Lovely Leitrim, Ireland 1912. ‘The land of Saints and Sages where the Shannon waters flow’. For some, life in this beautiful but poor part of Ireland, was as challenging then as it is now 100 years later, in 2012.
Was it hardship that prompted James Bohan to think of leaving family and friends to travel to America, as many are doing today?. Emigration no more a lifestyle choice in 1912 than 2012, instead a means of finding work, opportunity, a better life.
James was born at the end of the 1880’s. The 1901 census shows him, aged 20, living in the small village of Cornulla, many of the thirteen houses there populated by his kinfolk, including Patrick Bohan, his first cousin and great friend, born the same year as James.
At the beginning of 1912, we find these young men starting what was to be a year of great change for both.
James making his plan to emigrate, Patrick about to set a date for marriage to Maria Heslin, from the nearby village of Aughavas. Neither man knew as they quietly made their plans, that life changing events would align for them both in April 1912. James set to travel on The Titanic, from Queenstown (Cobh) on April 11th, Patrick to be married just four days later on April 15th.
Which of them first broke their news, is unknown but it’s likely great joy was tempered with sadness and disappointment. James wanting his cousin and friends approval and support for his emigration to America, Patrick simply wanting his cousin and friend at his wedding, in the role of Best Man!
No one knows what soul searching, persuasion or even bribery was involved in reaching the decision but Patrick won the day and persuaded James to stay for his wedding.
As I write, almost 100 years later, I can only imagine what that time was like.
A week till the wedding day, what excitement, what anticipation! Patrick and Maria, like any young couple in love, preparing for their special day, finalising arrangements, sorting last minute details. I wonder had they a 1912 version of a hen night or stag party ? What were they to wear, what music, flowers, rings, what wedding breakfast, seating plan ? I’m pretty sure of the transport, a pony and trap but music, dancing, honeymoon, what was the wedding like, what dowry, gifts, how was married life to start ?
As for James, what regrets, if any, did he have, knowing he would have sailed in just four days ?. Was he tempted still by the thought of The Titanic and the chance it gave for a new life in America, did last minute doubts chase through his mind that he’d done the right thing, did he yearn still, knowing there was time yet to board The Titanic for her maiden voyage and his chance of a new life ?
All I know is James stayed to be Best Man and Titanic sailed without him.
Who could have dreamt the difference his decision would make ? The Titanic was the miracle ship of it’s day, unsinkable, the height of luxury, a voyage of excess and excitement, for many the promise of a new life in a land of opportunity. As we know today, it was simply not to be.
James’s fate would have matched that of the many poor Irish, whose dreams of a new life, together with their remains and scant possessions, lie trapped still in a ghostly wreck, Neptune’s graveyard at the bottom of the sea, victims in what to this day is one of the worse shipping accidents the world has known. A tragedy that captures our imagination, still.
But what of James after The Titanic ?
Well in a family, where everyone generation was confusingly named after the one before, with only nicknames to differentiate them, he gained the sobriquet ‘Titanic Jim’. To us children, his story of escape was a distant family legend, him a figure of some mystery.
It was known that after the wedding he travelled to America where, unlike today with internet, telephones and skype, emigrants and their families had only the solace of a handwritten letter to keep in contact. The sad fact is many lost touch with their families, some for a time, some forever.
It seems for two decades or more James was thought to be one of them.
A generation later, in family research of that period, information was found which suggested part of James Bohan’s story at that time might have involved another extraordinary maritime escape on the route between Ireland and America.
May 1915, just three years after the wedding, saw the world already engaged for a year in the slaughter that’s called war.
‘The Lusitania’ a passenger ship sailing it’s usual route from America, was about 14 miles from the Irish coast, when a German U-boat launched it’s first torpedo. In the attack, Lusitania stood no chance, she was hit, within 18 minutes she sank to the bottom of the Atlantic with the loss of 1198 lives. Her sinking ranks still as one of the great sea disasters and an event which shocks to this day. From the fully laden ship, only a few hundred were rescued and brought to safety— named in the list of survivors, was one James Bohan.
It was a test of belief and definitive proof of the luck of the Irish if this research was true, could it really be our that James Bohan had survived both the sinking of The Titanic and also that of The Lusitania?
The answer came some time later in one of those moments of synchronicity, a chance meeting with his son and namesake, the mystery was finally cleared. Though James had survived The Titanic, any connection to The Lusitania simply did not exist. In May 1915, James was far away, not even on the passenger list of the doomed vessel!
His story instead was, a while after Patrick’s wedding, James fulfilled his dream and left for America. Over a number of years, during which time he was not heard from, he travelled throughout the United States and South America, following work, earning a living.
Like all good stories, his had a happy ending, James eventually returned to Ireland, married and had a family.
His cousin Patrick and his wife Maria, meanwhile remained in Leitrim and had eight children, five daughters and three sons, my darling Dad, the youngest boy. Unlike James with his desire to travel, within their long lives, neither of my Grandparents even left the island of Ireland.
In their eighth decade of life, on April 15th 1962, Patrick and Maria Bohan celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary. By their side in the photograph, just as they been 50 years before, stood Bridesmaid Mary Anne Dillon and Best Man James Bohan.
All were still glad that the Titanic sailed without him…
In the photograph above from left to right are James ‘Titanic Jim’ Bohan, Patrick Bohan, his wife Maria Bohan celebrating their Golden Wedding in 1962 and Mary Anne Dillon, Bridesmaid at the wedding in 1912.