Titanic anniversary highlights priest’s heroism

Father Byles twice refused his place on Titanic's lifeboats
Father Byles twice refused his place on Titanic's lifeboats

The world was in awe of Belfast last Wednesday in 1911. Never in the history of mankind had such a huge tonnage of shipping been afloat in a harbour at one time. And it was all home-made!

On May 31, 106 years ago, on the banks of an already busy and ship-congested River Lagan, over 100,000 jubilant city-folk and celebrity-guests cheered as the two biggest ships on the planet (and the largest man-made moving objects in history) displayed their sleek, soaring profiles to the world.

Almost simultaneously, RMS Titanic was launched and the newly completed RMS Olympic left Belfast bound for Cherbourg with her little attendant-ships, Nomadic and Traffic.

It was as historic as astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the moon, but with a lot more local folk there enjoying the occasion!

Extremely rare Titanic artefacts have been unveiled at Titanic Belfast marking the milestone anniversary, including Harland and Wolff Chairman Lord William Pirrie’s 18-carat gold pocket watch, two original launch-day tickets and a broken rivet from the Olympic.

And a News Letter reader’s timely tip-off in Roamer’s mailbox highlights the little-told account of Father Thomas Byles, a Catholic priest who twice refused to board Titanic’s lifeboats.

He led others to safety, sacrificing his only hope of survival to stay behind and pray with the doomed passengers who were dragged with him into the icy depths when Titanic slid beneath the Atlantic.

Father Byles, a 42-year-old Yorkshireman with an Oxford University degree in theology, was on his way to officiate at his brother’s wedding in New York.

He’d said Mass on the morning of the sinking in Titanic’s 2nd and 3rd class lounges, preaching about prayer being a vital ‘spiritual lifeboat’ in times of temptation. He was seen praying on the upper deck when Titanic struck the iceberg. Witnesses later saw the priest helping women and children get into the lifeboats.

Survivor Agnes McCoy recounted Father Byles standing on the tilting deck “with Catholics, Protestants and Jews kneeling around him.”

An American newspaper said he was seen in rising, gushing water, praying with terrified passengers.

The Scotsman newspaper printed thankful survivors’ stories about “Father Byles’s final zeal” and “heroic behaviour”.

Before setting sail to America the priest posted a letter from Queenstown (Cobh) to a friend.

“Everything so far has gone very well, except that I have somewhere managed to lose my umbrella,” wrote Father Byles.

“At Cherbourg the tender (Nomadic) came alongside with passengers. The tender is a good-sized boat of 1,260 tons, but by the side of Titanic she looks as though, with a good crane, we could lift her out of the water and lay her on the deck without feeling any inconvenience.”

Father Byles’ letter continued with a description of Titanic’s cabins and lounges.

“When you look down at the water from the top deck,” he added “it is like looking from the roof of a very high building.

The English Channel was decidedly rough to look at, but we felt it no more than when we were in Southampton Water. I do not much like the throbbing of the screws, but that is the only motion we feel.”

The plucky priest ended the last letter he ever wrote “I will write as soon as I get to New York.”

See www.titanicbelfast.com for full information Titanic Belfast’s rare artefacts exhibition.