History's harbour

Glenn A. Baker drops anchor in a port that was known for migrants, celebrities and shipping tragedies.

SOMEWHERE in the streets of Cobh I started thinking of Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford - epic stars of one generation now virtually unknown to subsequent ones - for fame can be as fleeting for towns as for silent movie stars, the Route 66 syndrome kicking in when a new interstate passes them by.

It's hard to overstate just how important, how famous, the Irish port of Cobh (pronounced Cove) in County Cork once was. It bears powerfully on the history of the New World as the gateway through which both emigrants (willing and otherwise) and celebrity continent-hoppers passed. Its close association with maritime tragedy rendered it infamous, foreboding even. The world knew where it was and what it was renowned for.

As with every thronged seaport, in an era when giant liners and merchant tonnage were the true powers to be reckoned with, it had a salty, salacious tone. Indeed, some would say there was a divine role in its eventual decline, with the Methodist Church founder, John Wesley, supposedly once disdaining it as "a sinkhole of sinners".

Well, the citizens were almost saintly the day the famous screen comedy duo Laurel and Hardy dropped by. The day was Wednesday, September 9, 1953 and the pair was aboard the SS America, having departed New York. In the twilight of their careers, they were looking to revive waning fortunes in Europe, beginning with Ireland, where they had always been popular. As they steamed into the cavernous Cobh harbour on the lower coast of Ireland, an eruption of sorts took place - one that could and did reduce grown men to tears.

Stan Laurel, the thin English-born one, would later marvel: "The love and affection we found that day at Cobh was simply unbelievable. There were hundreds of boats blowing whistles and mobs and mobs of people screaming on the docks. We just couldn't understand what it was all about. And then something happened that I can never forget. All the church bells in Cobh started to ring out our theme song [Dance of the Cuckoos] and Babe [Oliver Hardy] looked at me and we cried. I'll never forget that day. Never."

In fact, it wasn't church bells but a remarkable and relatively rare instrument known as the carillon, a stationary set of 49 chromatically tuned bells tuned to the accuracy of a single vibration and played from a keyboard in a tower. Ireland's biggest, then and now, it is in St Colman's Cathedral on a steep winding path high above the vast harbour and it let loose that day as an impromptu gesture of welcome.

The comedians insisted on being taken - when the two overpowered Garda finally found their feet - in a car up to Cathedral Corner where they were so overcome by the emotion of it all that Hardy could not get words of appreciation out of his mouth and so just tearfully engulfed the "bell ringer" in his not inconsiderable embrace.

Locals still like to tell that story to visitors, though it is but one of a brace of tales that form a formidable fabric - one of the decidedly less-tragic ones. For the others, one needs to wander down from the cathedral and spend some time in the Cobh Heritage Centre, one of Europe's more engaging museums, put together in a spacious old train station. It is a place popular with Australians, for this port was the starting point of most of the Irish convict transportations in the dreaded "coffin ships" that sailed into Sydney Cove, their wretched refuse barely alive below decks.


For more than 60 years, until 1853, almost 40,000 people departed from either Cobh or Dublin for Australia. In time, the British government subsidised the emigration of free (and exceedingly impoverished) Irish citizens, concentrating on the residents of female orphanages and workhouses as a source of brides for antipodean settlements where there were eight men to every woman.

There is a busy pilgrimage trail for the descendants of them all and an annual Blessing of the Bonnets ceremony, initiated by the Australian artist Christina Henri, to commemorate the 25,566 women forced to leave their homes for the absolute unknown that was the lower continent.

But the elaborate exhibits, as well as the monuments in the town, focus mostly on the two big-ticket items that elicit an almost morbid fascination - the Lusitania and the Titanic, which met their famous fates within three years of each other, either approaching or having departed Cobh.

Standing by the replica of the White Star Line office at quayside I listened intently to the personable local historian, author and television presenter Michael Martin as he told, as part of his droll walking tour, of the Titanic's final embarkation, it having made its way from Southampton in England and Cherbourg in France on a much-touted inaugural voyage in April 1912.

I heard about the 123 passengers eager to board and, for the first time, of just seven who disembarked - surely qualifying as some of history's most fortunate figures.

One of the seven was Father Francis Browne, who in his single day aboard had taken 79 photographs - a final documentation of the imposing craft and its passengers (many of his photos are on display in the museum).

Browne was standing there, no doubt with some regret, to wave it away from Queenstown (as Cobh was then known, having been the first place Queen Victoria had set foot on Irish soil, in 1849) as its anchors were weighed and it moved from the harbour into the Atlantic just after lunch on a Sunday.

The citizens of Cobh would barely recall that departure (though they would readily reap the tourism rewards of the film-driven Titanic cult) but would be traumatised for a generation by the sinking of the luxury liner RMS Lusitania. The ship that had carried thousands of passengers across the Atlantic on a regular express service took almost 1200 of them to the bottom when it connected with a torpedo from a Nazi U-boat at about 2.30pm on May 7, 1915, less than 20 kilometres off the coast of nearby Kinsale.

Everything floatable was mobilised by everybody able in a frantic day-and-night rescue effort, with every building ashore housing survivors (761 of them). Some 148 of 289 recovered corpses were buried in Cobh's cemetery, while about 885 passengers were never located. Almost 100 children died.

Just a little bit further and the ship would have been safely inside the harbour.

The world was so outraged by the atrocity that sentiment turned harshly against Germany from one side to the other and it effectively brought an isolationist US into World War I. You can't plant lines of white crosses on the ocean; if you could,the waters off Cobh would resemble one of those green fields of France that are forever England or forever Australia.

The museum exhibits relating to the sinking and the monument in the street to its victims are among the most moving displays in the town. Among the facts revealed is that when the quartermaster on the U-20 received the order to fire he refused to pass it on to the torpedo room, unwilling to take part in an attack on women and children. He was subsequently court-martialled and imprisoned for three years.

There is a "next year in Jerusalem" aspect to Cobh; it draws pilgrims from around the world. The exodus from the Emerald Isle that was kicked off by the Great Potato Famine in 1845 was still strong more than 100 years later, in the era of the mighty ocean liners.

Outside the Heritage Centre is a statue of Annie Moore and her two brothers; she was the first immigrant to be processed in 1892 on New York's Ellis Island, the doorway beside the welcoming arms of the Statue of Liberty. For millions of Irish - an estimated 2½ million of the 6½ million who set off in search of something better - the final sighting of their homeland, as they took their leave for the US, Canada, Australia and even South America and South Africa, was a lingering backward glance at the receding shores of Cobh (or Queenstown) and its coast. Few returned, leaving that task to their many descendants.

They drop by, as an extension to an obligatory Ring of Kerry jaunt, or on a train that whips you down from Cork in less than half an hour.

They, and you, are drawn inexorably to the original pier where the uncertain but hope-filled passengers boarded ferries to take them out to ships waiting in the harbour. They did not take a drink at the Titanic Bar in the garishly yellow port administration building but you can, as you can in a series of warm and welcoming pubs along streets that have played host to hordes in tumultuous times.

You may need a drink after scaling the heights to the cathedral, where the carillon, if not actually playing Dance of the Cuckoos, is inspiring the song's infectious passage through your mind.

Wesley's sinkhole of sinners seems to have survived intact, if those who waylaid me in my meander though the public houses, seemingly intent upon being propelled out of them later in the evening, were any indication. Fine citizens all, of what was once a crossroad of the world that now has just enough fame to keep it content.

In that, it could have the edge on Rudolph Valentino.

The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is in April next year.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas flies daily from Sydney to Cork via Heathrow, priced from $2232 (13 13 13, qantas.com), partnering with Aer Lingus for the Heathrow-Cork sector. Trains to Cobh leave daily from Cork's Kent Station. 1850 366 222, irishrail.ie.

Staying there

Cobh has a selection of bed-and-breakfasts and hotels, cobhaccommodation.ebook

ireland.com. Cork has a wider range of accommodation, goireland.com/.

See + do

Cobh Heritage Centre is open daily from 9.30am-5pm (October-April) and 9.30am-6pm (May-October) . Admission €7.50 ($10) an adult, €4 a child. The Blessing of the Bonnets ceremony takes place at the Heritage Centre each August. +353 21 4813 591, cobhheritage.com.

Michael Martin's Titanic Trail walking tours depart from Cobh's Commodore Hotel at 11am (October-March) and again at 2pm (June-August only) and are priced from €9.50-€12.50 an adult, +353 21 4815 211, titanic-trail.com. Martin's Spike Island tours take place daily from Kennedy Pier at 2pm, priced from €12.50, +353 21 4811 485, spikeislandcork.com.

Further information

cobh.ie; discoverireland.ie.

- Sun-Herald