Unless you are a war reporter, a derring-do newspaper photographer or a globe-roving TV cameraman, most Irish journalists would be lucky (or, unlucky in the more relevant human sense) to be witness to an earth-shaking tragedy that makes world-wide waves and repercussions. To be involved in two such events is even more unlikely.
A century ago, The Cork Examiner’s pioneering press photographer Thomas Barker was an observer and a documenter of elements of not just one, but two, early 20th century tragedies of immense proportions and global significance — the sinkings of the Titanic and of the Lusitania — that came to visit Irish shores, with rich and deep resonances to this day, and beyond.
Through the early, tumultuous decades of the last century, my grandfather was a working press photographer and newspaperman with this paper. In fact, it is acknowledged he was the first full-time staff cameraman of any Irish newspaper, having taken up that role in the late 1800s.
So, he had already had a good and thorough career and amassed expertise when he stepped on board the Titanic in 1912, all in the course of his day’s work, to meet with the captain of that immense ship on her maiden voyage passing through Queenstown, mixing with crew and passengers alike, and getting a tour of the promenades and decks.
Burials in Cobh, May 1915.
He secured many images which — while almost ordinary in their detail — immediately acquired immense significance after the fated ship hit the iceberg.
What must it have been like, just days after taking those images, to realise that almost all of those he’d photographed had perished in icy waters, bodies floating among the liberated flotsam he’d just captured on film, in its then-pristine condition?
Many of Barker’s Titanic images have become iconic, along with those of the passenger Fr Browne who disembarked at Cork Harbour: they included photos of Captain Smith at the bridge, mails being loaded, and paddle steamer tenders the PS America and PS Ireland ferrying passengers to the Titanic.
He pressed his camera shutter on passengers walking the Titanic’s decks among serried rows of deckchairs: those items of White Star line deck furniture went on to acquire a life of their own in the expression about fruitless acts, ‘moving the deckchairs on the Titanic.’
Those Cork Examiner’s photos, taken in the course of a day’s work albeit on a Goliath of a ship, went on to be used in many, many hundreds of newspapers, periodicals and books.
Some of the survivors of the Lusitania tragedy are pictured at Cobh shortly after the event on May 8, 1915.
As a transatlantic (and naval) port of considerable importance, Cork’s newspapers were used to visiting ships as a source of news, and excitement: today’s visiting cruise liners are merely rekindling that centuries’ long link. Many hundreds of jobs centred on those links and ship-borne activity, and many of the world’s great ships and liners made regular passages to and from Cork Harbour.
When the word went out 100 year ago this week that the Lusitania had been sunk off the Old Head of Kinsale by a prowling U-boat, all the region’s emergency services swung into action, from lifeboats to medics, and as swiftly off the mark were the pressmen of the day.
Compete with his cumbersome camera equipment, Thomas Barker snr was one of the very first of his media colleagues to be in Queenstown (now Cobh) when bedraggled survivors of the Lusitania sinking arrived safely on Irish shores. Survivors, thankfully, as well as very many corpses.
He inveigled his way through negotiations with the British Admiralty House in Cobh to be allowed take photographs of survivors, and shortly after of corpses, and detritus, of this shocking event caused by a single German U-boat torpedo off the southern coast, a move which signalled open attacks on shipping by these stealthy, and deadly, vessels.
It wasn’t an easy negotiation to get permission to take photographs: the country was bound up in war on wider fronts, Cork Harbour was an important British base, and images could reveal sensitive naval installations, ships and defences.
Looking back, one can imagine and understand a certain amount of caution and officiousness amid the candour and the shock in the relevant authorities.
Some of the survivors are pictures at the Queenstown railway station shortly after the sinking.
An account in this paper in 1935, on the 20th anniversary of the sinking by the first reporter (initialled DNR; reporter bylines didn’t feature back then) accompanied by Thomas Barker with camera in tow, having just travelled by train to Queenstown, recalled that “cameras weren’t popular with naval authorities just then, and one could easily get arrested for taking photographs”.
“Barker, who was equal to all occasions, had an inspiration. In a casual way, he said an army of London special correspondents and photographers would be over in the morning and would write up and photograph as they pleased, and would have the backing of the Government,” recounted DNR in that 20th anniversary Cork Examiner of the sinking and how the papers recorded it.
“One brain wave gave way to another. The military gentleman had his.
“He rang up Admiralty House once more and put that aspect of the case before them, they promised to consider the matter and let us know later on.”
Recalling the pressing need to document the shock of the yet-fortunate Lusitania survivors, DNR went on to record the success of their approach to naval contacts and hierarchy.
“Our military friend saw no objection: in fact, photography of shivering survivors and rescued corpses would be good propaganda, especially if they happened to be American citizens. He didn’t put it as crudely as that. But the suggestion was present”.
The argument of a propaganda coup was prescient; 123 of the 1,195 deaths were of American citizens, and the sinking as part of Germany’s blockade of the British Isles and strangling of shipping routes helped propel the US into the First World War — albeit not until 1917.
One of those motivators was the photographic images of mass graves in Queenstown, many with American flags, taken by the Examiner’s man on the spot, Thomas Barker, among others.
A total of 169 of the 289 bodies recovered from the Lusitania were buried at the Old Church Cemetery in Cobh
Around another decade anniversary, in 1995, noted oceanographer, explorer and researcher Robert Ballard came to Cork with a submersible to dive on the Lusitania (he also dived on the Titanic, Britannic and Bismarck, publishing his bestseller book Lost Liners, in 1997.)
As an Examiner news reporter, I met with and interviewed Ballard’s crew in ‘95, and one of the dive team told me “your grandfather’s photographs are in American history schoolbooks, as shocking images they helped bring America into the First World War”.
Photographs were taken of fortunate survivors in evident shock, in donated clothing, and later as it got too dark to capture images (the technology of camera plates was still far from simple) this press cameraman joined his reporter colleagues in interviewing survivors, who by evening were making their way to hotels in Cork city by train and other transport means. His written reports were as professional as his photographs, acknowledged journalist and author Senan Molony in his 2009 book Lusitania: an Irish Tragedy.
Irish Examiner glass plates - archive photographs following the sinking of RMS Lusitania
Thomas Barker senior’s connection to two of the last century’s worst passenger ship tragedies wasn’t, of course unique. He would have shared that that dubious and unwanted distinction with many involved in Cork’s daily maritime activities by virtue of its transatlantic port status.
After his Titanic boarding, and having witnessed and emotionally experienced the aftermath of the Lusitania’s sinking, Barker would have continued to cover events in and around the harbour and port, go on board ships, meet crew and photograph passengers but, surely, accompanied in some measure by the ghosts of victims of two such fated journeys along Cork’s coasts as Titanic and Lusitania.
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