Mary Josephine (Mae or May) Barrett was born in Cork City, Ireland on the 5th March 1890, the daughter of David Barrett and Mary O’Connell. The family home was at 10. Coleman’s Lane, in Cork City. While she was young, her father died and she was sent to her live with a paternal uncle, Patrick Barrett, described as a Gas Manager, residing at Church Street, Rathkeale, County Limerick, Ireland. She received her education in the Convent of Mercy in Rathkeale.
On the 30th March 1911 she boarded the S.S. Majestic at Queenstown with her friend, Kitty McDonnell, and they disembarked in New York on the 6th April, where Mae found employment as a waitress. In late 1913, Mae returned home for a visit, and returned to New York when she boarded the S.S. Cymric on the 23rd January 1914 and disembarked in New York on the 1st February. On hearing of the death of her sister Elizabeth in Cork in early 1915, she decided to return to her home again, and booked passage on the May sailing of the RMS Lusitania. Kitty McDonnell decided to return with her.
They arrived at the Cunard berth at Pier 54 in New York harbour on the 1st May in time for the liner’s scheduled 10.00a.m. They had booked Second Cabin passage. Mae and Kitty were accommodated in cabin E2, which they shared with Miss Mary Rooney and Miss Maizie McGovern. Mae occupied berth 3 in the cabin.
The sailing was delayed until the afternoon as she had to embark passengers, crew, and cargo from the Anchor Lines vessel, the
S.S. Cameronia. This vessel had been requisitioned by the British Admiralty for service as a troop ship at the end of April. The
Lusitania finally left port just after mid-day, and just six days later, on the afternoon of 7th May, she was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine
U-20, twelve miles off the southern coast of Ireland, and only about twenty five miles from Mae’s home in Cork City.
Mae and Kitty McDonnell were having lunch when the vessel was struck by the torpedo and they were assisted in putting on their life jackets by a man named “Joe”, who came from Dublin or Belfast. In their haste, Joe made an error in putting Mae’s life jacket on her back to front. Kitty McDonnell jumped overboard, but Mae, who was unable to swim and had a fear of water refused to leave the ship. “Joe” asked her to shake his hand to say their goodbyes to one another, and as she did so, he caught both her hands and threw her overboard. Mae was approximately five hours in the water before she was taken on board a lifeboat, which also had picked up her friends “Joe” and Kitty McDonnell. They were eventually brought to Queenstown on a fishing trawler which had taken them from the lifeboat, and where they recovered from their ordeal.
Mae’s family had no idea that she was on board the Lusitania until they received a telegram stating that she was safe in Queenstown and they travelled the relatively short journey from Cork City to bring her home. Despite many appeals in the newspapers, Mae or Kitty never saw “Joe” again.
Mae spoke to a reporter from the Cork Free Press a few days after her ordeal. The newspaper printed the conversation in the edition of 10th May 1915: -
……“We had just gone into the second saloon and were just finishing lunch. I heard a sound something like the smashing of big dishes.
Then there came a second and louder crash. Miss McDonald (sic.) and I started to go up the stairs, but we were thrown back by the crowd. Then the ship stopped and we managed to get up to the second deck where we found the sailors trying to lower the boats. There was no panic and the ship’s officers and crew went about their work quietly and steadily. I went to get two lifebelts, but a gentleman standing by told us to remain where we were and he would fetch them for us.
‘If you go into the cabin again’, he said, ‘you will never get up again’.
He brought two lifebelts and we put them on. By this time the ship was leaning right over on to the starboard, and we were both thrown down. We managed to scramble to the side of the ship, which was rapidly sinking. Just near us I saw a rope attached to one of the lifeboats which was floating near.
I thought I could catch it. We murmured a few words, a prayer, and then jumped into the water. I missed the rope, but floated about on the water for some time. I did not lose consciousness, but the water got into my eyes and mouth and I began to lose hope of ever seeing my friend again.
I could not see anybody near me, and I felt so lonely. Then I must have lost consciousness, for I remember nothing more until one of the Lusitania lifeboats came along. The crew was pulling on board another lady who was unconscious, and they shouted to me, ‘you hold on a little longer’. After a time they lifted me out of the water. Then I remember nothing more for a time that seemed to be an age.
In the meantime our boat had picked up twenty others and when I became conscious it was getting late in the evening. We were transferred to a trawler and taken to Queenstown. We got on the trawler at a quarter to six and it was half past nine when we reached Queenstown”.
It was Kitty McDonnell who accompanied Mae Barrett, not
McDonald as reported by the correspondent. Mae stated that she jumped for a rope when leaving the ship, but, according to her family, she was pushed overboard by the mysterious “Joe”.
On 23rd May 1915, Mae wrote a letter to the Cunard Company enquiring about compensation for the loss of her possessions. She was claiming a total of £220, which included clothing, jewellery, and $900 (£180) in cash which she claimed was in her pocket book which was lost. Cunard replied to her on the 26th May 1915, in which they first congratulated her on surviving, and then suggested she contact government officials in London to seek compensation from Germany after the War, and also to contact the Liverpool Relief Fund, who they suggested would give her application for financial assistance “prompt and courteous” attention. There is evidence that she did contact the Liverpool Relief Fund, but it is not known what award, if any, they made to her.
In 1925, Mae married her widowed brother-in-law, John “Jack” Keegan, who had been married to her sister Elizabeth, and they resided over her family’s grocery shop at 120. Barrack Street, Cork City where they reared their three sons – Pat, David, and Sean.
Mae refused to give interviews or make public appearances in connection with anything concerning the Lusitania throughout her life, but discussed the matter at length with family and friends.
Mae Keegan died in St. Patrick’s Hospital, Wellington Road, Cork City, on the 26th January 1976, aged 85 years. She was predeceased by her husband Jack, who died in 1961, aged 84 years.
Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1901 Census of Ireland, 1911 Census of Ireland, Cunard Records, Liverpool Record Office, New York Times, PRO BT 100/345, New York Passenger Lists 1820 – 1957, , Cork Examiner, Cork Free Press, UniLiv D92/2/357, Fr. Pat Keegan, Sean Keegan, Declan Keegan, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly