03.09.2012 - 30.09.2012 15 °C
Our time in Ireland was spent in Cobh (pronounced Cove), a little town on Great Island in Cork Harbour. It felt very strange to be here. As a child Ireland featured largely in my catholic upbringing. The St Patrick's Day concert was a big event in our school year and we grew up with Irish songs, shamrocks, leprechauns, the little people, and stories of the struggles of the Irish. The names of Irish places were filled with mystery and magic as a result ... Tipperary, Limerick, Killarney, Galway .... but mainly Tipperary, the traditional home of the Ryans. We only have a little info about my ancestor who immigrated to Australia. I think it was my great grandfather, probably in the 1870s or there abouts. It didn't matter ... for me it was enough to know our roots were in Tipperary. I knew where I was from.
However, being in Ireland has ignited my interest in finding out more ... a very time consuming, often frustrating, and usually expensive journey. Where's 'Who do you think you are' when you need them! ..... And I just couldn't resist putting this little ditty together ...........
Ireland's struggles of a past day
forced many to leave for lands far away
One, Robert Ryan
which brought me back here today.
.... Yeah, I know!!!
Anyway, back to OUR story. On arriving in Cobh we took some 'time out' to relax and settle into our lovely exchange home and get the feel of the country. One thing which surprised me is Ireland's size. For some reason I thought it was a small island, but I quickly realised we would not be able to see everything on our 'to do' list. I was also surprised to see place names, and other signs, written in both Irish Gaelic and English. The Constitution of Ireland actually recognises Irish Gaelic as the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland, with English second. I was interested to read that Irish remains a required subject of study in all public schools, but there is also an independent primary and secondary education system in which all lessons are conducted in Irish. As a result the number of Irish speakers is increasing.
Cobh is a lovely little town, very historical with a great story. It is a town with three names. Initially called Cove ("The Cove of Cork") in 1750, it was renamed Queenstown in 1850 to commemorate a visit by Queen Victoria. This remained the town's name until 1920 when it was renamed Cobh (a gaelicisation of the English name Cove) with the foundation of the Irish Free State.
I don't think you can talk of Cobh and not mention the cathedral - St Colman's which definitely makes a statement dominating the town from the top of the hill. A magnificent building, it took over 50 years to build (1868-1919) but first mass was celebrated in 1879 while construction was continuing. The spire was built in 1915, and the wonderful carilion of 49 bells (the largest in Ireland) and the clock installed in 1916. The rose window and the ornate entrance are beautiful. Unfortunately I only had a glimpse inside as a wedding was in progress when we visited. I didn't think they would appreciate my running around with a camera at that time, and I'm sorry I didn't get to return.
It's beautiful natural harbour has made the town a significant shipping port since the 18thC, and as such was a much desired holiday destination in the 19thC. As the country's main port of call for transatlantic liners it was the place from which the stream of emigrants left Ireland. My great grandfather probably walked these streets!
For those of us in Australia it is especially poignant as it was from here that the first convict ship traveled from Ireland to Australia in 1791, the last in 1853. In these 60 years 30,000 men and 9,000 women were transported, often for petty crimes. So together with the thousands who emigrated to try to find a better life, Ireland lost many of its young men and women. One of the documents I read stated that at least 8 million men, women and children emigrated from Ireland between 1801 and 1921, 80% of them between 18 and 30 years old. This is equal to the total population of the island in the fourth decade of the 19th century. These are horrendous figures, but for me they are significant in giving a perspective on the struggles of the Irish people.
Cobh was also the last port of call for the Titanic which left Queenstown (as it was called) on 11 April 1912 having taken on board 123 passengers (with 7 lucky ones disembarking). I visited the exhibition The Titanic Experience in which I was given the identity of one of the passengers and was taken through their experience of boarding the vessel that day. It was interesting to retrace their steps in the building which was the actual White Star Line Ticket Office during this 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. It is still a busy port and tourist destination. Many passenger liners continuing to visit.
Our first trip was to a little place in the south west, Skibbereen, which was one of the areas in Ireland which suffered terribly during the period of the Irish Famine 1845-1852. We visited the heritage centre to learn more about this event, which is now recognised as the most appalling disaster of 19thC Europe. In the local Abbeystrowry Cemetery is the mass burial site of between 8000-10000 unidentified people. I was shocked to learn that the population of Ireland in 1841 was 8.5million. Astounding given the current population of (approx) 6.4 million (including Northern Ireland).
The cause of the famine was a potato disease which resulted in crop failures over successive years. While other countries in Europe were also affected by the disease, it was devastating for Ireland as the potato was a staple food for one-third of the population (the poorest families) which were entirely dependent on it. The conditions in which they lived and the suffering of the people was horrific and were exacerbated by a host of political, social and economic factors at the time. Believe it or not, records show that food continued to be exported to England even during the worst years of the Famine. As a result, by 1850 one million had died and another million had emigrated as refugees. It was very moving.
It was now time to venture further afield ... Dublin here we come!!