Stepping stone to the new world, Ireland

Cork city, was the main port of departure for people fleeing the Irish famine of 1845-50.
  • Cork city, was the main port of departure for people fleeing the Irish famine of 1845-50.

Photo and story by Mitchell Smyth

Meridian Writers’ Group

COBH, Ireland—Annie Moore and her young brothers Anthony and Philip stand on the pier. Anthony points out to sea while Annie looks wistfully inland, toward the home she’ll never see again.

Sculpted, life-sized, they’re an icon of the millions of men, women and children who left Ireland in the great emigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

This seaside town, the port of Cork city, was the main port of departure for people fleeing the Irish famine of 1845-50, and for the later waves of emigration to North America, Australia and New Zealand.

Through this port passed, in 1848, farmhand Patrick Kennedy, whose great-grandson would, 112 years later, become America’s 35th president. John Ford, evicted from his County Cork cottage, embarked from here in 1847. Little did he know that his son, Henry, would change the face of industry worldwide.

The Moores’ footnote to history is the fact that they were the first emigrants processed through the then-new Ellis Island immigrant centre in New York harbour when it opened January 1, 1892.

Kennedy, Ford and the Moores were just five of the 2.5 million who left from Cobh (pronounced “cove”) between 1791 and 1950, when emigration slowed.

The story is told in “Cobh: the Queenstown Story,” a superb presentation in the Cobh Heritage Centre, on the waterfront just behind the Moores’ statue. (The town was named Queenstown during the period of British rule in Ireland, the years during which the great bulk of emigration took place).

The centre is housed in the former railway station, through which the immigrants passed, from the days of the sailing ships to the great ocean liners of the last century. There are galleries and reconstructions and audiovisuals.

But audiovisuals here doesn’t just mean a slide or video show. As you move through the galleries you hear the sound of rigging stretching, wind whipping the sails, the shouts of the sailors and, pathetically, the cries of the hungry and sick steerage passengers as gale-lashed ocean waves pound a back-projection screen.

One gallery deals with the Australian connection. From 1791 until the 1840s, tens of thousands of Irishmen (and about 9,000 women) were transported to Botany Bay, the penal colony. Some had been accused of political crimes, such as involvement in abortive rebellions, but mostly it was civil convictions, some as trivial as the theft of a loaf of bread.

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