The unsinkable Katie Gilnagh

Many of Ireland’s brave sons and daughters had to leave Ireland for one reason or another. One of those daughters was Katherine “Katie” Gilnagh who was just seventeen years old when her sister sent for her to come to the United States. She caused a bit  of a stir before she left home by having her palm read. The astute (or gifted) fortune-teller told Katie that she’d be crossing water soon and that there’d be a lot of danger, but that no lasting harm would come to her. Soon after the reading, Miss Gilnagh left her family in Cloonnee, Co. Longford and boarded the RMS Titanic as a third-class passenger, bound for America.

Katie traveled alone, but she was a pretty girl who met others easily. Her two female cabin mates were also from County Longford and a lot of the others on their lower deck were too. Many of them gathered on the ship for a lively party complete with dancers and pipers on the night of April 14th, 1912. At one point, a rat scurried into the gathering and Katie thought it was a sign of good luck. After all, even the rats on board didn’t want to leave the amazing boat and all the parties on it. Still, she headed back to her cabin somewhat early and quickly began to doze.

Just a few hours later, she and her roommates were woken up by one of the pipers from the party who pounded on the door and told them there was something wrong with the ship. The girls struggled to make their way to the upper decks, but Katie and her friends were blocked by the ship’s staff and held back from escape. A large Irishman named James Farrell threatened to hit the crewman unless he let the ladies pass which he eventually did, but James stayed behind because priority was being given to passengers who were women and children. Once on the top deck Katie ran for a lifeboat but she was stopped again by a different crew member who said the boat was already full. The quick-thinking young woman lied to the sailor and said that her sister was already on the vessel. After a brief hesitation he let her by. She stood in the lifeboat (because it was one of the few that actually had been full) as it pulled away from the sinking ship.

Katie made it to New York and went to meet her sister. The tragedy was all over the news and communication was scarce at that time, so her heartbroken sister was actually planning Katie’s funeral mass when she finally found out her younger sister had survived. They had a portrait taken together to prove to the rest of the family back home in Ireland that Katie was alive and well.

Gilnaghs

Katie Gilnagh (seated) with her sister Mary

In later years when Katie recalled the crazy night that the RMS Titanic sank into the sea, she said she didn’t know how serious things were at that time.  She’d never traveled before and didn’t realize how extraordinary the circumstances were when she got on the lifeboat. It had all happened so fast that many passengers didn’t know what was happening until it was too late. The exception to that statement was James Farrell, the young man who did everything he could to help the girls escape the lower decks. He yelled “goodbye forever” to them as they fled, so he probably knew what would happen to those who were left behind. Farrell was last seen praying the rosary on the ship’s deck. He and more than 1500 others did not survive. Katie called him her guardian angel for the rest of her life but she also never forgot the words of a traveling fortune teller who had said that she’d come to no lasting harm…and she didn’t.

Katie Gilnagh went on to have a long life and a family of her own in America but she never let go (you knew that was coming, right?) of James Farrell or her fellow passengers on the RMS Titanic. She was a life-long member of the Titanic Historical Society and she and other survivors gave many interviews about their ordeal to various television and radio shows. It’s been said that James Cameron found some of the inspiration for his blockbuster hit about the sinking ship from the interviews they recorded. The party on the lower decks that Katie and her friends described is certainly recreated in the Cameron film, but none lived long enough to see it. Katie Manning (née Gilnagh) passed away at the age of seventy-six on this day in 1971, nearly sixty years after her close call with a watery grave but decades before the huge film was released. She is buried in Queens, NY.

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