I once heard Cobh described as the saddest place in Ireland. I thought of this as my sister, Regan, and I walked into town one late September morning. With bright sun and fluffy white clouds in a beautiful blue sky overhead and a postcard-perfect harbor in front of us, I couldn’t imagine a more cheerful town. The usual quiet Irish morning bustle filled the streets as we made our way to the restored Victorian railway station and home of the Cobh Heritage Centre.
It wasn’t until we stepped in to the Heritage Centre’s multi-media Queenstown Story exhibit that Cobh’s sad reputation began to make sense. From 1848-1950, Cobh (or Queenstown) was the last of Ireland seen by over 2.5 million people whose ships departed Cobh Harbor \; emigrants leaving home for new lives in new worlds. These men, women, and children were fleeing famine and political unrest, leaving a country unable to give them even the most basic social and economic opportunities.
The exhibit does a nice job of bringing the Irish emigrant experience to life — the sound of waves crashing, dim lighting, and artifacts on display belonging to actual passengers combine to give visitors a glimpse into a nineteenth-century steerage compartment. North America promised freedom, prosperity, and a future, but first the emigrants would have to say goodbye to their homeland and risk their lives on a treacherous ocean crossing.
In addition to the exhibit space, the Cobh Heritage Centre offers a genealogy consultation service, café, and shop. Regan and I were able to sit down with Christy Keating, the genealogist on duty. We were lucky that his 10:30 appointment did not show up because Christy is a very busy man, fielding genealogy queries from some of the 100,000 visitors to the centre every year.
Christy told us about the genealogy services they offer at the centre. We talked about the challenges in tracing Irish emigration – there are many online passenger list resources, but they usually are not useful without additional genealogical information. For example, a visitor from Connecticut in the United States walks through the exhibit and approaches Christy and says, “My great-great-grandmother Mary Sullivan came to America during the potato famine – can you tell me more about her?”
Christy politely asks a few follow-up questions, such as what year did she emigrate, what port did she enter, did she travel alone. where was she from, etc. These are often met with a blank stare. All this visitor knows is that their great-great-grandmother Mary Sullivan came from Ireland during the potato famine. Christy does his best to point people in the right direction for learning more about their ancestor, but a few basic details would help immensely.
A number of other family history professionals, genealogists, and archivists in Ireland echo this sentiment: if you are visiting Ireland and have an interest in learning more about your Irish roots, a little homework done before your trip (or visit to the National Library or Archives) can go a long way. Learn some basic information and they will better be able to help you find your ancestor in Ireland. Who knows? You may be able to connect to the county, parish, or townland your family member left all those years ago.
If you are planning a visit to Ireland and know you have some Irish heritage, but don’t have the time to research your roots, The Irish in America will do the work for you. Visit the Find Your Cousins tab at the top of this page to get started. We offer a free consultation and reasonable research rates.
A statue of Annie Moore and her brothers stands near the Heritage Centre in Cobh. Annie was the first immigrant processed at the newly opened Ellis Island in New York harbor in 1892. Emigration can be a heart-breaking event, but this statue symbolizes the struggles and optimism of those who have left Ireland. Cobh is a sad place in the collective memory, but today it welcomes back the descendants of the emigrants who had to leave their home.
I think every American who is aware of their Irish heritage and visits Ireland should go to Cobh and take a moment to think about their ancestors.