by Brendan McNamara
Leaving New York
“This is my last meeting with you, for now I am on the ship ready to sail away…” Thus ‘Abdu’l-Bahá bade farewell to the Bahá’ís after His extraordinary journey in North America. For almost eight months, the Master had criss-crossed the United States, visited Canada and had concluded one of the most outstanding periods of achievement in His entire Ministry.1 Addressing the heartbroken friends who had gathered on the ship, He continued, conveying to them His final words of guidance and inspiration.
These are my final words of exhortation. I have repeatedly summoned you to the cause of the unity of the world of humanity, announcing that all mankind are the servants of the same God; that God is the Creator of all; He is the Provider and Life Giver; all are equally beloved by Him and are His servants upon whom His mercy and compassion descend. Therefore you must manifest the greatest kindness and love toward the nations of the world, setting aside fanaticism, abandoning religious, national and racial prejudice…2
The ship that readied itself to sail the Atlantic, to bring the Master back to Europe and on which He spoke His words of farewell, was none other than the Celtic. The journey would take eight days and the great liner should have, as part of its normal schedule, dropped anchor in Cork harbour before moving on to Liverpool, its final port of destination.3 This possibility had occupied my interest for some time until it emerged that bad weather had precluded the ship from docking in Irish waters, as it should have done. The story of the Celtic receded in my mind; until, that is, I received a card from an old friend in Wales.
The card contained a press cutting from Scotland’s Sunday Post newspaper under the heading “Celtic’s Bell Still Rings”.4 It was a scoop, of a kind, in which the newspaper had tracked down the bell from the SS Celtic and confirmed an interest the famous Glasgow football club, Celtic F.C., had in acquiring it.
“The bells could soon be ringing again for Celtic at Park-head – thanks to the Sunday Post”, the article began and went on to quote an official of the club who expressed it as his “dearest wish” to find the bell and give it a home at Celtic’s ground at Parkhead. An oil painting of the ship had already been acquired and hung in a place of honour at the club. The ship was built in 1901 at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, the article related, and “bore the Glasgow club’s name5… We traced the bell of the SS Celtic to a tiny chapel at Ringaskiddy on the outskirts of Cork.”6
The little village of Ringaskiddy, some ten kilometres from Cork City, lies on the western side of Cork harbour opposite Cobh. Now the main passenger ferry terminal for the Cork area, the village still retains an air of a small close-knit community and is relatively unspoiled, apart from motor traffic moving to and from the ferry-port. You will have guessed that the story of the bell had tweaked my interest and I was up and going again. It intrigued me to think that an artefact from the ship the Master sailed on should show up so close to home.7 As my friend had gone to all that trouble to put me on to this lead, I could not just ignore it.
The chapel mentioned in the Sunday Post article is easily located at the end of the village and directly across from the entrance to the ferry terminal. It is a curious structure for a church, one story high, which, when you stand outside the front door, is like a cottage facing you from the gable end. The inside has been newly decorated in a very simple fashion and this, allied to a very low ceiling, must evoke a very intimate atmosphere for those who worship there. But the bell… yes, there is a bell, atop the roof outside, not very big and suspended within a small open belfry. A cable, running down under the roof, emerging just inside the front door, is used for tolling. We discussed the bell (I have dragged my poor spouse with me on this particular field trip) and try as we might we can see no special marking engraved on it. The only thing to do is to call on the parish priest to verify for sure that we are indeed looking at the real thing.
As in any village, the local priest’s house is well known and easily accessible. At first I am not so sure we have found the right house as the music emanating from inside is more heavy metal than angelic! Very quickly though the music fades and we are greeted by a friendly man who proves very helpful. Yes, the bell comes from the Celtic, he relates, though he of course has not been around since 1932 when the local people acquired it for the oratory. No, he does not know if there is any special inscription engraved on the bell, as he has never seen it himself up close. And, of course, he knows that that football club, Celtic F.C., have been looking for the bell for a number of years now but the local people will not let it go. The people of Ringaskiddy have a special connection with the ship, dating from the time it ran aground just outside the harbour in 1928. But have we been to Mrs. Cusack’s house in the village? No, we have not. We have no idea who Mrs. Cusack is.
In Ireland one would pass, without paying too much attention, any house or indeed anything at all with the word “Celtic” in it. Various companies, buildings, hotels, etc. use this word in their names or titles. But Mrs. Cusack’s house is different. We determine to go by her door, having received very accurate directions from the priest and an “I’m sure she won’t mind” encouragement. Back onto the main road and in a minute we are standing outside Mrs. Cusack’s house. Sliding PVC doors lead immediately to the front door proper.
On closer inspection, this turns out to be a double door, strong in appearance, black in colour, with stained glass panels and curious round door handles, flashed behind with silver plate inlay. The doors are of a round arched shape on top and the doorway has been specially built to take their rather unorthodox form. This is Celtic House, named after the ship and these front doors once adorned one of her corridors. The temptation is too great and, before I think about it too much, I have knocked. Someone is moving towards me, a shadow appearing behind the glass panels in the doors that came from the Celtic.
Mrs. Nell Cusack
Mrs. Cusack is a slightly stooped lady, quite elderly, but with a fresh countenance and a strong disposition. I explain my interest in her front doors, watch the puzzled look rise on her face and then, just as quickly, subside. Before we know it, we are in Mrs. Cusack’s kitchen, warmly welcomed and listening intently to the fascinating story of Celtic House. A little later, Mrs. Cusack’s daughter has joined us and fills in some further details.
The story goes that when the Celtic ran aground off Roche’s Point in 1928, all efforts to free the stricken vessel failed and she was declared a total loss.8 The ship was sold to a salvage company and was demolished where she lay, the work being finally completed in 1933.9 Paddy Cusack, Mrs. Cusack’s late husband, was employed by a local company sub-contracted to do some of the work. Indeed, his daughter told us, he delighted in relating the story of how he was the first of the salvage team to tie up to the Celtic, jumping from the salvage vessel on to the rocks on which she foundered and then aboard the ship. When the ship was broken down, much of the material and contents were brought ashore at Ringaskiddy, amongst which was the bell, eventually secured by the local people for their small oratory. Around this time Paddy Cusack was building a house in the village of Ringaskiddy and acquired the set of doors, rightly concluding that they would look well in the new structure. Not only that, but for the inside work, Paddy used almost exclusively timber that had come from the ship. As well as large beams, the inside doors also came from the ship and the staircase for the two-story house was built using an original staircase from the Celtic. Paddy named his new home Celtic House and was proud of his association with the difficult salvage work.
The effect was extraordinary as Mrs. Cusack kindly showed us through the different rooms. Doors with oval glass windows, “Push” signs still intact, the thick beams of the sturdy staircase and a marvellous, round-topped stair post. I could not help running my hand along the timber work, thinking all the time of how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá may have at one time moved between these doors or climbed this staircase. I do not think Mrs. Cusack found us too strange. She was accustomed to visitors peering through her rooms and around her house. Yes, Celtic F.C. had been around and more than one film company had made offers for the doors and other items.
The hospitality shown to us by Mrs. Cusack and her daughter was truly heart-warming. You could tell she missed her husband dearly. Memories of him abounded in every corner of the house, which he himself had built. He had built not just a home but also a monument to one of the most important vessels ever to sail the Atlantic, given its connection to the Centre of the Covenant. The family will ensure the house stays intact, we were told, as they have too many precious associations with it to do otherwise.
Quite a lot of material from the ship had been dispersed around the area, Mrs Cusack said, as we were about to leave, and had we seen the doors in the Long Valley?
The Long Valley
Ever the intrepid investigator, I decided (very soon after my trip to Ringaskiddy) to brave the Long Valley. Situated in the centre of Cork City on Winthrop Street, the Long Valley is certainly long but a valley? This is probably the last public house of its kind in the city and is very much in the old style. There is still a snug, a special area where, in the past, women would come to imbibe, not being welcome in the public bar. The bar itself is long and narrow, the décor bare and the overall effect is somewhat subdued. Still, like many drinking establishments, the Long Valley now serves coffees and lunches and can truly claim to serve the best sandwich in Cork.
It is the snug entrance that contains another set of double doors from the Celtic, not as ornate as Mrs. Cusack’s, but quite unusual nonetheless. The hallway, before you reach the snug, is lined with wood panelling that came from the ship, as are the cabinets in the bar hallway. In the bar itself, one of the tables comes from the first class section of the ship.10 A photograph of the Celtic, languishing on the rocks off Queenstown (Cobh) with text telling the story of the doors and table, hangs on the snug wall.
The owner tells me that the family acquired most of the items in the early thirties when there was first a public house on the site but the table came much later. A lot of material from the ship was dispersed around the area, she said, “and many’s the chicken house that was built with it.”
So materials from the Celtic have ended up scattered throughout the Cork area and, no doubt, beyond. I wondered (and you may wonder) why the story interested me so much and why I had been hooked sufficiently to go knocking on the doors of complete strangers and visiting public houses. There is always the desire, I suppose, to place ourselves close to what might be described as the centre of the action. Irish people particularly like to be so involved and take a great interest in artefacts associated with great events.11 Early Irish Christian folklore places an Irishman at the scene of the Crucifixion!12 We take pride in the fact that it was a doctor of Irish background who attended the Báb in Tabriz prior to His Martyrdom.
It does seem natural to want to be close to the Master and material things that have even a tenuous association with Him take on a new character, become somehow transformed and, in a way, open a door to such closeness. In this light, the two tablets received by George Townshend from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá are an infinitely precious heritage in themselves.13 Since there is otherwise very little physical connection between ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and our country, the story of the Celtic might be all we have.
So what more could be found out about the Celtic? All that is left, I thought, is the trip itself.
Crossing the Atlantic
There is a wonderful record of the Western travels of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá compiled by one of His travelling companions, Mírzá Mahmud-i-Zarqani. Mahmud has left an extensive account of the Master’s travels in North America and includes some details of the trip across the Atlantic to Liverpool. His diary is published in two volumes in the Persian language and hopefully this treasure will become available in other languages in the future.14
Travelling the Atlantic in December was not pleasant and, though the weather was clement for the first part of the trip, the latter part was punctuated by terrible storms. Though exhausted by His exertions over the eight months He had been in North America, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was nonetheless extremely pleased with the outcome of the visit. He deemed it a tremendous success, due to the outpouring of blessings from His beloved Father. Mahmud recounts how one lady passenger, who had apparently heard the Master address the friends before the Celtic sailed and had been most impressed, sought an interview with Him. Also highlighted in the diary is how much love the Master showered upon the staff of the ship and those passengers with whom He came in contact. Mahmud also mentions the Master’s sadness in being placed near the door of the restaurant (his diary is quite detailed) and, towards the end of the journey, a number of passengers came to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to pay their respects and to say goodbye. Some passengers also sought to make appointments to see Him in London. Unfortunately, though, Mahmud does not record the names of those the Master had contact with on board the Celtic, a number of whom were Irish.
This is, of course, only a taste of what occurred during the eight days and eleven pages of Mahmud’s Diary.
When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had crossed to America in April 1912, some six western Bahá’ís joined the ship at Naples and accompanied Him to New York.15 On the return leg, on board the Celtic, His retinue consisted only of His diarist, Mírzá Mahmud, Siyyid Asadu’llah-i-Qumi and Mírzá Ahmad Sohráb.16
Including the Master’s party, some 1,489 souls (excluding the crew) embarked on this journey across the Atlantic.17 Of these, 504 are recorded as British and the remaining 985 as aliens, which term (before the Star Trek era) applied to any other nationality.18 A total of 172 intended to disembark at Queenstown (Cobh), of whom 148 are listed as being British and 24 as Aliens. Of the 172, six were travelling in first class, twenty-five in second class and the remaining in third class.19
Had any of these people contact with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá? We do not know and, at this remove, it will be very difficult to find out. It seems likely that more than one person, as indicated above, was attracted to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá from amongst His fellow travellers and the ship’s crew. Mahmud mentions that a number of passengers sought out the Master before going ashore and some wanted to arrange to see Him again in London. On the outward journey, on board the Cedric, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had addressed at least one large gathering of passengers and had requests for numerous personal interviews.20 Amongst those who had interviews with the Master were the Consuls of Russia and Italy, who were also on their way to New York. Mr. Balyuzi remarks of those who conversed with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on that trip that “their reverence for Him was truly remarkable”.21 We can surmise that the effect the Master had on His fellow travellers on board the Celtic would have been no less outstanding.22
A twist in the tale
There is a fascinating footnote to the story of the Master’s trip on board the Celtic, which could be said to bring some threads together and explains much. This appears in the form of a report of the journey, carried in that venerable early publication, Star of the West, and contributed by one of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s travelling companions, Ahmad Sohráb.23 The brief account of eight days on the high seas contains interesting observations on the Master’s interaction with the Captain of the ship and the passengers. It recounts how the sailors marvelled at how mild the weather was for the time of year, with the sea smooth and the sky clear. Yet, the report goes on, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá expressed a desire to see a storm and went on to comment on how future travel across the Atlantic would be in airships, with steamers carrying only freight! Well, the very next day the weather did change and a storm duly rose, reaching its height of intensity on December 11th, apparently to the great delight of the Master. The report concludes with the storm abating before the steamer docked in Liverpool on December 13th, having avoided its scheduled stop in Cobh due to the severity of the storm.
So this is the reason why Ireland missed out on its most important visitor ever!
The end of the line
When, in the early hours of the morning of December 13th, the Celtic passed by the south coast of Ireland, skirting her intended penultimate port of call at Queenstown (Cobh), amongst her passengers, undoubtedly the most illustrious ever to grace her decks, was “the Most Mighty Branch of God”, “His ancient and immutable Mystery”.24 That ship found herself the instrument of conveying God’s “most perfect bounty”25 from the scene of His momentous travels in North America.
Commenting on the Master’s western travels, Shoghi Effendi writes, “Never in the entire range of religious history has any Figure of comparable stature arisen to perform a labour of such magnitude and imperishable worth.”26 “‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s historic journeys to the West…” Shoghi Effendi further writes “…and in particular His eight-month tour of the United States of America, may be said to have marked the culmination of His ministry, a ministry whose untold blessings and stupendous achievements only future generations can adequately estimate.”27
Small wonder, when viewed in this context, that we should be interested in the story of a transatlantic liner called the Celtic. For eight days ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sailed on the Celtic and thereafter everything associated with that ship could never be the same. The Celtic has, as a result of this fortuitous circumstance, found a niche in history and, in turn, created a fascinating connection between ’Abdu’l-Bahá and Ireland.
And that is as much as can be found out about the Celtic, unless another card comes through the letterbox with another tantalising lead!
- Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p.295. ↩
- ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp.464-67. (Cited in H. M. Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p.337.) ↩
- December 5th to 13th, 1912. See H. M. Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, pp.337-44. ↩
- Thanks to Jean Owen for forwarding the cutting – first sent to her by Margaret Macaulay. ↩
- “Celtic” here is pronounced in the same way as in SS Celtic. That the ship was named after the football club is hardly accurate as the Celtic with which the article in the Sunday Post was concerned and on which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sailed was in fact Celtic II. Its predecessor of the same name saw service between 1872 and 1898, whereas Celtic Football club was founded (by an Irish Marist brother) in 1888. (Information from the Cunard Archive at Liverpool University accessed on the Internet and the Celtic F.C. web page. http://www.celticfc.net) ↩
- Sunday Post, February 19th, 1989. ↩
- The Story of Queenstown contains a number of interesting artefacts from the Celtic. ↩
- December 12th, 1928, exactly sixteen years from when she passed Queenstown (Cobh) with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on board. ↩
- Petersen & Albeck of Copenhagen. (Information from the Cunard Archives at Liverpool University.) ↩
- The table, mid-way down the bar, is stencilled underneath “Celtic Cabin Table 7P 1st. Saloon”. ↩
- There is, for example, a great tradition of relic veneration in Ireland. ↩
- Mary Costelloe, Ireland and the Holy Land, pp.150-65. ↩
- For the text of these Tablets (and facsimile copies) see David Hofman, George Townshend, pp.47-56. ↩
- Kitab-i-Badayi’u’l-Athar (Wonderous Traces). My thanks to Shahriar Razavi who put me on to this and identified the relevant pages (Volume 2, pp.9-21). From the original, Shahriar and Betsy Omidvaran gave me the gist of what Mahmud recounts about the trip and this is contained in these paragraphs. A translation of volume 1 of Mahmud’s Diary into English has subsequently been published in 1998 (George Ronald). ↩
- H.M. Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p.171. ↩
- Ibid. p.343. ↩
- One young man (Wias Herzman, a 20 year old Finn) died at sea on December 12th. The passengers comprised such nationalities as Britons, Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders, Swedes, Finns, Norwegians, Danes, Austrians, Russians, Germans, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Poles, French, Italians, Turks and Montenegrins. (Information from passenger list in possession of the author.) ↩
- Irish people travelling would have been recorded as British, as Ireland was part of the U.K. at that time. A large number of the ”Aliens” disembarking at Queenstown (Cobh) were, possibly, Irish or of Irish descent. This is indicated by their names as listed in the passenger list, for example, Roche, Crotty, Clancy, etc. ↩
- ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had a first class cabin and His companions had cabins in second class. Curiously, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s country of last permanent residence is given as Persia in the passenger list. ↩
- There is a report of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressing a gathering of first class passengers on board the Celtic. See Star of the West Vol.III, No. 16 (December 31, 1912). Star of the West, published in Chicago between 1910 and 1935, was the first international Bahá’í periodical. ↩
- H.M. Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p.172. ↩
- The first class passengers of British nationality scheduled to disembark at Queenstown (Cobh) were Henry J. Carroll (returning from Canada), Francis Redwood (resident in New Zealand) and Americans or naturalised Americans, Annie Medbury, George Quinn, Richard Reed and William Butler. The second and third class passenger list contains a wide range of common Irish names, including two young people (an O’Sullivan and a Gordon), who had been deported! Unfortunately, none of the passengers are readily recognisable. ↩
- The report in question is carried in Star of the West, Vol.III, No. 16. It should be borne in mind that much of the material in these volumes has not been verified and falls into the category of “pilgrim’s notes”. My thanks to Betsy Omidvaran for alerting me to this important information. ↩
- Bahá’u’lláh, cited in God Passes By, p.243. ↩
- Ibid. p.242. ↩
- Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By p.294. ↩
- Ibid. p.295. ↩