Thursday, March 13, 1997

Cobh - Emigration - Heritage Centre

I sat at my desk this evening to write of a recent trip to Cobh, gateway to the Americas. It was for me a journey of discovery revealing as it did the evocative nature of Irish history. But as I sat poised to commence the article my eye fastened on a small, somewhat battered green card lying on my desk. Eighty seven years ago that card was sold for the sum of two shillings guaranteeing its purchaser a reserved seat for the Grand Popular Concert in the Town Hall, Athy, on St. Patrick's Night 1910. The Concert was given by the members of the "Athy Pierot Troupe" including Miss Stanford Campbell and Mr. Sealy Jeffares. Songs, choruses, instrumental selections and national dances were on offer for those attending. I have no knowledge of Miss Campbell or Mr. Jeffares or indeed any other member of the "Athy Pierrot Troupe", all of whom have undoubtedly passed away, almost certainly forgotten and unremembered. As they performed on the Town Hall stage that night they were possibly the most talked about group of individuals in the town. Their time is now long passed and their lives have disappeared unmarked and without leaving a trace in our own time.

I had a similar sense of loss as I travelled last week on the road between Cork and Cobh. At times the road narrowed between old stone walls which could have been there for over 100 years and it was then that thoughts crowded in on my mind of emigrants who once made the same journey. I could imagine them travelling with heavy hearts but as the harbour of Cobh came into view their tired faltering steps quickened in anticipation of the adventures that lay ahead. I thought also of the 37 young orphan girls sent from Athy Workhouse to Australia between 1849 and 1850. They were part of the 4,000 or so exported from Ireland under the Orphan Emigration Scheme introduced by the English Government following the Great Famine in order to reduce the number of children in Irish Workhouses. Those young girls probably travelled the same road as I did but they were destined never again to return to their homeland.

I paid a visit to the Heritage Centre located in the old Railway building of the harbour town which told of the origins, history and legacy of Cobh under the general title of the Queenstown Story. I have previously written of Ellis Island, New York, where the Irish emigrants of a later generation were to disembark for health and other checks before being allowed on to the mainland. In the post Famine years most emigrants from Ireland travelled to Canada ending up in Gosse Island which served as a receiving station for those crossing the Atlantic. The Irish travelled to America and Canada from many Irish ports but Cobh is fixed in most of our minds as the departure point for the greater number emigrating from this island. We will never know how many Athy men and women looked upon the towering spires of St. Colman's Cathedral in Cobh as their ships sailed over seas. The personal stories of the thousands who have left this area over the last 150 years cannot now ever hope to be told. All that may now remain, perhaps laid aside and forgotten, are mementos of a time and of a place which can never be reclaimed. Letters, cards and personal effects of the emigrants are like the ticket for the St. Patrick's Night Concert in 1910, a nostalgic reminder of another forgotten age.

The Queenstown Story as related in the Heritage Centre failed to catch my imagination despite the enormous advantages which the wealth of Cobh's historical links should have gained for it. I did not come away with a sense of the awfulness which must have attended the coffin ships and the convict ships which sailed from Cobh. The story of Irish emigration is a sad but inspiring one which gives enormous opportunity in its telling for the rich tapestry of history to be unfolded in its most lucid colours. That opportunity was not seized in the Cobh Heritage Centre and while I came away satisfied enough with what I had read, heard and seen I still long for a more dramatic retelling of a story in which people from my area of Co. Kildare played a part.

The importance of a Heritage Centre in a designated Heritage Town can perhaps be over emphasised. For instance in Cobh there was obvious neglect visible in the grass infested roads and pathways and in the poor state of many shop fronts. Athy could well take to heart the lessons to be learned from this and ensure that its shop fronts, street furniture and road signage complement and support its heritage status. Our Heritage Centre will be ready towards to end of the Summer and it is perhaps now we should be reviewing the need to replace the ugly road signs around the town. Time also to get rid of the E.S.B. sub-stations erected in Barrow Quay and Woodstock Street in the 1930's and time indeed to take away the unsightly poles on our streets and put the overhead wires under ground.

The site of our new Heritage Centre, the ground floor of the Town Hall, this week began to take on an appearance it last had over 100 years ago. It was once an open area which provided shelter for the Town Market and as the walls later built to provide meeting rooms are pulled down we can more easily visualise the market as it was at the beginning of the last century. Here was the centre of commercial life in 18th and 19th century Athy and as we head into the second millennium we are reshaping the building yet again confirming its status as the cultural centre of our town.

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