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!

 

The Red Line – Bere Island

As part of the excellent Taste of West Cork food festival, we signed up for the Bere Island Cultural Taste Tour, and on a grey Saturday morning we drove off along the south side of the Beara Peninsula to Castletownbere. The Islands of West Cork are all fascinating to explore, in our experience, and each one is very different. This was my first visit to Bere Island, and I immediately want to go back there: this was, of necessity, a ‘whistlestop tour’, ably led by Ted O’Sullivan, probably a direct descendant of the famed O’Sullivan Bere (who deserves – and will get – a post of his own!) You may remember that the island – and the peninsula – has taken its name from the Spanish wife of Owen Mór, King of Ireland around 120AD.

Bere Island lies off the coast of the Beara Peninsula, which was in constant view as our bus took us to the eastern end on the narrow island roads – towards the ‘Red Line’

While the history of the island takes us back to the Bronze Age and beyond, more recent events have been left behind on the landscape – and in the memories of the islanders.

Upper – ancient history: Ardaragh Bronze Age wedge tomb beside the road to the east of the island with Hungry Hill beyond. In 1926 the tomb collapsed, and this was seen by some islanders as a ‘sign’ that the British might leave the occupied part of the island. Lower – modern history: looking from the island towards the Beara – British warships stationed in the bay circa 1914

Did you know that part of Bere Island remained in British hands well beyond the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921? This was one of the three Treaty Ports that were retained by the United Kingdom following the First World War, when there were fears that there might be a recurring naval threat to the islands of Britain and Ireland. The other two ports were Spike Island, in Cork Harbour, and Lough Swilly in the far north of the Irish state. Relationships between Ireland and Britain remained uneasy for many years but finally, in 1938, it was agreed that these deepwater ports should be handed over to the Irish Republic. Winston Churchill was appalled by the decision, and in an address to Parliament in that year he called it a ‘folly’:

…When the Irish Treaty was being shaped in 1922 I was instructed by the Cabinet to prepare that part of the Agreement which dealt with strategic reservations. I negotiated with Mr Michael Collins, and I was advised by Admiral Beatty who assured me that without the use of these ports it would be very difficult, perhaps almost impossible, to feed this Island in time of war. Queenstown and Berehaven shelter the flotillas which keep clear the approaches to the Bristol and English Channels, and Lough Swilly is the base from which the access to the Mersey and the Clyde is covered… These ports are, in fact, the sentinel towers of the western approaches, by which the 45,000,000 people in this Island so enormously depend on foreign food for their daily bread, and by which they can carry on their trade, which is equally important to their existence…

Until the handover in 1938 the eastern end of the island lay beyond ‘The Red Line’. The position of this line was pointed out to us on the tour, although we couldn’t see a ‘line’. In fact, no physical line did ever exist but there was a point beyond which Irish people could not proceed, and British forces stationed over the ‘line’ could not cross. Ted, our tour guide, recounted some amusing stories of those strange times. With typical Irish inventiveness, there were many instances of how the difficulties created by the ‘line’ were overcome. For a short while there was a prison on the British sector, right beside the ‘line’. It was used to incarcerate mainly political prisoners. Every weekend there would be a party held on the Irish side of the line which always included singing, dancing and drinking, and the prisoners joined in! Many politically important prisoners managed to escape, and the prison was known as a ‘leaky bucket’ because of this. A number of the British governors of the prison were removed during its short life because of their inability to contain their charges.

Lonehort Battery – built in 1899 by the Royal Engineers of the English army – housed two enormous 6-inch guns (still in place but very rusty) and is surrounded by a deep moat. There are plans to re-open the site as a historic monument

Lonehort is a natural harbour, believed to have been used by the Vikings. Archaeological excavations were carried out there in 1995 and confirmed the artificial breakwater as being Norse: there were also signs of a Viking shipyard here.

Lonehort – a Viking harbour and shipyard. The word means ‘Long Phort’, and is used to indicate Norse associations

One of the purposes of our tour was to introduce us to food produced on the island, and we ate in three establishments: The Shop and Cafe in Rerrin for soup, The Hotel for a fishcake lunch, and the Heritage Centre for a dessert and coffee. All provided good, delicious fare.

Our three food destinations. Top – the wonderful Shop at Rerrin; centre – The Hotel, open all year round (it looks as though it has interesting fare!) and lower – the modern Heritage Centre which has a gallery displaying the island’s history and culture as well as a good eatery

All too soon our short tour came to an end: we had to get back to catch the ferry. We missed several things: St Michael’s Holy Well and Church; views from Knockanallig (the highest point) and several standing stones including Gallán, which is exactly in the centre of the island. And it’s a great place for walking! We will return, perhaps for a few days in the winter, and complete our explorations. But many thanks to Ted and the Bere Island Projects Group for giving us such a comprehensive introduction to an intriguing community and its history.

Robert heading home after a grand day out!