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SS Nomadic, Belfast
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Ballycastle- Titanic Places- Titanic Places of Interest
Titanic Ballycastle Connections
About 70 miles away from Belfast, on the North Antrim coast, sits the town of Ballycastle. A Victorian seaside resort, the town is probably most famous for the Ould Lammas Fair, a festival held at the end of August and immortalised in song. Who would have thought that this popular holiday spot would have had three strong links to the story of Titanic?
Local man Sean McMichael, who now lives and works in Dublin, has spent the past few years following the trail of his home town’s forgotten story. It all started when he booked a ticket on board the Titanic Memorial Cruise. Sean wanted to pay tribute to local man, James Blaney, one of the engine crew who was lost on Titanic but because the family had not lived in Ireland since the 1900s, little or nothing was known about James’s back story.
No ordinary shop
One of Sean’s first pieces of detective work was to visit an old hardware store in Ballycastle’s main street. Sharpe and McKinley is no ordinary shop. It has been in business since mid-Victorian times and is an Aladdin’s cave of stock. What first alerted Sean to its connections with the White Star Line and Titanic was a faded poster nailed to a door which proclaimed that Daniel McKinley, Gerry’s uncle, was a White Star ticket agent. Further investigation revealed a counter, desk and a sign for the office at the back of the shop where customers would have come to make their travel arrangements and to book their passage on the White Star Liners.
(Image caption: Sean McMichael with Gerry McKinley outside the shop.)
Sean says, 'The ticket office itself was effectively still intact, complete with its angled clerk’s desk and other one hundred year old ephemera. Of most interest to me were many ticket books relating to trans-Atlantic passages bought by around four hundred local people.'
The desk is crammed with pieces of paper and proprietor, Gerry agrees that there is every possibility that more old ticket stubs are contained within it. The McKinley’s were also agents for the Anchor Line which sailed from Londonderry. During the most recent visit to the shop, Sean unearthed posters advertising passage between Londonderry (in actual fact, Moville in County Donegal) and America.
(Image caption: Gerry McKinley with one of the Anchor line posters discovered in the former ticket office.)
Sean McMichael’s curiosity levels were now at fever pitch. If there was such a demand for emigration tickets from the town of Ballycastle, he wanted to know more about some of the families who had taken that step into the unknown.
The first answer lay just a few yards up the street. In a back alleyway was what appeared to be an old blacksmith’s shop with living accommodation above. Sean had already ascertained that Titanic’s James Blaney came from a family of blacksmiths who had moved there from Rasharkin, a small town in County Antrim and later from Ballintoy, a fishing village not far from Ballycastle. Further researches revealed that James had four sisters and one brother and from the 1890’s onwards, the family can be traced as heading to the New England states of America, in particular the city of Boston. The ticket stubs from Daniel McKinley’s shipping agency were filling in the blanks of the story. They showed the eldest daughter, Mary Ann making frequent trips across the Atlantic to visit her family.
James never joined the rest of the Blaneys in the United States. Sean speculates that perhaps his voyage on Titanic was intended to take him to Massachusetts. He joined the Royal Navy and later the British army and his adventures took him to Africa, Australia and South America. For a few years, he worked at an engineering firm near Glasgow.
He arrived back in London in early 1912 on board the Narrung. He signed up for a White Star crossing from Southampton to New York on the maiden voyage of RMS Titanic. 27 year old James boarded the ship at Southampton and because he gave his address as the sailor’s home there, a connection with Ireland was not immediately made. In fact, his name does not appear on the Titanic Memorial in Belfast. By 1909, the remaining Blaney family had left Ballycastle for America so perhaps there was no-one to inform the authorities of James’s position on Titanic. Needless to say, James did not survive. His body was never recovered. Further confusion was caused by the misspelling of his name at the American inquiry, which listed him as Blancey.
(Image caption: Sean McMichael at what he believes to be the former home of James Blaney, Titanic engine crew.)
Sean is now piecing together the Blaney story with the help of descendants from the family who now live in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Some of James Blaney’s sisters did well for themselves when they emigrated to Boston, marrying into a successful construction business and lived on Commonwealth Avenue, the most prestigious address in the city. His nephew, also called James, became a millionaire. The hope is that at some point during his travels at sea, James sent home a portrait photograph to his family in the little forge off the main street of Ballycastle and that it still exists in the family collection somewhere.
Ballycastle and Guglielmo Marconi
The third and perhaps better known connection between Ballycastle and Titanic surrounds the work of Guglielmo Marconi. The first successful commercial demonstrations of radio telegraphy across water were conducted between the Northern cliffs of Ballycastle and the Eastern lighthouse on Rathlin Island, some six miles away in the summer of 1898. Marconi’s assistants spent many weeks in the town and the inventor himself visited for about a week. His first attempts to send the signals were conducted using the tall spire of St Patrick’s and St Brigid’s Catholic church in the town centre. A memorial now stands close to the spot where the first successful experiments were carried out. The Marconi International Marine Communication Company was responsible for the installation and operation of Titanic’s wireless equipment. Radio operators, Jack Phillips and
were employed not by White Star, but by Marconi.
(Image caption: Marconi memorial on cliffs at Ballycastle.)
Sean McMichael is continuing his researches into the Blaney family story. He is convinced that further historical treasures are stored under the stock at Gerry McKinley’s hardware store. They tell the story, not just of the Blaneys and their Titanic connection but also of the wider story of emigration from Ireland in the mid to late nineteenth century. Next St Patrick’s Day, Sean and his brother, Aidan, are planning a guided walk around the streets of the town and their secret Titanic connections.
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Very interesting read as we all try to piece history together. Very fascinating, walking in history.
06 December 2011
I like RMS Titanic.
kuldeep singh tanwar
06 December 2011
Discover more about Northern Ireland
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