It was a bright, sunny morning when the Marina arrived in the small Irish port of Ringaskiddy, just a few miles away from Cobh. Seabirds soared and dived into a sparkling blue sea crowned by sporadically rolling whitecaps. A warm wind whipped across the aft terrace, a gentle reminder that, while this was still high summer, autumn’s chill was not too far off over the horizon, either.
None of which was going to deter me from making the relatively short journey to Cobh. In fact, we could see the place from the edge of the shore. The tall, slender spire of St. Colman’s cathedral resembled some celestial finger, pointing straight up at the heavens. At the main town dock there sat the unmistakable shape of Princess Cruises’ gargantuan Royal Princess. Ironically, that same ship had sat docked ahead of us in Mykonos back in April. A small world, indeed.
Cobh itself is a pretty little town, with pastel coloured houses in shades of red, ochre and blue, crouching along a waterfront packed with small, idly bobbing fishing boats and small tourist craft. Set against a backdrop of gently rolling hills and vast, sun splashed meadows, Cobh has charm and intimacy in spades.
And it has history, too.
Beginning in the late 1800’s, hundreds of thousands of desperate, impoverished Irish people poured through the town-known back then as Queenstown- in a human tidal wave, bound for the promise of a hopefully better life in the New World. For many, the port was the last ever sight of their old lives, and marked for most of them a final, poignant parting from parents, siblings and lifelong friends. Back then, the town had a patina of overwhelming pathos, one kept barely in check by a rising tide of hope for a better life, somewhere just over the horizon. If ever one place was a bittersweet symphony wrought in stone, steam, tears and tide, this was surely it.
During the 20th century, it became customary for those departing hordes to leave from the pier at the back of the local post office. Two tenders- the Ireland and the America- would then take them out to where some huge liner lay waiting for them out in the bay, usually off Roches’ Point. Symbolically and actually, the casting off of their lines to the shore meant, for many, the severing of the last links to their old lives. In so many ways, Queenstown back then was the open wound from which Ireland was bled dry of her best, her brightest and her bravest. It was a blood letting that would take literally decades to staunch.
Queenstown in those days ran to a regular schedule; the great Cunard liners would leave Liverpool on a Saturday each week, embarking at Queenstown on the Sunday. Each Wednesday, one of the crack ships of the rival White Star Line would leave Southampton, and embark from Queenstown on the Thursday. It was a well oiled machine, but it ran in one direction only for the most part. Neither Cunard or White Star were in the habit of calling at Queenstown on the return crossing from New York.
Just after noon on Thursday, April 11th 1912, some 123 Irish migrants huddled together aboard the two tenders, boarding at the quay as usual. They gazed in awe at the shape of the vast, new leviathan waiting for them out in the bay. This was her first ever call into Queenstown and, as events were to prove, it would also be her last.
As the tenders bumbled out across the grey chop of a cold but sunny day, the new ship grew ever more massive and imposing. Seagulls wheeled and dived around her, foraging for scraps of garbage as they were spat out of the waste pipes near the waterline. Aboard the huge liner, idly promenading passengers stopped to study the tenders as they bucked the briny, gazing for a moment at the huddled masses clad in shawls and heavy suits. Those same people in the tenders could by now read the name of their ship, etched in three foot high golden letters on her bow.
The rest, of course, is history. The brief, two hour stop at Queenstown would be the last land that most of those embarked on maritime history’s most infamous maiden voyage would ever see.
Like everywhere else that she touched during her brief but spectacular career, the Titanic left her mark on Queenstown. Today, Cobh’s Museum of Immigration (the town was renamed in 1922, after Southern Ireland gained it’s independence from the British Empire) tells the baleful story of the town’s past, with an obvious emphasis on the vast torrent of humanity that flooded out of it during those turbulent years.
Quite a sobering little stop, Cobh. Pretty for sure, but with undercurrents as deep as the Atlantic rollers that still flail at it’s shores to this day.