A Portadown doctor recently confirmed a family legend that her great-aunt and great-uncle survived the sinking of the Lusitania 100 years ago. But the aunt’s nine-month-old son and husband perished on that fateful day in May 1915 when the Germans torpedoed the luxury Cunard passenger liner off the coast of County Cork.
Dr Jeanette Moore, who lives in the Bridge Street area and practises part-time at the town’s health centre, recalled how the story was passed down the generations – she heard it via her mother. But details had become vague over the century, “and I only met great-aunt Nettie once, during my childhood when she lived in Derriaghy.”
The story related that Jeanette (Nettie) Moore (the name was passed down the generations to the local doctor) had married the local rector’s son, Walter Mitchell, at Drumbo Parish Church. He had been offered a responsible job in the linen manufacturing trade in Newark, New Jersey, and off they sailed from Derry to the New World.
Nettie’s brother John, meanwhile, had also gone to America and had settled in Connecticut. He had decided to travel back to Ireland with the family, Walter having been seconded back home to use his manufacturing-management skills to further the war effort against the Kaiser. And it was John who ultimately saved the life of his sister in the most incredible way.
That’s the family version of the story, but in nothing like the detail which Dr Moore has since confirmed. For a second-cousin Colleen Frew (Nettie’s granddaughter whom Dr Moore has never met, “but I hope to soon”) recently penned the entire story for a chapter in a book published by the Ulster Genealogical and Historical Guild, which focuses on several Ulster families.
And a documentary last month on Channel 5 to mark the centenary – ‘Lusitania: 18 Minutes That Changed the World’ – brought it all into sharp focus for Dr Moore. It concentrated on the 18 minutes it took for the luxury liner to disappear beneath the waves after the U-boat found its target - 1,962 passengers and crew were on board and 1,198 were killed.
I remember my only visit to Nettie very vaguely – an elderly woman dressed in purple, with long dangling earrings, so dignified and elegantDr Jeanette Moore
Said Dr Moore, “The documentary recounted Nettie’s fate. It was so eerie to see an actress play her as she scrambled along the deck and they fought for their lives. It was a well-researched programme and one I’ll never forget.”
The chapter written by Colleen tells how Nettie and the two Walters – as well as brother John - ended up in the sea. The Mitchells clung to a lifeboat in the chaos, for it seemed that not all the lessons from the sinking of the Titanic three years earlier had been learned. And 18 minutes was a short time. Ironically, passengers on the New York-to-Liverpool voyage of the Lusitania had tossed flowers onto the waves as they had sailed past the deadly site of the Titanic.
There had been warnings of U-boats operating in the waters around the UK (in which Ireland was included in those days). But they weren’t taken too seriously. Not until the early afternoon of May 7 when the U-Boat Commander gave the order and the torpedo slammed into the giant ship, which sank with frightening speed, 11 miles off the coast of County Cork.
As the young family did their best to make it by clinging onto a lifeboat in the freezing water, Walter senior died of hypothermia; the baby had perished before him and he lost his hold on the child whose body was never found. The couple were taken out of the sea by fishermen in a trawler, and neither showed any sign of life. Nettie was placed among the dead, alongside her husband.
Meanwhile, John managed to make it, having held onto a lifeboat and was rescued – he ended up in Queenstown (now Cobh) and saw the Mitchells among the corpses on the harbour steps. He thought he saw Nettie’s eyes move, he managed to resuscitate her – and she was returned home to Ulster.
Her grief was terrible. She couldn’t sleep for months. But she eventually accepted advice to work hard to find a new life, so she trained as a midwife in the Rotunda Maternity Hospital in Dublin. But it was 1916, the height of the Easter Rising and the story goes she banished gunmen from her ward one night when the fighting outside was intense! “Don’t dare disturb my ladies,” she reportedly told them. “There are no rebels in this ward!”
The story had a happy ending. Nettie returned north, befriended Winnie Walters, who had two brothers called W.D. and George. Her sister Anna married George, Nettie married W.D. and they had two sons, Brian (born on Nettie’s 39th birthday) and Allen, Colleen Frew’s father.
Said Dr Moore, “Colleen’s chapter ends with Nettie returning to Newark to re-visit the scenes of her marriage, and there are photos of her and John, who saved her life, with their arms around each other. Indeed, there are family photos of their two sojourns in America, as Walter was a keen photographer.
“I found Colleen’s story and the TV documentary fascinating. I remember my only visit to Nettie very vaguely – an elderly woman dressed in purple, with long dangling earrings, so dignified and elegant.”