The Cove of Cork, Queenstown, Cobh, by what ever name it was Ireland’s pressure valve, the port from which large parts of Australia, Canada and the United States were populated, and not a few to Argentina and Chile. Thousands of Irish were transported to Georgia and then Australia involuntarily a part of the penal system, more escaped starvation during the famine. After that it was to escape to find religious freedom or economic opportunity. Finally, from the late 40s to the very early 60s it was the port for American tourists, particularly Irish Americans, to end their tour of “the old home place.”
My own memories of Cobh (pronounced Cove, a reversion to its old name, but spelled in Irish not English) go back to 1961 when my grandfather and I, after a summer in Ireland, took the train to Cobh to sail for America on the SS America. We came several days early. Grandpa was tired and wanted a few days to rest after visiting Dublin with me (his first time there too.)
While he rested, I walked the streets and squares named after Irish heroes, Parnell, Pearse, and Rahilly stopping at all the shipping offices to beg postcards of ships. The best hauls were from Cunard and Holland America but United States Lines, Olympic and P&O contributed to my collections. I loved the model of the SS America in the United States Lines offices. I fell in love with the ship before I ever set foot on her. Mr. Sean O’Brian, the US Lines manager in Cobh had been alerted by Mr. Martin, my neighbor in New Jersey that we would be leaving from Cobh. When I met him on my post card collection mission, he invited my grandfather and me to the Rotary Lunch (my first Rotary meeting). The speaker didn’t show up so my grandfather, a very good storyteller, filled in. Afterward a Mr. Vance approached me. One of my grandmother’s maiden names was Vance and when I was introduced as Richard Vance McClear he wanted to meet me. He offered his car and driver to grandpa and me the day before we sailed. We saw the lakes of Killarney and both of us kissed the Blarney Stone although looking at the pictures we don’t look too sure of the process. But I probably owe my career in radio to that act. (The legend is that an attorney, Cormac MacCarthy, on his way to a trial, was told by a goddess to kiss the first stone he saw on his way to court. He did what he was told, pled his case with great eloquence, won, kept the stone, and set it into a castle he was building.) When we got back to Cobh Mr. O’Brian upgraded us to a room with private facilities.
Cobh was one of the ports I was most interested in visiting on our world cruise, the one that ended for me in the intensive care unit in a hospital on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. It was one of the ones I was saddest to miss out on. So, after we put the kids and grandkids on the plane in Dublin, Suzi and I set out to the far south of Ireland to visit Cobh. We drove in our rented Opal, listening to the Irish Language Service of RTE on the car radio, because it played traditional Irish music. Suzi drove because the small Opal was so cramped that I could not hit just the brake or clutch pedal with my extra wide feet. They were too close together. As the song goes “Your feet’s to big.”
In Cobh there are no longer ocean liners taking immigrants to America but there was a large Princess cruise ship at the deepwater dock. That was another innovation. When my grandfather and I sailed for America, we tendered out to the SS America.
Suzi and I enjoyed walking the streets looking for the rooming house where grandpa and I stayed, not as nice as the B&B where we stayed this time, with breakfast on a terrace overlooking the town. It is advertised as a Holistic Center. I don’t know what that means but they had a vegan “Full Irish Breakfast.” Fortunately, they also had the real thing, loaded with fat and cholesterol.
The rooms were named after different liners. Ours was the Mauretania Room, the ship that sailed on SS America’s port side during our whole crossing in 1961. We left Cobh together and arrived in New York together.
We looked for the statue of Annie Moore, the first immigrant to set foot on Ellis Island when it opened, enjoyed several good meals on terraces overlooking either the harbor or Parnell Square, just the two of us. And we visited two museums. The city museum is in the old Scottish Presbyterian Church.
It is mostly dedicated to two things, the football jerseys of star players who came from Cobh and Lusitania, a Cunarder that was sunk by a German Submarine not far from the port. Survivors were brought here as well as the remains of many of those who didn’t survive. The town has two memorials to Lusitania. (And one to Titanic, Queenstown was her last port of call.)
For us the highlight was the Cobh Heritage Center, and its exhibit “The Queenstown Story” set in the old railway station that welcomed immigrants (and my grandfather and me) who came on the train from Dublin. It was excellent and described, not the first-class accommodations on the ships, but steerage.
One exhibit even included vomit (plastic I assume) depicting the misery of steerage in a storm. The museum was multimedia but had enough artifacts to satisfy a “real” museum buff. The artifact that excited me the most was in the room interpreting the end of the ocean liner era. It was a model of the SS America. THE model of the SS America that was in the window of the United States Line office in 1961, the one that fascinated me so much as a 14-year-old. It had a plaque reading “On loan from the collection of Mr. Sean O’Brian.”
And here are some more pictures of Cobh in this gallery.