Sometime around May 2011, I began researching the Titanic. I knew I wanted to write a novel about Titanic – not so much about the ship itself, but about the people who sailed on her. I wanted to find out what happened to those who survived the tragic event. I wanted to find out how friends and families, especially those in Ireland, first heard the news that the ‘unsinkable’ ship had, indeed, sunk in The Atlantic. I wanted to find an ‘un-known’ story within this famous tragedy, which would be the inspiration for my fictional re-telling.
In survivor accounts and newspaper reports from the time, the same Irish survivor names kept coming up: Annie Kate Kelly, Delia McDermott and Annie McGowan. I dug a little deeper and discovered an incredible story of three young girls, travelling as part of a larger group, who had survived. One (she believed) took the last place in the last lifeboat and another jumped out of one lifeboat in order to return to her cabin to fetch the new hat she had bought in Ireland especially for her arrival in New York. Luckily, she was able to make a jump of fifteen feet to get onto another lifeboat as it was being lowered into the water.
Through further research, I discovered that Annie Kate, Delia and Annie were part of a group which has, in recent years, become known locally as The Addergoole Fourteen: a group of emigrants – friends and relatives – who had left their small villages in rural Ireland, travelled by cart and train to Queenstown in County Cork and boarded Titanic. Eleven of the group lost their lives in the tragedy. These three young women survived with miraculous stories to tell. I knew immediately that theirs was the story I wanted to tell in, what became my first novel, The Girl Who Came Home.
With help from Michael Molloy and others at The Addergoole Titanic Society, I began to understand the impact of the Titanic event on the Parish. I was so moved by the stories of parents waiting for days and days of news of their sons and daughters. I read about the wakes they held in their homes for the family members who would never be brought home. The event had a profound effect on the entire community and it is now remembered annually with a candlelit, bell-ringing ceremony. The local church now boasts one of only two Titanic-themed stained glass windows in the world.
For the people of Lahardane, the real Titanic village of my imagined Ballysheen, the memories of the fourteen who left their homes that spring day in April 1912, live on through the annual memorial service and through the plaques which recall the names of the fourteen and through the stained-glass window. The homes of some of the fourteen are still standing, although many are now just ruins.
With the Titanic centenary in 2012, the Addergoole story found a new audience. What I hadn’t realised, as I was writing The Girl Who Came Home, was that an Irish production company was in the process of filming a documentary about The Addergoole Fourteen. My novel was published in March 2012 and the TV documentary ‘Waking the Titanic‘ was shown on Irish TV channel TG4 to coincide with the centenary in April, 2012. For me, watching this was like watching my characters – and the real people who inspired the creation of them – come to life, and I will never forget how I felt as I watched it.
As we approach the 101st anniversary of the sinking of Titanic, we find ourselves faced with the prospect of a Titanic II being built. I have mixed thoughts about that (which will, no doubt, become a future blog post) but for now, I am simply humbled by the bravery and hope shown by those fourteen people – and hundreds of others – who left their homes and their families in search of a better life.