Seeking maritime history in Ireland

On Friday we were in Cobh (pronounce Cove) – the port of Cork, looking at “the statue of Annie Moore and her two brothers. Annie Moore became the first ever emigrant to be processed in Ellis Island in the United States when it officially opened on 1st January 1892.

Annie and her brothers sailed from Queenstown – (now Cobh), on the SS Nevada on the 20th December and arrived after 12 days of travelling in steerage.

The statue outside Cobh Heritage Centre was unveiled by President Mary Robinson on the 9th February 1993. A similar statue of Annie can be found in Ellis Island, New York which represents not only the honour of her being the first emigrant to pass through Ellis Island but also stands as a symbol of the many Irish who have embarked on that very same journey.”

(Click on image to enlarge)


The song ‘Isle of hope, isle of tears’ was written for Annie Moore.

We had just visited Cobh Heritage Centre, having visited Skibbereen Heritage Centre the previous day and were now fully aware of the significance of this statue. Between 1840 and 1950 over two and a half million Irish men, women and children emigrated from these quays, over one and half million of them between 1845 and 1851 at the height of the potato famine. These two heritage centres gave an immediacy to a period of history that, despite our Cornish backgrounds, we had previously only glimpsed.

My interest is in maritime history. I was there to learn about the ships that carried the emigrants to North America, to Australia (including convicts here) and New Zealand, even to destinations in Europe and Britain. Wooden sailing ships are what fire me and I found what I was looking for. But I was also taken by the exhibitions on the Titanic and Lusitania – the former hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage, the latter was sunk by a German torpedo in 1915 off the Old Head of Kinsale. In particular, the description of luxury travel aboard these ships highlighted the cramped and uncomfortable quarters on the early ships.

The differences were immediately accentuated by the cruise liner moored alongside . . .


We are now talking accommodation . . .


The ship was due to depart at 1600, and the majority of mooring lines were slipped in readiness . . .


The pilot was on board, his boat on station . . .


On the bridge-deck, they were ready . . .


On the upper decks, the bars were beginning to fill up . . .


But, horror of horrors, two passengers were late and there was a pause . . .


. . .  until a cheer went up as they eventually hurried aboard, but now the whole elaborate system was twenty minutes behind schedule.


Annie Moore and her brothers travelled on the SS Nevada, which that voyage carried, I believe, 128 passengers, most of whom travelled steerage. This compares to the 2,888 passengers on board the 1047 foot Silhouette above – none of whom travelled steerage. The principle stages of the departure would have been the same, the carrying out slightly different.  There would have been horses and carriages and carts, rather than coaches and taxis. Porterage would have taken longer, with cargoes to load as well. It would have  been noisier on the Nevada – more shouted commands, and slower leaving – more complexity in getting the ship away from the quayside. Silhouette managed on bow and stern thrusters. Nevada would have needed a tug. In earlier years, before steam, ship’s boats, under oars, would have pulled the ship away.  Before steam, ships would wait for the weather. Twenty minutes delay would have been neither here nor there.

The Moore children were going to meet their parents in New York. The vast majority of emigrants were going to lands they didn’t know with no hope of returning, their reason for going being poverty, crop failures, the land system and lack of opportunity. Some made the change very successfully, many didn’t.

All would have said a silent farewell – and maybe a prayer, to the strip of land you see in the image above.


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