I’m currently in Ireland for an 11 day tour for a Master’s course and have been learning a TON. Today we visited a small seaside town named Cobh (but pronounced cove). When it was under British rule in the early 1900s, it was known as Queenstown. It was here in 1912 that the Titanic called at it’s final port before heading out on its maiden voyage to North America.
I still vividly remember going to the movie theatre in fifth grade with my mom and some friends to see Titanic for the first time. The theatre was absolutely packed with women of all ages wanting to swoon over Leo Dicaprio. At the time I didn’t know much about the Titanic, aside from it being the ship that sunk because it hit an iceberg. Clearly there is much more to the story than that.
For those of you who may know as little about Irish emigration as I did prior to this trip, millions of Irish folk had emigrated to North America (and Barbados, Australia, and beyond) in the 1800s. These boats were total garbage, and some were even referred to as “coffin ships” because the conditions were so poor that many died enroute to their new destination. Conditions in Ireland were brutal due to the potato famine and the overall poor treatment of the Irish by the British, so people were desperate to leave in any boat, no matter what. The Titanic was one of the first ships to offer a much more luxurious travel experience for not only those in first class, but even those in third class. People had actual beds, gathering areas, and were fed regular meals, unlike the boats used for emigration previously.
On April 11th, 1912 the Titanic anchored near Cobh to take on 123 Irish passengers and let some other passengers from England ohff. I was actually surprised to learn that one major task of the Titanic was to take mail from Ireland across the Atlantic, so a great deal of mail was also put onto the boat. The Titanic set out across the Atlantic with such promise and excitement, only for it to end three days later near Newfoundland.
This particular exhibit struck me as it made the Titanic personal. I was given an entrance ticket that was actually a passenger ticket for the Titanic with the name of a real passenger – Daniel Buckley. The entire time I assumed that “I” would perish in the disaster. As I wandered through the exhibit, I learned the truly amazing feat it was to build the Titanic at the time, and how much trust people put into this ship. I can’t even begin to imagine how the engineers, welders, workers, and more must have felt when they heard about their magnificent ship going down. While the movie with Leo seemed to capture the terror and sadness that passengers must have felt while the ship sank, this exhibit included the personal stories of a few passengers on board the Titanic.
One story that touched me in particular was that of Jeremiah Burke. He was a young Irishman who wanted a better life in the USA and got aboard the Titanic with his cousin. He was only 19! Like Jeremiah, many of the passengers were very young. A tapestry hung in the entrance of the exhibit with the names and ages of the Irish who were aboard the Titanic. I was surprised to learn how young many of them were. My heart aches to know that they were just wanting a new life in the country that held so much potential for them. Jeremiah’s story was particularly special because he wrote a simple note and placed it in a bottle that had held holy water. The note read “From Titanic. Good Bye All. Burke of Glanmire, Cork”. The bottle washed up on shore a year later.
The Titanic is just one tragedy that comes out of the port town of Cobh. Another boat, the RMS Lusitania, was torpedoed by a German U-Boat just outside of Cobh and 1198 passengers died. And as I stated before, Cobh was often the last stop in Ireland for many people emigrating to the USA, Canada, Australia, and beyond. The Irish people have experienced great loss, and Cobh represents both the sadness of this loss and hope for a brighter future.