Town of Tears farewelled Titanic

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: American maritime artist James Allen Flood poses with his painting of the Titanic as it would have appeared arriving in New York. Flood was on board the MS Balmoral, off Cobh, during last month's Titanic Memorial Cruise.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: American maritime artist James Allen Flood poses with his painting of the Titanic as it would have appeared arriving in New York. Flood was on board the MS Balmoral, off Cobh, during last month's Titanic Memorial Cruise.

Trained by medical practitioners to brace myself whenever I hear the word "uncomfortable", I expect the worst when the ferry captain uses it in his welcome as we set off across the Celtic Sea from Fishguard in Wales to Rosslare in Ireland.

It is certainly a rough passage, the fast catamaran taking much longer than usual to cross this notoriously bouncy stretch of water, and we are all glad to step onto solid land nearly three hours later.

An hour or so after that, however, I'm feeling ashamed of my soft self, as I stand in the dimly lit hold of another ship, moored in the river at New Ross. The Dunbrody is a three-masted barque, a sea-going replica of the original that carried thousands of Irish emigrants to the New World.

EMBARKATIONS: Passengers from the Titanic Memorial Cruise walk towards the old town hall while on a tour of Cobh.
EMBARKATIONS: Passengers from the Titanic Memorial Cruise walk towards the old town hall while on a tour of Cobh.

Below deck, a woman in long dress, shawl and bonnet is describing how it was for those who were forced, by eviction or starvation - or both - to sail away from home forever.

That they were called "coffin ships" says everything about the conditions on board, and it's shocking enough simply to stand in the cramped and uncomfortable space that entire families were crammed into for the eight-week journey to North America.

Adopting the persona of Mrs Anne White - a steerage passenger on the Dunbrody - our guide describes the thrice-baked bread, "hard as slate", she takes on the journey to feed her husband and five children, the scant half-hour they are allowed on deck per day in fine weather only, the relief of having a top bunk with no seepage from above of sea-sickness or worse. Most affectingly is her sadness at allowing the peat fire, that had burned continuously on her cottage hearth for generations, to go out.

PRIDE OF COBH: St Colman's Catholic Cathedral at Cobh has an unusually tall carillon of 49 bells.
PRIDE OF COBH: St Colman's Catholic Cathedral at Cobh has an unusually tall carillon of 49 bells.

Starving through the Great Famine caused by the potato blight of 1845, they were tenant farmers given passage by their landlords, who wanted their land to raise stock; but the journey to their new life was a death sentence for many, the children arriving at Ellis Island, New York, as orphans.

Not all the stories told in the adjoining museum are so tragic: a roll of honour of successful emigrants' descendants includes celebrated personalities in American history. By 1850, fully a quarter of New York's population was Irish, although more migrants headed to Philadelphia and Montana, while many landed in Canada.

Further south down the Irish coast, in the great Cork Harbour is an island that has a close association with Australia. Spike Island has a long history of incarceration and is popularly known as Ireland's Alcatraz. From 1847 it was used as a holding station for prisoners awaiting transportation to Van Diemen's Land.

MIGRANT SHIP: The Dunbrody, a three-masted barque is a sea-going replica at New Ross of the original that carried thousands of Irish emigrants to North America from 1895 to 1879.
MIGRANT SHIP: The Dunbrody, a three-masted barque is a sea-going replica at New Ross of the original that carried thousands of Irish emigrants to North America from 1895 to 1879.

Of the thousands of convicts passing through here, many were starving children who had been caught stealing food during the famine. They were locked into the grim cells of Fort Westmorland before being loaded onto ships for the long passage to Tasmania's even harsher Port Arthur.

Within sight of the island is the pretty and colourful seaside town of Cobh (pronounced "Cove"), its terraces of painted houses tumbling down the hill from the fine neo-Gothic St Colman's Catholic Cathedral above.

Although Cobh looks cheerful and inviting, it's been called the Town of Tears, because it was from here that more than half of Ireland's mid-19th-century emigrants left on ships like the Dunbrody, driven by hunger and despair, yet full of hope for a new life beyond the ocean.

In the Victorian railway station buildings beside the harbour, the Cobh Heritage Centre has an absorbing display telling the story of emigration through many different media, including some horribly realistic life-size models of seasick steerage passengers, accompanied by stormy sound- effects, and a terrifying video taken on a sailing ship in a gale.

The bare facts are horrifying enough on their own: the Atlas, a convict ship, took seven months to reach Sydney, the 181 prisoners in chains all the way, and 70 of them dying en route. Disease, dysentery and malnutrition were constant problems on the early migrant ships.

Even after the potato famine, the exodus continued, and from the 19th century to 1950 more than three million left Ireland through Cobh.

Not all the ships were spartan.

Famously, Cobh (while called Queenstown) was the last port-of- call for the Titanic, 123 passengers (mostly steerage and emigrants) boarding here on April 11, 1912, including Jeremiah Burke, 19, who scribbled a pencilled note and sealed it in a bottle, throwing it overboard as the ship sailed for New York.

A postman weeks later found it on a beach in the harbour and delivered it to Jeremiah's grieving mother. "Goodbye all," it read. It's now one of the Titanic exhibits at the Heritage Centre. Other accounts include the fortuitous Cobh desertion from the Titanic of homesick stoker John Coffey.

Images of life on the Titanic, published worldwide, were captured by a prolific photographer and distinguished Catholic priest from County Cork, Father Frank Browne. He disembarked at Cobh after a terse telegram from his Jesuit superior.

Having joined the cruise at Southampton, he had met at his table in the first-class dining saloon an American couple who became anxious to retain his company. They offered to pay his first-class fares to New York and return (he was booked only to Cobh).

Browne telegraphed his Jesuit superior in Dublin asking for permission to complete the whole trip.

"Get off that ship," was the reply.

Browne went on to become a twice-decorated hero in World War I as an Irish Guards chaplain in the British Army and, in the years following, Ireland's greatest photographer.

The Titanic wasn't Cobh's final tragedy: just three years later, the passenger liner Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat just outside the harbour mouth, sinking in 20 minutes with the loss of 1198 lives. Local fishermen sprang to the rescue, battling the seas to rescue 761 people who were brought, with the dead, through this very building, where a grainy black-and-white movie of the event still has the power to chill.

As I begin the return-ferry trip to Wales, we pass Cobh's bright houses and the green headlands beyond topped with ancient forts, and I think of all those sad yet hopeful people who down the years had watched with teary eyes this last retreating view of their homeland. Just as we leave the harbour, we overtake a boat that is burning. It seems appropriate.

FACT FILE

Getting there: Take the Stena Express from Fishguard in Wales to Rosslare, normally a two-hour trip on a comfortable catamaran.

Where to stay: Midway between New Ross and Cork is Waterford, location of the Atheneum House Hotel, elegant and friendly with an excellent restaurant; or stay right in town at the Granville Hotel.

What to do: Visit the Dunbrody ship at New Ross, a 45-minute drive from Rosslare. At Cobh, 20 minutes south of Cork city, the whole town is worth exploring, but start with the Heritage Centre's Queenstown Story.

Further information: discoverireland.co.nz

Pamela Wade was a guest of Tourism Ireland.


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