TITANIC Week here on “Once Upon a Story.” Day 3: Katie O’Reilly and how Titanic was born in Ireland
Today April 11, 1912, the Titanic stopped in Queenstown, Ireland to pick up passengers including my heroine, KATIE O’REILLY, in TITANIC RHAPSODY.
Let’s go back to 1907 and a time when Katie O’Reilly, the heroine in my novel, Titanic Rhapsody, was fourteen years old and living with her da and mum and her older sister, Mary Dolores, near Queenstown in Southern Ireland. She was filled with curiosity and yearned for a better life, which often got her into trouble with the local sisters at the Catholic school.
While Katie was discovering that a poor Irish girl had as much of a chance to better herself as a prize pig did of escaping the butcher, up in Belfast an enterprising gentleman named Lord William James Pirrie had grand plans to help Irish girls like Katie find their dreams.
Now mind you, this was a time when more than a million people a year emigrated from Europe to the United States. Before the great steamers made the crossing, the steerage or third class passengers had to bring their own food and spent the week-long journey in cramped, unsanitary quarters. Those lucky enough to get a breath of fresh air on the upper deck shared it with chickens in poultry coops.
You can be sure when the emigrants arrived in America, they wrote to the folks back home: “Smelly, dirty trip on the ________ Line. Get a ticket on another ship.”
But what if the emigrants raved about the crossing? Good, hot food at every meal that included oatmeal and currant buns. Clean cabins with running water and nary a chicken feather in sight. Can you imagine the stampede to book passage on that ship?
Lord Pirrie, chair of Harland & Wolff, major shipbuilders, did. According to the oft-told tale, the idea for Titanic and her sister ships came about over coffee and cigars in Lord Pirrie’s fancy London town house. There he convinced J. Bruce Ismay, Chairman and Manager Director of the White Star Line, that he could build two ships—the Olympic and the Titanic and later the Britannic—bigger and more luxurious liners than his competitor, the Cunard Line, had. Ships that would hold more passengers and raise his company’s profits substantially.
He convinced Mr. Ismay he could also increase profits by catering to the society crowd traveling across the pond on a regular basis and doing the grand tour. They were willing to pay big bucks to be pampered as if they were staying in a fancy hotel.
Who could resist such an offer? A new era in trans-Atlantic passenger ships was born. New slipways were constructed in Belfast to build the Titanic and three thousand workers hired to get the task done (450 were injured and 17 died during the construction). By the end of March 1909, the keel was laid down and on May 31, 1911 the Titanic was launched at 12:15 p.m. with great fanfare. Tickets were sold to the public with all the money raised going to charity.
Now the real work began to get Titanic ready for the posh passengers and eager steerage emigrants who would marvel at her interiors and wander up and down her long corridors. Also, we can’t forget the second class passengers, many of them tradesmen (including a perfume salesman whose sample bottles were retrieved from the wreckage) who relied on crossing the North Atlantic to keep their connections on the European continent current.
On April 2, 1912, the Titanic started a series of sea trials to prove her muster to carry passengers. All the while, my heroine, Katie was going through her own trials.
Her parents have died and she’s toiling in service in the grand manor of a fussy earl and lucky to have it. Katie got the job through the efforts of Mary Dolores, also a housemaid. A fine job it is for a lass like her, but Katie has dreams of bettering herself and yearns to be free to choose her own path in life.
Until the jealousy of the earl’s daughter is her undoing. When her ladyship’s beau is more interested in Katie than her, she accuses the Irish girl of stealing her diamond bracelet. That brings the law down on Katie. She swears she’ll not go to prison for something she didn’t do.
Next begins a wild chase through the streets of Queenstown to the docks with Katie doing her best to avoid the constable. She’s more determined than ever to sail on the ship of dreams. The White Star liner promises her a new life in America. If only she can grab onto it.
Not an easy task for a poor Irish girl. Hard to understand today, but people accepted the separation of the classes back in 1912 as an undeniable part of life. A time when clothes did make the man. This was also an era when upper class females were called “ladies” and all other females were termed “women.”
A lady back then spent a good part of her day being dressed and undressed by her lady’s maid. Which is why women’s blouses, dresses, coats, etc. have their buttons placed on the opposite side of a man’s similar garment—since she wasn’t doing the buttoning.
It was also an era when a lady or a woman didn’t wear her hair hanging down, but pinned up (only her husband was supposed to see her hair down). Which is why Katie’s hair flying around her shoulders and blowing in the wind like a beckoning sea siren causes such a stir to notorious gentleman gambler, Captain Lord Jack Blackthorn, watching her from the Promenade deck of the Titanic. Looking up from the deck of the tender to the grand ship, Katie is awestruck. She’s never seen such a man. Tall, muscular and possessed with an arrogance that intrigues her.
No wonder she’s fascinated with the pampering he shows her in first class, while trying to seduce her by offering her his protection. Quite a tempting proposition for a lass like Katie. Her God-fearing soul swears to resist him. But for how long?
Still, the Titanic offered unrivaled luxury to its passengers during the Gilded Age, a time when one million dollars worth of diamond jewels and paintings and gold dinner plates were not uncommon as wedding gifts. A time of diamond tiaras and titles, when ladies spent their days making calls and drinking tea and thought nothing of lavishing a small fortune on silk underwear from Paris.
And no income tax. With their husbands’ fortunes at their disposal, these elite ladies spent extravagant amounts on gowns, jewels and hats. Big hats. Like the one Rose wears when she boards the ship in the film “Titanic.” Plumes, jeweled hatpins and wildly provocative veils added a sexy, mysterious aura to an Edwardian first class lady embarking on the ship’s maiden voyage, especially the elusive Countess of Marbury…more about her later.
And here is our Katie on the dock at Queenstown, her plain black hat lost, her long glorious hair the color of a deep red sunset whipping about her shoulders and down to her waist.
When Katie takes a flying leap across the gangway and ends up on the tender, Ireland, ferrying passengers and mail to the liner, she helps out a young theology student ordered off the ship by his uncle, the bishop. What Katie doesn’t know is that he’s just taken the last pictures of the Titanic. Father Browne had no idea then his photos of the Titanic would become world famous.
Before Katie finds her way aboard the liner with the law at her heels, the White Star Line steamship makes stops in Southampton and Cherbourg to pick up passengers and mail (400,000 letters are stowed belowdecks). What a grand day it is for the Titanic. She is the biggest ship afloat with 1,324 passengers and a crew of 899. Can you smell the salty air and hear the sea gulls cawing as she leaves Queenstown? Hear her whistle blast three times?
It’s 1:30 p.m. on April 11, 1912 and the Titanic is on her way to New York. Our Katie is belowdecks…hidden out of view by Captain Lord Jack Blackthorn. I shan’t tell you where and spoil it . . .
Check out my Titanic novel, “Titanic Rhapsody,” about a poor Irish girl who escapes the law for a crime she didn’t commit in a grand house in Ireland and becomes a countess aboard the Titanic…