Dateline Cobh: The Irish town that is now famous as the doomed luxury liner's last port of call.

Say ‘Titanic' and the first thing that comes to mind is James Cameron's Oscar-sweeping 1997 Hollywood blockbuster. Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson and Kate Winslet as Rose DeWitt Bukater played the romantic lead in a fictionalised account of the sinking of the luxury ocean liner. But for me, any mention of that ill-fated ship brings back poignant memories of my visit to the small Irish town of Cobh (pronounced Cove), in County Cork, and its indelible association with this horrific maritime disaster.

Exactly 100 years ago, on April 11, 1912, Cobh (formerly Queenstown) was the final port of call for the RMS Titanic, as it set out across the North Atlantic Ocean on its doomed maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. When Titanic lifted its anchor, for what was to be the very last time, at the mouth of Cork Harbour, nobody had an inkling that barely three-and-a-half days later a tragedy of epic proportions would unfold. From Cobh, Titanic took onboard mail and 123 passengers who were emigrating to the US. It was the largest and the most luxurious ship of its time. About 375 miles south of Newfoundland, it hit an iceberg and sank; nearly 1,600 of the more than 2,200 passengers died.

Cobh has preserved intact the original buildings, streets and piers connected with the century-old tragedy. A fascinating guided walking tour allows visitors to explore the town and delve into its Titanic associations. The town even today looks exactly as it did on the day the Titanic's passengers embarked from the Port of Cork.

The Cobh Heritage Centre faithfully records real stories and interesting facts related to the Titanic, besides housing several vivid images of the liner. Cobh was the main transatlantic departure point for nearly 2.5 million of the six million Irish who emigrated to North America between 1848 and 1950. Over 40,000 men, women and young girls sailed to Australia from here and millions more left for the New World during the famine years.

Right outside the Cobh Heritage Centre is the statue of Annie Moore and her two brothers, who were the first immigrants to be processed on Ellis Island, New York, in 1892. The siblings sailed from Cobh on the SS Nevada on December 20 and arrived after 12 days of travel in steerage. There is a similar statue of Annie in Ellis Island that honours not only her as the first emigrant passing through Ellis Island but also the many Irish who embarked on a similar journey.

At the Cobh centre, there are also pictures of RMS Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-Boat off the Old Head of Kinsale during the First World War in May 1915. The survivors were brought to Cobh, and more than a hundred victims were buried in the Old Church Cemetery, about a mile north of the town.

Steeped in maritime history, Cobh today thrives on tourism generated from shipwrecks and other tragedies at sea, but it does so respectfully. Plaques and memorial statues dot the town, as a mark of respect to the lives lost. Local bars and restaurants are named in honour of the ships and the heroic people who sailed on them, and every local has an interesting story to tell of how their families were involved in rescue operations, and in caring for hundreds of sea-goers at a time when sea travel was still the ultimate luxury.

The heritage town attracts visitors the year round. Home to the world's oldest yacht club, more than fifty cruise liners, including the world's largest, call here each year. The deepwater quay beside the Cobh Heritage Centre is the berthing dock for these magnificent ladies of the sea.

As the town is built on a steep hill, the view of the surrounding Cork Harbour is simply mesmerising. St Coleman's cathedral, which took 50 years to build, dominates the town's skyline. The cathedral houses the famous 49-bell carillon, the largest in Ireland and Britain, which rings in time with the horns of passing ocean liners.

The town has plenty more to offer than just relics of times gone by. Sunday mornings are special, when local musicians and artists perform and sell their wares in an open-air market. And the colour and smells emanating from the surrounding flora make for a truly enjoyable hour or two spent there. High-quality seafood restaurants and bistros abound here, as Cobh was for long a fishing village. Shore and lake fishing, sailing and water sports, and bird watching are the other attractions for tourists. Harbour boat trips and sea angling excursions are also on offer. Fota House, Gardens and Fota Wildlife Park on the outskirts have plenty of wildlife. The many golf courses located throughout East Cork are a big draw too.

(This article was published on April 5, 2012)
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