Little did they know as they sailed home on the Lusitania four years later, they would become caught up in one of the world’s most infamous disasters, and that a century later, two of their descendants would become best friends without ever knowing of their shared history.
May Barrett, who grew up on Barrack St, Cork, was 20 when she emigrated in March 1911 with her friend, Kitty McDonnell, 23, who grew up in Prosperity Square, off Barrack St, to New York. They shared an address on 9th Avenue.
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, prayed, and jumped overboard within seconds of each other. They became separated.
May’s watch stopped at 2.20pm when she hit the water. Semi-conscious, her lifebelt kept her face above the waves 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.
Kitty married Patrick Fitzgerald, from Killarney, in Cork’s South Parish Church in 1919. Nine months later, aged 30, she sailed from Queenstown on board the SS Baltic, with her husband’s nephew, Timothy. It is believed Patrick had sailed to the US before them. They lived in New Jersey but Kitty is said to have lost contact with her Irish family.
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 agreed to speak to the Cork Examiner.
However, on the day she was to be interviewed, she died.
Meet the best friends who share a one-in-a-million connection to survivors of the Lusitania disaster.
Classmates Éabha Nic Dhomhnaill, 10, from Farran and Aoibhín Ní Fhloinn, 11, from Ballincollig, both 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.
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 knew that May, a first cousin of her paternal grandfather, Richard Barrett, survived the tragedy.
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 started school together at Gaelscoil Uí Riordáin in Ballincollig and have been in the same class ever since.
Their parents say they “clicked” from day one, even before they 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 yesterday.
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.
“We have now invited the girls to Cobh to take part in the commemorations in May.”
Cobh is preparing to mark the centenary on May 7 with a lunchtime shore-side ceremony attended by President Michael D Higgins.
Earlier that day, a ceremony at the Old Church Cemetery will see specially commissioned glass headstones unveiled.
And at sunset, just after 9pm, a flotilla will sail from Roches Point towards Cobh, each boat lit with white lights to symbolise the flotilla which brought Lusitania’s victims and survivors ashore.
The history of the Irish Volunteers in Cork and original documents recording their roles in 1916 and up to the War of Independence are included in a new exhibition.
Cork City and County Archives has added some of the material in its collections to the on-loan exhibition from the Irish Defence Forces’ Military Archives which went on display this week.
Running until March 20 at the archives building in Blackpool, the exhibition tracks the Volunteers from their formation in 1913; the 1914 split in the organisation after the outbreak of World War I; the Easter Rising; and to the 1918 conscription crisis that preceded the War of Independence.
Also on display are original membership forms signed by early recruits to the Cork city corps of the Irish Volunteers, local Volunteers secretary Liam de Róiste’s diary entry for August 1915, when Padraig Pearse gave a speech at the Volunteers’ Hall in Sheares Street, and a contemporary police report of conscription riots in Cork in 1917.
A public lecture ‘Interpreting 1916’ at the Aula Maxima in University College Cork by its former professor of history, Joe Lee on March 19.