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‘Ireland’s Titanic Village’ commemorates 1912 loss


LAHARDANE, Ireland >> For decades, abandoned stone cottages were the only mark of the Addergoole Fourteen, young emigrants who had fled the dark bogs of County Mayo with dreams of fortune in America and steerage tickets aboard the Titanic steamer setting sail from its last port of call: Queenstown, Ireland.

The devastated people of tiny Addergoole in western Ireland chose to silently mourn their loss in one of the most famous tragedies of the 20th century. The ache was too much for townspeople, who already had lost so many relatives to the Irish exodus brought on by desperate poverty.

Now, 100 years after the Titanic’s sinking, the town’s silence has been replaced by a cacophony of remembrance for the 11 of the Addergoole Fourteen who died and the 3 who survived — a documentary on the town’s tragedy (featuring locals), a play on the same (also featuring locals) and a week of commemorative events that is expected to include an appearance by Prime Minister Enda Kenny.

It is a bitter twist that the town’s decision to go so public with its grief comes as Addergoole is once again part of a drama bigger than itself. The debilitating financial crisis in the eurozone is chasing young Irish abroad after a brief period when, for the first time in decades, many emigrants returned home for better job prospects.

In the last year, Addergoole, with a population of fewer than 1,000 people, has lost at least 50 men and women in their 20s to emigration, and children at a local school — which still keeps a registry of long-ago students marked “Gone to U.S.A.” — talk again of leaving for work. Among residents making plans to emigrate: the son of the man who conceived the Titanic remembrances.

“What is wrong with this country that we cannot get work for our youngsters?” asked Pauline Barrett, 60, whose great-uncle James Flynn died at age 28 aboard the Titanic, bound for New York to find jobs with two brothers already there. “This has happened so many times. And it’s happening again.”

The Addergoole Titanic Society — formed 10 years ago when newcomers realized the region was losing its history — has vastly expanded its ambitions from ringing a mournful church bell on Titanic anniversaries to presenting a week of activities.

“This gives us an ability to build an identity,” said Dr. Paul Nolan, the society’s chairman, whose son, Dylan, is preparing to leave for Germany. “It’s often hard to get tourism started, and this is the first step to attract people through a cultural focus.”

At the edge of the town, the society has posted a welcome sign with a black-and-white steamer and the designation “Ireland’s Titanic Village.” Society members hope to build tourism, and an economy that might allow young people to stay, by increasing annual events and opening a Titanic memorabilia shop.

“Why speak now? We’re more open,” said Barrett, whose great-uncle was reportedly pushed away with an oar from a Titanic lifeboat with vacant seats. “If you go back to my grandmother’s generation, they were more concerned with getting a life and making a living. They took the pain and put it away. It wasn’t spoken about.”

The tale of the Addergoole Fourteen is the most mournful of mournful Irish tales, starting with seeming good fortune.

In 1912, nearly every family in a town of 3,400 people pooled remittances from emigrants or sold property to send their young to America, away from the rocky soil that could not sustain the large families crowded into three-room stone cottages. Most of the Addergoole emigrants were young women, who were considered a more reliable family investment because they dutifully sent money home, according to local historians.

Those who left were not expected to return, but one did with promises of work. Catherine McGowan, 42, who ran a Chicago boardinghouse, came back in 1912 to recruit other emigrants, including her niece Annie McGowan, then 17, and others in the Addergoole Fourteen.

When Nolan moved to Addergoole in 1984, he recalled, two patients in their 90s had vivid memories of all the Titanic passengers, including Catherine, who died, and Annie, who lived.

In 2002, Nolan joined with other fellow “blow ins” — the label for relative newcomers to Addergoole — to dream up a memorial ceremony for the 90th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking.

For the society’s first ritual, the church’s bell, silent for 20 years, was restored. Since then, descendants gather before midnight to toll the bell every April 15 until 2:20 a.m., with somber tones for the 11 who died and thundering strike notes for the three women who survived and made it to America.

A handful of descendants participated that first year. For this anniversary, organizers expect hundreds, including descendants from New Jersey and the Chicago area, where the Addergoole Fourteen survivors — Annie McGowan, Annie Kate Kelly and Delia McDermott — ultimately settled. The U.S. relatives have already financed two new stained-glass windows in the local church.

John O’Boyle, 77, said his father was one of many who never talked about the tragedy, in his case the loss of his cousins John and Mary Bourke. The brother and sister died aboard the Titanic with John Bourke’s childhood sweetheart and pregnant bride, Catherine. The two women gave up their lifeboat seats because they refused to leave Bourke alone, Kelly told others. She took their place and credited them with her survival.

“I do ring the bell,” O’Boyle said. “It renews memories.”

For the centenary, the local volunteer force built a memorial park with donated labor and land. A 12-foot bronze sculpture of a ship’s prow rises from the center along with a hearth made with stones from the ruins of the Addergoole Fourteen’s cottages. The Pontoon Bridge Hotel is hosting a costumed Titanic ball.

Gillian Marsh, a producer and the wife of the town’s big-animal veterinarian, raised 60,000 euros, or about $78,000, to film a documentary, “Waking the Titanic.” The documentary has aired in Canada, and other countries are showing interest, she said.

One of the descendants in her film is Patrick Canavan, an elderly man whose red-haired ancestor of the same name was a local hero. According to survivors, the ancestor, 21, guided other passengers from third-class steerage through to the lifeboats but was barred from taking a place.

Canavan’s nephew, Paul, 23, is performing the role of his ancestor in a community play about the Addergoole Fourteen. And like the man whose life he will portray, he is dreaming of fortune abroad, laying plans to join his sister in Plano, Texas

Despite the grander commemoration, there will be one constant this year: The bell will again toll, and some say its keening will tie the past to the present.

“When my two children are grown, the chances of them remaining here in Ireland are slim,” said Patricia Keigher, a member of the Addergoole Titanic Society. “The bell ringing out across the lake and the mountain is a call to say: You may not be here, but we are still thinking of you.”

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