Visiting the Last Port of Call: Cobh, Queenstown, The Titanic, The Lusitania and So Many Lost Souls.
I've been in Ireland two full days, but I can already tell that my trip to Cobh (pronounced cove) is going to be one of the highlights of my trip.
Originally named Cove, the town was renamed Queenstown in 1849, in honour of Queen Victoria, who visited with her husband Prince Albert in that year. It was renamed again in 1921, when Ireland won her independence from Britain, and the town reverted back to its original name, but this time with an Irish spelling. It's a beautiful little seaside town and a popular tourist destination, with strong maritime history and connected to some of the greatest shipping disasters, including the sinking of the RMS Titanic and the torpedoing of the HMS Lusitania, as well as being the last port of call for more than one million Irish emigrants over the centuries, both those willingly departed in the hope of a better life, and those shipped to Australia as convicts or to the American colonies and the West Indies as indentured servants and slaves.
The first place everyone goes to when the first reach Cobh is to the Cobh Heritage Centre: The Queenstown Story, and I did this too. However, when I arrived there were seven (I kid you not) tourist groups all jostling around the entrance and the exhibit is not large, so I decided to go and do something else first. I picked up a free map and glanced over it, my eyes lighting on one of my favourite things to do: old time photos.
Yes, it's true, I'm a sucker for dressing up in old clothes and posing before buying a sepia portrait of myself. I love old time photos, so I passed the bustling visitor centre and headed down to the main square, where the photography rooms were located. There was no one in there when I entered, and I got seen straight away. The photographer, a friendly and professional woman named Fionnghuala, was warm and welcoming and made me feel instantly relaxed. Unlike other old time photos places, which usually have a range of costumes but only one backdrop, Cobh Pastimes have three different sets for adults and two for children, as I was in Cobh, the last port of call for the Titanic, I dressed as a first class passenger on board and spent a good twenty minutes in the Steam Liner part of the set, posing in various ways before eventually selecting my photos. I ended up buying two prints, as I couldn't decide between the two, and had a good chat with Fionnghuala about things to do in Cobh.
After my photoshoot I had lunch at the Titanic Bar and Grill. On the wall opposite me as I ate was an original poster advertising tickets for the Titanic and directing people to the the ticket office next door to board 'The Queen of the Ocean'. I actually got shivers just looking at it.
And after lunch, it was off next door to the former offices the White Star Line, now the Titanic Experience Cobh. This is an interactive museum, open by tour only, in which you play the part of a passenger who boarded the Titanic at Cobh (then Queenstown). My passenger was Bretha Mulvihill, 25, single female, travelling 3rd class. She had returned to Ireland from New York to visit her parents and decided to surprise her fiance and sister in New York by coming back a few days early: she wasn't even supposed to be on the Titanic, but managed to secure a last minute ticket. She would have been thrilled!
After entering the exhibit, the first place we were taken was to an area designed to look like a dock or a boarding area. We were greeted by our guide and also by our virtual guide, an officer aboard the Titanic, who popped up on various screens as we moved through the exhibit. 123 people boarded the Titanic at Queenstown: 3 first class, 7 second class and 113 third class passengers. Even before boarding, the classes were heavily segregated, with first and second class passengers permitted to wait for the Titanic on the balcony of the White Star Line offices, while the third class passengers waited on ground below. We actually walked out on the balcony where the first and second class passengers would have stood and saw more or less what they would have seen as they waited. Interestingly, the Titanic didn't actually enter the harbour, even though it could have, but rather waited behind one of the islands in the harbour, and the passengers were brought out on transports: one for the first and second class passengers and one for the third class passengers. For 77 of these 123 people, the last time they would have set food on dry land would have been as they stepped off the dock at Queenstown and onto the transport.
From there we moved into replicas of the third class cabins. A lot of focus is made in our time about how terrible the conditions in third class would have been, but, for many of the people on board, they were unimaginably luxurious. Each third class cabin had an electric light, running water, a flushing toilet and a working telephone - some of these people had never seen electricity or running water before in their lives! Titanic was also the first liner to include meals in the price of a third class ticket, prior to her setting sail, third class passengers had had to bring their own food for the entire journey, which could last anywhere between six to ten days. There was an original menu from third class on the wall in the exhibit, featuring four meals - breakfast, dinner, tea and supper - and bear in mind that most of these people would have had one, maybe two meals a day as standard.
This menu is dated the day the ship went down, so for most of the passengers in third class, a supper of gruel, cabin biscuits and cheese would have been their last meal. 706 passengers were travelling third class on the Titanic, 537 died in the disaster.
From third class we had a look around a replica of a first class cabin, but it was nothing that couldn't be found anywhere else. Given first class gets a lot of attention in documentaries, films, books etc. there was very little new information. As we were leaving first class, our virtual guide told us to 'proceed to the boat deck in an orderly fashion; the order has been given to abandon ship, but please do not panic. I'm sure it's just a precaution.'
The next room we went into was done to look like a lifeboat from the Titanic and we watched a haunting film of the ship sinking, done as if we were sitting in an actual lifeboat watching it go down. It was quite eerie. Then we were greeted by an officer from the Carpethia, who spoke to us as if we really were Titanic survivors. For me, this was the most haunting part of the whole experience, as the actor playing his part was incredible and you could really believe that you had just escaped a sinking ship. One thing I learned that I didn't know was that, when Carpethia got close to where the Titanic had sent her distress signal from, the captain and his officers panicked as they couldn't see her and thought they had come to the wrong place. They took four hours to arrive at Titanic's last known position, and the ship sunk in a little under two hours, so she had already reached the seabed by the time Carpethia arrived. However, because she had not been expected to sink so fast, the captain had expected to still be able to see her and get those still on board off. It wasn't until his watchmen reported that they could see 'lifeboats and bodies in the water' that they realised that were indeed in the right place.
After the lifeboat room, we were into the exhibition room, where we could have a look at various short films, relics donated by the families of victims and survivors, and read about the Titanic's whole story, from when she was built to when the wreck was discovered in 1985 and everything in between. But the most exciting part was finding out about the fate of the passenger we had been assigned, three touch screen's told their stories.
My passenger, Bertha Mulvihill, survived the disaster. She was in lifeboat No. 18 with thirteen other people. The crew did not know how to operate or load the lifeboats, so boats which could safely seat forty people were lowered with twelve, thirteen or fourteen people inside them. The most heavily loaded lifeboat had a total of 18 people inside her.
Bertha boarded the Carpethia with the rest of the survivors, however because her trip to New York had been a surprise for her fiance and sister, she had not sent word ahead that she was coming, and had lost all her possessions when the Titanic sunk, so had no money to send a telegram. Her fiance and sister only learned she had been on the Titanic when he read her name in a list of survivors, which he then showed to her sister. That would have been a shock. Bertha was met in New York by her fiance and sister, for her part, she had a fairly happy ending, although she never left New York again. She married, had five children, and died quietly in 1959, aged 70yrs.
But the Titanic is not the only famous ship to have a connection with Cobh.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, given it is the second largest natural harbour in the world and was the main hub in and out of Ireland for many years, Cobh has a rich maritime history and some of the most interesting, horrifying, remarkable and moving stories of the sea have a link to her shores.
The Lusitania is one of these.
The Lusitania was a cruise liner which was converted into an auxiliary liner (i.e. a passenger ship which can also be used as a warship) at the outbreak of the first world war. In 1915, Germany declared the Atlantic Ocean a war-zone and the German government took out advertisments in newspapers in the USA, England and Ireland, warning passengers that all ships flying British colours would be treated as warships. Like many other passenger liners of her time, the Lusitania ignored Germany's pronouncement and on 7th May 1915, she was torpedoed by a German U-boat 11 miles off the coast of Ireland and sunk, taking 1,198 of the 1,962 souls aboard to a watery grave. The British navy had ships in Cobh (then Queenstown) at the time and came to render assistance, and Cobh's link to this event is that 761 of the 764 survivors (three died of injuries sustained in the sinking prior to reaching land) all disembarked on her shores, getting off at Heartbreak Pier. Many of the bodies recovered from the wreck were also buried in the Queenstown Cemetery nearby.
The sinking of the Lusitania caused international outrage and was one of the events that prompted America's entry into the war two years later. The British claimed that the Germans had had no right to sink her, as Lusitania was a passenger ship, not a warship, and had not been flying British colours at the time (she was actual flying no colours at the time of her sinking, which was very unusual and raised some uncomfortable questions later) and that the Germans were in breach of international agreements. Germany claimed that had been within their rights to torpedo the ship, as she has been carrying weapons and ammunition and was listed as an auxiliary cruiser. Britain initially claimed that Lusitania had not been carrying any weapons, despite ammunition, shell cases and non-explosive fuses being listed in her cargo manifest. They then backtracked and claimed that Lusitania had been carrying these types of weapons for years and they were not directly related to the war.
It would come out in the 1980s that the Lusitania had actually been carrying live shells, thousands of rifle cartridges, depth charges and several times of early mines, after the British government was forced to warn salvagers of the dangers of live ammunition in the wreck. None of these items were listed on her manifests and the British government later admitted that, under international law, she had been carrying undeclared war munitions, but have never given any other information. At the time, the public were not told that she had been carrying live ammunition, although those surviving passengers reported that, after the torpedo hit and the ship listed to the starboard side, there was a second explosion which caused an even more pronounced list. This explosion was caused by the munitions in her hold being jostled and combustible materials being exposed to sparks from the original torpedo explosion. This was not confirmed as the source of the second explosion, however, until the 1980s.
But regardless of her cargo or her true purpose, the British government cites war-time secrecy laws to this day and many elements of the Lusitania sinking remain a mystery, more than 1000 people died, passengers and crew, and those survivors had to find a way to pick up and move on with their lives.
There was an entire folder filled with survivor accounts from the Lusitania. I read several of them in the Cobh Museum, but two stuck out for me. One was the account of a single male, travelling alone on the Lusitania. When the torpedo struck he was on deck with his friend and, by luck, happened to be holding onto a rail. His friend was thrown into the air and off the ship by the torpedo, while he managed to hold on. He attempted to reach the lifeboats, but couldn't and made the decision to jump when it became clear that no more lifeboats would be able to be launched. He jumped 40ft (12meters) into the water, injuring his leg and breaking several ribs, and was picked up by one of the lifeboats that had been able to be launched.
The second story was heartbreakingly sad and extremely moving. A mother, father and their three children were travelling on the Lusitania when the torpedo hit. The family managed to don their lifebelts and made their way up to the deck where there was chaos as everybody tried to get into lifeboats. The ship had enough lifeboats for everyone on board and (unlike on the Titanic) the crew knew how to operate them, but due to the list of the ship, more than half of the lifeboats couldn't be launched and, in people's rush and panic, several boats broke or were too severely damaged to be launched. The husband and wife were separated somehow and, when the mother saw a lifeboat was leaving, she put their children in it and then ran back to find her husband. They both managed to get off the ship in another lifeboat, but horror awaited them in Queenstown: when the lifeboat the woman had put their children in got to shore, they were no longer on board. None of the people in the lifeboat offered any explanation, and historians believe the children - aged 8, 4 and 15mths at the time - were probably thrown out of the lifeboat by those people who wanted their spaces, or forcibly put back on the ship for the same reason. The end result was that they died, and the story was made even more heartbreaking by the fact that their mother had thought they were safe.
Maritime history, honestly, has never been something I've been terribly interested in. It's always seemed dry and rather stuffy when I've seen exhibits on it in museums. But Cobh brought it to life in a way nowhere else had, and not just with the Titanic and the Lusitania. There was the story of the Aud, a German ship attempting to bring ammunition to the Rebels of 1916 captured by the British navy, whose captain chose to deliberately scuttle her in Cobh harbour, where she still lies today. Among the fascinating accounts from disaster survivors, were also telegrams, letters and personal effects belonging to everyone from ordinary sailors to passengers across all classes. There were the stories of the more than a million people who left Ireland from Cobh, seeking a better life, and the haunting ruins of Heartbreak Pier, where so many people took their last steps.
But Cobh taught me something else too. It taught me about both the sanctity and fragility of life. We're often reminded to make good choices, steer ourselves in the right direction, yet there are so many outside influences which we have no control over which could alter our lives horribly in the course of a second. The best we can do is make the best decisions we can at the time. Captain Smith wanted to make the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, so he choose not to go into Cobh Harbour, which would have added five hours onto the journey. It was the best decision at the time, but had he gone into the harbour, would he have met the iceberg? All those people who left Ireland in waves of emigration, searching for better lives, it was the best decision but I wonder how many of them ended up in almost the same position they'd tried to so hard to leave behind. It makes for interesting thinking...
Well, I'm off to bed now. New blog post will be coming your way later tomorrow, as I'm day-tripping for most of the day and won't be back until evening. Bye for now.
You don't have to like me. I'm not a Facebook post.
Me With No Apologies.