On that terrible cold night of April 14 1912, in the North Atlantic, the Titanic was sinking head first into a freezing, calm sea. It had struck an iceberg 400 miles south of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. And was fatally wounded. The incessant bip bip bip SOS call for help from the wireless telegraphist Jack Phillips and his assistant Harold Bride was interspersed with more dramatic calls for help: “We are putting passengers off in small boats. Women and children in boats, cannot last much longer”.
Helping first class passengers into one of those small boats was the chairman of the White Star Line, and the man who conceived the concept of ocean travel on a grand scale, J Bruce Ismay. When the small boat, known as Collapsible Lifeboat C, had been loaded with all the women and children present, and as there was no one else in the immediate vicinity, Ismay and another first class passenger, William Carter, climbed in, and were lowered to the sea. As they pulled away from the stricken liner, Ismay was unable to look at the great ship in its death throes. The Titanic had dramatically lifted its stern out of the water, hovering directly perpendicular to the sea, before, amid a great noise as its boilers crashed through the ship, slipping away from sight. It must have been the most terrifying scene imaginable. One thousand five hundred and fourteen people were drowned that night.
Ismay must have been in a state of deep shock. He was picked up the next morning by the Carpathia, and taken to the doctor's cabin where he remained under sedation. His hair is said to have turned white overnight. In New York he stayed with his company's vice chairman Philip Franklin. He co-operated fully with the inquiry that quickly followed, but every time he appeared he had to walk a gauntlet of angry and jeering crowds. He was savaged by both the American and British press for deserting the ship while women and children were still on board. Some papers called him the 'Coward of the Titanic’, or ‘J Brute Ismay’. There were scathing cartoons depicting him deserting the ship. A journalist with the Chicago Journal, Ben Hecht, wrote an often quoted satirical poem contrasting the actions of Capt Smith (who went down with his ship ) with Ismay.
Master and Man
The Captain stood where a
For the Law of the Sea is grim;
The Owner romped while the ship was swamped
And no law bothered him.
The Captain stood where the Captain should
When a Captain's ship goes down
But the Owner led when the women fled,
For an Owner must not drown.
The Captain sank as a man of Rank,
While his Owner turned away;
The Captain's grave was his bridge and brave,
He earned his seaman's pay.
To hold your place in the ghastly face of Death on the Sea at Night
Is a Seaman's job, but to flee with the mob
Is an Owner's Noble Right.
In 1907 the White Star Line had been unable to compete with its rival Cunard who had launched the successful RMS Lusitania, and the RMS Mauretania liners on the profitable Atlantic route. Ismay planned to build a new type of ship, which would not only be fast, but it would have a huge steerage capacity, and luxury unparalleled in the history of ocean-going steamships. He intended to attract the wealthy and the prosperous, as well as the immigrant hoards. He sold the company, which he had inherited from his father, to J P Morgan and Co to raise the vast sums of money he needed for his plan, but retained some control by being chairman and chief executive. Ismay planned three giant ships, the RMS Olympic, and the HMS Britannic. He oversaw every detail of the ships’ planning. But his pride and joy was the Titanic which began its maiden, and only, voyage from Southampton to New York city on April 10 1912, calling into Queenstown (Cobh ) as its last European stop. There were, however, several fatal flaws. One of which was to do with the number of lifeboats. In order to accommodate the luxury features that Ismay envisaged, he ordered that the number of lifeboats be reduced from 46 down to 16, amazingly the minimum allowed at the time by the Board of Trade.
Now all his great plans were in ruins. When Ismay returned to London for the British inquiry the taunting continued. The William Randolph Hearst press kept on hounding him with derisory comments and ridicule. London society ostracised him, and labelled him one of the biggest cowards in history. Ismay resigned from all his maritime company positions, and having testified at the British inquiry, quietly disappeared. He was to find sanctuary and a good life with his wife Julia at Costello Lodge, Casla, Connemara.
‘Wild and solitary places’
Tim Robinson takes up the story.* The Ismays were popular with the local people ‘as they were sources of employment and charity’. They went fishing, and if it was a Sunday Ismay always inquired whether the boatmen had time to go to Mass (the Ismays attended services at ‘Teachín na bPrayers’ near Scríb ). The Lodge was burned by the IRA in 1922, but was rebuilt in 1925 on a much grander scale with eight bedrooms, four reception rooms, a conservatory, a games room, and so on. The big wonder in the house, however, was a spiral staircase designed by Ismay, which folded at the press of a button. The Titanic was a forbidden topic in the lodge, and perhaps the family was unaware of the cruel pun on Bruce Ismay’s name that circulated among their Irish-speaking neighbours: Brú síos mé, ‘lower me down’ (ie into a lifeboat ).
After 25 years Ismay moved back to England, suffering from diabetes. He underwent a leg amputation, and died in Mayfair in 1937. His widow stayed on in Connemara for many years. She erected a monument to her husband in the garden, which is still there today. Cut into limestone is written:
He loved all wild and solitary places where we taste the pleasure of believing what we see is boundless as we wish our souls to be...
Next week: Wireless operator Jack Phillips, who worked for Marconi in Clifden, also made a fatal mistake.
NOTES: * Connemara - A Little Gaelic Kingdom, published by Penguin Ireland, on sale €27.20 and due in paperback in early June.
Tim Robinson makes a passing comparison with Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, one of the great novels of the 20th century, published 13 years before the sinking of the Titanic. Like Ismay, Jim jumped ship, leaving innocent people to drown, and lived with ignominy for the rest of his life. But the parallels are not only on the surface: Both men aspired to greatness, and both were left trying to reconcile themselves with their own inglorious actions, and failures not just of nerve, but of grandeur.
It was a case of life imitating art. Hemingway‘s famous definition of grace under pressure is precisely what both men lacked. Far from rising to the occasion, both leapt into their own state of disgrace.