A Titanic Legacy
The Titanic rocked in the waves off the Irish coast. Its four smokestacks saluted her passengers as young James Kenny begged his Aunt Rose.
“But I can get you back to New Jersey. I know my way from the docks.”
“I’m certain you do, lad,” said Aunt Rose. “But I’ll not be crossing the Atlantic with an eight year old. And that’s final, it is.”
His little brother, four-year old Johnny, clung to his mother’s skirt as the two sisters continued to argue.
“So will you be trading your tickets for the next ship or not?” The ticket agent barked. Bridget Kenny held only three tickets. The Titanic was full, so there would not be a fourth.
“Rose, it’s the greatest ship ever to sail,” his mother said. “You’ll be seeing famous people. You wouldn’t want to miss that, would you?”
Aunt Rose sighed and looked at young James. Queenstown, Ireland, was Titanic’s last port of call. The behemoth was too big to dock. James watched as passengers boarded the ferries Ireland and America. These smaller boats took passengers, and their luggage, to the ship.
“Please, Aunt Rose?” James said. “I promise I know my way.”
“He can get you from New York City to New Jersey.” His mother insisted they use two of the tickets. “Johnny and I will be on the next ship home. Go!”
✪ ✪ ✪
A continent away, construction sounds hammered in Thomas Kenny’s ears. It was difficult work, but worth it. He was proud of his job in America. It fed his family.
Thomas remembered the Ireland of his childhood. The beauty of lush, green hills. Cliffs dropped into the ocean like a fortress. But County Mayo was scarred, too. The potato famine of 1846 haunted his country still. Famine grave sites. Abandoned villages. And for Thomas, there was no work, no future.
But not in America! Here, he found work. There was hope. There was even money for travel. His wife and boys had returned to Ireland to visit. James and John had met their grandparents. His wife, Bridget, had seen her sister, Rose. Rose still refused to leave Ireland.
Thomas smiled to himself. The rocks and cliffs of County Mayo must be a quiet adventure after the noise of Jersey City. In her letters, Bridget told how the boys enjoyed the countryside. Free of the worry which saddled his own youth, they roamed and explored the land. Now, they returned to America on the greatest ship ever built, the Titanic! They would be home by week’s end.
Yes, America had been good to him. He was blessed.
“Thomas? Is Thomas Kenny here?” Hearing the shout of his name, he turned to face the crew leader.
“Have you heard the news, Thomas? Have you heard about Titanic?”
“What of it? Bridget and the boys are on it. What news?”
His knees buckled as he learned its fate. The Titanic set sail from Queenstown, Ireland, on April 12, 1912 with 2,228 people aboard. It hit an iceberg the evening of April 14th. Less than three hours later, the Titanic sunk in the frigid Atlantic Ocean with few survivors. His wife and sons held tickets for third class steerage. Did they survive?
Thomas Kenny spent the next days and nights on the docks of New York. He never returned home, not even for sleep.
Each morning, he hunted the passenger lists for his family. New names were added daily. His family was not on the list of the living, nor were they on the list of the dead.
Each night, Thomas slept on the ground by the docks. He had no blanket to battle the chill, but would not leave to find one. On April 18th, 1912, he watched the passengers of the Carpathia disembark. It carried the Titanic’s survivors. Through the dark and rain, he searched every face. His family was not among them.
Two days later, heartbroken and exhausted, Thomas Kenny boarded the train to Jersey City. The bumps and jerks of the train ride matched the ache in his heart. His family was gone. He would plan their funerals.
Walking up the sidewalk to his home, his stomach growled at the memory of Bridget’s stew. Its aroma filled the air like sadness filled his heart. Then he heard the clang of pans and James yelling at Johnny. Thomas’ heart raced at the noise of life. He flung open the kitchen door. Bridget chopped carrots and Johnny hid in her skirt. James grabbed for the baseball in Johnny’s hand.
His eyes met Bridget’s. She smiled and he fainted.
“Wake up, Thomas, wake up.” Bridget Kenny’s voice floated in and out.
Johnny tugged at his arm and James lifted his head into a lap pillow. His eyes focused on the family he knew was lost.
“How did you survive the sinking? I was on the docks. I waited. You were not on the Carpathia.”
“No, and we weren’t on the Titanic, either,” Bridget said.
Rose loomed over him with a smile. “I’ve left Ireland! By the time I decided to come to America, there were no more tickets on the Titanic. We arrived at the Queenstown harbor late. Titanic was full.”
“Thomas, I tried to send her on the ship with James.” Bridget’s eyes filled with tears.
“But I was not to be crossing the Atlantic Ocean with an eight year old. We sailed the SS Celtic the next day.”
For James, the sting of his aunt’s refusal was still fresh. “But I knew my way home. I could have gotten us from the docks to the house!”
“Son, it’s good and well your Aunt Rose didn’t know it.” Thomas Kenny cuffed his older son’s head. “You are alive. Thank the Good Lord. My family is alive.”
Note from Mrs. Kistler
This story was told to me by James Kenny, my great uncle. My family is from County Mayo in Ireland. There were fourteen passengers from County Mayo on the Titanic. They are known as the Adergoole Fourteen. As Irish emigrants with little money, they booked passage in third class, or steerage. Only three of the Adergoole Fourteen survived the sinking.
Why did so many perish? The Titanic carried 20 lifeboats, enough to save 1,060 lives. There were 2,228 passengers aboard. This was in compliance with maritime law of the day. During the crisis, priority for space on lifeboats was given to women and children of first class. Of Titanic’s 703 steerage passengers, only 178 survived. Their deaths exposed an ugly truth of class society, and never again would position and status rule the safety of passengers on ocean liners. Today, ships are required to carry enough lifeboats for everyone aboard. This is Titanic’s true legacy.
My Great Uncle Jimmy was eight year old James. My grandfather, his younger brother, John. I loved hearing him tell this story, but it was only after James Cameron’s Titanic exploded onto screens that I understood it.
My Great Uncle Jimmy gifted me with an appreciation for family and heritage. I love my family, but especially all my Kenny cousins. (And there are a lot of us, thank you, Aunt Rose!)
Indeed, our family tree had the luck of the Irish with us that day. But my Uncle Jimmy? He remained offended into his eighties by his aunt’s refusal to board the Titanic with him. He continued to argue his case to his grandchildren and grand nieces and nephews.
But our family story does make me wonder. How often are we one choice away from losing it all? Or, as my cousin Michelle pondered, “If just one person zigged, instead of zagged…?”
What is your important family story?
What is precious in your life?