A Letter from Ireland:
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Molly Brown and The Titanic – An Irish Story.

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We often get stories in from readers who recall a member of their family who ALMOST travelled on the Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage. Here is the story of one Irish lady who lived to tell the tale – and go on to great things. A lady by the name of Molly Brown.

Titanic and the Unsinkable Molly BrownCéad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland. It’s a bright, crisp morning here in County Cork – the sun is performing well and we seem to have a clear week ahead of us. Time to get out the walking boots and camera later! I hope the weather is treating you well wherever you are in the world today.

We were in Miltown Malbay in County Clare last weekend – having a great time as we tracked down the ancestors and homesteads of one of our Green Room members. I’m having a nice hot cup of Barry’s Tea as we chat – but I hope you’ll have a cup of whatever you fancy yourself as you join me for today’s Letter.

Do you have a story of The Titanic in your family?

Almost every week, someone asks a question or shares a story or  such as the following:

My ancestor arrived in the US in 1912 – the story goes that they should have been on the Titanic, but they missed the sailing and had to travel later.

It seems that the RMS Titanic – such an icon of modern achievement and classic tragedy – continues to live on in our family stories, lore and imagination.

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Cobh in County Cork – Last Port of Call for The Titanic

The RMS Titanic was designed and built in Belfast in Ireland and left Southhampton on April 10, 1912, on her maiden voyage. By the time she had left Queenstown (Cobh) in County Cork, she had 2224 people on board – including some of the wealthiest people in the world and hundreds of much poorer emigrants hoping for a new life in America. We all know what happened next – on April the 15th, 1500 passengers and crew were lost when the “unsinkable” ship hit an iceberg and sank.

One of the passengers who survived was one Molly Brown – she became known later as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown“. I first heard from Sue McElroy when she responded to an earlier letter. In that letter, I asked our readers:

When it comes to discovering more about your Irish Ancestors – which of these do you want more than anything?” – followed by a list of possibilities.

Sue’s response included:

I love the Irish part of me and my children, and want to find out the stories that the information gleaned can tell !  It has been a long dream of mine to find out my Irish heritage to pass down to my children, grandchildren (17) and g-grandchildren (25).  I am 76 yr. old and continue to work on this and hope to find answers.

What a lucky family you have Sue – to have such an energetic, passionate and resourceful person there for their guidance and assistance in life. A true treasure for the generations in your family! Sue then shared her “Titanic” story with me – one that reached back generations in her own family. So, now I’d like to share that story with you – using a mixture of Sues and my own words.

The Story of Margaret Tobin – Also known as “The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown”.

Sue’s ancestor, Margaret Tobin, was born in Hannibal, Missouri to John Tobin and Johanna Collins in 1867. John and Johanna arrived from Cork poor and uneducated, and John eventually found work digging ditches for the new Hannibal Gas Works . When Margaret was born, the house they lived in was in a part of Hannibal known as “Irish Shanty Town”. They were a close Irish Catholic family. Both parents spoke with a thick Irish brogue and were active in the parish, having distinct Irish traits. Johanna was known to like smoking a clay pipe and having a cup of tea to relax.  The house was very small and had a basement room next to the kitchen that housed the family cow and chickens by night.

Right across the street from Margaret Tobin‘s house lived her aunt, Mary O’Leary. She had a school in her house, where Margaret (Molly Brown) got a basic grammar school education.  By the age of thirteen she was expected to get a job to help support the family and her first job was in a tobacco factory stripping the leaves from the stems. It was dirty, unhealthy work with long hours – 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. She had become known as Molly by this time.

When Molly was 18, she moved with her sister to Leadville, Colorado. Leadville was a rough and tumble mining town, and Margaret continued to be active in the local Church, which is where she met her husband, James Joseph Brown – known as J.J.

Part of her plan in moving was to meet and marry a rich gentleman and provided some extra comfort to her aging parents. But, as she said in later years:

I wanted a rich man, but I loved Jim Brown. I thought about how I wanted comfort for my father and how I had determined to stay single until a man presented himself who could give to the tired old man the things I longed for him. Jim was as poor as we were, and had no better chance in life. I struggled hard with myself in those days. I loved Jim, but he was poor. Finally, I decided that I’d be better off with a poor man whom I loved than with a wealthy one whose money had attracted me. So I married Jim Brown.

But James did not stay poor for long. In years to come, James developed a method of shoring up the walls of mines with bales of hay which allowed the mines to be dug deeper.  In 1893 this led to the biggest strike of gold known at that time.  He was rewarded with 1/8th ownership – it made James and Molly millionaires. Molly put her new-found wealth to good use – educating herself, learning several languages, and became a great humanitarian. She co-founded the Denver Women’s Club, raised money for children’s causes and worked to improve mine worker safety.

In 1912, Molly was on a trip in Europe when she heard her grandson was ill. She decided to take the first-available ship back to the United States. That ship was known as the RMS Titanic. When  the Titanic struck an iceberg on April 14 at about 11:40 p.m., it sank inside a few hours. Molly Brown was able to get on one of the ship’s few lifeboats and was later rescued by the Carpathia. When she boarded the Carpathia, she did whatever she could to help the other survivors. These acts of heroism made news on her return and they earned her the nickname “the Unsinkable Mrs. Brown”.

Being the woman that she was, Molly used this fame as a platform to speak out on many causes, including women’s suffrage and workers’ rights. When World War I started, she started working with the Red Cross in France. Molly Brown (nee Margaret Tobin – daughter of Johanna Collins and John Tobin of County Cork) died on the 26th of October, 1932, in New York City. An adaptation of her life was featured in a Broadway musical produced after her death and a number of later Hollywood movies.

Thanks very much, Sue, for sharing that wonderful story. I’m sure that the spirit of Molly rippled down through the generations in your own family. And that reminds me, I must head off to visit my Uncle and Aunt in the near future. They are one Michael Collins and Patricia Tobin living here in County Cork. The same surnames and county of your own Molly’s parents – John and Johanna.

You can read more about Molly Brown at The Molly Brown House Museum.

Do remember, if you would like to share a story in your own family, or to say hello – feel free to leave a comment below.

Slán for now,
Mike and Carina : )

  • Yvonne says:

    Lovely story. My Great Grandfather was a master carpenter and worked on the Titanic when it was docked at Belfast. He lived at Pottinger District in 1911 with his wife and daughter(my Grandma). Because he was married to a Catholic they had to leave in the night when he was threatened. Ending up in Dalmuir working for Beardmores.

  • Glory Smith says:

    Love your story, so interesting!

  • Edmund Grace says:

    I was told years ago that Molly Brown was buried in the St. John the Evangelist R.C. Cemetery in Pittston, Pennsylvania which is located in the northeast part of the state, about 100 miles west of New York City.

  • Jane Desilet says:

    Trying to determine if any of my Tobin family are related to Molly Tobin Brown. Haha, I’ll figure it out one day soon! Thank you for the wonderful story.

  • Maureen Nagle says:

    What a wonderful story and a wonderful testament to the human/Irish spirit. Maureen Nagle, Manchester, NH

  • Denise says:

    I had no idea the “unsinkable Molly Brown” was an Irish girl! Debbie Reynolds starred as Molly years ago and the story caught my heart.

    After graduating high school, I attended a technical computer school in Denver and used to walk past the elegant brown stone of Molly Brown which was located in the Capital Hill area,

    After hearing this story, it means even more for me; thank you for sharing!

    • Kimberly says:

      I grew up watching the movie so was familiar with the story😀 Amazing strength of character people had back then.

  • Deborah Moran says:

    I love reading your emails please don’t ever stop writing you are such a wonderful writer. Thank You! Also you offer so much information again thank you for you generosity.

  • Jackie McElroy Sanders says:

    I am a McElroy and I remember my Grandparents telling stories similar.

  • Mary Beth says:

    I’ve hit a dead end looking for info about a great great grandmother. All I know is her birthdate: year: 1845 she was from County Cork. I understand that census records burned in a fire. Might you have any leads for me to follow? She died in Oakland California in 1917. Many thanks.

  • Susanne says:

    My father in law was a baby. The family was booked on the Titanic. The day of departure when they arrived they found they had been bumped to another time. Had it not been for that “bump” my children wouldn’t be born. Though I wouldn’t know better. But it’s my family story.

  • […] September the 9th, 1953, the S.S. America pulled into the port of Cobh following an Atlantic crossing from New York. Cobh was the final destination for quite a number of […]

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