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.

1 comment:

  1. Darach, this is an amazing story. Thanks for drawing my attention to it. But remember that if your great grandfather had in fact gone on the Titanic and got the more newsworthy story, you might never have been here at all. The odds were that he wouldn't have survived either to file his story or to father your grandfather / grandmother!