The Avondhu - By The Fireside
In the final scene of the 1997 ‘Titanic’ film, a young Rose ascends the grand staircase in the first-class section of the transatlantic ocean liner where she embraces Jack (in a dream or the afterlife), who died earlier in the film in the freezing waters after the ship sank on her maiden voyage in 1912.
While we are all familiar with the Titanic, even if only because of the film, a local connection to the historic ship relates to a Castletownroche man and master carpenter who it is believed was responsible for building the iconic staircase.
According to John Looney, who now lives in Birmingham, England, it was his late grandfather, also a John Looney and who lived in Castletownroche with his wife Lizzie, that built the piéce de résistance of the iconic ocean liner.
John Looney was born the son of carpenter, Timothy Looney in 1880 in James Square, near Barrack Street, Cork City. Around 1908, John Looney came to Castletownroche due to his work as a master carpenter.
“Being a carpenter, he got a job at the Mill looking after the wheel and that sort of stuff and my grandmother had a shop in Castletownroche near the bridge. He got to know my grandmother, when going in and out to get stuff,” John told The Avondhu.
John’s grandmother, Lizzie, was a widow at the time. Owner of the local shop where she worked, Lizzie had a daughter, Mary Ann, with her late husband Michael Ryan who had worked as a cooper.
After marrying John, the couple were blessed with two children; Nora, who later moved to Dublin, and John who lived in Castletownroche and Birmingham, passing away when his son, also John, was just five years old.
1909 saw the construction of the Titanic commence in Belfast and advertisements for various positions during its construction were advertised throughout Ireland. This saw John’s grandfather head to Belfast for a period of around 18 months for a job as master carpenter.
According to John, specific details of the job, the pay or the timelines are not available, however, as he claims the Belfast shipyard - Harland and Wolff did not keep records of workers and their pay at that time.
A THIN HULL
Familial stories passed down through the generations, told of his grandfather’s involvement with the iconic ship.
“One of the days he was up there and the Orange Day parades were on and because he was a Catholic, his landlady wouldn’t let him out of the house for his own protection. The vast majority of people who worked there were Protestant.
“My grandfather said that many times there were so-called ‘accidents’. Things were dropped from quite a height if there were Catholics working below them (Protestants). They would ‘accidently’ drop spanners or nuts,” John said.
Tales from his family also foreshadowed the tragedy that was to come.
As a master carpenter, John Looney would have had access to the plans and drawings for the ship and he alleged that the hull had been made thinner than it should have been.
“When the Titanic was finished, because he was the master carpenter, the main man, he was offered a ticket to go on the Titanic and he turned it down. Because he had the plans, he noticed that the hull was made thinner than it should have been.
“The reason behind that, we believe, is that The White Star was trying to save weight so that the ship would go faster, because if it went faster, they would then get the contract for the transatlantic mail,” John added.
While on a visit to the village in 1989, John said that a local priest told him of a bet between his grandfather and the local butcher. A new roof was needed for the butcher’s shop on the corner of Doneraile Road, and a bet was made between the butcher and John’s grandfather, the master carpenter, that the roof couldn’t be built on the floor.
“My grandfather made the roof on the floor and when they lifted it up, it fitted absolutely perfectly. They didn’t have to make any adjustments whatsoever,” John said.
It is understood that Mr Looney also built a wooden altar for the local church and despite efforts and an ongoing search, John has yet to discover what became of the altar that his late grandfather built.
With the arrival of a new bishop in 1988, came new altars to the parish. Rumours that the old altar had been moved to the Cathedral in Cobh led to dead-ends in John’s search for the altar.