by ehistoryadmin on August 14, 2015

Remembering Thomas McCormack

Every human being likes to dream that their family is special, that a seed of something great and honourable can somehow be passed from generation to generation. Each of us carries the hidden history of the people who have made us. One of our hero’s is our grandfather, Thomas McCormack of Killina, Robertstown, a survivor of one of the biggest maritime disasters of the last century, the sinking of the Lusitania. Grandfather was an ordinary man who originally hailed from Blackwood Robertstown. His father and mother, Michael and Mary McCormack (nee Walsh), were both natives from Blackwood. Times were hard and our grandfather’s father, Michael McCormack, decided to go to America leaving behind his wife Mary and his two sons, Thomas and John, to tend to a small farm, while also working as boatmen. After our great grandfather left for America his wife and her two sons moved to the village of Robertstown as it was proving unmanageable to keep the small farm in Blackwood.

Grandfather decided to go to America in 1913 and found employment in the Nashua Card, Gummed and Coated Paper Company factory on Franklin Street in Nashua, New Hampshire, USA. After spending just over two year in America he decided it was time to come back to Ireland.

On May 1st 1915, with a one-way ticket and a hard-earned £75 in his pocket, Thomas McCormack, then 30 years old boarded the one time world’s largest passenger ship, RMS Lusitania and departed from Pier 54 for its 202nd voyage from New York bound for Liverpool. What a fateful voyage it would prove to be.

This would be the final voyage from New York to Liverpool. At this stage of the war submarine warfare was intensifying in the Atlantic. Germany had declared a war zone around the UK and the German Embassy had placed an advertisement in the papers warning of the dangers of sailing the seas. Grandfather said he had never seen the advert. I often wonder if any of the passengers had any idea of the war artillery that was being housed in the bowel of the ship. As the ship pulled away from the docks and the excited screams and shouts of the onlookers had receded into the mist, little did he know the fate that awaited him and those who were not so lucky?

The Lusitania must have seemed a world away from the humble beginnings that he and others from 3rd class were used to as they dined from white china with a typical menu of steak and onions, corned beef, curried vegetables and oatmeal with bread or rice. The days passed uneventfully enough until early afternoon on May 7th when the Irish coastline came into view. In my minds eye, I can imagine our grandfather, like many of the Irish gazing at the Old Head of Kinsale and the sight of home. The idyllic picture is shattered at 2.10pm when a German submarine torpedoed the ship, hitting it on the starboard.

There are moments in life that can either break or make a person. This was grandfathers’ moment. With his knowledge of the water, he knew the ship was sinking quickly. The Lusitania would sink in 18 minutes and time was of the essence. Grandfather had the wherewithal to throw himself far enough into the sea to avoid the pull of the sinking ship and to keep swimming and in doing so, he saved his own life as hundreds perished around him. In later recollections and on his 70th Birthday he recalled in an interview to the Leinster Leader, the memory of the cry of children and the sight of mothers with dead infants strapped to their backs.

History books are often written about the big names with important titles but it is the quieter heroes who do not seek the limelight that intrigue me. Our grandfather, Thomas McCormack, was such a man. He lived out the rest of his life, marrying Sarah McCormack (nee Connolly) and bringing up a family of nine children and returning to work with the Grand Canal Company (GCC) until he retired. He left this world peacefully in April 1954 with his family at his bedside. During his life he passed little remarks on his experience on the Lusitania.

In the unearthing of this story we are deeply indebted to: Mario Corrigan – Executive Librarian, Karel Kiely – Genealogist; and James Durney – Historian in Residence, at Newbridge Library, County Kildare; Irish TV for their professionalism and generosity while making the programme that we will treasure forever; Don Himsel, chief photographer/staff writer, The Telegraph, New Hampshire, USA, for forwarding us information and maps of the place our grandfather lived and worked during his time in America.

But of course it is our aunt, Vera, who as the sole survivor of the nine children, remains the most important link to our grandfather. Through her goodness and enthusiasm for the project we can see our grandfather’s sprit and zest for life living as vibrantly as it did 100 years ago this month. May all those who survived and those who died in the sinking of the Lusitania find a safe harbour and peace at last.

The family of Thomas McCormack




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