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Cancer survivor pens poems for 103rd Titanic anniversary

Triumph and tragedy capture in verse

By Joanne Sweeney

Published 14/04/2015

Poet Helen Long outside the Titanic Building in Belfast yesterday
Poet Helen Long outside the Titanic Building in Belfast yesterday

It is the Belfast ship that became a worldwide legend and inspired countless writers to touch upon its tragic tale.

The story of how the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage has been told a thousand times across many genres, even spawning an Oscar-winning film.

Now, as the 103rd anniversary of what happened that fateful night of April 15, 1912 approaches, a breast cancer survivor has been inspired to compose two new poems in commemoration.

Writer Helen Long from Carryduff, Co Down, wrote Ballad of the Titanic and She's Sailing Back to Belfast, which she hopes will eventually be published on postcards and sold to raise funds for The Mission to Seafarers.

The Ballad of the Titanic was inspired by a recent trip to the visitor attraction Titanic Belfast.

It eulogises the many craftsmen and their trades that helped make the Titanic one of the biggest and best ships of its time as it tells the story of her voyage, sinking and final resting place.

It has been dedicated to Helen's former neighbour Joe Wilkinson, who was a master carpenter who worked on the RMS Olympic, the most successful of White Star Line's three ocean liners, which were all built at Harland and Wolff.

Helen, who never married or had children, said she fondly remembers Joe's stories of his work on the Olympic. "I was only in my 20s and we lived beside each other in Carryduff," she added.

"I knew him to be very proud of his time spent working on the ship, and he would often tell us his stories of that time.

"I think that he would be very happy to know that his name and role was associated with this ship and that it was being written about in the local media."

The poignancy of the Titanic sinking was captured in this verse:

"They claimed she was 'unsinkable',

This titan of the deep;

The future was to prove them wrong,

And caused the world to weep..."

She's Sailing Back to Belfast imagines what it would have been like if the Titanic had not sunk and instead had returned to the city where she was built.

"I'm fascinated in all aspects of local history and recently wrote a few poems to mark the anniversary of the First World War," said retired teacher Helen (66).

"I've always been keen on writing, but after I was diagnosed with breast cancer five-and-a-half years ago, I began to write poems as a way of coping with the illness.

"My poems were a light-hearted, humorous take on what it's like to go through the experience, so I self-published them into a collection and sold them to help raise funds for The Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital.

"The poems seemed to go down really well with other people, and I raised more than £1,000 for the centre. I've also raised money for cystic fibrosis and the Army Benevolent Fund."

Helen's hope is that her Titanic poems will be sold as postcards or on printed linen tea-towels at Titanic Belfast or some other attraction in the city.

Meanwhile, there are moves afoot to make a saint of an English priest who prayed with passengers as the Titanic slipped into the sea.

Father Thomas Byles, from St Helens in Chipping Ongar, Essex, had been travelling to America to perform his brother's marriage ceremony when he died alongside 1,516 others as he heard confessions and held a service on deck.

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