The town with three names, this place was originally known as ‘Cobh’ to the Gaelic people who lived here. The triumphant English renamed it ‘Cove’ as it was easier for them to pronounce. This was done with place names all over the island. In 1849, Queen Victoria first stepped on Irish soil here and the name was changed yet again in her honour. After many years of struggle, the Irish Free State comprising 23 counties was established in 1921, and it was during this time that the name was changed back to ‘Cobh’ to reflect the original Irish form.
Cobh is situated on the largest of three islands that and has always acted as Cork’s harbour. The railway required two causeways and two viaducts to be built, but the first train arrived here in 1862. The station was a very busy place indeed as it allowed people from all over the country to reach the seaport in large numbers to board the ships to far away lands. The old station has been restored and now houses the Heritage Museum, a Genealogy Centre and a small café that makes you thinks you’ve gone back in time to a railway station from a bygone era.
The port of Cobh has figured in many a fateful event in nautical history. It was from the docks here that 2.5 million people fled the Famine, while over one million perished from disease and starvation. In total, 3 million people left Ireland from Queenstown between the years 1815 – 1970. It’s hard to imagine that the population of Ireland was 8 million in 1841, it stands at only 6 million today. Emigration has become a way of life for many of Irish heritage.
But it wasn’t only the famine that kept the port busy. Here are some of the other happenings that put Cobh on the map:
• The Sirius steamed out of the harbour on April 4, 1838 and reached New York in 18 days, the first ship to cross the Atlantic using steam power alone.
• Queenstown was the last port of call for the Titanic before she crossed the Atlantic and struck an iceberg on April 11, 1912. The Titanic was built in the shipyards of Belfast, and locals like to say ‘she was fine when she left here’.
• Until the First World War, thousands of sacks of mail passed back and forth between Cork and America. The mail was then distributed using steamers and railroads to all the major cities in Britain.
• Three years after the Titanic disaster, the Lusitania was sunk off the coast of Queenstown by a single torpedo from a German u-boat. Survivors of the sinking were brought to the town and cared for in the homes and hotels by local residents.
• Between the two World Wars, ocean liners continued to crisscross the Atlantic taking emigrants to start new lives abroad and bringing tourists, many of whom had left Ireland earlier and had found success overseas.
• A section of the wing of the Air India passenger jet that was blown up off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985 was unloaded at Cobh. The relatives of the 329 people who lost their lives were cared for by the people of the town, and a memorial was erected to mark the event. Many family members return each year, and a gathering was held this year to mark the 25th anniversary of the disaster.
Kapoors On The Road
There are tons of things to see and do in the city of Cork, but because we were facing our first day of rain in over two weeks in Ireland, we decided to head straight for the tiny town of Cobh to visit the Cobh Heritage Centre, located in the old railway station. It was a perfect place to stay dry and to learn more about the incredible historic role Cobh played in the lives of so many Irish people, and those of Irish heritage in all parts of the world. Besides, our guidebook even suggested it be visited on a grey day in order to appreciate the sense of loss that so many people must have experienced here.
We had read about the mass emigration of Irish citizens due to the failure of the potato crops during the years 1845-48. What we didn’t know was that grain was being grown in all the fertile regions of Ireland and was being exported to Britain as a cash crop all the time hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens were starving in the south and west, where poor, rocky land made growing crops extremely difficult. In fact, in some places, the Irish harvested seaweed and piled it on the rocks to provide ‘soil’ for planting their potatoes.
Crop failures were not unknown in Ireland, but it was the repeated failures in succession that helped to make the situation so desperate. During the first year of potato blight, many of the fishermen sold their nets and boats, so when the subsequent failures happened, they couldn’t even turn to the sea for survival. We had just toured the relatively barren west coast of Ireland and could see first hand how difficult it must have been for the Irish who were forced to leave their arable lands east of the Shannon River and move to the regions ‘beyond the Pale’.
I had always heard the expression ‘it was beyond the Pale’, but I never really knew what it meant before. We learned that the Pale was the name given to the areas populated by ‘planted’ Scottish and English Protestant settlers who were brought over to farm the lands confiscated from the original Irish peoples. The regions of Ireland that happen to lie closest to Scotland, England and Wales were the most fertile and even today, are the greenest and most highly manicured parts of the island.
The museum was fabulous and we learned so much more about Cobh’s history than we ever expected. We came to see the port that figured so largely in the emigration story, but learned about the other connections to transatlantic travel as well. The displays are first-rate and give visitors a real sense of what it was like to travel in a ‘coffin ship’, the nickname given to the barely seaworthy vessels used to carry the sick and starving to America and the prisoners to Australia.
At the other extreme, the museum takes you through the period of the early luxury liners that carried the wealthy back and forth across the Atlantic in style and comfort. We were reminded of our own trip in the Stefan Batory, a Polish passenger ship in 1977. I didn’t fare too well myself as I suffered terribly from both seasickness and morning sickness. We booked the voyage from the Tilbury Docks in London to Montreal before we learned we would be parents in early 1978.
As we left the museum, I grabbed the umbrella once again and hurriedly took a photo of the statue of Annie More and her brothers, beside the sea outside of the museum. Annie was the first immigrant to be processed at Ellis Island upon arrival in New York City. She travelled with her two younger brothers to join the rest of the family already there. Just two weeks earlier, Anil and I had stood in Battery Park, watching the sun set over Ellis Island. We had crossed the Atlantic in an airplane in just a matter of hours and we had reached our destination safely and in comfort, unlike so many who had gone before us.