VIDEO: School friends share family links with ill-fated Lusitania

Two best friends who share a unique connection to two survivors of the Lusitania disaster are set to play a key role in the centenary commemorations.

Éabha Nic Dhomhnaill, aged 10, from Farran in Co Cork, and Aoibhín Ní Fhloinn, aged 11, from Ballincollig, in Co Cork, have known for some time that they each have an ancestor who survived the sinking of the Cunard liner on May 7, 1915.

But a century after the disaster, they have now discovered that Éabha’s great-grand-aunt, Kitty McDonnell, and Aoibhín’s great-grandfather’s first cousin, May Barrett, who emigrated to the US together and who were plucked from the seas as Lusitania sank, were also close friends.

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Éabha’s parents, Mary and Pat, said it is an absolutely incredible story.

“I knew we had someone who survived the Lusitania but I never really did any research on it,” Pat said.

But during a trip to visit cousins in New York two years ago, he became aware of Kitty’s full story.

Aoibhín’s mother, Aileen, said her family have known for some time that May, a first cousin of her paternal grandfather, Richard Barrett, survived the tragedy.

VIDEO: School friends share family links with ill-fatedLusitania

However, it was only when Pat mentioned Kitty’s name to Aileen one day, that their families’ shared history emerged, triggering a set of other remarkable coincidences.

Kitty and May grew up close to each other on Cork’s Barrack St in the early 1900s, and were best friends — inseparable.

A century later, Aoibhín and Éabha both started school together at the Gaelscoil Uí Riordáin in Ballincollig.

They have been in the same class ever since. Their parents say they “clicked” from day one before they ever knew of their Lusitania connections. Today, they are best friends — inseparable.

The two school pals and their families celebrated their remarkable link to a pivotal moment in world history at a special event at their school in March.

Members of the Cobh Animation Team, dressed in period clothes, visited the school as part of their Living History programme to talk to students about Cobh’s rich maritime heritage.

Team spokeswoman Claire Cullinane said that of all the people they have met across Ireland and Britain with family connections to Titanic or Lusitania, Éabha and Aoibhín’s is the most remarkable.

“The children told us about their link when we visited the school before, and then the whole story evolved about how the two ladies were friends, and about how the two little girls became friends here in the school, without ever knowing the background,” she said. The girls and their families have now been invited to take part in special events in Cobh to mark the centenary of the sinking of Lusitania.

READ MORE: Remarkable life journey of Cork's May Barrett

Kitty and May were best friends when in 1911 they set sail together from Queenstown, Co Cork, for new life in America.

May, who grew up on Barrack St, Cork, was 20. Kitty, who grew up in Prosperity Square, off Barrack St, was 23. They shared an address on 9th Avenue in New York after their arrival in the US.

VIDEO: School friends share family links with ill-fatedLusitania

There are several reports about why they decided to return to Ireland in 1915, with some suggesting they were going for a six-week holiday. However, word had come through that May’s god-daughter, Annie, had died and it is believed they may have been travelling home for that reason.

However, May was said to have had all her worldly possessions with her on the voyage. They boarded Lusitania on May 1 bound for Liverpool. On Friday, May 7, they had finished lunch and were sitting in the second cabin dining saloon when they heard crashing sounds.

Amid a panicked stampede, they made their way to the upper decks where they were given lifebelts.

May, who couldn’t swim, was fitted with her lifebelt back-to-front.As the vessel listed, they lost their footing on deck, prayed, and jumped overboard within seconds of each other, and became separated in the water.

May’s watch stopped at 2.20pm when she hit the waves. Semi-conscious, her lifebelt kept her face above the surface for between three and five hours. She was plucked to safety by a lifeboat, and brought ashore at Queenstown. It was almost midnight before Kitty’s rescue vessel landed in the town.

May never returned to America, and following the death of her sister, she married her brother-in-law, Jack Keegan, in 1925. They had three children. She consistently refused to give interviews in 1976 but finally agreed to speak to the then Cork Examiner.

However, on the day she was to be interviewed, she died.

READ MORE: Flor and Julia’s happy reunion following 18 hours unsure of each other’s fate

Find more content related to the sinking of RMS Lusitania in our special report

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