When the Titanic sank, people found it almost impossible to believe that this triumph of human ingenuity over the elements, this “unsinkable” ship, could plunge to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean less than three hours after striking an iceberg. In fact, the question was repeatedly asked, how something made out of ice could doom a ship built of iron and steel? It couldn’t have been an accident, there had to be some deeper explanation, some darker, more powerful force at work than simply a chance encounter between a ship and iceberg.
Not long after the disaster, in parts of Ireland and some of the larger Irish communities in the United States, the story was being told that the Titanic had been sunk in an act of Divine retribution, doomed because her very existence defied the power of God and a denied the authority of the Pope and Holy Church. The proof, it was said, was in a cryptic anti-Catholic message hidden in her hull number, the one given to the Titanic by her builder, Harland and Wolff. That mysterious number was 3909-04: when written out and viewed in a mirror, the number spells out the words NO POPE–providing a certain bit of leeway is allowed with the 4.
The roots of this story lie in the antagonism between Protestants and Catholics that has cursed the Emerald Isle for over four hundred years, and the schism between predominantly Protestant Ulster, or Northern Ireland, and the overwhelmingly Catholic south. More to the point, by the end of the Nineteenth Century, the division between Ulster and the rest of Ireland began to take on political overtones as well, and religion and politics are never a good mix. Remember, the Titanic was built in Belfast, the economic, social and political heart of Ulster. As tensions between Protestants and Catholics, Irish Free-Staters and Ulster Loyalists ratcheted higher in the first years of the 20th Century, expressions of defiance grew more open and blatant–and out of them grew the tale of the number 3909-04….
Though the legend would burden Harland and Wolff with the responsibility of assigning the number 3909-04 to the Titanic, the origin of the story lay on the other side of the River Lagan, on the riverbank opposite where the Olympic-class ships would be built. In 1880, the shipbuilding firm of Workman and Clark opened its shipyard on the County Antrim side of the Lagan (Harland and Wolff is located on the County Down side of the river). Never coming close in size to the older shipyard, Workman and Clark was soon known as the “wee yard”, and by the turn of the century it had become as famous–or infamous–for its politics as for the ships it built. The owners of Workman and Clark were virulently anti-Catholic, and it wasn’t unknown for the yard’s workers to paint “NO POPE” in letters ten feet high on the sides of the ships they were building. The unwritten but strictly enforced policy of the Workman and Clark yard was to forbid the hiring of anyone known to be a Roman Catholic or even a Catholic sympathizer; anyone who was hired who was later suspected of having Catholic ties would, some evening on his way home from the yard after hornblow, find a couple of Jimmy-boys falling in alongside him, with one of them leaning in and asking, “Are ye one o’ them?” An answer of yes could well result in a fearsome beating, but in any event the next morning when the unlucky individual reported for work, he would find himself barred from the shipyard–and unemployed.
Ironically, under the savvy business acumen of Lord Pirrie, the management at Harland and Wolff refused to allow such nonsense to take place in their shipyard. Pirrie himself, very active in Ulster politics as a Liberal Unionist, was remarkably tolerant of Catholics, and there had never been an anti-Catholic employment policy, unofficial or otherwise, at Harland and Wolff. But as the story trickled southward out of Ulster into the rest of Ireland, the tale was told of how Catholics were treated “at the shipyard,” without specifically mentioning the “wee yard,” and since for most Irishmen living in the south there was only ONE shipyard in Belfast–Harland and Wolff–it soon became an article of faith among the Catholic population of Ireland that the big yard was a hotbed of anti-Catholic sentiment. Thus it was readily believed that the owners and managers of Harland and Wolff, thumbing their nose at God, the Church and the Pope, had assigned the number 3909-04 to the Titanic–supposedly the ultimate expression of human arrogance in the face of God’s power.
So, was that number 3909-04 actually assigned to the Titanic? No. The only two numbers ever assigned to the ship were her actual builder’s number, 401–she was the four-hundred and first ship built by Harland and Wolff–and her Board of Trade number, 131,428. And when you write out 401 or 131,428 and hold them up to a mirror, the “secret message” in them reads–exactly nothing.
So there is really no basis for asserting that the incredible set of circumstances that came together when the Titanic struck the iceberg–no moon; a total, flat calm; the berg having overturned not long before, becoming a blue berg so that it was nothing more than a dark shape against a dark sea and a dark sky; the ship running an hour behind schedule, going just a half-knot too fast; the lookouts seeing the iceberg just a few seconds too late; the million-to-one chance that the Titanic would strike the berg in exactly the right way to cause exactly the amount of damage to sink her–all of that really was just coincidence, and not an act of Divine retribution.
But then again….
The day the Titanic sailed from Southampton, Mrs. Albert Caldwell asked a deckhand loading luggage into one of the Titanic’s cargo holds, “Is this ship really nonsinkable?”
“Yes, lady,” he replied, “God Himself couldn’t sink this ship.”