Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Jonny Quinn's Titanic voyage of discovery

Always fascinated by the doomed liner, the Snow Patrol drummer bought a piece of memorabilia, then discovered an extraordinary personal connection... How a twist of fate had saved his great-grandfather from being among its victims

Chasing history: Snow Patrol drummer Jonny Quinn
Chasing history: Snow Patrol drummer Jonny Quinn

When former seaman and dock worker John Quinn boarded the ill-fated Titanic from Belfast on April 1, 1912, as part of the working crew taking the ship on its sea trials, he hoped to stay on for the maiden voyage to New York.

But when the ship was handed over to the White Star Line at Southampton, 36-year-old Quinn -- a fervent trade unionist -- was discharged just a few hours before the Titanic set sail on the doomed journey. He had been hired to work as a fireman on the liner but when it docked at Southampton, the crewmen had already been hired and Quinn was let go.

This fortunate twist of fate, though a source of great annoyance to Quinn at the time, saw him return to his wife Margaret and family in the Sailortown area of Belfast, spending the remainder of his days as a seaman.

In July 1917, his youngest child was born and named James Connolly Quinn, in honour of his close friend and socialist ally James Connolly. A trade union leader and political theorist, Connolly had been executed by a British firing squad the previous year for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising. Strapped to a chair when he was shot, his death was deemed the most controversial and contributed to a mood of bitterness among the Irish people in the aftermath of the rebellion.

John Quinn, who hosted a visit by Connolly to Belfast at the height of his trade unionism, passed away at his home in North Thomas Street on August 12, 1935. He was 58 years of age. On the day of his funeral, a wreath arrived at the home from James Larkin and the trade union leadership in Dublin, to recognise the huge contribution he had made to the trade union movement in Belfast.

Quinn, who was a prominent figure in the 1907 Dock Strike, was buried with one of his sons, Robert, a daughter Brigid and a nephew, Gerard, in an unmarked grave in Milltown Cemetery.

His youngest son, who went by the name Connolly Quinn, became a well-known book-maker and a popular figure in the Docks area. He married Rebecca Magee and had three children, including actress Patricia Quinn, best known for portraying Magenta in the cult movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The late Connolly Quinn was also the grandfather of Snow Patrol drummer Jonny Quinn and photographer Bradley Quinn.

The fascinating story of John Quinn's life has recently been unearthed by the Dockland-based Shared History Interpretive Project (SHIP), an organisation committed to archiving the history of the Belfast docks and its associated industries and workforce.

With funding from the Irish Government's Department of Foreign Affairs, SHIP is now planning to erect a headstone at Quinn's grave at Milltown Cemetery to commemorate his role as a leading trade unionist, seaman and docker.

SHIP chairman Liam McBrinn says: "John Quinn was a fervent trade unionist and confidante of James Connolly, Winifred Carney and James Larkin. When John's youngest son was born in 1917 John named him after his colleague James Connolly.

"He played a major role in the 1907 strike and we are planning to honour his memory with a headstone on his grave."

Snow Patrol's drummer Jonny Quinn only learned of his great-grandfather's intriguing history -- his social activism, the near miss on board the Titanic and his links with James Connolly -- when his aunts Patricia and Marie were contacted by members of SHIP, who were also related to John Quinn.

But, in a bizarre coincidence, Jonny had already been interested in the story of the Titanic and had even bought memorabilia from an online charity auction, unaware of John Quinn's fateful association with the ill-omened ship.

"Growing up in Belfast, I suppose I was interested in the Titanic, like many people," Jonny says. "I went online and bought a wooden block, which had been used to test the engine. I just thought it would be good to have something connected to the ship's history. But at that stage, I'd no idea that my great-grandfather had sailed on the Titanic and been put off at Southampton.

"To be honest, I knew little about John Quinn before Brian Quinn from SHIP told us about him. I hadn't really heard any stories growing up. I knew the family had originally come from Sailortown and that my grandfather, Connolly Quinn, was a book-maker.

"To think John Quinn was on the Titanic is unbelievable. He saw a small window of opportunity and tried to stay on for the voyage to New York. But I'm glad he was put off the ship. It's strange to think we wouldn't be here if that hadn't happened."

Jonny said he'd been gripped once he started looking into John Quinn's story. He was particularly interested to find out that he had been such an influential trade union man and had been so closely connected with James Connolly.

"I loved reading about him being a trade union leader because the area of social rights is something I've always been interested in," he says. "And it's amazing to think he was a confidante of James Connolly's.

"They were tough times he lived in and from what I've read, he had a hard life. It must have been difficult for him too, being a Catholic and working in Harland and Wolff at the time. But it seems he was a real man of the people and it's touching to know, that so long after he lived, he is finally going to be honoured for the work that he did."

Thanks to the extensive research carried out by the members of SHIP, much is now known about the life and the work of John Quinn.

Born on March 3, 1876, at Little Patrick Street, he was one of nine sons. Along with six of his surviving brothers, he grew up to become a dock worker. In his early career he was a sailor on the 'windjammers', visiting Russia and the Baltic on several occasions. When he returned home, he told tales of how Cossacks on horseback patrolled the docks and how the Russian workers were paid with grain instead of money. This hardship was further compounded when the Cossacks insisted on taking their cut from the workers. Quinn was appalled by the injustices he witnessed and saw parallels closer to home. He despised the fact that the dock workers in Belfast were paid their wages in the local pub by the head hiring agent, who would then give employment to the men who had bought him a drink. Quinn felt there should be a fairer way to be hired and paid.

While Quinn was at sea, his wife Margaret gave birth to a baby boy James, but he died two years later from pertussis and broncho-pneumonia. As his family continued to grow, they set up home in North Thomas Street. But these were tough years for the men who worked in the docks.

Quinn, his brothers and fellow employees got caught up in the struggle for better working conditions and pay, known as the 1907 Dock Strikes. Quinn was arrested for riotous behaviour but was found 'not guilty' when it came to trial.

Not only was his contribution to this struggle significant but he played an important role in the formation of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union. The ITGWU -- the Formative Years book quotes: "Within three weeks Larkin had 400 members in Belfast and shortly afterwards, a branch in Derry. By April 1907 he could claim a total of 4,000 members and had opened three offices. The cross-channel dockers, who were Protestant, had their rooms at 11 Victoria Street, the Catholic deep-sea dockers were at 41 Bridge End. Three delegates were appointed, Thomas Cupples, John Quinn and John Davidson. The branch affiliated to the Trades Council on April 9 and was represented by Larkin, Quinn, Savage, Morrow and Davidson."

In fact, according to family folklore, the first temporary headquarters for the new union was at Quinn's home and both Larkin and James Connolly stayed at the house. Around the same time, Quinn and his wife buried a second child, John Junior, who died of tubercular meningitis aged just one year old.

By 1909 things were heating up politically and a split between the various unions was on the cards. The National Union of Dock Labourers, made up mainly of Protestants, wished to remain tied to their English union. The ITGWU wanted to concentrate on Irish employment grievances. Allegedly the ITGWU wanted to be seen as representing all shades of opinion, so a march was organised in Belfast to show unity. Quinn walked at the head of this march, carrying the Union Jack flag as he did so.

Because of his union activities, Quinn was unwelcome at the dock yard. Yet he still turned up at the gates seeking work every day for two years. To support the family, Margaret Quinn visited large houses on the Antrim Road, taking in second hand clothes to sell on. She also sold herrings from a wheelbarrow to try and make end meets. Her husband never worked in the Deep Sea Division again, instead returning to the sea. His first journey was in January 1911 on board the Teeling Head to Riga. The following year, he was hired as a fireman on board the Titanic. He was discharged at Southampton and the rest is history.

Actress Patricia Quinn, who starred in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and has appeared in numerous television programmes such as Doctor Who and Fortunes of War, said she had known very little of her grand-father's past when she was growing up.

"To be honest, neither my mother nor father really talked about their childhood or told us stories about their backgrounds, so I was completely in the dark about John Quinn until my sister Marie started looking into it," she says. "The information we've been given by SHIP is absolutely fascinating though. It's quite exciting to think that my grand-father had shared history with James Larkin and James Connolly, which we knew nothing about until recently.

"I only ever knew my grandfather Magee on my mother's side, who was also a union man. But I do remember visiting my dad's sisters in Sailortown. There was one called Maggie and one called Nora Hunter, who was married to Robbie Hunter.

"I also remember my mother taking me to the cinema to watch the old black and white Titanic movie. It was a fantastic film but even then she never mentioned the fact that my grandfather had sailed on the ship. I'd say she didn't even know that herself. Maybe my father had never told her.

"Of course, all this is totally fascinating to us now but back then, I don't think people talked as much about their pasts."

SHIP member Kieran Quinn, who uncovered the story of John Quinn's interesting life, along with his brother Brian and Liam McBrinn, said new details about his great-uncle were emerging all the time.

"John Quinn was my grandfather's brother but we knew nothing about him until a few years ago, when we set up SHIP and started doing some research into general dock history," he explains.

"When we discovered he was buried with some of his children in an unmarked grave we applied to the Irish Government's Department of Foreign Affairs as part of their Decade of Centenaries and got funding to erect a headstone in John Quinn's memory.

"From everything we have learned about the man, he was very selfless and tried hard to improve working conditions for his fellow dock workers. It's only right that he should be remembered."

On December 14, members of the Quinn family -- many of whom will meet for the first time -- will gather at Milltown Cemetery for the unveiling of the new headstone. Jonny, who recently visited the Titanic Museum to view the violin played by bandmaster Wallace Hartley during the ship's final moments, will fly over from London to attend the commemoration event in honour of his great-grandfather.

The Snow Patrol drummer, who was one of the executive producers of the Terri Hooley biopic Good Vibrations, believes the story of John Quinn's life has the makings of a great movie.

"As I get older, I'm becoming more and more interested in my family's history but I never imagined it would be so colourful," he says. "My great-grandfather, as a trade union leader, tried to fight for the rights of the men who worked alongside him. He was ostracised by his employers, but he still turned up at the gates every day for two years, hoping to get work. I think he was a very courageous man and I'm proud to be related to him."

* Anyone who thinks they might be connected to John Quinn is asked to get in touch with SHIP at 57 Pilot Street or to email ship1@me.com

DRUM ROLL CUES MARRIAGE PROPOSAL

* Jonathan Graham 'Jonny' Quinn, who was born on February 26, 1972, was in a number of bands before joining Snow Patrol, including The Mighty Fall and Disraeli Gears

* He attended Rockport School in Holywood, where Gary Lightbody was also a pupil

* Jonny once worked in Good Vibrations record store owned by the legendary Terri Hooley

* At Snow Patrol's homecoming gig at Ward Park in Bangor in 2007, Jonny proposed to his long-term girlfriend Marianne Rokke by writing 'Marry Me Marianne' on his drum kit. They married the following year in her home city of Oslo

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