Devlin's Titanic Voyage

Author Martina Devlin on her family's connection to the Titanic and her own plans to sail the 2012 centenary commemoration voyage 

It was always an ambition of best-selling author Martina Devlin’s to write a work of historical fiction, an ambition which she fulfilled in 2007 with the publication of Ship of Dreams, her account of the fateful night that the Titanic sank in 1912. 

Now Devlin is looking forward to fulfilling another ambition - following the final voyage that her ill-fated relative Thomas O'Brien made upon Belfast's most famous maritime creation on the Titanic's centenary commemoration voyage, taking place in April 2012.

Devlin in a restored railway station used by Titanic passengers in Queenstown'I’ve got my name down for a berth,' beams Devlin. 'It cost me quite a lot of money, so now I’m busy saving like mad. It’ll take me four years to save up for it!'

The commemorative sailing - organised by a company called Titanic Voyages - will launch from Southampton and sail to the Titanic's wreck site before docking in New York.

'It follows the exact same route that the Titanic did and we’ll sail to the spot where she sank for a memorial service and then on to Halifax in Newfoundland, which is where the nearest rescue boats departed from and also where most of the Titanic graves are,' Devlin explains. 

'There were no spaces left in the third class berth, which is how Thomas travelled, so I had to upgrade to a second class berth. A man I made friends with through Ship of Dreams told me about it. He was teasing me saying that I had gone up in the world, that I belonged to steerage class and not second class!'

Little did Devlin know the revelation that was awaiting her when she began to research Ship of Dreams – a tragic turn of events involving her own family. It was while surfing the internet that Devlin found a website which unearthed the almost forgotten family secret. 

'I was writing a different book at the time,' Devlin recalls. 'I was researching ships that sailed from Ireland to America in the 1900s and came across a website with a list of all the ships that sailed. I stumbled across the Titanic and found myself lookingShip of Dreams at the passenger list. A name leapt out at me, Thomas O’Brien, of Bonavie, County Limerick. My granny was called Josie O’Brien and she was from the same little townland.'

Thereafter, Devlin's mother confirmed that the man in question was in fact her grandmother Josie’s uncle. Devlin had unearthed a story that she felt 'compelled to tell'. 

'Thomas was originally sailing out to meet his four sisters who lived in Chicago. His family thought he was travelling alone, but he had actually eloped with a girl called Hannah from a neighbouring townland.

'The family were amazed when, some time after Tom’s death, this woman made contact saying that she was Tom’s wife. Hannah had got into one of the last lifeboats launched and survived. Five months later, she gave birth to a baby girl called Marion.' 

While writing the book, Devlin made contact with Marion’s daughter Catherine, who is now in her seventies. Catherine discovered that her grandfather had perished on the Titanic after watching the 1950s film A Night To Remember, based on the events of April 14, 1912. She described the story to her mother who then revealed her connection to the ship.

Hannah and MarionAs far as Devlin's family know, Thomas O’ Brien’s body was never recovered. 'There are a lot of unmarked graves [in Newfoundland]. I can't wait to go and wander around them and pay tribute to the people who are buried there. Sometimes I like to think that my granny’s uncle is among them.' 

Since Ship of Dreams was published in September 2007, Devlin’s story of her new-found links to the Titanic has generated interest amongst Titanic enthusiasts as well as her own literary fan base. 

'96 years on, there’s still immense interest in the Titanic,' Devlin comments. 'Part of the reason is because there are still so many ‘what ifs’ surrounding the episode. What if the look-out men had had binoculars and been able to see? What if they had hit the iceberg head on rather than a glancing blow to the side?' 

'Since the book came out, people have came up to me on the street to tell me about their connections to the ship and how they’ve investigated their own family’s links. My mother said that my granny found it too upsetting to talk about. Imagine, our family story could have been lost forever. You never know how many other families the same thing might have occurred in.' 

Gráinne McCarry

Ship of Dreams is published by Poolbeg.