The second-largest natural harbour in the world after Sydney Harbour in Australia, Cork Harbour has been witness to important events since humankind first took to water.
Its maritime tradition is evident in records of trade with Britain and mainland Europe dating from earliest historic times as well as evidence of prehistoric Mesolithic coastal communities along its shores.
Now a bustling centre of tourism and industry, Cork Harbour was a point of departure for millions of Irish and it also played a critical role as a logistics port for the British Empire during the Napoleonic Wars, when it was the Royal Navy’s main provisioning port, the Boer War and World War 1. It was also the base for the first United States Naval Force during World War 1.
Ironically, the famine that devastated Ireland in the 1840s boosted business in the port of Cork as many of those who fled the devastation to seek new lives in America and Australia departed the country through Cork Harbour.
Indeed, Cork Harbour was the most significant port of emigration from Ireland between 1848 and 1950 with over 2.5 million emigrants departing from the harbour town of Cobh.
One such emigrant, Annie Moore, who left Cobh (then Queenstown) with her two brothers on the SS Nevada on 20th December 1891, became the first ever immigrant to be processed on Ellis Island in the United States when it officially opened on 1st January 1892. A statue of Annie now stand on Ellis Island while there is also a statue of her and her brothers on the quayside in Cobh.
Cork Harbour is also associated with two of the most notable shipping tragedies in maritime history. The ill-fated Titanic stopped to take on 123 passengers and mail at the mouth of Cork Harbour on 11th April 1912. Seven passengers also disembarked, with tenders from Cobh bringing the passengers and mail to and from the massive liner. Seventy-nine of the Cobh passengers were among those who lost their lives when the Titanic sunk in the North Atlantic a few days later.
A few years later, on 7th May 1915, the Lusitania sank after being struck by a torpedo fired by a German U-boat while sailing from New York to Liverpool along the south coast of Ireland. The rescue effort was coordinated from Queenstown and 145 victims were buried there after a mass funeral.
In 1720, the first yacht club in the world – The Water Club of the Harbour of Cork – was formed on Haulbowline Island in the harbour. In 1831, King William IV granted it royal approval, and it became the Royal Cork Yacht Club. It still exists to this day and is now based in the village of Crosshaven.
Now a picturesque village that is becoming increasingly popular with tourists, Crosshaven itself was originally a Viking settlement. Like many of the settlements around Cork Harbour, it also played an important strategic role for the British who based coastal defences at Fort Templebreedy and Camden Fort Meagher.
Camden Fort Meagher, which is named after Irish nationalist and creator of Ireland’s national flag Thomas Francis Meagher, is considered to be one of the finest global examples of a classical coastal artillery fort. Its labyrinth of tunnels and chambers – more than half of it is underground – have made it a popular tourist attraction. A varied calendar of live events is held there each summer.
In 1589, Sir Francis Drake escaped the attention of a superior Spanish fleet by mooring his small fleet of five ships in a sheltered basin at Crosshaven that is now known as Drake’s Pool.