Story of Thomas Ryan
The story of Thomas Ryan came by to me by chance. He was a farmer from Toomdeely in Askeaton Co Limerick in Ireland. He successfully sued the White Star Line, the owners of the Titanic, for the death of his son Patrick. This piece is my first operatic solo work.
Ryan v The White Star Line
Taken from the story, I have written “Ryan v The White Star Line” a pop opera hybrid composition. The story takes you on a journey to discover one man’s fight for justice.The germ of the idea for this composition grew from a letter from the “Dock Wharf Riverside & General Workers Union” to the White Star Line company. It noted how shocked they were, that so many people had died in steerage on the Titanic.
The motivation for the piece came from a visit to County Limerick to the Askeaton Contemporary Arts Festival in 2012. At the Askeaton Civic Trust, Fiona Lane, the great grand daughter of Thomas Ryan had an exhibition of letters that came from Titanic. A picture of a letter from the Dock Wharf Riverside & General Workers Union was part of the exhibition.
Board of Trade
It was sent by Ben Tillet executive to the Board of Trade on 19 April 1912. The letter complained bitterly how those in steerage were left to drown, while those in 1st class escaped. The Board of Trade was responsible for the terms and conditions under which people travelled at the time.
The subject was of real interest to me, as my own father Peter Quigley had been a radio officer in the British Merchant Navy. Ryan v White Star Line is a modern classical piece of music that portrays the story of Thomas Ryan. He was a 75-year-old farmer from Askeaton, Co. Limerick. His pursuit of justice was for his son Patrick who drowned on the Titanic.
Patrick Ryan and his friends were travelling to America to make their fortune. James Moran was a police officer already in America. He had returned to Ireland to sort out family business and was with his sister Bertha. She was Patrick’s girlfriend and was with her friend Maggie Madigan. Both Maggie and Bertha survived, but Patrick and James, like many men from steerage, drowned trying to save the women.
This story is a piece of Irish social history and it follows the 3rd enquiry in 1913 in London’s Royal Courts into the disaster. Thomas inadvertently becomes the focus of a class action suit and wins his case against the White Star Line. The composition begins in 1913 and continues in 2013, both the music and the concept reflect contemporary issues. To this day Ryan’s great grand children still live in Askeaton and because of that, I wanted the story to have a social context today.
Other characters featured in the composition include 2nd mate Charles Lightoller. He was an intriguing figure and had an enthralling back-story. During a varied career, he was at sea from the age of 13, went to America to find his fortune in the gold rush. He became a Cowboy, Hobo and finally joined the White star line. He was a hero who saved people on the last lifeboat on the Titanic. In later life he was part of many small vessel owners who rescued soldiers from the beached of Dunkirk. There is also references the musicians who (fact or fiction?) played while the ship sank.
The composition acknowledges the sheer guts of Thomas Ryan at 75 years of age to travel to London to the Royal Courts. He pursued this case and won against the biggest corporate organisation in the world at the time. The case changed the law and allowed many others then to follow suit and claim compensation.
The lawsuit came about because of a loophole in the law that meant because Patrick did not purchase his ticket personally. He was not technically under the terms and conditions of the White Star Line. At the time these were set out by the Board of Trade and meant those in steerage were not covered if the ship sank. Thomas won the case and £ 100 and it is now part of case law to this day.
There are of course parallels to Ireland’s current predicament and the piece comes 100 years of a cycle to modern-day Askeaton, where Ryan’s great great grand children live. It reflects how we still have emigration, the poor taking the brunt of consequences for the mistakes of the elite. It shows the lack of social justice still for working people 100 years on.