News & Politics

Christine Quinn Tells Tale of Grandmother’s Escape from Titanic 100 Years Ago (Yes, It Actually Happened)


In the race to be the next mayor of New York City, there’s one thing that definitely makes City Council Speaker Christine Quinn unique: Her grandmother survived the Titanic.

Though she’s been making the rounds telling the story this month, for many years, it was a secret.

Quinn, who is expected to run for mayor in 2013, today held an official ceremony commemorating the Titanic Centennial at Titanic Park at the South Street Seaport, which has a new exhibit called “Titanic at 100: Myth and Memory.”

“Clearly, the Titanic is a bit of a fascination for people,” she said. “I think in part people are interested so significantly in the story of the Titanic, because it’s such a human story. There was a ship that was supposed to be the greatest thing ever, unsinkable, the most wonderful luxury liner ever, and it went down…Within that, there’s all the different struggles of human sacrifice, people giving their lives for others.”

Quinn, citing her grandmother — who came from Ireland and survived the disaster when she was a teenager — said that the Titanic is also an important story of immigration in America. (Yes, it really happened).

“There were people who were coming, many, many of them from Ireland like my grandmother, to the United States because they believed there was something better. They believed they could come to this country and do better for themselves. They could do better for their children…and that there was a life out there that would be freer and more prosperous,” Quinn said at the start of the news conference, later adding, “The story of the Titanic…that doesn’t get told enough is the story of immigrants…That’s the New York story.”

Quinn’s grandmother, Ellen Shine Callaghan, known back then as Nellie, was headed to America to meet up with her cousin when she boarded the ship.

“She never spoke of it,” Quinn said. “My mother only found out that her mother was on the Titanic because they taught her about the Titanic, and she came home and said, ‘Mom, you won’t believe it, there was a girl on the Titanic who survived who had your name.’ And my grandmother said, ‘No, Mary, that was me.’ That was 8th grade. It had never been mentioned…before that.”

Quinn, who was joined by her father at the press conference, said the family didn’t talk much about her grandmother’s experience.

“We were told as children…not to talk to my grandmother about the Titanic, because it was too upsetting, so…I talked to my grandmother about it,” she said, laughing.

Her grandmother was one of the few immigrant girls who made it out alive, Quinn said, noting that more first class men made it off the ship successfully than third class women.

The Council Speaker recalled this quote from her grandmother, which might expalin how she made it off alive: “When the other girls dropped to their knees to pray, I took a run for it.” Quinn remembered telling a priest this story, noting that her grandmother must have known that there was a time for praying and a time for running. The priest said to Quinn, she recalled, “‘Your grandmother knew you could pray while running’…That’s a thought for all of us to hopefully remember.”


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