Last wave on Titanic trail

Daniel Scott visits the liner's final port of call, a town in Cork that is no stranger to tragedy.

'It was here," guide Michael Martin says, while holding a faded photograph of the Titanic, "that passengers would have stepped off dry land for the final time, boarding tenders to take them out to the great ship in the harbour."

The great ship was the Titanic, and Sunday marks 100 years since the largest and most luxurious passenger liner of its time sank after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage. The vessel's last port was Cobh in Cork, on April 11, 1912.

"The Titanic anchored off Roches Point for just 90 minutes," Martin says, "embarking 123 passengers and taking on mail. Of those who got on here, only 44 survived. They would have said their last goodbyes on the streets where we're now standing."

As we follow Martin's walking tour along Cobh's Titanic trail, a fine drizzle is falling and a wreath of cloud hangs low over the Celtic Sea. Yet the seaside town, on the hilly shores of Great Island, at the edge of Cork's immense harbour, looks defiantly bright. Multicoloured shops and pubs are arrayed along the seafront, Cobh's ornate cathedral rises above the town and a crescent of white mansions lines the cliff top.

The Titanic disaster is not the only tragedy that has touched Cobh, known as Ireland's "town of tears". "Cobh was like the Heathrow of yesteryear," Martin says. "More than 2½ million Irish emigrants came through here and a quarter of all convicts sent to Australia and Van Diemen's Land left from here."

The sinking of the Titanic was the first of two maritime disasters in three years to affect Cobh. In early May 1915, during World War I, another passenger liner, the Lusitania, went down off the nearby coast after being torpedoed by a German U-boat. Although almost 1200 people lost their lives, Cobh locals helped rescue 700 others. The town's involvement is recognised by the Lusitania Peace Memorial in Cobh's Casement Square. It depicts a guardian angel standing over two shattered rescuers.

In adjacent Pearse Square is a smaller, simpler monument "in special memory to the Irish emigrants and all those who died" on the Titanic's maiden voyage. The bronze relief on the monument is deeply poignant, picturing the huddled Rice family about to board the liner. Margaret Rice and her five children died on the ship; Rice herself was identified by a prescription found on her that had been issued by a local pharmacy.

Among the Titanic's many survival stories, that of Millvina Dean stands out. Just two months old at the time, Dean was carried off the ship wrapped in a mail bag and lived to unveil Cobh's Titanic memorial in 1998. The ship's last remaining survivor, Dean died in 2009, three years short of her own centenary.

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Opposite the town, Spike Island was the site of a 7th-century monastery and later became an important defence post against the Spanish Armada. From 1847, the island was also used as a holding prison for those convicted to transportation to Australia.

"It's our Alcatraz or Port Arthur, where children as young as 12 were incarcerated and treated as common criminals," says Martin, who is campaigning for the island's "15 centuries of Irish history" to be reflected by UNESCO World Heritage status.

Touring Cobh's Titanic trail with Martin, a historian who has spent years studying the ship and its untimely end, brings an intimate perspective to both the town and this most famous of maritime disasters. The tour ends at the cathedral, high above the town, overlooking the mist-shrouded harbour in which the Titanic was last seen, at 1.45pm as it set off for New York.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Tourism Ireland.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas has a fare to Cork from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2307 low-season return including tax. Fly to London via Singapore (about 24hr, including transit time), then on Aer Lingus to Cork (75min); see qantas.com.au.

From Cork Airport by car, take the R624 road and the N25 road to Cobh (about 30 minutes). Cobh is a 25-minute train journey south-east of Cork city. Commuter services run daily between Cork city and Cobh; see irishrail.ie.

Touring there

Cobh hosts Titanic centenary events all month; see titanic100.ie.

Michael Martin's Titanic Trail tours depart daily at 11am and 2pm. The 11am tour costs €9.50 ($12) a person if booked online; the 2pm tour is €12.50 a person; see titanic.ie/tours/the-titanic-trail.

More information

See discoverireland.com.

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