“I can still smell the fresh paint. The china had never been used,” recalls Old Rose in Titanic, the 1997 blockbuster film. “The sheets never slept in. Titanic was called the Ship of Dreams. And it was.”
Before Jack, Rose and the Heart of the Ocean sailed into movie legend, I was already a long-time Titanic buff. Planning a visit to Ireland, I wanted to do more than kiss the Blarney Stone and visit ancient Celtic ruins. I was determined to check out Queenstown, the fabled ship’s last port of call. Researching the city’s history, I found that it was now known as Cobh (pronounced “cove”).
Strategically located on the south shore of the Great Island in Cork Harbour (one of the largest natural harbors in the world), this picturesque town, with its building facades painted traditional Irish pastel colors of blue, yellow, pink and green, sits on south-facing slopes overlooking the entrance to the harbor. St. Coleman’s Cathedral, the town’s most distinguishable landmark, crowns the top of the slopes, its 300-foot spire prominent against the brilliant Irish sky.
In Irish history, the island was known by several different names that roll off the tongue like the words of a lilting Celtic ballad: Oilean Ard Neimheadh, Crich Liathain and Oilean Mor An Barra. The storybook village on the island was known as Ballyvoloon and in 1750 was first referred to as Cove village. To memorialize a visit by Queen Victoria in 1849, the town’s name was changed to Queenstown and it retained that title until the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 when the more Gaelic-sounding spelling of “Cobh” was adopted.
On April 11, 1912, there were 123 excited and hopeful Irish immigrants lining the small White Star Line pier on Scott’s Quay in Cobh. Each one clutched a ticket for passage on the largest ocean liner in the world and harbored a personal dream of a more prosperous life in America. Boarding the tenders PS Ireland and PS America berthed at the quay, the small group became literally the final people to leave solid land to board the great ship, earning them a place in nautical immortality. Only 44 of them would manage to survive the tragic sinking only three days later.
The ruins of that pier still stand today next to the quay. The old White Star building is there too, its interior burned twice in the past decade. Nearby, in Pearse Square, a memorial honors those lost on Titanic. The bronze relief on the monument depicts passengers being ferried out to the ship including an image of a lady with a group of children. She is Margaret Rice, a 39-year-old widow, who was heading to Spokane, Washington with her five sons, aged 2-10. They did not survive the sinking. The death of Ms. Rice and her children is known as the largest single family loss of all of the Irish families aboard the “unsinkable” ship.
These sites, in addition to 16 others relating to Cobh and Titanic, are part of The Titanic Trail, a guided walking tour led by local historian Michael Martin. Held daily, year round, the tours cost a mere 9.5 Euros.
In the mosaic of Irish history, Cobh is the real gem in the Titanic saga, offering a rich tapestry of discovery, adventure and old world charm. Thankfully, merchants have resisted the temptation to cash in on the Titanic link. Missing are the souvenir shops full of Titanic kitsch and caboodle and instead I found a warm, inviting village where visitors can soak up the local hospitality and hearty Irish fare.
Additional attractions can be found in Cobh such as The Queenstown Story detailing Irish immigration (2.5 million immigrants left from this “Gateway to the New World), the 750-acre Fota Island (an exotic wildlife preserve), and historic ties to another maritime disaster…the Lusitania.
For me, memories of Cobh, to paraphrase Titanic’s theme song, “go on and on…”
Hopefully, they will for you, too.
Photo by J.Pollock under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
Bob moved to Georgia nearly 30 years ago from his native Oklahoma. He has a B.S. in Communications from the University of Tulsa and a Master’s degree from Georgia State. Spending the majority of his career in corporate communications for TRW, Georgia-Pacific and Equifax, Bob’s most recent position was with American Express. After being downsized in January, he decided it was now or never if he ever hoped to pursue a career in travel writing. While a novice at travel writing, he has been very fortunate to have travelled the globe over the years and has been to 27 countries and 45 of the 50 states in the U.S. He is always willing to travel at the drop of a hat (and when there’s money in his bank account)!