On the south coast of County Cork, a quiet seaport splashes color to the oft-overcast Irish day. Cobh is a charming coastal town just twenty minutes outside of Cork city. Cobh (pronounced cove) was actually known as Queenstown up until 1920, and has a rich, if not slightly infamous, maritime history. Of the 6 million Irish who emigrated to North America between 1848 and 1950, 2.5 million of them did so through Cobh.
This past weekend, I boarded a bus to Cork from Dublin. I realized all too late that this was an overly ambitious day trip, as I ended up spending eight hours total on the bus that day. Don’t make the same mistake I did – give yourself a night in Cork or even in Cobh to explore Ireland’s stunning south coast! Because of the long commute, I wasn’t able to spend much time in Cork, so I made my way straight to the station and hopped a train down the coast.
As the train pulled into Cobh station, I couldn’t help but imagine myself as an Irish emigrant years ago, journeying to Cobh to board the grandest ship the world had ever seen. Off to a new life in a new world. Stepping off the train and into the White Star Line office to collect a ticket emblazoned with the name Titanic.
While the Titanic is the most infamous story in Cobh’s timeline, there is plenty more history surrounding Irish emigration here. This includes the likes of Annie Moore, who was the first person to emigrate through Ellis Island. You can find a statue dedicated to her just outside the train station.
Today, Cobh is still a port of call for many cruise liners, and being just a short train ride away from Cork city, many visitors pass through this charming town. The main street is lined with welcoming shops and pubs full of affable locals. When the sun is shining, it’s idyllic. A quintessentially Irish town whether you are coming or going. The perfect welcome or farewell to anyone setting sail.
Getting to Cobh from Cork is simple enough – a commuter train leaves Cork’s Kent Station nearly every hour. You can check out the timetable here. It’s a short twenty minute ride from the city centre to Cobh, and a stunningly scenic one.
The Deck of Cards
For the most photogenic view in town, and perhaps all the Emerald Isle, head up the hill from the city center to the Deck of Cards. Or as I like to call them, the Painted Ladies of Ireland. The Rainbow Row of Cobh. I’m thinking the rent here may be a little cheaper than San Fran?
The Deck of Cards is a row of colorfully painted houses, towered over by St. Colman’s Cathedral just behind. There’s a small park square just across the lane, offering that picture perfect view. If you’re feeling brave, you can climb up the steep hill in the back of the park to get more of the cathedral in your shot. I made it about halfway up before the slick mud forced me to give up – but the view was worth it!
St. Colman’s Cathedral
St. Colman’s is a Catholic cathedral perched above Cobh, making it visible from nearly everywhere in the city. It’s an absolutely beautiful example of neo-Gothic architecture, with high vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows. Construction began in 1868, but due to costs and setbacks it took some 47 years to finish. The history goes back even further, however. It is named for St. Colman, who was once a bard to the King of Munster in Cashel. He left royal court to become a priest, later founding a monastery at Cloyne on the eastern shore of Cork Harbour. St. Colman set up the Diocese of Cloyne, and today St. Colman’s Cathedral is a part of that Diocese. Exploring the behemothic cathedral is moving. Hearing the 42 bell carillon ring out throughout the town is transcendental.
On The Titanic Trail
While the Titanic may have been built in Belfast, Northern Ireland doesn’t host the only Titanic experience. In fact, Cobh (then Queenstown) was the Titanic’s last port of call before it set sail for New York on its ill-fated maiden voyage. The last land that passengers saw before the infamous ship was swallowed by the Atlantic a day later.
In the centre of town by the water, the Titanic Experience offers visitors a step back in time. It’s a modest museum compared to its counterpart in Belfast, but it is housed in the original White Star Line ticket office building, meaning that you are quite literally following in the footsteps of passengers who boarded the Titanic itself. 123 of the Titanic’s passengers boarded the ship in Queenstown, most in the third class. When you purchase your ticket, you are given the name of a real passenger. You’ll learn how old they were, where they were from, and what class they were traveling in. Pass through examples of third and first class cabins before learning more of the harrowing night that the ‘unsinkable ship’ struck an Iceberg. At the end of the tour, you’ll be able to learn whether your passenger survived the disaster.
There is a Titanic cafe and restaurant attached to the museum. Outside, you can view the last remaining timbers of ‘heartbreak pier’ and imagine those boarding boats to carry them to the world’s largest ocean liner as crowds cheered from the streets.
The Titanic wasn’t the only maritime disaster that involved Cobh. The RMS Lusitania was a British ocean liner that was struck by a German torpedo in 1915 during WWI. The Lusitania sank just 11 miles (18 km) off the south coast of Ireland, near Cobh and the Old Head of Kinsale. In the town’s main square, there is a peace monument to those who perished in the disaster.
You can learn more about the Titanic, the Lusitania, and general maritime culture and history at the Cobh Heritage Centre located just next to the train station.
The heart of Cobh can be found by the water, from the pubs and shops along the main street to the ships moored in the harbor. Explore Cork bay and see the city from a whole new angle. Ferry tours leave from the pier to Spike Island, home to Fort Mitchel – a 200 year old star-shaped fortress that once became a notorious Victorian prison. Or charter a boat of your own to explore the bay!
Walking through History
There are several historic walking tours that will give you the chance to explore the city with a local, such as the Rebel Walking Tour or the Titanic Trail. But be sure to leave time to simply wander the town for yourself. It isn’t large, but you’ll find charming shopfronts and colorful views around every corner.
Have you visited County Cork? Where is your favorite spot?