departed Liverpool for Halifax, Nova Scotia, with about 479 people on board. In addition she was carrying a cargo of 3,211 gold bars for the purpose of purchasing munitions in USA and Canada for the war effort.

On 25 January she made an unscheduled stop in Lough Swilly at Buncrana  to disembark a number of men who had contracted Yellow Fever and needed medical attention. While there, it was reported that the officers went ashore to enjoy a meal at the Lough Swilly Hotel and they were all back on board again by about 5 pm to set sail across the Atlantic. They headed out of Lough Swilly and no doubt Fanad Head lighthouse was one of the last things they saw. The weather was bitterly cold at -13c (9f) with blizzard conditions.

Less than an hour after departing Buncrana, the Laurentic struck two German mines in quick succession. The engine room was disabled, power and pumps were rendered useless and the ship listed. Many were killed. In pitch darkness the life boats were launched with some difficulty due to the list. The Laurentic quickly sank in 40 metres of water. Many had been injured as a result of the blasts and those who made the lifeboats rowed for Fanad Head. Newspaper reports stated that many were found “frozen to death in the lifeboats, hands frozen onto oars”.  Buncrana’s Lough Swilly Hotel became a temporary morgue, but many bodies continued to be washed ashore for a number of weeks.

71 were interred at St. Maura’s Graveyard in Fahan, 2 at Cockhill in Buncrana, 1 in Arklow, 1 in Orkney and Memorials to those who died are at various locations including Plymouth in Devon, Chatham in Kent. The wreck that lies in 40 metres of water off Fanad Head is an official War grave site.

And what of the 3,211  gold bars? Between 1917 and 1924 the Royal Navy recovered all but 25 of them. In 1934, 3 more were discovered, so 22 remain undiscovered.

At Downings  pier in north Donegal, near my home village, is one of the guns from the Laurentic, recovered by the Downings Diving  team and presented to them by the owners of the wreck.

A gun recovered from the wreck of the Laurentic. Sited at Downings Pier in County Donegal.

A gun recovered from the wreck of the Laurentic, sited  at Downings Pier in County Donegal. (Thesilvervoice)

Next to the gun is a handsome memorial to the 354 men who lost their lives on that bitterly  cold January evening, 100 years ago this very evening.

 

2013-05-19-12-53-11A memorial cannot portray the true horror that unfolded on that January evening, just off Fanad Head. But next time I pass it by, I will recall those who “froze to death, their hands frozen onto the oars”.

References

http://www.irishshipwrecks.com/shipwrecks.php?wreck_ref=128

Wikipedia.

http://www.irishfreemasonry.com/index.php?p=1_112_HMS-Laurentic

List of burial/ memorial sites:

http://irishfreemasonry.com/list%20of%20burial%20sites.pdf

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Filed under Ireland, Irish History, Shipping disasters Ireland, Shipwrecks

Discovering landmarks and Family History on Blacksod Bay, County Mayo

Continuing along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, rain and low grey cloud were my only companions as I headed into this remote Irish-speaking part of County Mayo. Although visibility was reduced it was still possible to enjoy some lovely sights. The Irish-only road signs were something of a challenge at first, even though I am used to our bilingual signs here in Ireland and Irish-only signs in Donegal, and other Gaeltacht areas, these places were not familiar to me. However, once I figured out that ‘An Fod Dubh’ meant ‘Blacksod’ and that therefore ‘Chuan and Fhóid Duibh’ was Blacksod Bay, I chugged along happily in the beautiful Mullet Peninsula that protects Blacksod Bay from the worst of the Atlantic weather.

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Trá Oilí or Elly Beach

This eye catching beach is one of many big sandy beaches in the area. It sports the Blue Flag, one of the world’s most recognised eco-labels, indicating that it complies with a specific set of criteria on water quality, information points, environmental education, safety and beach management. Raining or not, this is a good beach for swimming!

Tír Sáile – the North Mayo Sculpture Trail –is the largest public arts project ever undertaken in Ireland.  Several of these sites are located here on the Mullet peninsula. This work is entitled ‘Deirbhile’s Twist’ and I like that it was formed by raising large granite boulders already lying around on the ground and arranging them into an eye catching feature. This is located at Falmore which is a beautiful location, even in the mist!

Saint Deirbhile (Dervilla) is a local saint who arrived at Falmore in the 6th Century. Arriving by donkey she was pursued by an unwanted suitor who,so the story goes, was very attracted to her beautiful eyes. Rather drastically she plucked them out to discourage him and he left, heartbroken. Water gushed from the spot where her eyes fell and after bathing her sockets her sight was restored. The ruins of her convent are here near the seashore with Deirbhile’s Well nearby. Modern day pilgrims believe that water from the well can help cure eye complaints and they come here for special devotion on August 15 each year.

Ruins of Dervilla's Monastery

Ruins of Dervilla’s Convent

And then on to the site I was particularly interested in – Blacksod weather station, situated at the end of the peninsula.

This is Blacksod Lighthouse, looking very unlike a traditional lighthouse, perched atop an old granite building that dates from 1864. This is a very significant place because it was from here that a weather report issued on 3rd June 1944 changed the course of history. The World War 2 D-Day landings scheduled for June 5th were delayed because of the hourly weather report lodged by Irish Coast Guardsman and lighthouse keeper Ted Sweeney, which indicated that there would be adverse conditions in the English Channel for the following few days. Blacksod was of particular significance because it was the first land-based observation station in Europe where weather readings could be professionally taken on the prevailing European Atlantic westerly weather systems. Ted’s report on June 3rd mentioned a rapidly falling barometer and strong winds which would have augured badly for the planned invasion. A further report from Ted at 12pm on June 4, said ‘heavy rain and drizzle cleared, cloud at 900 feet and visibility on land and sea very clear’. This meant that better weather was on the way for the south of England, and so Operation Overlord went ahead on June 6th 1944 with calm clear conditions in the English Channel.

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Plaque at Blacksod Lighthouse

There is a nice little harbour alongside the lighthouse, Termon Pier, which was almost totally deserted when I was there with only rain and wind to be heard and seen and a few currachs pulled up out of the water.

Winds were picking up the rain was relentless so it was time to leave. I was delighted that I had made the trip out here and discovered a few sights, in spite of the conditions.  Suddenly there was an incredible noise that almost deafened me and for the life of me I could not figure out what on earth it was.  On turning round I saw a helicopter had just taken off from right beside me, as  there is a Helicopter Landing base beside the Lighthouse!

A helicopter lifts off

A helicopter lifts off.

I left here very pleased with my foray into this area, and with the few treasures I had discovered. However, the Mullet Peninsula had one more surprise in store as not far along the road I  came upon Ionad Naomh Deirbhile, a local Visitor and Heritage Centre.

img_1292Although they were about to close I was invited in for tea and a homemade scone and here discovered the story of The Tuke Fund assisted emigrants. It is not always recognized that hunger in Ireland did not end with the famines of 1845- 1852 and 1879. Hunger and deprivation were a fact of life in poorer districts of the western seaboard in particular, with hundreds of families needing relief into the mid 1880s and beyond. James Hack Tuke (1819-1896) was an English Quaker who made it his mission to aid people suffering from starvation and deprivation in the West of Ireland. One of the features of the Tuke Fund assisted migration was that only entire families would be facilitated, thereby freeing up smallholdings for another family. The emigrants were provided with the fare and money to enable them settle in their new locations.  In 1883 and 1884, 3,300 emigrants left North West Mayo and Achill, boarding ships in Blacksod Bay.  They sailed on 10 separate voyages, for Boston and Quebec. There are impressive storyboards at the centre, where descendants of those who left here almost 140 years ago are welcomed. One such family arrived while I was there. It is reckoned that over 2 million people are descended from these North Mayo emigrants

The research on the Blacksod Tuke Emigration scheme was carried out by Rosemarie Geraghty, I believe for her thesis. Rosemarie has researched the 10 ships manifests that carried these families to their new lives in what she describes as the time of the  ‘forgotten famine’  and is absolutely delighted when descendants arrive here in search of their roots. I asked her what the charges are for family research and she said ‘They left here with nothing, we are never going to charge them to know where they came from.’ Rosemarie is ably assisted by Norah Cawley, a superb scone maker who makes visitors feel very welcome indeed. I have been to many a family research centre before, but never one like this – with such enthusiasm, warmth,  passion  and great scone making!

All of this information with family names  is available free to view, and is searchable under various headings, at http://www.blacksodbayemigration.ie . They just love to hear from anyone wherever in the world whose ancestors may have left this beautiful place over 130 years ago.

On what was a miserable wet grey cloudy day, how lucky was I to discover such wonderful silver linings at the Mullet Peninsula and on the shores of Blacksod Bay!  More treasures of the Wild Atlantic Way – Beidh mé arais arís!

 

St Deirbhile Stained Glass window at the Centre.

St Deirbhile Stained Glass window at the Centre.

References

http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/how-blacksod-lighthouse-changed-the-course-of-the-second-world-war-30319681.html

http://www.blacksodbayemigration.ie/

http://www.museumsofmayo.com/deirbhile.htm

 

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Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Family History, Ireland, Ireland and the World, Irish Countryside, Irish Diaspora, Irish History, Mayo Emigrants

Postcards from the Wild Atlantic Way:Easkey County Sligo

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Killybegs Fishing Fleet without ‘the ship from hell’

 

Expert Fisher

Fishing expert

Travelling along the Wild Atlantic Way there are many ‘side stories’ that grab attention. Such is the case in Killybegs in South Donegal. Killybegs is Ireland’s largest fishing port, the safe sheltered deep water harbour  located in the waters of Donegal Bay.

Two things surprise me…the sheer size of these boats that go hunting fish for our tables, and the sheer number of them in the harbour, that are not at sea. They are big and they are colourful, and presumably in harbour as they may have already taken their quota of a particular species as allowed under European rules, or because the species they fish may not in season. The size of these boats would make you wonder all the same how long the seas can continue to produce the huge quantities of fish that these super vessels can haul in at any one time.

It is good to know that fishermen at sea are much safer than in days gone by, as these vessels are built to withstand heavy seas and are equipped with an impressive amount of electronics, radar, Internet and GPS systems.

Vehicle of Atlantic Dawn Group

Vehicle of Atlantic Dawn Group

Seeing this service vehicle of the Atlantic Dawn Group on the quay, I was reminded of a shameful period in the history of Irish Fishing. Back in the 1990s a Killybegs fisherman Kevin McHugh, aided and abetted by the Bertie Ahern government and funded by Irish  banks, commissioned and purchased the Atlantic Dawn super trawler. At 144 metres long and 14,000 tons it was and remains the largest and most technologically advanced trawler in the world. Feted by politicians on its arrival as ‘one of the proudest moments in Irish history’ this giant could process 400 tons of fish every 24 hours and had storage capacity of 7,000 tons. There was one problem however, it was so big that it did not have nor could it be issued with a fishing licence for European waters. Amid  much political wrangling and dealing, the Atlantic Dawn was registered as a merchant ship to enable it to side step fishing licence rules. With her nets hundreds of metres wide and sonar systems to detect shoals of fish it soon became clear that she would fish the full annual quota allowed in a matter of weeks. And so a deal was drawn up with the government of Mauritania in South Africa to enable her to trawl there and avoid all rules, regulations and legislation put in place to protect fishing stocks. Atlantic Dawn stripped the fishing grounds of Mauritania depriving hundreds of subsistence fishermen of their livelihoods. They dubbed her ‘the ship from hell’. Following a coup in Mauritania she was impounded and banned from fishing in these waters. Following the death of McHugh in 2006, the Atlantic Dawn was sold and renamed the Annelies Ilena. Ironically she was arrested for overfishing and the case was heard in Donegal courts and is ongoing. Many of the ships tied up in Killybegs are owned by the Atlantic Dawn Group.

The smaller fishing boats are dwarfed by their big neighbours.

 

imageThe pier at Killybegs was upgraded to accommodate these larger vessels and nowadays visiting cruise liners call into Killybegs to allow passengers visit some of the local attractions.

Much of the catch landed here is exported to the continent.

Spanish Truck waiting to load the catch

Spanish Truck waiting to load the catch

At any fishing harbour there is a reminder of how cruel the sea can be and what a dangerous occupation fishing is. This is the Killybegs memorial to those lost in this area.

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The Mill on the Swilly

The River  Swilly in County  Donegal is not a very large river at all, more of a stream in fact. It begins its path to the sea some 24 miles inland and flows into Lough Swilly at Letterkenny. Driving along the leafy Swilly Valley it’s hard to imagine that hundreds of men were slaughtered here at the Battle of Farsetmore in 1567 in an engagement between the O’Neill and the O’Donnell clans.

The Corn Mill at Newmills

The Corn Mill at Newmills

Just a little further along the valley the mental image of a bloody battlefield changes to one of absolute tranquility, for it is here at Newmills that there are Corn and Flax mills, powered by the waters of the Swilly. This very attractive complex of industrial buildings, the oldest of which is said to be 400 years old, are beautifully preserved as National Monuments by the Office of Public Works.

Blue Flax

Blue Flax

The Flax and Corn were grown locally and I love to  imagine great fields of blue flowered flax waving in the breeze. Flax is the raw material for linen and the process of turning it from a tall grass type plant into beautiful fabric is explained at the centre. Flax has been processed at this site since the 17th Century and a Corn mill has been here since the 18th Century. There was a revival in Flax production in World War 2 when the British Government offered grants to producers to supply linen for the war effort.

At the Corn Mill, Oats and Barley were milled.image Both the Flax Mill and the corn mill are powered by the water of the River Swilly flowing over a 25 foot water wheel, one of the largest working water wheels in Ireland.

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The large water wheel, furthest away in this image, dates from 1867.

There is something very therapeutic and relaxing about watching these wheels in action.

New Mills Flax and Corn Mills are fine examples of industrial archaeology, beautifully restored  to tell a tale of industry in times gone by.

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Postcards from the Wild Atlantic Way – Fabulous Fanad

Fanad is a peninsula in north Donegal in the northwest of Ireland, lying between the peninsulas of Inishowen and Rosguill, the latter of which is ‘home’ to me. It is where I was brought up, made friends, was schooled and where my family rest. We had many cousins in the Fanad peninsula, just a short drive away. This is where our paternal grandmother was born and grew up. I never knew her, but I did know her extended family, her nieces and nephews. It is always wonderful to return to Fanad; a trip ‘home’ is never complete without a visit to Fanad, first to our grandmother’s grave and then on to Fanad Head and back along the scenic Glenalla Road with spectacular views of Lough Swilly.

A bridge links Rosguill and Fanad peninsulas

A bridge links Rosguill and Fanad peninsulas

In recent years a new bridge across the Mulroy has been opened between the Rosguill and Fanad peninsulas. It is my personal belief that by using the bridge and not driving along Mulroy Bay visitors miss out on much of the beauty of the area. A trip along the Mulroy Loop is well worth the extra short drive of about 30 minutes of beautiful scenery.

Kindrum . This is a memorial to Fanad men who assassinated the tyrannical landlord, the 3rd Earl of Leitrim

Kindrum. This is a memorial to Fanad men who assassinated the tyrannical landlord, the 3rd Earl of Leitrim, in 1878.

Just a few minutes away on the shores of Mulroy Bay is Massmount Church and graveyard. Immediately inside the gate is our family grave, and a visit here was always the starting point for Fanad visits.

My grandmother and great grandparents are in the grave seen here to the right. My grandmother's sister, my great aunt is in the grave behind and slightly to the left with the white headstone.

The Celtic Cross on the right beside the shrub is the headstone on the grave of our great grandparents,our grandmother and her sister and brother. Another sister rests in the grave behind and slightly to the left with the white headstone.

The tranquil waters of Mulroy Bay reflect the mood of the weather.

Further along the road and easily missed is a field with some markers where unidentified bodies are buried. Many of them were casualties of  war, washed up along this wild coast over the years. It would be nice to see some sort of simple memorial to them.

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Graves of the unknown, washed up on Fanad shores.

And so it happens. You round a corner and up a hill, and there it is before you – Fanad  Head lighthouse, looking magnificent even on the dullest of days.

Fanad Head - The first glimpse

Fanad Head – The first glimpse.

As with all key places along the Wild Atlantic Way, there is a sign to confirm that you have arrived!

Fanad Head Lighthouse

Fanad Head Lighthouse. First  lit in March 1817

It is billed as one of the world’s most beautiful lighthouses. That’s as may be, but is has a very special place in my heart and that of my family. For many years the husband of my father’s first cousin was the Principal Keeper at Fanad Head and we enjoyed Sunday visits aplenty.

Fanad Head  Lighthouse has recently been opened to the public, so it was with a particularly joyous heart after a gap of about 50 years, that I made my way to buy my ticket and to once again climb the many steps to the top of the lighthouse.

It's a long way to the top

It’s a long way to the top!

 

But worth the climb!

But worth the climb!

While there was no smell of fuel  as I remember it, and the revolving huge lenses have been replaced by more modern technology, it was well worth the challenge to enjoy once again the fabulous if misty views out across Lough Swilly towards Malin Head and back towards Mulroy Bay. On a clearer day it would have been even more breathtaking!

There are interesting artifacts associated with the life of a lightkeeper and my favourite has to be this chest of books, supplied and regularly replenished  by Carnegie Libraries.

imageHeading away towards Portsalon I enjoyed a catch up with a cousin before taking the very spectacular Glenalla Road that runs along the cliffs and shores of Lough Swilly. At Ballymastoker Strand is a memorial to the crew of HMS Saldanha shipwrecked in a storm off Fanad Head on 4 December 1811 with 253 aboard. It is thought she went aground on rocks when attempting to make for shelter in Lough Swilly. There were no survivors and for weeks afterwards some 200 or so bodies were washed up on the strand. Some months later a bird was shot about 20 miles away and it turned out to be the ships parrot with a silver collar engraved ”Captain Packenham of His Majesty’s Ship Saldanha”. (Packenham was a brother in -law  to the Duke of Wellington of Waterloo fame). I wonder what happened to the collar!  As a direct result of the loss of the Saldanha plans were drawn up to build a lighthouse at Fanad Head, which was turned on in March 1817.

Dunree Fort guarded the deep safe anchorage of Lough Swilly up until 1938 when the British Navy left

Dunree Fort guarded the deep safe anchorage of Lough Swilly up until 1938 when the British Navy left

Rathmullan  was my next stop, with its beautiful sandy beach. An annual Regatta used be held here – and probably still is.

Rathmullan has a special place in the history of Ireland as it was from here that the Flight of the Earls took place in 1607. This marked a turning point in Irish history as the Chieftains of some of the leading Gaelic families of Ulster, including the O’Donnells and the O’Neills, left Ireland to seek refuge in Spain, following their defeat by the English at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601.  There is a fabulous sculpture by John Behan on the shorefront in Rathmullan commemorating the departure of the chieftains.  I just love it as it depicts loss, horror, pain and grief in a powerful way.

As evening approached the weather cleared up and I was sorely tempted to retrace my steps and to enjoy the scenery that was denied me by the mist over the past two days, but I had to head on, knowing that I would discover more wonders of the Wild Atlantic Way in Inishowen and that I will be back in fabulous Fanad!

During my 18 day trip I stayed in two particularly wonderful Bed & Breakfasts..of 5 star standard. One of these was Bunlin Bay House on Mulroy Bay – a perfect touring base for both the Fanad and Rosguill Peninsulas. Heartily recommended!

 

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Postcards from Cobh Co. Cork

Just about a 15 minute drive away is the fascinating town of Cobh, County Cork. It was known in earlier times as Queenstown, then as Cove. The spelling was then changed to the Irish Cobh (‘bh’ in Irish sounds like ‘V’), so pronunciation remained unchanged. This seaport on the southern coast of Ireland features large in the history of our nation. Sitting on what is one of the world’s finest natural harbours, Cobh has witnessed the emigration of millions of Irish whether by transportation to penal colonies, or in search of a better life in the New World. It is a poignant place, where so many of our people last stood on their home soil. My uncle was one of these who left for America from here and the sight of Cobh as they pulled out to sea stayed with him as a sad and tearful memory for decades.

Stark figures indeed!

Stark figures indeed!

Cobh has also figured large in maritime history. Nearby is Haulbowline the base for the Irish Navy and Spike Island with its 18th century star-shaped fort and a former prison.

The beautiful cathedral church of the Diocese of Cloyne stands over the town.

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Designed by Pugin and opened in 1879, St Colman’s is on the site of the old Bridwell. This beautiful building dominates everything around. The spire was added to the structure later and completed in 1915. The largest Carillon  in Ireland and Britain comprising 49 bells is here and following restoration it is now considered one of the best in the world. Cast in Loughborough, England and weighing some 25 tons, the bronze bells were transported from Liverpool to Cobh by courtesy of the British Navy, as no civilian vessels could make such a delivery during World War 1. The bells are not rung with ropes but are played with a keyboard with pedals that move the clappers. I was here at 4 pm which is one of the times when the hour chimes are followed by a tune. It was quite an experience to hear them ring out over the harbour!

Cobh has very steep little lanes leading down to the water’s edge,with colourful houses and quite a nice assortment of buildings.

Way below the imposing spire at the water’s edge is a delightful park, known locally as The Prom. Restored and upgraded several times, it was constructed in 1805 and  renamed Kennedy Memorial Park in the 1980s. I am not sure what connection JFK had with the town.

Cobh famously was the last port of call for the ill-fated Titanic on her maiden voyage. The old White Star Line offices now house the Titanic Experience Exhibition. It was from here that the 3rd Class passengers embarked, while the 1st and 2nd class passengers embarked from the jetty at the old railway station.  Sadly the historic 3rd class pier has fallen into disrepair. (I have written posts on the TITANIC in the past, links to these are at the end of the post)

But Cobh is associated with another major maritime tragedy. On 7 May 1915, 101 years ago tomorrow, the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania sailing from New York to Liverpool was torpedoed by a German U Boat, off the County Cork coast with the loss of 1,198 lives. Although she sank within 18 minutes of being hit, 761 passengers survived. This incident is considered to be the catalyst for the entry of the USA into the war. In Cobh there is a fine monument commemorating the tragedy where many of the survivors and the dead came ashore.  The monument in the main street is directly in front of the building which was used as a morgue for the dead in 1915.

In the Kennedy Memorial Park there is a wall in remembrance of the survivors of the disaster.

194 of the Lusitania victims rest in three mass graves and 24 individual plots at the local cemetery. The mass graves contain 23 bodies, 52 bodies and 69 bodies respectively, with names of those buried there carved on 3 glass memorials.

These sad memorials are in the very historic graveyard that bears witness to a number of tragedies at sea, with many sailors resting here. It is worthy of a visit to experience some of the history and to marvel at some of the stonemasons craft.

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The Republican Plot

Back in the town, one of the most famous sculptures is dedicated to Annie Moore and her brothers who sailed from Cobh to join their parents in New York. Annie was the first person to pass through Ellis Island.

Cobh is a town that has so much to offer that it would take a number of visits to cover it all. I am fortunate that it is almost in my backyard, so I will be there on a regular basis, to explore its beauty and other aspects of the fascinating history of the place.

Previous posts on the Titanic

A Mayo village devastated by the Titanic disaster.

April 11 1912. Titanic sails from Queenstown.

April 13 1912 Titanic sails in calm waters

April 14 1912. Iceberg Ahead! Goodbye all!

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