A Year After The Titanic Sank Beneath The Waves, A Family Far Away Received A Message From The Dead

Jeremiah Burke is about to die. His ship is foundering, a terminally compromised vessel. And all around him is chaos – hundreds of people are scrambling for their lives. Resigned to his fate, Burke scribbles a message on some paper, pushes it inside an empty bottle of holy water and corks it. Then he tosses it overboard into the dark, icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Prior to its fatal collision with an iceberg, the Titanic had received multiple warnings about treacherous conditions. In fact, two different vessels had contacted the ship that very night by wireless, informing them of nearby ice fields. And while the captain changed course, he did not decelerate. So the Titanic steamed towards its fate at a speed of 22 knots.

In the ship’s crow’s nest, two lookouts scanned the darkness for the jagged peaks of icebergs. However, their task was hindered by unusually still conditions. With few visible waves, it was hard to identify the edges of obstacles. Furthermore, their binoculars had been misplaced. Nonetheless, at around 11:40 p.m., approximately 460 miles south of Newfoundland in Canada, they spotted a berg and contacted the bridge.

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So first officer William Murdoch threw the engines in reverse as part of a “hard-a-starboard” turn – a turn towards the ship’s port side. But it was too late, and the ship’s side scraped along a lethal outcrop, tearing open a 300-feet-long hole. The ship started filling with water, its bow sinking. Ironically, experts now think that had the ship collided with the berg head-on, it probably would have survived.

As it was, the impact was devastating. The Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic, as it was formally known, stayed afloat for approximately four more hours. During that time, the crew issued several distress signals, but they could not prevent the unfolding of a deadly catastrophe. Ultimately, some 1,500 passengers and crew died in the disaster. It was the ship’s maiden voyage.

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Born in Glanmire, County Cork, Ireland in 1893, Burke was the youngest of seven children. A strapping 19-year-old farm boy who stood 6 foot 2 inches tall, he had grown up working on his family’s 70-acre homestead. Then, in the Spring of 1912, he resolved to visit his two sisters in Boston, America.

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Yes, the two older sisters had moved to Charlestown in Boston, Massachusetts. And they encouraged him to visit them, even sending money to help pay for his fare. So Burke planned to reside with his oldest sister Mary, who was then pregnant with her first child. Accompanying him on his transatlantic trip was his 18-year-old cousin Nora Hegarty.

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So the pair traveled to the port of Queenstown in a pony and trap belonging to Burke’s father, William. And a group of friends and relatives had gathered dockside to wave them off. Indeed, they passed on their blessings and chattered excitedly. Sadly, fate had other plans for the two.

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Now, Burke had purchased ticket number 365222 for the modern-day equivalent of around $860. And it was a third-class ticket – the cheapest and only viable option for poor people such as himself. Meanwhile, before they departed, Burke’s mother gave him the bottle of Holy Water which he would later toss into the sea.

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While abroad, Burke and Hegarty made friends with their fellow travelers, one Eugene Daly among them, who was a 29-year-old mechanic and weaver from Cork. And he’d decided to cross the pond after toiling for more than 10 years in local wool mills. As we’re about to find out, Daly was a particularly musical chap.

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Yes, Among Daly’s possessions was a set of traditional Irish uilleann pipes. In fact, Daly was a piper in several local bands including the Gaelic League, the Irish National Foresters Band and the Clan Uisneach War Pipers’ Band. And he reportedly played as the Titanic set sail from Queenstown, earning the applause and admiration of his shipmates.

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Now, rivalry between transatlantic shipping lines was intense in the early 20th century. Demand for passage to America was high and commercial flights did not exist. In fact, the Titanic was built by White Star Line in response to its main competitor, Cunard. You see, Cunard had launched two big vessels in 1907 – the Mauretania and the Lusitania, both known for their speed.

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And the Titanic was one of three ships commissioned by White Star’s Chairman J. Bruce Ismay as a commercial riposte to Cunard. Constructed largely by Harland and Wolff, a Belfast shipbuilding yard, the ships were designed for scale and luxury rather than speed. So the Titanic and her sisters, the Olympic and the Britannic, were a new kind of behemoth passenger liner with unprecedented capacity.

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Anyway, construction of the Titanic commenced in March 1909 and did not stop for two years. And its hull was completed on May 31, 1911, breaking the then record for the world’s largest transportable man made object. Its flawless launch onto the River Lagan was attended by some 100,000 spectators. From there, it was towed to a large dock for fitting out.

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Thousands of laborers set to work constructing the ship’s decks and engine rooms, installing no fewer than 29 mammoth boilers. And its extravagant amenities included a pool, four elevators and a first-class dining room complete with ornate fixtures. In fact, its second-class cabins were comparable to first class offerings on rival lines. Meanwhile, its third class or steerage accommodation – were remarkably comfortable.

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What’s more, the ship’s design included 16 watertight compartments or bulkheads fitted with electric doors. In the event of a hull breach, the bulkheads could be opened or closed from the bridge, containing any potential flood. In fact, according to the ship’s designers, some four bulkheads could be fully flooded without compromising buoyancy. This state-of-the-art safety feature led Shipbuilder magazine to proclaim that the Titanic was “practically unsinkable.”

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True to its name, the Titanic was a singularly gargantuan vessel. Upon completion it measured 882.5 feet long and 92.5 feet wide. And it weighed more than 52,000 tons. Its prestigious maiden voyage drew a slew of well-to-do celebrities and businesspeople, including Benjamin Guggenheim and the co-owner of Macy’s department store, Isidor Straus.

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Anyway, the ship set sail from the port of Southampton in the United Kingdom on April 10, 1912. And it was perhaps a bad omen that the event very nearly resulted in a major accident. Indeed, as the Titanic launched, it created powerful currents that caused a docked ship to sway into its path. In fact, the situation demanded an hour of careful manoeuvres to avert a collision.

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Four days later, in the open sea, the Titanic struck an iceberg. Unaware of their fate, the passengers in steerage were having a ball, according to Daly, who described “a great deal of dancing and singing” in a letter. However, at the precise moment of the collision, Daly had been in bed. And the account he subsequently narrated to the British newspaper The Daily Sketch was vivid and unsettling.

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He said, “I was in compartment 23… steerage… I was in my bunk asleep… A crash woke me up. It nearly threw me from my bed. I got up and went to the door. I put on my trousers and shoes. I met a steward in the gangway. He said there was nothing serious… [So] I went back for a little while. Then I went up on deck as I heard a noise there. People were running around.”

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As we now know, the Titanic was far from unsinkable. Ironically, its safety features were fatally flawed. For although the ship’s 16 bulkheads could individually cope with a flood of water, the walls between them were little higher than the water line. This meant that as the ship started to tilt, water flowed from one bulkhead to the next, filling them up, one after the other.

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Amid the chaos, Daly retreated to steerage and located the cabin of two female companions, Maggie Daly and Bridget Mulvihill. After scuffling with a stranger over a lifebelt, the trio headed in search of a boat. Daly told The Daily Sketch, “There was a great deal of noise at this time and water was coming in. We knelt down and prayed in the gangway… [Then] we went to the deck but there were no boats going off.”

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He continued, “We went to the second cabin deck. A boat was being lowered there. It was being filled with women. Maggie and Bertha got in, and I got in. The officer called me to go back, but I got in. Life was sweet to me and I wanted to save myself. They told me to get out, but I didn’t stir. Then they got hold of me and pulled me out. Then the boat was lowered and went off.”

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With hindsight, lifeboat provision proved to be another critical flaw in the Titanic’s design, despite exceeding the safety requirements of the British Board of Trade. You see, the ship had a capacity of 3,300 people including passengers and crew. However, the vessel had just 16 lifeboats and four Engelhardt “collapsibles” with a combined capacity for 1,178. What’s more, the boats were launched underfilled, sometimes by half or more.

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And tensions flared as the crowds tussled over the remaining lifeboat places, most of them reserved for women and children. Daly later recalled how several Italians stormed the stairs, some of them brandishing weapons and yanking women out of their way. As the crowds pressed forward, an officer drew his gun and threatened to shoot anyone who flouted procedure.

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Daly told The Daily Sketch, “Two men tried to break through and he shot them both. I saw him shoot them. I saw them lying thereafter they were shot. One seemed to be dead. The other was trying to pull himself up at the side of the deck, but he could not… Afterward, there was another shot and I saw the officer himself lying on the deck. They told me he shot himself.”

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At that point, Daly sped across the deck. For a collapsible craft was trapped under some cables and, along with six or seven other passengers, he struggled to release it. Then, with a sudden lurch of the ship, the collapsible canvas broke free and disappeared into the sea. There appeared to be no more available life rafts.

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With no options left, Daly dived into the water. He then spotted an upturned collapsible, swam towards it and, along with around 15 other lucky souls, managed to climb on top. He told The Daily Sketch , “As I stood on the craft, I saw the ship go down. Her stern went up and she gradually sunk down forward, her stern stuck up high.”

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Meanwhile, at some point in all the chaos, Burke managed to scribble a note, seal it inside a bottle and throw it overboard. Neither he nor his cousin survived. But the bottle, which contained Burke’s last message to the world, soon got swept up in ocean currents. Slowly, slowly, it travelled east towards Europe, towards the lands from which it had come.

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Then, in the summer of 1913, a little more than a year after the accident, a postman was walking his dog on a shingle beach in Dunkettle near Cork harbour. And he stumbled on the bottle, washed up, weathered but entirely intact. So he passed it onto the Irish police.

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Written in Burke’s handwriting, the message was a final farewell to the world. It simply read, “from Titanic, Goodbye all, Burke of Glanmire, Cork.” Subsequently, the Royal Irish Constabulary passed it on to Burke’s family. But how could they be sure that the message was, in any case, genuine?

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Of course, it wasn’t the first time that a message-in-a-bottle had made its way to shore from a sinking ship. However, most such messages turned out to be hoaxes. This was the case with at least three different ships, including the Yongala, the Waratah and the Huronian. Nonetheless, Burke’s note is widely believed to be authentic.

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Speaking to Irish TV in February 1998, Burke’s grand-niece, Brid O’Flynn said, “This is unmistakably that bottle that had left 13 months previously and unmistakably her son’s handwriting. A bottle of holy water in those days that your mother gave you was a reverent thing. It wasn’t something you threw out the side as you left Ireland. To me it senses of panic.”

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Meanwhile, according to another of Jeremiah’s nieces, Mary Woods, Burke’s mother never got to see the message. She told the BBC in 2011, “Jeremiah’s mother didn’t know for days what had happened to him… [When she found out] she died of a broken heart within the year, before Jeremiah’s letter turned up on the beach.”

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In fact, Burke’s mother died of cancer. However, his father lived on for another 18 years, succumbing to pneumonia on May 1, 1931. The bottle and note remained in Burke’s family for the best part of a century, treasured heirlooms and a potent remembrance of the most infamous passenger ship disaster in history.

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However, in 2011 Woods donated the message to a local history museum and cultural center – the Cobh Heritage Centre in Cork. Located within a restored Victorian train station, its exhibitions concern the time when the port of Cobh, then known as Queenstown, was a major maritime gateway to the New World. Burke’s message-in-a-bottle has been included in an exhibition about the Titanic, along with the medals of Titanic photographer Fr. Frank Browne.

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Ultimately, the sinking of the Titanic can be interpreted as a moral fable about the dangers of overconfidence. And its final hours at sea were the scene of countless dramas, of which Burke’s final act was only one. However, his personal story also highlights the capriciousness of nature. On the one hand, the ocean took his life. On the other, it carried his final message home.

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Now, Burke never reached America, but Daly, of course, survived to tell the tale. He attributed his survival to his “lucky coat” – a thick winter overcoat which protected him from sub-zero temperatures until help came. In fact, Daly spent hours immersed in the water up to his hips. And to prevent his raft from sinking entirely, he and his fellow survivors had to push off other swimmers trying to get on.

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Naturally, the experience left him traumatized. After being brought aboard the Carpathia in an unconscious state, he rallied and relayed his account to one of its passengers, Dr. Frank Blackmarr. He said, “I fell… into a mass of people… Children crying, women screaming… My God, if I could only forget those hands and faces that I touched!” He then broke down with sobs.

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Nonetheless, Daly went on to live a full life. In 1917 he married an Englishwoman Lillian Caulfield. They had a daughter together, Marian Joyce, and spent most of their lives between New York and Ireland. Daly was a machinist by trade, a dedicated musician and church goer. Eventually, he died in 1965 at the age of 82. And he never stopped playing the pipes.

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