by Janie Robinson

Cruise into Cobh and plunge into the spine-chilling, seafaring stories of Ireland’s Ancient East. 

Cork's HarborCork's harbor - Madrugada Verde / Shutterstock 

The Irish sea breeze brushes my face, a gentle touch filled with the dreams and doubts of my Irish ancestors, the echoing cheers to welcome a Queen and the haunting memories of two doomed voyages.  While on the horizon, marauding Viking long ships sail the wind-swept clouds.

Cork’s evocative natural harbor has been the first face of Ireland – and the final glimpse of home – for centuries.  From Viking dragon ships and Norman cargo vessels to convict ships bound for Australia or emigrant ships departing for North America, and the ill-fated Titanic to torpedoed Lusitania, this was Ireland.  

There’s no better place to start exploring the irrepressible spirit of Ireland’s Ancient East than in the pretty port of Cobh (pronounced Cove) – a small seaside town filled with epic seafaring stories. 

“This harbor has been lived in, departed from, invaded and visited by many people over the centuries,” says tour guide Aideen Whitston.  “Its history can be traced back to the Celts around 500 BC.  A monastery was established here in 635 and raided by the Vikings in 822 before the 12th-century Norman invasion began the 800 years of British rule in Ireland.” 

Britain’s Queen Victoria certainly left her mark here, the town even renaming itself Queenstown in 1849, in honor of Victoria’s quick visit. 

From the beautifully restored Victorian train station and colorful park bandstand to its patchwork of pastel buildings, strolling the streets of this harbor town is like stepping back in time.  It’s well worth the climb straight-up West View Street past the ‘Deck of Cards’ – a rainbow of 25 houses dating from the 1850’s stacked side-by-side against each other up the steep hill – the ornate St. Colman’s Cathedral rises in celestial grandeur above the crayon-color homes.

“Queen Victoria was a travel trend-setter,” explains Aideen. “Wherever she travelled, the aristocracy wanted to see too, so Cobh developed as a popular seaside resort in the early 19th century.”

It was amid this Victorian opulence that my Irish ancestors made their way to Cobh.  Not among the nobility coming for a seaside holiday, but among the millions of desperate Irish emigrants willing to sail away on ‘coffin ships’ in hopes of escaping starvation and death for the chance of a better life on the other side of the Atlantic. 

Nellie McClungOttawa statue honoring political activist Nellie McClung - Labrynthe / Shutterstock

It’s said that one out of every five Canadians has Irish heritage, and I’m proud to claim suffragette Nellie McClung as one of my Irish ancestors. Cousin Nellie was the youngest daughter of John Mooney, a young Irish immigrant who came to Upper Canada in 1830. 

I grew up on my grandmother’s colorful stories of our famous, feisty, feminist relative, who helped shape Canadian history. “I met Nellie the year that your dad was born, in 1928,” my Grandma (born Gladys McClung) would point out, proudly leafing through the black and white photos in her cherished family photo album. 

Nellie McClung’s father coming to Canada as a daring, desperate 18-year-old Irish immigrant is my family’s story – and just one of millions to be told. The evocative Cobh Heritage Centre shares the countless stories, the spirit and even the sounds of the emotional Irish emigration saga. 

emigrants in IrelandEmigrants leaving Queenstown Ireland, for New York, 1874. - Everett Historical / Shutterstock

From 1848 to 1950, over six million adults and children emigrated from Ireland – more than 2.5 million of those departed from Cobh, making this the single most important port of Irish emigration.

Standing on Cobh’s now derelict Heartbreak Pier, I’m surrounded by the millions of Irish souls who took that final step from Ireland onto a ship that would sail into the great unknown, anxious faces turned for that last glimpse of home. 

But it’s that one infamous ship that can never return that remains an indelible part of this historical harbor – Cobh was the Titanic’s last port of call.

“On that morning of April 11, 1912, 123 passengers boarded two tenders from this very pier to sail out to the Titanic,” our tour guide solemnly explains. “Queenstown (Cobh) was a luxury liner cruise port – Great Western, Cunard, White Star and America Line sailed from this final European port for America. That’s why the Titanic was here on its maiden voyage, Cobh being her final port of call before she set sail for America, striking a giant iceberg and sinking in the icy Atlantic several days later, on April 15, 1912.”

St. Colman's CathedralSt. Colman's Cathedral and the 'Deck of Cards' a rainbow of 25 houses stacked up Cpbh's steep hill.

Still haunted by the memories of waving the doomed ship farewell, just three years later amid the outbreak of World War I, the people of Cobh faced another nautical nightmare.  On May 7, 1915, the Cunard liner Lusitania sailing from New York to Liverpool with just under 2000 passengers on board, was torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Cobh. 

“The Lusitania sank in 18 minutes with the loss of nearly 1200 passengers. A flotilla of local boats went out to rescue survivors and 761 people were saved,” says our guide as we gather beneath the poignant Lusitania Peace Memorial, standing sentinel in Cobh’s Casement Square. “The locals were witnesses to this great, great tragedy and it remains huge in their memory.”

Those maritime memories still linger here in Cork’s world-renowned natural harbor, the seafaring stories of irrepressible Irish spirit immortalized both in the pages of our history books and in the family photo-album pages of our memories. 

IF YOU GO

The Port of Cobh welcomes about 60 cruise ships each year from April to November.  Cobh’s local attractions include the virtual voyage Titanic Experience in the original White Star Line Ticket Office, the informative Titanic Trail walking tour, and the Cobh Heritage Centre in the beautifully restored Victorian railway station. Cork City is a picturesque 25-minute train ride from Cobh.  "Ireland’s Ancient East” is a new touring region, promoting the more than 5,000 years of European history in the South and East of Ireland.  

Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Spring/Summer 2017 issue.

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