Saturday, April 14, 2012

Remembering The Titanic: Photographs, Books, and Movies

One hundred years ago tonight, April 14, 1912, 23:40PM (ship's time - UTC-3), the RMS Titanic, with 2,224 people on board, struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Deemed "virtually unsinkable", the Titanic, at that time, was the largest ship in the world and the most luxurious passenger ship afloat. That the ship sank on it's maiden voyage, that over 1,500 passengers and crew died, this most devastating maritime disaster has been immortalized in 20th century culture through books, movies and music.

My favourite movie, and one which I think best portrays the Titanic disaster, is A Night To Remember (1953), which is based on the book of the same title by Walter Lord. The movie was directed by Roy Ward Baker who used the testimony of some of the survivors.

Walter Lord's book, A Night to Remember is also a well written account of the disaster and remains one of the best books about Titanic. A new book, Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived by Andrew Wilson was published in March, 2012 and considers the profound effect the disaster had on the lives of those who survived. Wilson used memoirs, unpublished letters, and diaries to assess the aftermath of this tragedy.

There are many stories that were well known at the time of the tragedy but today are not well publicized. One such story is that of Father Thomas Byles, a Protestant convert to the Catholic faith. Father Thomas boarded the Titanic to travel to America for the upcoming wedding of his brother William who lived in New York. William and his fiance, Isabel Katherine Russell,  were to be married at St. Augustine's Catholic Church. Father obtained a ticket for second class berth and arranged with Captain Smith to say Mass for those aboard the ship. April 14 was the first Sunday after Easter and Father Thomas said Mass for those on board.

Father Thomas was reading his breviary on deck when the ship struck the iceberg. He went about helping people, especially the third class passengers whom he calmed and administered the Sacrament of Confession. Several passengers related later that Father Thomas twice refused a seat in a boat, preferring instead to offer comfort, confession and absolution to the many passengers who were about to die. At 2:20am when the boat was finally sinking into the ocean, Father Thomas led more than one hundred souls in reciting the Act of Contrition and gave them absolution.

Upon learning of the tragedy, William and Isabel hoped that Father Thomas might be among those rescued, but it was not to be. His body was never found. There is a website devoted to Father Thomas Byles,  who chose to continue his priestly ministry until the very end.

When the wreck of the Titanic was discovered in 1985 by Robert Ballard, the world was awestruck by the first eerie pictures of the silent, broken ship. For those of us for whom the sinking was a historic event,  the scope of the tragedy was again made all too real. Interest in the Titanic was reignited and resulted in James Cameron's blockbuster movie hit, Titanic in 1995. I am not a fan of this movie, which I believe trivializes the disaster with its storyline of two men fighting over a disillusioned and unhappy woman whilst the ship is sinking and over a thousand people are soon to perish. It is a rendition typical of an era in which post-modern culture focuses on mundane, irrelevant themes while ignoring the more noble.

The discovery of the Titanic also allowed scientists to do forensic research on the wreck and this has resulted in new theories about exactly how the ship, considered state of the art in both luxury and engineering at the time, could sink so quickly. An example of the such recent research can be found in scientific journals such as Materials Today with its article, What Really Sank The Titanic.

The discovery also allowed some artifacts from the ship to be recovered and these have been on exhibition this year, in remembrance of the tragedy. We now know that the wreck will not live forever as it is being rapidly consumed by iron-reducing bacteria. What we do have to remember Titanic and to preserve her memory for future generations, is a fascinating archive of photographs from the first part of her maiden voyage.

Father Frank Browne, a Jesuit priest, was an accomplished Irish photographer who recorded the first part of Titanic's maiden voyage, the journey from Southhampton to Cohb, Ireland. His uncle, Robert Browne who was Bishop of Cloyne, gave his nephew a ticket for the first part of the Titanic's maiden voyage. Despite his desire to continue onto New York, Father Browne disembarked at Cohn and his record of the Titanic survives today. You can view his amazing photographs here.

At 2:20 am, April 15, one hundred years ago, over 1,500 people died in a tragedy that could have be averted.

Eternal rest grant unto to them, O Lord.

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