Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Titanic Tuesdays: Message in a Bottle

Those of you who have read Destined may recognize the following name, but if you haven’t read it yet, it won’t spoil anything. Jeremiah Burke is mentioned towards the end of the book, and his story given briefly. But because he interests me so much, I wanted to expand on it a little.

Jeremiah Burke (age 19) and his cousin, Nora Hegarty (age 18), from County Cork, Ireland, sailed on the Titanic in third class from Queenstown (now known as Cobh). Jeremiah was traveling to the United States to join two of his sisters who were already living there, while Nora was on her way to join a convent. They nearly avoided the tragedy, however, because their initial intent was to sail on another ship. According to his grandniece, Brid O’Flynn McSwiney, in an article from the Cork News, Jeremiah went to buy their tickets a month in advance, with the intent to sail on an earlier ship. But he knew the girl at the ticket counter, and she advised him to wait a few weeks for the Titanic. (An alternate account says Jeremiah’s mother bought the tickets.) Sadly, both he and Nora perished in the sinking. Their families waited for weeks afterwards for news, but never received any, and neither body was recovered (or at least, never identified).

Before heading off for the ship, Jeremiah’s mother gave him a holy water bottle filled with Lourdes water. In those days, this sort of thing was an important gift, something that would be treasured. Yet a year later, an off-duty Royal Irish Constabulary officer was walking his dog along the river near Cork Harbour, and spotted a bottle on the shore. It was an empty holy water bottle, and inside was the following note:

13/4/1912 from Titanic, Goodbye all: Burke of Glanmire, Co. Queenstown

Given the date, the message and the fact that the bottle was not something he would have tossed overboard on a whim, most came to the conclusion that Jeremiah wrote the message as the ship was sinking, put it in the bottle and threw it in the water. How it made it back to not only Ireland, but very near to where the Burke family lived, will always be a mystery. According to Brid, “Over the years people have suggested that he could have thrown it out at Cobh. He could have, but it’s unlikely that if your mother gave you a holy water bottle, you would fling it out there. The note was in blue pencil and in very distinctive handwriting. The bottle was something that his Mother had given him as a special memento - going to Lourdes at the time was huge thing - so it wouldn’t have been thrown away as a flippant action.” In a sad twist to the story, Jeremiah’s mother died shortly after the note was found.

An interesting note: in the same article, Brid mentions that while her grandfather (William, Jeremiah’s brother) never returned to Cobh (Queenstown), he would often visit a Titanic survivor, Eugene Daly, who remembered meeting Jeremiah on the tender that ferried them on board the ship. Eugene is also featured briefly in Destined: he is the third class man Apolline sees out on the stern of the ship, playing an Irish tune (“Erin’s Lament”) on his pipes as the ship leaves port at Queenstown.

You can see photos of Jeremiah and the his note in this article at thejournal.ie. Until recently, the bottle was in the possession of Nora Hegarty’s family while the letter was with Jeremiah’s, but it looks like the Burkes donated the letter to the Cobh Heritage Centre a few months ago.

There’s one more thing I can’t resist noting: if anyone watched the Curiosity special on the Discovery Channel a few months back entitled “What Sank Titanic?”, there is a brief allusion to this story at the end. Unfortunately, the special wasn’t quite as factual as I’d have liked, and among the errors and fictionalizations, Jeremiah’s note was attributed to a greaser from England named Frank Goree. In the documentary, Goree climbed up the ship’s dummy 4th funnel, finished off a bottle of liquor, then wrote the note, stuffed it in and chucked the bottle into the water. It made for a more dramatic picture, I’m sure, but since I knew the true story of that note, I can’t deny it bugged me a little that they gave Jeremiah’s story to someone else. They also got the time of the sinking wrong (they said she sunk at 2:02, not 2:20), which is hardly a minor detail! That said, it is a very interesting and enjoyable special, as long as you don’t expect 100% accuracy from it. Heck, even the James Cameron movie wasn’t 100% accurate (and neither is Destined for that matter. We all take small liberties when trying to entertain.). If you’d like to watch it, and have an hour and a half to spare, it’s on YouTube in HD.


  1. Now THIS is highly interesting!!! As soon as I saw the title "Message in a Bottle" I was intrigued and couldn't wait to find the story out. I had never before heard of Jeremiah Burke or this note he wrote on the Titanic. FASCINATING! The only thing I am wondering is how was the note written when the Titanic was sinking since the date says April 13th, because that would be at least 24 hours (or more) before the iceberg hit. That somehow doesn't add up, unless, in the excitement of the moment of sinking, he simply scribbled down the wrong date. Very interesting... I must find out more about this.
    ~ Tarissa
    { In the Bookcase }

    1. I've wondered about the date as well. My guess is either he had the date wrong, or the note wasn't written while the ship was sinking after all. Still, they say it was a big deal for him to toss that particular bottle overboard, so his family seems to believe he wrote it after hitting the iceberg. It's definitely an intriguing story, and one I couldn't resist using in my book.

  2. Isn't the note dated to April 10th? Sure looks that way on the pictures. That would place it just after departure from Queenstown, and it's likely that Burke was simply saying goodbye to the ones he was leaving behind in Ireland. It also makes the location for the recovery of the bottle more senible.

    Personally, I don't think the note has anything to do with the disaster at all, just a way for Burke to say goodbye.

    1. You're right, the picture does look like it says the 10th there. Every account I read when I was researching this post said it was dated the 13th (I swear, even the article I linked said 13th back then!). The ship didn't leave Queenstown on the 10th, though. It docked in Ireland the morning of the 11th, and according to his mother's story, she didn't give him the bottle until that day, so dating the note the 10th is a little strange. I think it's the bottle that keeps throwing me about the whole thing. Everyone says it was too important for him to toss overboard on a whim, especially right at the start of the voyage.

      Here's a newer article about him that points out the various interpretations of the date written: http://www.irishcentral.com/news/Faces-of-the-Titanic-Jeremiah-Burke-lost-his-life-at-19---put-a-message-in-a-bottle-before-he-died-146337625.html