The crumbling wooden pier behind the old White Star Line ticket office on Cobh's harbour front has seen better decades. But Heartbreak Pier, as it's known, has a historical and cultural significance that belies its weathered appearance. It was from this pier that Irish men and women left their homeland in the hope of a better life, including many of the 123 passengers who took tender boats to board Titanic, which dropped anchor off Cobh – pronounced Cove – on April 11, 1912.
Queenstown, as Cobh was known then (commemorating Queen Victoria, who visited the town in 1849), was to be Titanic's last port of call. Four days later, the ship hit an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic Ocean. The dead numbered 1517, including 79 who had embarked here.
We learn about Cobh's Titanic connections on a walk with Pat Phelan, a local guide with a walrus moustache and an anecdote for every corner of every hilly street of this salt-aired town, which is set on an island in Cork harbour, 20 kilometres south-east of Cork city.
One of Pat's stories revolves around Father Francis Browne, a young Cork priest who had boarded Titanic in Southampton, England, with a first-class ticket, a gift from his bishop uncle. While most passengers were travelling to New York, eight, including Father Browne, disembarked in Cobh. The priest had actually been offered a ticket to complete the transatlantic crossing from a wealthy couple he'd befriended on Titanic. But his request was denied by a clerical superior. Father Browne, a keen amateur photographer, arrived in Cobh, carrying a camera with which he captured snapshots of life on the ship. His black-and-white pictures would feature in newspapers across the globe.
There are more Titanic-themed tales and memorabilia at the Titanic Experience Cobh, a museum that occupies the White Star Line ticket office the departure point for the Cobh passengers. Absorbing accounts and exhibits also fill the Cobh Heritage Centre. Set in the town's restored Victorian railway station, it's strewn with flags of the countries to which an estimated 3 million Irish emigrated from Cobh between 1815 and 1970. Most went to the United States, including Patrick Kennedy, JFK's great-grandfather, and Annie Moore, a 15-year-old, who, in 1892, was the first immigrant to be processed at New York's Ellis Island. Outside the heritage centre is a waterfront statue of Moore with her two younger brothers.
Glancing across the water, I see grey warships at an Irish naval base and Spike Island, Ireland's "Alcatraz". A monastery was established there in the 6th century, but it is notorious for its British penal past. Some of the 40,000 Irish convicts sent to Australia from Cobh were initially held on Spike Island. Many turned to crime to feed their families during the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849, when a blight on Irish potato crops caused widespread starvation and disease.
You can take a ferry to Spike Island from Cobh's Kennedy Pier and walk around the star-shaped fort built by convicts, and see the cells where a colourful cast of characters were imprisoned, including Irish dissidents jailed in their quest for independence from British rule.
Sprinkled with maritime-flavoured pubs, pleasant cafes and delis (check out Seasalt), rows of sloping, bright Victorian houses and a neat promenade with cannons and a bandstand, Cobh rewards wanderers. On Casement Square, there's a memorial to the victims of RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Cobh in 1915, resulting in the deaths of 1198 passengers and crew.
Be sure to head up to St Colman's Cathedral, an imposing hilltop landmark. Built in the mid 19th-century, its design was inspired by the great medieval French cathedrals and its musical credentials are first class. The organ has 2468 pipes – esteemed choirs perform recitals here – while the tower has a carillon with 49 bells. They chime impressively as we stand outside the cathedral and take in the stirring views over the harbour.
Cruise ships still call in at Cobh and masted vessels are a common sight. Some sailors belong to the Royal Cork Yacht Club, founded in 1720 and claimed to be the oldest yacht club in the world.
Cobh is among the highlights of Collette's nine-day Countryside of the Emerald Isle tour. Priced from $3349 a person, the tour begins in Dublin and other destinations include Kinsale, Killarney and Inisheer (Aran Islands). See gocollette.com.au
Titanic Experience Cobh is open from 9am to 6pm from April to October and from 10am to 5.30pm October to March. See titanicexperiencecobh.ie
Steve McKenna was a guest of Collette.