Titanic Trail 20 years on: Cobh’s appetising menu of Heritage

In planning the creation of an historical walking tour, the one thing there was no shortage of in Cobh, was historical sites and narratives. Surprising as it may seem now, there was little association in between Cobh and Titanic in the mid 1990s. Although the Irish Titanic Historical Society based in Dublin had diligently preserved the memory of the ship and its narrative applicable to Cobh, it was not really in the mind frame of visitors or indeed tour operators. A local man called Vincent Keaney was probably the first to invest in the idea of creating a vibrant and exciting link between Titanic and Cobh for the tourism industry. He opened a Titanic style restaurant and bar in the same office block that once was occupied by the agency for the White Star Line itself. Vincent was a knowledgeable Titanic enthusiast whose ideas were always fresh and innovative. It was unfortunate that this development didn’t work out in the way he had envisioned it.

Meanwhile there were countless Titanic enthusiasts around the world that had read a great deal about the ship, had developed a keen interest in its story but associated its last port of call with a place called Queenstown. I have been told by hundreds of people over the years that it took them a long time to make the connection between the pre-independence name of Queenstown and the current name of Cobh. Creating a product called the Titanic Trail to be based in Cobh helped clarify the link!

Prior to the 1990s, despite the fact that the Titanic had worldwide appeal, its association with Cobh was miniscule. The ship briefly called to the mouth of Cork harbour and fate dealt a blow that was to consign that stop as the last port of call. For most of the 90 minutes it spent at the mouth of the Harbour it would not have been visible to most of the population of Cobh !! However for those that embarked and disembarked, there is a wealth of associated built heritage and a meaningful narrative to be gleaned from the study of the human stories surrounding the ship set into its proper historical context. Titanic was a working vessel built to ply the North Atlantic route to deliver, convey, carry and transport cargo, goods, mail and people. In the minds of the vast majority of people who found themselves on board she was an emigrant ship. Like thousands that had come before and would come after her.

So my concept of a ‘Titanic Trail’ was not to be so much about one ship, but more about the fascinating backdrop of the harbour where she last stopped and about the movements, motivations and experiences of the people who had passed through it for centuries. Thus this approach opened multiple topics of engagement for visitors taking the tour. The expansive narratives of migration and arrival. The great stories of exploration and adventure. The pitiful accounts of desperation and flight. The strategic placement of military assets and fortifications. The progession of sail to mechanized propulsion. The expansion and opening up of new worlds. Cobh in Cork Harbour was was a fitting place to deliver discourse on such things, Cobh’s spectacular built heritage a fitting backdrop to the treasures of our past. A finite selection of places of interest then began and Cobh had so much to offer !Annie Mooreprom3

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A twenty year journey through the mists of time

 

Picture1The Origin of the Titanic Trail Guided Walking Tour of Cobh

 

Like all new ideas, the development of a guided walking tour in Cobh to be called the Titanic Trail was not universally welcomed when first mooted by me. Perhaps it was the fact that there was no other daily Titanic attraction in Ireland (or anywhere else) in 1998. Perhaps it was the notion among some local residents in Cobh that nobody would be interested in such a thing. Maybe it was the fact that up until then Cobh’s economy had been centred on industry other than tourism. Or worse still, maybe the prospect of an outsider from Dublin regaling visitors with the history of the locality when he wasn’t even born here was a stretch too far. After all, Cork Harbour boasted an oil refinery, a shipbuilding yard, a Naval Base, a steel mill, an electrical power generating station, a fertilizer plant and numerous global pharmaceutical giants all of whom provided gainful employment that nurtured a local economy. Who needed tourism?

 

Thankfully not everybody was dubious about tourism. In the early 1990s the Cobh and Harbour Chamber of Commerce initiated a consultant report that had suggested tourism may be a viable industry for the future. As a result of recommendations made, the Queenstown Story Heritage Centre was conceived and although it struggled initially, it eventually became an iconic attraction to those interested in the heritage of the area. However there was one small issue about its location. Despite the fact that the building was housed in an attractive Victorian railway station, the access and egress routes of coach tours to and from the museum did not expose visitors to the town’s magnificent built heritage and harbour views.

 

Although I had never worked in the tourism sector before 1997, (I served 23 in the Navy) the fact that thousands of potential visitors were missing the greatest assets that Cobh and the Harbour had to offer, seemed painfully obvious to me. However there were two incidents that really inspired me to create a walking tour in Cobh neither of which occurred in Cobh itself. If fact both locations were over 2,000 miles from the town and in opposite directions!

 

In the late 1980s I was in the United States as part of a Naval delegation were participating in the St Patrick’s Day celebrations and Parade for Boston. On a quiet afternoon when the heady celebrations had died down I happened on the ‘Boston Freedom Trail’. I found myself fascinated by the idea that I was standing beside the actual buildings in which history was made. Hearing the stories in the specific location of occurrence resonated with me deeply. I then thought of my home town of Cobh where ships headed off from its piers to unknown oceans, where millions of emigrants made their way at times in desperation of finding a better life elsewhere and where soldiers and sailors departed and arrived from distant wars. What a great diversity of international heritage!

I realized there and then that people would be fascinated to hear those stories in the same way that I had been engaged in places like Boston, Philadelphia, Mesa Verde Colorado and so many more. Any doubts I had about the ability to create something in an environment where some people thought it would result in failure was laid to rest in another place in a very different part of the world.

 

Two continents away on 1994 I was serving with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The region had a long tradition of volatility and suffered military, religious and ethnic conflict on a scale that was incomprehensible to those of us who were lucky enough to have been born and reared in peaceful western democracies. In what was a routine mission, myself and a small number of comrades, had been assigned to attend a conference in the conflict-ravaged city of Tyre. We went through our usual routine of collecting and checking our side arms, donning our flak jackets, notifying operations that we would be travelling to the gathering at a specific time and in a specific vehicle. The journey from our camp through the war torn area of operations was uneventful other than the occasional sound of nearby artillery fire. We arrived safely at the location and deposited our arms in a designated UN safe area before continuing into the conference room where the only place to put our distinctive blue helmets and bullet proof vests was under our chairs. After a few minutes a Lebanese gentleman arrived to greet us and began to advocate with great pride and amazing enthusiasm all the joys and benefits of considering a vacation in his beautiful country. My abiding impression of that day was that even in the face of the most extraordinary challenges, the right mix of determination, creativity and single-mindedness can generate success when many see failure.

 

So in 1997 I decided I would create the Titanic Trail guided Walking tour of Cobh. I set about researching the historical backdrop of area and so began a fascinating meandering through the mists of time. Join me in coming blogs on my journey of discovery and amazement.

New Titanic Trail Blog

On the Titanic Trail Guided Walking Tour with Dr Michael Martin

Greetings again to the world from my new Blog. I did attempt to create one eight years ago but didn’t have the time or technical expertise to continue it. So I’m back !!!

Much has happened in the last 8 years. The centenary events to commemorate both RMS Lusitania and RMS Titanic have come and gone. The world has rotated thousands of times, wars have started and finished, typical political profiles and configurations have altered profoundly. There has been famine, global alterations in weather systems, mind-blowing advances in shipbuilding and the continued theme of migration of people from and to many parts of our planet.

The world lost Milvena Deane, who all her life, was Titanic’s youngest survivor. She survived at just 9 weeks old and lived until the age of 97 years, passing away in May of 2009. She was our last living link with the ship.

In forthcoming blogs I will be looking at the narratives, historical perspectives and stories from the past and in the present. those that surround Cork Harbour, RMS Titanic, emigration from Ireland and much much more……

As always the Titanic Trail Guided Walking tour of Cobh, my books, publications and new tour offerings will be highlighted on http://www.titanic.ie

Talk Soon !

Dr Michael Martin

Author and Creator Titanic Trail