TERRY PRONE: ‘Victorian Titanic’ fell foul of the same failing – human error

Natalie Facetimed me the other day. No warning. Out of the blue.

Up to now, when I’ve been Facetimed, it’s been after a few to-ings and fro-ings so that I can get lipstick on or shift something inappropriate off the desk. We will not discuss the inappropriate items that might find their way on to my desk, but mostly they’re calorific and shameful.

In this particular instance, however, I was nowhere near my desk. I was in fact halfway across Leeson Street Bridge, admiring the ivy coating the big building that sits on the bridge, that ivy having turned the deepest russet in response to it being autumn. The phone went and when I glanced at it to check the identity of the caller, there was Natalie, beaming up at me in the happy confidence that she was making my day. This view was not shared by the drivers who nearly ran me down when I went into stasis in the middle of the road. I scurried to the median and couldn’t even give the finger and yell “Get over yourselves” after the beeping hordes because wouldn’t Natalie have seen me on my phone and heard me? (Not that I ever would, you understand. We are speaking hypothetically, here.)

Having Natalie catch me and view me out on the street made me totally paranoid. The end result was that when, a couple of hours later, I got a perfectly normal call from someone quite different, I went unhinged and told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth when he asked me the mobile phone question: “Where are you?” Nobody who asks you that, other than your spouse, the police, or the client for whom you are late ever really wants the answer to that question. Usually. They just want to be told you’re in a location where you can talk without being arrested or missing your flight.

“Now that you ask,” I answered,”I’m standing on the sea front at Donabate. I have just climbed a fence into an enclosure which contains the anchor of the RMS Tayleur, which went down off Lambay in 1854, costing the lives of three hundred and twenty three men, women, and children.”

“Oh, grand,” he said, not having heard a word of it, and we moved on to whatever was eating him. Which, frankly, wasn’t half as interesting as the RMS Tayleur. Where the ship went down, on January 21, is now one of the most popular dive sites on the east coast. It has become known as the Victorian Titanic, partly because, like the ship that hit the iceberg in the Atlantic, it was on its maiden voyage when it ran aground. According to the magnificent Shipwreck Inventory of Ireland, published by the Department of the Environment and Local Government, the Tayleur was “a newly built, 1,979-ton, barque-rigged ironn sailing clipper and was one of the largest ships of its time”.

The cargo included farm machinery, roof slates, fireplaces, coal (one hundred tonnes of it), and – ironically – headstones, some of which lie scattered underwater, blank as the day the disaster happened, alongside other artefects from the ship. In addition to all of that, the Tayleur carried people. Almost six hundred souls were on board when she left Liverpool, most of the complement headed for Australia, some of them convicts, many of them Irish, and 70 of them children.

Although the ship was new and with a hull of iron, it would not have been much more luxurous than the “coffin ships” that took the starving from Ireland during the big emigration years after the Great Famine. Bunks were stacked in crowded serried ranks, sanitation systems were crude. The fact that the ship was new was in some ways a disadvantage. The crew were neither used to the vessel nor used to working with each other, nor, it was claimed after the tragedy, were many of them familiar with the English language. The ropes coiled on the deck may have been pristine and never previously used, but as a result, they were inflexible and unyielding. Worst of all, because it wasn’t a wooden ship, the iron hull interfered with the workings of the compasses, which failed to correspond with each other.

Added to this perfect storm of unfortunate factors was a literally perfect storm, which, just two days after the new ship was launched, drove it off course and towards Lambay. It was important that the sails be lowered, as they were driving the ship at crazy speed towards the black rocky cliffs that gird Lambay on the side facing England, but the ropes fouled and so when the ship hit land, it did so with bright new white sails fattened with wind. Before it hit, the captain had tried other methods to save the Tayleur, including dropping both anchors to slow it down. The anchor chains fought against the wind garnered by the unreachable, unfurlable sails, and then snapped “like glass”. This, in combination, robbed the ship of one of the theoretical advantages it shared with the much later-built Titanic: Water-tight compartments within the hull that should have kept it afloat if the Tayleur had hit the rocks bow-on. Instead, thanks to the valiant but contradictory efforts demanded by the captain, the Tayleur smashed the rocks sideways, tearing vast holes in the supposedly waterproof comparments. What followed was truly horrific.

Of 100 women on board, three survived. Some of those who died were drowned within the ship because they were too seasick to get up top. Some were crushed against the rocks. Some reached what must have felt like safety, only to fall down the face of the cliffs into the surging waves. One heroic doctor crossed from the ship to the shore on a rope, carrying a baby by clenching his teeth around the baby’s swaddling cloths. Neither survived.

Those who managed to make it to the tops of the cliffs were met with astonishment and generosity by the residents of Lambay. But not even their generosity and capacity to improvise could provide shelter and food for the influx of badly injured survivors, and so many of them spent the night in the open air and the vile weather, starving, thirsty, and grieving for the lost. One hundred of the dead are buried on the island.

The man in charge, Captain Noble, created much speculation when, having eventually abandoned the vessel and succeeded in climbing to the top of the Lambay Cliffs, he asked other survivors for matches. Of course none of them would have dry matches after immersion in a thunderous ocean and a climb up cliffs while fighting off sea-spray. Drunk? Or concussed?

The RMS Tayleur, like the Titanic years later, caused the introduction of maritime safety measures some of which are in operation to this day.

But human error, whether made out of vanity, as was the case with the captain of the Costa Concordia, or head injury, as is believed to have been the case with Captain Noble, can subvert any safety protocols.


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