with its many different coloured houses and elegant buildings is a
delightful place to live. But it was not always so. At one time it was
a great British naval base and local people were well accustomed to
the constant comings and goings of warships and sailors. This was the
ill fated Titanic’s last port of call on its maiden and last
journey to New York and it was here that the many bodies of victims
from the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine off the
Old Head of Kinsale were brought for burial in a mass grave. As an
emigration port it witnessed many scenes of great sadness and distress
as thousands departed for a new life in some other distant part of the
Back: Eddie McCarthy, John Blanchard, Jim Ellis, Chris Ahern,
Joe Stack and Sean Gearey.
Seated: Denis Ellis, Tom Kiely, Capt. Good, (Deputy Harbour
Master), Bill Higgins and Mike O'Donovan.
This attractive port town, nestling on
the side of the hill dominated by the Pugin designed St Colman’s
Cathedral, is situated on the estuary of one of the world’s great
natural harbours. In some ways the vista from high up above the town
resembles Sydney Harbour; a military fort sitting atop Spike Island,
the naval installations on Haulbowline, the twin forts (Carlisle and
Templebreedy) and on either side of the narrow harbour entrance and
the Atlantic glistening in the distance.
Many emigrants departed Ireland from
here for the new world – never to return - during the sombre years of
the famine and on to the halcyon days of the great passenger liners.
Ships like the Lusitania, Mauritania, Bremen,
Isle de France were regular callers in those heady days before the
age of the jet decimated transatlantic passenger liner trade.
Cork harbour sunset (www.cork-guide.ie)
There was a buzz in Cobh in those days
when liners dropped anchor at Whitegate or stayed outside off Roche’s
Point. Cork harbour pilots were renowned for their navigational skills
and some achieved unintentional fame, as unable to return to the
pilot cutter due to stormy weather at sea, they sailed perforce west
to New York or up the Channel to either Cherbourg of Southampton.
William P. Higgins (1893-1972), Bill to
his friends, was a native of Cobh, County Cork, who went to sea in
1910 as a teenager and spent the following decade at sea, mostly in
About 1922-23 he became a pilot in Cork
harbour and retired from service in 1963 on reaching the then
retirement age of 70! Bill was no mere mariner, for he left a 'diary'
or more correctly, a handwritten copybook of reminiscences of his
career. A perceptive eye dipped the pen of mirth in ink of seasoned
maritime experience to write a racy dialogue of one sailor’s tale of
adventure, a tale salvaged from the depths of cobwebbed memory.
I think it was in the year 1915 I
joined a Belgian steamer in Newport Mon. (Monmouthshire, Gwent, South
Wales) going out to the River Plate with a cargo of coal. We took
about thirty days on passage. Having arrived at Insinada (sic 'Ensenada')
it took about ten days to discharge, we received orders to proceed to
Bahía Blanca to load grain for London.
While we were loading I went ashore
one afternoon to have a look around. The port’s name is Engineer
White, because Bahía Blanca was named after the engineer who built it.
Things were quiet ashore, and warm. I went into a saloon to have a
drink, it was a lovely evening just to laze around with nothing to do.
I was on my second beer when
suddenly the door opened to admit two vigilantes. Coming up to the
barman they held a conversation in Spanish. I had a good chance to
study them both.
One was dressed a little better than
the other, he wore silver spurs with sharp rowels, riding boots and
tight riding pants. The other was a foot vigilante, he went into the
back of the saloon and closed the door and called the barman in with
him leaving the one with the spurs standing in the bar.
I was able to spatter a little
Spanish, so I thought I would ask him to have a drink. 'Usta cara una
botoll selvesa' (sic 'Usted quiere una botella de cerveza') I said,
'will you have a bottle of beer.' He replied in English 'I don’t mind
if I do', turning round to look at me. It shook me a bit to hear him
speak English so good. Then he spoke again, 'by your speech you are a
Southerner', and the thought flashed through my mind he was taking me
for a Yank. I must be coming on. 'A Southerner from where?' I said,
'south of Ireland', he replied. That was sharp shooting I thought.
All I could do was nod my head in
reply. Then he was speaking to me in Irish and all I could understand
was 'agus' (Irish language word for 'and') and in fact that is how I
knew he was talking Irish. I was ashamed not to be able to answer him.
He knew alright. 'You are a hard Irishman' he said 'can’t speak your
own language'. I tried to explain that seafaring people on the Irish
coast got little chance to learn it. He seemed to accept that
explanation rather reluctantly shaking his head.
How come I said you are able to
speak Irish, English and Spanish, it’s rather strange. 'Well' he said,
'did you ever hear of Portainens' (sic 'Porteños'). No I said. So he
told me how it happened. 'It was about sixty years previously there
was free emigration from Ireland to Argentina, so a lot of Irish
families availed of the chance to go there.'
'That is how I come to speak three
languages. The old people never forgot their Celtic-origins'. We shook
hands and parted, hoping we would meet again some day.
I am indebted to Tim Cadogan, Executive
Librarian, Cork County Library, Model Business Park, Model Farm Road,
Cork, for giving me access to this manuscript. There is a typed
version which was used in a radio broadcast on the RTÉ network, but I
have used the original hand written document which internal evidence
suggests was written in 1963. I am also indebted to Philip Thomas,
Assistant Curator at the Cobh Museum, Old Scots Church, High Road,
Cobh, County Cork for providing me with a copy of a Cork Harbour
pilots group photograph of taken circa 1950. Bill Higgins is seated in
the front row second from right.