Encountering the Titanic in Athlone

Remembering Margaret Rice and Her Five Sons

Passengers on the Titanic included a family headed by a single mom from Athlone.

Passengers on the Titanic included a family headed by a single mom from Athlone.

As ambivalent as I might feel about disaster tourism—is it really okay to go and look?—I am still drawn to all things Titanic. Of course, I loved the James Cameron movie, reenacted actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s “I’m the king of the world!” scene at the Luxor exhibit in Las Vegas, and, once in its gift shop, inhaled the reproduced perfume from the ship that was found at the bottom of the ocean. (It is amazing that the perfume bottles were still intact.)

I think I am more intrigued by the Titanic experience just because of the folly of pronouncing something indestructible. Even as a little girl hearing about the ship that ran into an iceberg on its maiden voyage (“the ship was supposed to be unsinkable!”), I always felt that the manufacturers or owners or marketing folks or whoever were just asking for trouble for saying stuff like that.

Look closely at this building in Athlone, Ireland, to see the memorial dedicated to Titanic passengers from the area. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Look closely at this building in Athlone, Ireland, to see the memorial dedicated to Titanic passengers from the area. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Of course, trouble they got, and tragedy, and now, more than 100 years after its sinking, tourist attractions of sorts: that pop-up museum in Vegas (replete with a large portion of the ship, dishes that managed to survive, and other artifacts), an exhibition and dinner experience in Orlando, Fla. (a place without real links to the event), a museum and memorial in Belfast where the ship was built, and the Titanic Experience in Cobh (formerly known as Queenstown), Titanic’s last stop before its sinking. There are also memorials in Liverpool, Southampton (UK), New York City, and Washington, D.C.

There is plenty to be learned by the Titanic example: issues of class and safety (not enough lifeboats), ship design, chain of command, emergency response, and on. Still, I am a bit uneasy about the monetization of the tragedy. And yet, I admit, I still gawk.

Walking on Castle Street in Athlone, less than a block from the River Shannon, just past Saints Peter & Paul Church, right across from Athlone Castle, and just up from Sean’s Bar, Ireland’s oldest pub, I glimpse a discreet plaque on a commercial building announcing that a family that perished on the Titanic used to live right here.

Single mom Margaret Rice and her five sons, all 10 and under, were making their way to Spokane, Wash. via the Titanic. They all perished when the ship sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. A memorial in Athlone was placed on the building where they lived on Castle Street. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Single mom Margaret Rice and her five sons, all 10 and under, were making their way to Spokane, Wash. via the Titanic. They all perished when the ship sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. A memorial in Athlone was placed on the building where they lived on Castle Street. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Margaret Rice, a 39-year-old widow who had moved with her husband to Canada and then to Spokane, Wash. before returning to Ireland after his death, lived in Athlone with her five sons, all 10 and under. She reportedly had gotten a settlement after her spouse, who worked for a railroad, was killed on the job. She apparently had decided to return to Spokane and booked passage for herself and the children on the Titanic. All perished.

The family had a third-class ticket, and Margaret was reportedly seen surrounded by her children before the ship sank. Her body was identified by pills she carried and shoes from Athlone. Margaret Rice is buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. The bodies of her children were never found. Her husband, William Rice, is buried in Spokane, Wash.

In Athlone, this marker on this building on this street on this day reminds that tragedy can strike anyone, of any class, at any moment. That the marker is so subtle, and easily overlooked, makes it that much more poignant: someone, more than 100 years after the April 15, 1912 sinking of a big ship on its first big job, remembers.

Titanic Memorial, Castle Street, Athlone

—Lori Tripoli

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