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Ship of Dreams- Titanic Fiction

In 2008, Irish fiction writer, Martina Devlin published a novel based on the story of her grandmother’s uncle. “Ship of Dreams” published by Poolbeg Press tells the story of Tom O’Brien and his fiancée, Johanna (Hannah) Godfrey who eloped together from Pallasgreen in County Limerick bound for America on board Titanic. They were steerage passengers who were going to live with one of Tom’s sisters in Chicago. When Titanic hit the iceberg, Tom was lost whereas Hannah and her best friend found a place on the lifeboat. Hannah was expecting a baby. Martina fictionalises Hannah’s early life in New York, the job she gets in a laundry, her interaction with fellow survivors from the same lifeboat and the birth of her daughter, Marion.

Martina says, “When I was writing Ship of Dreams, there was a real sense of blood calling to blood. I had a photo of my granny's Uncle Tom O’Brien in front of me as I wrote, and I felt that telling his story was a way of reclaiming a family member who was lost to us. Both literally, and almost in family memory too. There wasn’t even a body – steerage class tended not to have anything to identify them, like wallets or shirt collars with initials. There is a mass grave in Halifax in Nova Scotia where unidentified bodies are buried, and I sometimes wonder if he might lie there.“

Ship_of_dreams-small.jpgMany of the details about Tom and Hannah had been lost over the years and little was known about how Hannah managed to build a life for herself in 1912 New York. That allowed Martina to give her family story a fictional bent. Real characters from the Titanic are woven in to the narrative. For instance, she writes about the actress, Dorothy Gibson and her silent movie interpretation of the Titanic disaster, “Saved from the Titanic”. A version of Lady Madeleine Astor also receives a storyline. Martina had artistic licence to fill in the blanks of her great great aunt’s endeavours to earn a living and bring up her daughter alone.

She says, “I became a Titanic anorak. Fortunately there was a lot of contemporary information available, from books to newspaper articles. But I was more interested in steerage passengers, and their voices weren’t heard. Survivors’ accounts were written by first and second class passengers, not by penniless emigrants. So I had a lot of digging round to do there. While the other main characters in Ship of Dreams are fictional, they are representative of the types of people who were on board. For example there was an Englishman in second class who was a teacher, and he wrote about the sinking. He complained about the lack of a lifeboat place for every passenger. I used him as the basis for one of my characters. But this is where fiction comes in, and where characters take on a life of their own. The real teacher sounds a bit stuffy, and initially my character has a prim and proper streak a mile wide – but when he meets the Irish girls in my story, his outlook broadens and he becomes more likeable.” 

Hannah is a feisty character who can definitely be viewed as a survivor. She came from steerage class which meant the odds were automatically stacked against her. Not only did she manage to find a place on the lifeboat, but beyond that, she managed to bring up her daughter without accepting help from anyone else. She never succumbs to grief or self-pity about the loss of her husband.

Martina Devlin beside the Titanic Queenstown passenger list - names marked with a cross were lostFamily who remained behind in Ireland never met Hannah Godfrey’s daughter, Marion.  Martina says, “I would have loved Marion to know her father’s people – Tom had four sisters in Chicago, one of them my great-grandmother. They offered a home to Hannah and her baby, but Hannah declined it and there was a rift between the families. However, I always felt glad for Tom O'Brien that, although he never set foot in the US, he had a child born there who thrived; a child who gave him grandchildren and in turn great-grandchildren. So some part of him made it to that new life in the US after all. “
The names of Tom O’Brien and Hannah Godfrey appear on a memorial in Cobh, formerly Queenstown, where Titanic made her last stop and where the Irish steerage passengers boarded. Passengers who died have a cross beside their name. Martina visited Cobh especially to pay tribute to Tom and Hannah, but what she would like to do next is visit Halifax, Nova Scotia to pay her respects at the graves of all those unnamed, unclaimed Titanic passengers and crew members gathered up from the sea.

“Ship of Dreams” is still available from Poolbeg Publishers and a centenary edition is being considered.

Visit Martina Devlin's website

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