Ken McCormack looks back at some heartbreaking and mysterious stories linking the ill-fated Titanic with Derry and the north west.
In the year 1901 a young man from Donegal presented himself at Lipton’s Store, No 5 Bishop Street, Derry, and so impressed the manager that he was immediately employed to work for the famous company. The youth was 17 year-old Neal McNamee of Rooskey Lower, a townland in the countryside between Convoy and Castlefin in East Donegal, and from that moment his fate was sealed - even though the doomed ship Titanic in which he would travel was not yet built.
The McNamee tale is heartbreaking – a loving family, a bright boy, a sweetheart and a honeymoon trip aboard the world’s greatest ship that ended in the most catastrophic tragedy 100 years ago. As the ancients would say, Rota Fortunae – the Wheel of Fortune - was waiting in the wings to dole out misfortune in its usual capricious and devastating way.
Neal was second in a family of five, with a younger brother and three sisters – all of them well schooled. Neal is described as intelligent, assured and highly competent. His mother was Catherine and his father was William, a road contractor who also did some farming. The parents were very caring and family life was happy.
Young McNamee continued to make an impact in Derry and within a couple of years was offered the post of trainee provisions manager in Lipton’s of Salisbury, Wiltshire, in the south of England. It was here that he met and fell in love with Eileen O’Leary, who’d come to work as a shop assistant in the same Lipton’s branch. Eileen was a Protestant of Irish extraction and by all accounts was a stylish, charming and very capable young woman. She attended the local Baptist church and helped with the afternoon Sunday school.
The love match was welcomed for the popular young folk were well-known through their excellent work in Lipton’s Salisbury store. All the while Neal’s good fortune was improving for his post was extended to take in nearby Bournemouth. Soon none other than Sir Thomas Lipton became aware of the bright young Irish man who was contributing so much to his business. Lipton was a wealthy self-made man from Glasgow who’d built a successful tea and grocery chain, and he wasted no time in offering Neal the opportunity to work for Lipton’s in America.
It seemed that a bright future was in prospect for the young couple. They married on 17 January 1912 at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, Bournemouth, and opted to have their honeymoon aboard the great new ship Titanic that would make her maiden voyage from Southampton in the coming April. Naturally it was all excitement in preparation for the voyage. Eileen bought a special outfit including a beautiful white blouse embroidered with a little blue anchor. She was given a special letter of recommendation from the pastor of the Baptist church, William Pritchard, who also was the mayor of Salisbury, and he presented her with a going away present of a beautiful traveller’s bible.
Meanwhile, Sir Thomas Lipton wrote a personal note of introduction for Neal to present to the Lipton officials in America. Neal intended to visit the New York headquarters and hoped eventually to take up a post in Philadelphia.
Neal McNamee and his new wife Eileen boarded the Titanic at Southampton on a joint third class ticket on 10 April 1912. Steerage, as 3rd class was know,n was quite good and they would have encountered many Irish emigrants.
There is no exact figure for numbers on the Titanic but it is estimated that there were 2228 passengers on board, including 918 crew, all of which, astonishingly, were served by 20 lifeboats. So in an emergency, at best only half the passengers might be saved.
The frightening outcome has often been told. It’s believed that the steerage passengers more or less had to fend for themselves after the Titanic hit an iceberg on 14 April 1912 at about 11:30pm. Neal and Eileen were among 708 passengers in steerage and they would perish along with 516 others in this class. Only 180 of the steerage complement survived; 75% were lost in this category. In total 804 passengers and 703 crew died so over 1500 were drowned on that tragic night.
It is almost too frightful to imagine the horror that the honeymoon couple and all the others faced in that living nightmare. The body of Neal McNamee, the fine young man who’d worked in Lipton’s of Derry, was never found. Eileen’s body was recovered and unbelievably buried at sea – thee’s been controversy since about how the bodies of the well-off were brought back to land for burial.
However, Eileen’s effects were retained and how sad it is to relate that she was wearing the beautiful blouse with the little blue anchor when she was found. Her treasured wedding ring was on her finger and the ticket for the voyage was in her purse.
Amid the grief back in Salisbury her mother recalled, “They were so excited about the voyage and their new life together. I was with Eileen when she was packing her trunk and the last thing she put in was the bible Mr Pritchard gave her.”
Books, dramas and newspaper articles have recalled the sad story of Neal and Eileen. Their in-laws retain fond memories of the beautiful young couple and without doubt they will be in the thoughts of many this weekend. They were remembered in a ceremony at the McNamee family plot at St Mary’s Church in Convoy on Wednesday night. A summer seat and tree have been placed in the public park at Salisbury in memory of Neal and Eileen.