The Splendour of Cobh

My favourite sea voyage was on the (alas now defunct) Swansea to Cork Ferry. I travelled this route very many times while living in Devon and Cornwall, and most enjoyed the last leg of the journey to Ireland, when the ship entered the Lee estuary and made its way upriver to Ringaskiddy. In all weathers I was out on deck to watch the slowly changing scenery that welcomed my arrival in to Cork, knowing that it was surely the best place in all the world to be going!

The excitement mounted when we steamed past the port town of Cobh, as the ferry terminal was then just around the corner. From afar I admired the way this settlement embraced the water with its long, colourful terraces lined up the steep hillside on which it was built, crowned atop by the magnificent Victorian edifice which I now know to be probably the finest architectural work of Edward Welby Pugin in Ireland: St Colman’s Cathedral.

I am almost ashamed to confess, then, that I had never called in on Cobh until last week – and the visit was a relevation. First, let me clear up some possible confusions: the name is pronounced ‘Cove’ – and the word in fact comes from the English, but has been Gaelicised to Cobh, (Irish An Cóbh), the location having allegedly been known since around 1750 as ‘The Cove of Cork’. The name was changed to ‘Queenstown’ after a visit from Queen Victoria in 1849, and was then changed back to Cobh after the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922. Or – have I just contributed to the confusion? One thing is for sure: the strategic waterside location in the great natural harbour of Cork is the raison d’être of this grand town.

Yes, it’s all about the water, and the fact that it is located beside the “second largest natural harbour in the world by navigational area” (a claim also made, incidentally, by Halifax Harbour in Canada and Poole Harbour in the UK – the undisputed nomination for largest harbour is Port Jackson, Sydney, Australia). Cobh faces the wonderfully named Haulbowline Island and Spike Island, both of which have been established as defensive fortifications, and the former as an important naval dockyard since before Napoleonic times. Today, Cobh has the only dedicated cruise ship berth in Ireland.

Do you remember my telling of the story of Cessair and the first human footsteps on Irish soil in our own Bantry Bay? The story is recounted in the 11th century Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Invasions of Ireland). The same book tells us about Neimheadh and his followers the Muintir Neimhidh  – People of Nemed – who arrived soon after Cessair around 2000 BC, but in Cork Harbour and settled the islands there: Neimheadh, like Cessair, shared his genealogy with Noah and is said to be buried in a mound on Great Island, overlooking present-day Cobh.

So why am I so impressed by Cobh? Perhaps it’s because – as an architect – I find the streetscapes so elegant, and quirky. For me it’s a cross between the horizontal graceful manners of Georgian Bath and the higgledy-piggledy uphill habitation of the steep lanes of Newlyn in Cornwall, where I lived for many years.

Above – Cobh yesterday and today, showing the elegance of the development of the town in the nineteenth century. Below – another side of Cobh: the steeply descending streets with some remarkable and picturesque terraces, crowned always by the glory of the Cathedral, which took half a century to build. Construction began in 1867.

Cobh is such an attractive town to walk around: it should be the jewel on County Cork’s tourist trail. This post is a fairly minimalist photographic essay of what caught my eye on the day we visited. There is a lot more to explore: we never made it to the Heritage Centre, nor to the Titanic Experience, which has brought particular fame to the place in recent times: it was the final embarkation point on the ship’s fateful maiden voyage. All for another day. But we did get up to Cobh’s Old Church Cemetery, high on the hill, where the victims of the Lusitania sinking were buried in mass graves in 1915: a poignant place.

But it was the architecture that had me absorbed: well proportioned and detailed buildings – often simple – that may be overlooked except for the way in which they come together into such a dignified whole. And – such an exploration of colour!

There’s much more to tell of the story of Cobh, and – certainly – so much more to see. I will follow up this post in the coming weeks; the magnificent Cathedral can justify an article on its own. Hopefully you will visit yourself if you have not already done so: your eyes will be opened . . . Look out for the small details!


Tiny Ireland

Bunratty Castle

If you live around here or have visited Ireland you’ve seen them in all the best gift shops: Tiny Ireland – those intriguing paper models of Irish buildings and towns that make the perfect gift.

Top photograph: Bunratty Castle. Above: Skibbereen, the model and the real thing, and Tiny Cobh

They say that a true craftsperson makes it look easy. But this week we visited Tiny Ireland in her studio and found out first hand just how much talent and research and imagination goes into every single detail.

Anke with boxed Gallarus

Anke shows us her Tiny Gallarus

And who is Tiny Ireland? Meet Anke Eckardt. She’s lived here in West Cork since she was a little girl, plays a mean tin whistle, is an artist, a master joiner and boat builder and joint owner with Rui of West Cork Boats. The idea for Tiny Ireland came to her when she made some paper models with and for her son Fionn to complement his train set. That was ten years ago. She has been making models ever since, but devoting herself seriously to it for the last five years.

Designer at work – Anke in her studio. Full marks for anyone who can guess the pub she’s working on.

Anke starts with familiarising herself with the town or village. She wanders round with her camera, talks to everyone, gets a feel for the place, and then does extensive research on the history of the area. In the case of West Cork, like any other native she already knows every inch of it – the stories, the atmosphere, the iconic buildings, the colours and contours of the landscape. She tries to capture that same sense of place wherever she goes.


GPOTop: Both Anke and I went to University College Cork and the Quad holds a special place in our hearts. Bottom: Anke’s contribution to the 1916 commemorations – the General Post Office in Dublin

Back in the studio she decides on which buildings to use and starts drawing and painting and figuring out what should go where on the model and what extra details to include. Each building occupies one sheet in the kit. Anke wants each sheet to be a beautiful object in itself, to be poured over before you even start the scoring and cutting process. Can you imagine the cleverness it takes to construct even one building? Add to that all the little details that go into making it unique and contributing to its cultural and geographic character.

Glucksman Gallery in box

Not just traditional buildings! Here is the ultra-modern Glucksman Gallery at UCC

We came home with a Tiny Kenmare kit so that we could experience the assembly process first hand. Not only was this great fun but it gave us additional insights into both the craft of model making and the lovely additional details that Anke has inserted into each piece – details that extend the model into little bits of history.

Robert assembles Packie’s Pub

The second Kenmare building we assembled was O’Donnabháin’s pub and guest house (pronounce it O Dunn-eh-vawn’s). Look around the side – Anke has added the image of a funeral coming over a suspension bridge. Curious, I looked up what this was all about and found that Kenmare did indeed have the first suspension bridge ever built in Ireland – read an amusing account of its history here – and that the funeral was a real one, that of an IRA man murdered by the Black and Tans in 1921.

Kenmare Funeral

On the shelfKenmare is as scenic and colourful as any town anywhere has a right to be. It’s a great shopping town too, with wonderful cafes and pubs, and right on the justly-famed Ring of Kerry.

Colourful Kenmare 1

Every model Anke makes is unique and delightful. Individual pubs, shops, castles, etc are often made at the request of the owner. Here’s one for Tigh Neachtain in Galway. Anke showed us a draft of the Explanation sheet that goes with it. It’s an object lesson in how one building can encompass the story of a town. Richard Martin, by the way, is better known to history as Humanity Dick.

Tig Neachtain

Tig Neachtain ExplanationFor tourists, Tiny Ireland models make the perfect gift, light and packable and chock full of the real Ireland. For all of us, making one engages us in a creative act that comes out of the rich imagination and artistic talent of Anke Eckardt.

Tiny Bantry

Evans InteriorTiny Bantry – note Miss Evans traditional shop on the right. Here’s what it’s like inside. For more on this and other traditional Irish shops, see Shopping for Memories

And it’s not just models. Recently Anke has started to produce charming watercolours of the traditional shops and pubs she loves. We in Ballydehob have loved her posts on our wonderful old shopfronts. Here’s an example – Just drive down our main street and you can’t miss The Chestnut Tree.


Happy cutting and glueing!

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