Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Last Port of Call


The "Queenstown Story" Exhibit
As a young boy, 5 or 6 perhaps, I had dreams of being a ship captain.  And not just any ship captain… I was going to be the captain of the RMS Titanic. Never mind the fact that it sits thousands of feet beneath the North Atlantic.  I wanted to be in charge of the largest and most luxurious vessel to sail the seas.  Needless to say, the year was 1997 and I was absolutely obsessed with James Cameron’s cinematic masterpiece, Titanic, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DeCaprio.  I may have been too young to understand a fair share of the movie, but I was in complete awe of the ship and her stories.  Fast forward to present day and my dreams certainly have changed.  I’m now trying to stick to career paths that actually exist and I much prefer air travel over sea travel. However, Titanic still holds a very special place in my heart. I recently had the wonderful opportunity to visit Cobh, the final port of call for Titanic, on her first, and last, voyage.  It was a simply magical experience that was able to reignite the same awe struck emotions that I felt as a child when thinking about the “Ship of Dreams”- Titanic.
Located on the southern coast of Ireland just below the city of Cork, Cobh is a small port town with a very big history. During the famine years, Cobh, then known as Queenstown, became a major point of emigration in Ireland. In fact, out of the 6 million Irish citizens that emigrated between 1848 and 1950, 2.5 million of them departed from Cobh (Cobh Heritage). The emigrants would travel by sea to North America in search of jobs, food, and shelter. However, conditions on the ships for these emigrants were overcrowded and filthy. As a matter of fact, it was initially not uncommon for passengers to perish on their journey over due to sickness and starvation. Years later, Irish and European emigration levels stabilized and the preferred method of overseas travel had transitioned to air travel. Cobh’s significance as a port of emigration may have been diminished, but its’ rich history lives on. In 1989 the local community in Cobh created the Cobh Heritage Trust to preserve and display the city’s history, and on March 1st, 1993 a heritage center known as “The Queenstown Story” was opened to the public. The center includes several exhibits depicting the mass emigration from Ireland and how difficult the journey was. Of course, no heritage center in Cobh would be complete without an exhibit on the most famous ship to stop in Queenstown, the Titanic.
The heritage center itself is located inside a beautifully restored Victorian railway station. The same railway station that an emigrant may have arrived at to begin their journey to the United States on the RMS Titanic. The atrium where the train platforms once stood now house a gift shop full of wonderful exhibit related souvenirs and a café serving delicious soups and sandwiches. Near the back is the exhibit itself. It is set up in chronological order starting in 1791 with the “convict ships” of the British Empire, which sent prisoners to Australia for various crimes ranging from petty theft to murder. The “Queenstown Story” then goes on to focus on the famine and emigration in Ireland. With potato crops failing, poverty ensued, and leaving Ireland was the only way many felt they could survive. Between 1845 and 1851 over 1.5 million people emigrated from Ireland due to famine and poverty.  The exhibit is dark and cold in the famine section, with eerie and ominous maritime sounds coming from the background. It plays on your senses and makes you realize just how badly the emigrants had it, if only for a moment.
Further down the line is the exhibit I came to see, the Titanic. I must admit that I may have rushed through the beginning of the exhibit to get to the part I had been waiting for. However, the anticipation was simply overwhelming.  Even though I already knew just about everything the exhibit was about to tell me, I was eager to immerse myself in all things Titanic.  The Titanic portion took up about just as much space as the first two portions combined.  The walls were plastered with historical text and beautiful pictures.  Blueprints displayed just how gigantic and cutting edge the ship was in her day, and scale models showed just how gorgeous a ship could really be. Naturally, much focus was put on the ship’s stop in Queenstown on April 11, 1912. Perhaps most interesting to me was a handwritten letter from a passenger that was dropped off to be delivered from Queenstown.  It’s crazy to think it was written aboard the Titanic over one hundred years ago. Another striking exhibition feature was the Queenstown passenger roster. A total of 123 passengers boarded the Titanic in Queenstown, making for a total of 2,206 on board. Next to the passenger’s names was a cross that indicated if they had perished in the tragedy and, sadly, many of them did. It was a somber moment.
There was one part of the exhibit that stood out the most to me, and that was the photos of Titanic taken by Father Francis Browne, a Jesuit priest who disembarked in Queenstown.  His photographs are the only known to show the Titanic in action with passengers and all.  The pictures remind you that Titanic is more than just a story or a blockbuster film.  They show real people doing real activities, with no idea of what fate lay ahead of them. One picture shows Titanic sitting majestically in Cork harbor, perhaps one of the best photos of her ever taken. Naturally, it was the largest photo in the entire exhibit.
Titanic sitting majestically in Cork Harbor- Taken by Father Francis Browne
The Queenstown Story wraps up decently with sections on the sinking of the Lusitania and the decline in sea travel, but they have a hard act to follow with the Titanic exhibit in front of them. After all, she was big in just about every way, including in her demise.  For a Titanic enthusiast, just being in Cobh is an incredibly exciting experience.  The Cobh Heritage Trust and The Queenstown Experience make it even more exciting by adding real life stories and artifacts. Even if you’re not a Titanic enthusiast, I’d strongly recommend paying a visit. I guarantee you will learn something new, and just maybe, you will fall in love with Titanic just as much as I am.  I may never end up living out my dream of becoming the captain of Titanic… In fact, it’s a certainty I will not. However, she’s called “the ship of dreams” for a reason, and it’s safe to say a little part of my dream will never die. 

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