Among the Souvenirs

A Daughter Remembers Margaret Devaney O'Neill

Titanica!

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Helen Landsberg has heard the story of the Titanic disaster her entire life. But her story is much different from those of thousands of others whose interest became sparked by reading books, seeing the classic films or just hearing about it in general. Helen, whose mother, Margaret Devaney O’Neill, was a survivor of the 1912 sinking, continues to preserve and perpetuate her mother’s incredible tale of survival years later. 

In August 2001, Helen had the opportunity to visit Ireland for the second time in her life, but the first to the small village of Kilmacowen in County Sligo. Helen’s mother had departed for the United States on the ill-fated voyage of the world’s most famous ocean liner, the RMS Titanic, from this rural part of Ireland at age 20 in search of a better life. 

Margaret Devaney O’Neill was born on May 15, 1891 and was raised on the family farm, according to church records in Ireland. She was one of nine children born of John and Margaret (Gunning) Devaney. In-terestingly, Margaret Devaney always believed the date of May 3, 1892 as being her birthdate, when in fact she had been born one year earlier. The ruins of the Devaney farm still stand in Kilmacowen, County Sligo, and the current owners of the land, deciding to leave its remnants intact, never bothered to remove the original structure. When Helen and her husband George left their tour group to visit the old family farm, the current owners of the old Devaney homestead were extremely obliging and gave them a grand tour of the site. It amused Helen and George that everyone in the area knew the Devaney farm — “that young Devaney girl who once lived there survived the great Titanic disaster.” Local residents knew Helen’s mother’s story well, and perhaps this fact may have allowed the Devaney farm to survive. 

Helen was pleased that she could visit the place where her family heritage and her mother’s famous voyage on the Titanic began. One can envision the excitement as Helen’s mother Margaret and two neighbor girlfriends, Kate Hargadon and Mary Delia. On the night of the sinking, Margaret and her two friends were awakened by the collision, and quickly headed topside. In the journey to reach the lifeboats, Kate and Mary remained behind, owing to Kate’s sea-sickness. Something prompted Margaret to continue on in search of the lifeboats, and by the time she reached one of the last remaining, after an endless maze of stair-wells and corridors, there was no time to return to her friends. Margaret was quickly bustled into col-lapsible boat C, and re-membered having to push away from the sides of the Titanic to prevent the lifeboat’s sides from catching on the Titanic’s hull plates. Once down on the water, the sailors found that the oarlocks were tied, preventing access to the oars to clear the boat away of the foundering Titanic. Remembering a small pocket knife that her youngest brother had given her as a going away present in Ireland, Margaret fished around in her pocket as the calls went out, “Does anyone have a knife?” Margaret quickly responded and the knife was put to work.

Shortly thereafter, the Titanic foundered, leaving behind a trail of wreckage and the struggling efforts of over 1,500 people. As the cries echoed out over the dark and icy night, Margaret recited the rosary for those she could hear perishing in the icy waters all around her. 

Once aboard the Carpathia, Margaret realized that Kate and Mary were missing, and remained in a state of shock and exhaustion for the duration of the trip to New York. While standing on the top deck as the Carpathia prepared to dock at Pier 54, Margaret was tapped on the shoulder by one of the crew members who had been in her lifeboat. Before she could speak, the man stated, “You know, you did a lot to save our lives by having that knife, so I wanted you to have this. They are going to breaking the lifeboats apart for souvenirs but this is for you.” He then presented Margaret with one of the White Star Line iron flag plates that had been attached to her lifeboat. Margaret could barely find the words to thank the man for his kindness, and never found out who he was or whatever happened to him. At that particular moment, she was more interested in finding her brother and two sisters who were expecting her in New York City. She eventually met them after a long search following the Carpathia’s arrival, and went on to settle down in the metropolis of Manhattan, where she would make her home with one of her sisters at 861 Sixth Avenue.

Margaret married seven years later to John Joseph O’Neill, a third-generation master plumber, and moved across the Hudson River to Jersey City, New Jersey where the young couple would become the parents of six children. Throughout her life, Margaret never shielded herself from the interest that was generated by the public with the Titanic. She freely spoke to newspaper reporters on anniversaries, appeared on television and radio, and even visited and corresponded regularly with Walter Lord and many survivors of the disaster. In 1959, she was an invited guest to the premiere of the British movie A Night to Remember in New York City, and enjoyed a private dinner screening of the film with producer William MacQuitty and author Walter Lord. It was noticed that both MacQuitty and Lord’s eyes were like saucers when Margaret brought out her lifeboat flagplate and the knife that was used in the lifeboat that cold night. Margaret would jokingly comment for years that “Walter would always write and inquire about what I intended to do with these souvenirs.” Today, Margaret’s descendants continue to carefully preserve them as part of their family heritage. In 1952, Margaret would jokingly comment for years that “Walter would always write and inquire about what I intended to do with these souvenirs.” 

Today, Margaret’s descendants continue to carefully preserve them as part of their family heritage. In 1952, Margaret returned to Ireland for the first time since 1912, and traveled to Kilmacowen where she noted that little had changed since her youth. On this journey to Ireland, she also traveled across the ocean for the first time since the Titanic disaster, and crossed over on the second Mauretania. While she enjoyed the uneventful crossing, she chose to return to Ireland two more times in her life after that but decided to fly rather than sail to allow more time to visit her beloved homeland. 

After her husband’s death in 1960, Margaret moved to Montclair, New Jersey for a brief time before moving to Clifton, New Jersey, in 1965 to be nearer her family who were living in that area. 

In 1973, she continued to regale the young and old with her tale of survival, attending a convention of the Titanic Historical Society in Greenwich, Connecticut, and later visiting local high school students in their history class in March 1974 (the recollections of which still exist).

On 12 June 1974, Margaret Devaney O’Neill passed away at the age of 83, having lived a full and happy life — but one that was almost forfeited on that cold April night back in 1912.

This article first appeared in VOYAGE, journal of Titanic International Society

Author’s note: On a personal note, I would like to thank Helen and her husband, George, for sharing this experience with the TIS membership and ET. I first met Helen and George back in 1983 when I first learned about Helen’s mother having lived not too far from my home in New Jersey. Although I never had the pleasure of meeting her, I was elated to meet her daughter Helen who extended every kindness. 

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Acknowledgements

Shelley Dzeidzic

Citation

Encyclopedia Titanica (2006) Among the Souvenirs (Titanica!, ref: #93, published 11 July 2006, generated 22nd July 2021 08:58:59 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/among-the-souvenirs.html