New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn's maternal grandmother, Ellen "Nellie" Shine Callaghan, was 16 or 17 years old when she came to America from Cobh, Ireland, 100 years ago. She booked passage on a brand new ocean liner: The Titanic.
Callaghan's cabin was in steerage, or third-class, and she was one of just 40 Irish passengers to survive the sinking.
When asked how her grandmother got a seat in a Titanic lifeboat, given that there were only enough boats for roughly a third of the ship's passengers, Quinn told WNYC host Leonard Lopate that her grandmother had been quoted in news reports and history books as having said, "When the other girls dropped to their knees to pray, I took a run for it."
Quinn added, "I once said to a priest, 'I guess my grandmother knew there was a time for praying and a time for running.' And he smartly said, 'No, Christine, your grandmother knew you could pray while running.'"
When Quinn’s grandmother was younger, she was reluctant to talk about the tragedy. It was only later in life, when she had Alzheimer’s, that she spoke about that night.
"We were told never to ask her about it because it was too upsetting," Quinn said. "Though I did ask her about it once or twice."
She said the one story her grandmother did speak about took place before boarding the Titanic in April of 1912. In Cobh, then called Queenstown, a schoolteacher unpinned a religious medal from her bra and gave it to Callaghan before she left on her journey.
"The custom was to get somebody in your town to give you a religious medal," she said. "And everyone in the town prayed to that saint for your safe transport."
Callaghan was supposed to return the medal to the teacher once she arrived in America.
"My grandmother said she was always so upset because she lost the medal when the ship sank," Quinn said. "And she felt so terrible she couldn't send it back because clearly this woman's prayers and medal were what saved her."
Quinn said Callaghan's parents had died when she decided to make the trans-Atlantic trip. Her sister encouraged her to move to New York to join her family in Hell's Kitchen.
She added Callaghan also came for the same reasons that attracted her other three grandparents to emigrate from Ireland.
"Opportunity, diversity, other immigrants, communities where people are willing to help each other," she said. "It's that possibility and potential that seems to literally be in the asphalt in our city."