To hell or to Connacht: White Star's chairman

 

Bruce Ismay, head of the company that owned ‘Titanic’, became a public disgrace after the ship sank. So he came to live in Connemara. ROSITA BOLANDretraces his steps

BRUCE ISMAY was born into a shipping magnate’s family in Liverpool in 1862. His father, Thomas, had bought White Star Line and turned it into a success. When Thomas died, in 1889, Ismay succeeded him as chairman and director. The previous year he had married Julia Florence Schieffelin, which whom he was to have four children.

Plans started in 1907 to build Titanic, which was to be the jewel of the fleet of ships White Star Line then owned. Luxury, size and capacity were what it wanted, as transatlantic routes were extremely lucrative.

Maritime safety regulations a century ago were tokenist. Titanic had ballrooms, a gym, a sweeping staircase and luxury cabins – but, in line with the law, only 14 standard lifeboats, four collapsible lifeboats and two emergency cutters. There were meant to be 48 lifeboats, but at that time most lifeboats sat on a ship’s deck, taking up space, instead of hanging over its side. Ismay cut the number of lifeboats to make more promenade space – a decision that was to haunt him for the rest of his life.

Ismay, who was travelling first class, left Titanic on the last lifeboat. He said afterwards that he couldn’t see any women or children on deck as he entered it. Media outrage at his survival when so many had died turned him into a very public scapegoat; a persistent myth is that he got into the lifeboat disguised as a woman.

Ismay retired from public life soon after the disaster, relinquishing his position as chairman of White Star Line in 1913. He bought the ocean-front Costelloe Lodge in Costelloe, Co Galway, that year, attracted by its remoteness and its salmon and trout fishing.

Ismay’s reputation never recovered. He spent several months a year in Ireland until he died, in London, in 1937. After his death his wife continued to spend summers in Costelloe. She erected a stone to his memory in the garden of their Connemara house. The inscription reads: “In memory of Bruce Ismay, who spent many happy hours here 1913-1936. He loved all wild and solitary places, where we taste the pleasure of believing that what we see is boundless as we wish our souls to be.”

Today Costelloe Lodge remains in private ownership. It was last put up for sale in 2004; the agent’s advertisement in this newpaper invited offers in excess of €1.5 million. It didn’t sell. Within the past year the owner has given the memorial stone to Cobh Town Council. Cllr Paddy Whitty says there are plans to put it in a Titanic memorial garden in Cobh; he hopes the stone will be on display by the end of the year.

Costelloe is a village between the ribbon developments that now run between Spiddal and Rossaveel. It is still rural, but a century ago, when Ismay bought Costelloe Lodge, it was extremely remote.

Liam Mac Con Iomaire grew up in Bridge House, the house closest to the lodge. He was born the year Ismay died. “My father was employed by Ismay to work as a gillie and a bailiff,” he says, explaining that the estate employed 10 water bailiffs to prevent poaching.

The Ismays were big local employers, albeit primarily of men. “There were much fewer women employed. The gentry brought their own maids, butlers and cooks from London.”

Mac Con Iomaire grew up knowing that the husband of his famous neighbour had been on Titanic. “His nickname around the place was Brú síos mé,” he says. “I heard it from locals later in life; it was a pun in Irish on his English name, meaning ‘push me down’ – to the lifeboat.”

His parents were invited to Christmas parties at the lodge. “There used to be a hooley once a year in the house. There was food and drink and plenty of both, I heard.”

Mac Con Iomaire now lives in Dublin, but his brother Micheál still lives in Costelloe. “My only memory of Mrs Ismay is that she used to visit the national school every year at the end of September or the beginning of October. It was at the end of the fishing season and before she went back to London.”

Mac Con Iomaire recalls Florence Ismay visiting the classrooms and leaving a box of sweets in each one. “They were sweets with wrappings,” he says. “They were the first sweets we ever saw with wrapping on them.”

By all accounts the Ismays were liked and respected in Costelloe. “People spoke highly of them for the simple reason they gave a lot of employment to the area, including ourselves. This area was very poor then. People were just eking out a living out of fishing and small farms.”

Mac Con Iomaire says newspapers and radios were scarce then. “Most people mightn’t have been aware of the Titanic story in the way we are today.”

His family had four cows and supplied the lodge with milk twice a day. The person who delivered it often returned with food. “Especially when they had house parties. It was our first introduction to fruit like bananas and pears.” The Ismays also distributed surplus catch from their many fishing parties.

Mac Con Iomaire was 14 before he fully understood the connection his home place had with the Titanic story. “I’ve often thought about why he chose to live here, by the sea. Did it remind him of what had happened?”

Marion Ridge is the third generation of her family to live in the house she occupies at the edge of the village, with its striking views over the sea. She rummages in a folder and brings out a perfectly preserved handwritten letter, which was sent to her grandfather Coleman by Bruce Ismay. Her grandfather, who died when Ridge was four, had worked for Ismay as a carpenter. He wrote to him asking for a reference for Ridge’s father, who wanted to enter the navy. Ismay replied: “If your son will give my name to the naval people in Liverpool I will be glad to answer any questions they put that I am able to do. Will help in any way I can. Yours truly, Bruce Ismay.”

Does Ridge see any irony in the fact that her grandfather was seeking Ismay’s name as a referee for a naval college, when he was partially responsible for one of the most famous maritime disasters of all time? “My grandfather wouldn’t have thought of that at all,” Ridge says. “To him, Ismay would just have been the local gentry who had contacts.”

At the village’s furniture-making warehouse, Micheál O’Domhnaill says he “was always aware” of Ismay. “We did the Titanic in school. You could see the lodge out the windows of our school. The known fact around here is that he dressed as a woman to get into a lifeboat.”

Kit O’Flaherty says: “They say today that Ismay was the cause of the disaster because he refused to put more lifeboats on the ship.” She ran the pub that carries her name from 1952 until 2005 and says she is the oldest in the village now.

Not everyone in Costelloe today knows who Bruce Ismay was. The girl behind the village’s only bar, who prefers not to give her name, says tentatively that she knows the name. Does she know his connection with Titanic? “No, but I know he wasn’t the captain,” she says. “What did he do?”