It was a bright, breezy summer’s morning when I disembarked from the cruise ship in the little Irish town. The dockside was teeming with people. Wanting to avoid the crowds, I had set my sights on visiting the small local museum.
‘No organised excursions for seasoned travellers,’ I said to my wife Jenny before leaving the ship, ‘My research is done!’ Jenny looked perfect as always, having taken to using copious amounts of hairspray on her fair hair to counteract the windy stopovers or walks on the deck. Her airline training still evident forty years later.
‘Why don’t you start without me honey, and I will follow you after I ring Bob Jnr.?’
Perhaps she was a little embarrassed to be seen with me, sporting the emerald green sweater with great pride, I thought.
I climbed the steep steps holding the handrail tightly, annoyed at my increasing age and lack of fitness. Things would change on the fitness front, now that I had semi- retired, I vowed. Bob Jnr. would soon be taking over the reigns of the business I had spent my life building up since qualifying as an Architect. Finally, my time would be my own. Quite breathless, I stood at the top of the steps to look out over Cork Harbour, surveying the second largest natural harbour in the world. I had to admit that it was some sight! For a moment I had regretted not doing this twenty years earlier. My family had departed from this town for New York in 1848 during the famine. Here I was, retracing their footsteps in 2015 and was feeling pretty emotional about the journey. It had taken me a lifetime to get here but it felt like coming home.
Behind me the former Presbyterian Church faced the harbour. Upon entering the old church building I was pleasantly surprised. I stood in the hallway, listening to the music playing softly; the interior belied the gothic exterior. A warm welcome greeted me at the front desk.
‘Good morning, you are very welcome,’ the lady said.
‘Thank you Maam,’ I replied.
It was nice to hear an Irish accent in its home country. It was only strange because of that, as I had many Irish friends in New York. I paid the small admission for myself and Jenny and I spoke to the lady about my family. Like thousands before me I did not know which town or village in Ireland my family was from. I explained that just one word, “Ireland,” was written in the “Country of Origin,” section on the online passenger list I had found before my journey.
‘That is quite a common situation, which makes your search difficult but not impossible now that there are additional birth, marriage and death records available online.’
‘I can help you with that, and I can recommend a little book with some more addresses that you may need to expand your search.’ ‘And what is your family name?’ she asked.
‘O’ Sullivan’, I replied.
‘Well, you are definitely Irish,’ she smiled. ‘Not an uncommon name, but it is a Munster name.’
‘Well, it looks like I am going to have a busy winter back in the U.S. now that I finally have the time to do some research about my family roots,’ I smiled.
The room had a warm yellow glow with that well worn, comfortable feeling. I smiled at the smell of wax and in that moment, I was transported to my mother’s house. The white lilies on the altar permeated the air and made me think of those who had worshipped here and were long gone. A huge stained glass window dominated the far wall and large trusses held the roof which had weathered many storms in the harbour. As the sun streamed through the stained glass windows it threw multicoloured shapes on the floor.
On hearing footsteps I moved towards the hallway. It was Jenny.
‘This is a great spot Jen,’ I said.
As we turned back into the building, the feeling which washed over me was chilly yet calm. Time stood still as I started to make out the small figures coming towards me. Where did they come from, the room had been empty? They were laughing and excited. I seemed to be in their way, but could not move at all. They did not appear to notice me. I noticed that each had straps tied across their chests and remembered the very old leather satchel I had when I was about ten years old. They were school children and each little boy wore a cap with a badge. They walked past me, and it seemed through me at the same time. They were going somewhere. I felt that they were going on a trip and that this was the cause of their excitement.
‘Can I help you?’ The voice of the lady at the desk brought me back to reality. ‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘did you see that?’
‘See what?’ was the reply.
‘Are you ok Bob?’ asked my wife.
She was well used to my moments.
‘Sometimes my husband sees things that I can’t,’ Jenny explained.
‘Oh,’ said the bewildered attendant, ‘I have never seen a thing in the five years that I have been here.’
‘I saw a large group of children, laughing just now, leaving the building,’ I said. My wife smiled, the lady at the desk looked worried and curious at the same time. ‘There is a derelict Sunday school at the back of the building if you would like to see it,’ she said. She continued, ‘Well, you couldn’t have known about that as it is not in use now, it is not on any of our literature either, the roof collapsed a long time ago.’
We happily accepted her kind offer. She placed a sign on the big red door which said “Back in five minutes,” and slid a huge bolt to secure it.
We made our way through the Museum, passing letters and stories about those lost in the Lusitania and Titanic ships. The floorboards creaked as we entered the Vestry. We accessed the garden from there and could smell the wild garlic as we climbed even more steps to the old school, crushing them as we walked. It was so quiet, only the ivy clad exterior walls of the building were still standing, a relic now of where these children with all their exuberance had once spent their days.
‘This building had previously been divided into two; one side for girls and the other for boys’, I said, even though no trace of evidence remained.
The lady couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
We said our goodbyes and strolled through the town wondering what this encounter with the past meant? I wanted to visit the piers knowing that from one of these my family had departed. We climbed the hill to St. Colman’s Cathedral and afterwards visited the Titanic Garden looking out towards the anchorage point where liners of old used to anchor. The events of our day gave us a lot to think about as we headed back to the ship.
‘What a lovely place’, Jenny said later as we stood on our balcony to hear the band on the dockside playing “Anchors Aweigh” as we prepared to cast off and head for Dublin. Jenny slid her hand under mine on the handrail. A very different departure to that of my ancestors, I thought. We could see the spire and red door of the little museum we had spent time in earlier.
‘Oh, look Bob, there she is,’ Jenny said and sure enough we saw the Museum lady waving from the garden.
‘Wasn’t that strange?’ Jenny said.
‘It wasn’t what I had anticipated,’ I answered. ‘I expected that the building would be full of sadness and loss.’ ‘But with the spirit world you just never know, do you?’
Yvonne Allen grew up in the seaside town of Cobh on the Great Island in Cork Harbour, Ireland. She is interested in maritime history and enjoys living in a Victorian town with a big history to tell. Cobh (Queenstown) was the last port of call of RMS Titanic. Her passion for history, culture and heritage all have their roots in Cobh. A feature of both Irish and island life over the generations is the need to leave. This is a topic Yvonne often returns to and is close to her heart as many of her Aunts and Grandparents left Ireland. Cobh was a major departure port throughout the centuries. She spent four years living in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain and adores visiting islands. Loves include, her family, friends, writing, visual arts, travel (especially to Italy) and flowers. She is a member of the Cork Co. Council Writer's Collective. Yvonne is a graduate of University College Cork where she studied History of Art and Archaeology. She worked in the Heritage sector for many years, from Castles to Island Fortresses and has lived to tell the tale!