Somewhere in New York, pieces of Harland and Wolff history from the Brittanic, a sister ship of the Titanic, are waiting for a buyer, having been turned down by Northern Ireland-based experts.
Hurricane Sandy is just the latest disaster to frustrate the sale of the century-old items, due to be auctioned in December or January. The owners, from Co Down, are now waiting to hear if the furniture is safe and ready for inspection by would-be buyers.
Richard McLaughlin, a jovial former pub-restaurant owner from Killinchy, got a surprise when he removed a temporary top from a mahogany linen chest which had been in his family since his grandmother bought it in Dublin 70 years ago. Inside were unmistakable marks showing that it was from the Brittanic, last of the famous White Star trio of superliners in the early 1900s.
“We told local people, including the Transport Museum, about the find, hoping they would find a place for a bit of history – free gratis -- but no one was interested,” he said. “An expert from Christies then persuaded us that New York was the place for White Star Line items, so we sent it there, along with two carved wooden panels from the Brittanic, like those from the Nomadic, which were in a Co Down auction house.”
As the story unfolded, Richard learned more about his mother’s bizarre connection with the Brittanic, which was to have been called the Gigantic until the Titanic foundered and a less imposing name was chosen. Her father, William Walsh, was wounded in France in World War I and, after recovering, was injured again in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, in Turkey, where thousands of Irish soldiers died.
“He was evacuated in the Brittanic, which had been stripped of its furniture and was being used as a hospital ship. Not long afterwards, in 1916, the ship apparently hit a mine off the Greek island of Kea and went down with the loss of 30 lives.
“Back in Dublin, William had to get rid of his uniform to be safe on the streets and, after the war, he married my grandmother, who bought the linen cabinet. Their daughter moved North to Belfast in 1939 to enlist in the Army and there she met and married my father, a serving officer in the Merchant Navy.”
William, too, rejoined the Army and served throughout World War II. But he died without knowing the secret of the Brittanic linen cupboard, only revealed by Richard a few years ago.
There are hopes that Titanic fever will eventually help to attract a buyer for the unique Brittanic pieces, which were priced at 20,000 dollars during the economic boom.
"We’re not sure when the auction will be held," said Richard. "Hurricane Sandy hasn’t helped. It’s just a pity we couldn’t find a collector or an institution here, where we should be making more out of our industrial heritage.”
With any luck, the furniture that was designed for first-class passengers on a sister ship of the Titanic – and ended up in Killinchy and a damp barn in Donegal – will find a White Star fan in New York. Otherwise, repatriating them to Northern Ireland looks uneconomic for the owners, despite their historical value.
Just as the restored Nomadic, which transported Titanic passengers from Cherbourg, is due to open next Spring, relics from the same era may soon find a permanent home in the US.
The Brittanic, known as the “forgotten sister” of the Titanic, was designed for greater safety in an emergency, but shared its bad luck. Launched in 1914, its completion was delayed for nearly a year because of money worries and it was immediately requisitioned as a hospital ship. It made several journeys to the Mediterranean before, it is believed, hitting a mine off Greece. Jacques Cousteau, in 1975, was the first to investigate the wreck, surprisingly intact, 390 foot down, and Dr Robert Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic, followed him in 1995. Since then, many of the artifacts have been removed.