Tuesday 10 April 2012

My great-grandad missed the Titanic

Columbia, left, fends off a challenge from the Shamrock in 1899, first of many successive Irish bids for the America's Cup
My great-grandfather was a newsman from the tips of his toes to the brim of the felt hat on which he practised his shorthand during the sermon while in church. One hundred years ago today, 10 April 1912, he had to make a choice between two stories.
One was a chance to go on board the Shamrock III, a racing yacht that was then the latest in a series of five challenging for the most prestigious prize of all, the America’s Cup.
The alternative story was to go out on a tender to the latest in a series of ocean liners plying the north Atlantic route. That seemed a mundane assignment compared to the chance of skimming the waters of Cork Harbour in a sleek vessel owned by the tea millionaire, Sir Thomas Lipton.
My great-grandfather Michael Bowen made his choice. Sure he could always go on board the Titanic when it called back on its return voyage!
A century later, it seems like the greatest mistake one could possibly make in a journalistic career. Yet by contemporary standards, he made the correct choice. Any seasoned reporter covering maritime affairs for the Cork Examiner, as well as the Daily Mail and its sister newspapers in London, would have had little hesitation in going for the chance to sail in the Shamrock III.
Sir Thomas Lipton (1848-1931, had been born in Glasgow to parents who had emigrated from the Clones area of County Fermanagh. From exceptionally humble beginnings, he went to sea as a cabin boy and embarked on a remarkable business career, soon becoming a self-made millionaire.
Yet Lipton was also renowned as ‘the most persistent challenger in the history of the America’s Cup’ and his yachts flew the flag for Ireland with the Royal Ulster Yacht Club in every successive challenge for the prize between 1899 and 1930. This was the only time in history that Ireland was the exclusive challenger for the ornate silver jug trophy.
Self-made millionaire Sir Thomas Lipton.
In 1899, Lipton provided the finance for the William Fife-designed yacht, Shamrock. While it failed against Columbia, owned by the Pierpont-Morgan syndicate from the United States, Lipton was a mastermind of publicity. He raised the America’s Cup event to rapturous international appeal. This also boosted Lipton’s tea on a market surge that was considerably more successful than the ocean race bids.
Lipton was back in 1901 with Shamrock II, again pipped by the Columbia. Undaunted, he and the Royal Ulster Yacht Club challenged the Reliance, owned by the Vanderbilts, in 1903. This time it was the Shamrock III that carried the flag and the hope.
It was that sleek vessel that my great-grandfather boarded a hundred years ago today at Queenstown for a once-in-a-lifetime story. One suspects that as they plied the waves, he just gave passing attention to the big ship lying off the mouth of the harbour beyond. It was no more than a date for his dairy if it did not have that fateful rendezvous with an iceberg in its own race for glory through treacherous ocean waters.
The Titanic was lost, of course, and Sir Thomas Lipton failed in his further challenges for the America’s Cup with Shamrock IV and Shamrock V in 1920 and 1930.   
Yet the publicity of his challenges propelled his tea brand to the premier spot in the American market.
As for my great grandfather, three years after the Titanic, a chance remark that the tenders had gone out from one of my grand-aunts returning from school alerted him to a possible story. Michael Bowen rushed down to the harbour office and managed to get on board another boat setting out for the Old Head of Kinsale. 
When he returned with survivors a few hours later, he immediately filed a story to London.
The Lusitania was torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale.
The Evening Standard ran a special late edition on 5 May 1915 announcing the ‘Sinking of the Lusitania’scooping every other news organisation by a full day on the biggest story of the era in terms of its consequences.
Of the 1,959 on board, 1,198 perished when a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania as it approached the mouth of Cork Harbour. The huge loss of lives, including many Americans on board, caused outrage and convinced the United States to enter the First World War and help defeat Germany.
And my great-grandfather? He got a bonus and a handshake from Lord Northcliffe and spent the closing years of his journalism career plying between his home in Queenstown (soon to be renamed Cobh) and Southampton and Cherbourg while filing stories of the great ocean liners and the VIPs on board.
Yet I bet Michael Bowen would have traded all that to see Thomas Lipton lift the America’s Cup for the Royal Ulster Yacht Club with an Irish victory for one of the Shamrocks.

Saturday 7 April 2012

Map-reading errors persist on Border

Geographic confusion continues along the border with news organisations filling in blanks of knowledge on a ‘best guess’ stab at what might be almost right.
Tonight, the Frontier Post antennae went up when we saw a news item on BBC about an explosive device that ‘could have killed’ at a roundabout on the AI Dublin to Belfast road.
The report said that this was at ‘Newry, County Down’. However, the actual location was at the Cloghogue roundabout.
Now those of us who were held up – both delayed and detained – many times in the course of our duties during the recent conflict are familiar with the location of Cloghogue. A huge British Army checkpoint grew up there over the course of those years, eventually surmounted by one of those big observation towers festooned with surveillance equipment for watching and listening.
It was not something you could have missed noticing either even driving by on the AI.
Today, it seems, Cloghogue is just a roundabout, so anonymous in peacetime reporting that it has shifted counties. For if somebody had done their homework before placing it so definitively, they would find out that Cloghogue is in County Armagh.
The confusion is hardly surprising, since everywhere prefaced by the name of Newry is now assumed to be in County Down, although about half of the town/city remains in Armagh where it has always been. Yet that is not the greatest infringement of geographic confusion along the Border.
South Armagh is included in the Newry and Mourne district for administrative purposes and also for modern postal addresses that operate on a postcode numbers rather than actual places on the traditional map which in rural areas was composed of townlands.
So Crossmaglen, served from Newry, is transferred to Down, along with Forkhill, Camlough, Newtownhamilton and other communities. No wonder there were frequent reports of map-reading errors down the years from squaddies who could not hope to rely on places staying in the one spot!
The late Paddy Short, a south Armagh man who never lost his way.
The civil rights activist, guide, publican and wonderful raconteur Paddy Short of Crossmaglen used to marvel about the geographic displacement caused by substituting townland names with postal codes and signs for arbitrary road names. 
One such wonder was in his native townland of Lurgancullenboy, which had been designated as ‘Lurgan Road, Crossmaglen, County Down’ in the official housekeeping. 
Paddy laughed heartily at that, pointing out that Lurgancullenboy was still in County Armagh and anybody taking that road would be going off in the opposite direction of Lurgan which, for those who do not have a good map handy, is in the north of County Armagh and quite near both County Down and County Antrim.
Built in Belfast, County Down. Sunk in Atlantic Ocean.
In fairness, the geographic confusion it’s not just a Border problem. Anywhere north of Drogheda seems to be a grey unknown area for many in the Dublin media, just as Belfast media can barely see beyond Dromore – that is the one in County Down for our Tyrone followers. 
Maybe the ultimate justice in this is that current events in the Titanic Quarter are assumed to be happening in Belfast, County Antrim, while they are actually happening in County Down.
Such careless navigation might even explain how somebody could have missed a big iceberg! Surely if so many can misplace a roundabout, and an entire city or two, what chance is there of pinpointing a big lump of frozen water on a vast and dark Atlantic Ocean?
Back on the Border, but in the north-west this time, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister was in Newtownstewart last week sounding off to his vast coterie of West Tyrone followers (well, almost a dozen). His clarion cry was that any improvements of the A5 road, which runs from Derry city to the border at Aughnacloy, ‘will create a united Ireland by road’. Mind you, this is after the Dublin government has withdrawn funding from the project, notwithstanding that it would vastly improve access to and from Donegal. Now it’s just Jim Allister ranting about a major road project for the use of people west of the Bann. Somebody must have misplaced his map too.
There are persistent culprits when it comes to this ‘pin in a map’ guesswork. They needn’t think we don’t notice at the Frontier Post.