Trail of the unexpected: County Cork's Titanic connection

The ill-fated liner anchored for the last time outside Cobh.

Can everybody please stop dreaming up ridiculous terms for tourism phenomena? "Staycation" was an American term originally devised to describe staying at home and exploring the local area rather than taking an ordinary vacation. It has been misappropriated in Britain to describe a holiday in the UK, and the PR industry has dreamed up equally crass terms such as "greycation" (a holiday for older people) and "bizcation" or "bleisure" (a business trip with a couple of free days tacked on at the end). I suggest the absurd conclusion is "Titanication", meaning tourism related to the tragedy of the White Star liner that, 100 years ago today, struck the iceberg that destroyed her and took 1,514 lives.

Titanic sank in the early hours of 15 April 1912. As the centenary of the tragedy has drawn closer, locations associated with the liner have staked their claims for a share of the surge in interest about the dramatic, tangled human tales involved.

The city where she was built has a shiny new £100m exhibition centre, Titanic Belfast, alongside the original slipway in the former Harland & Wolff shipyard. Southampton, where she was largely crewed and from where her first and only voyage began, has the new SeaCity Museum. Even Cherbourg, where she made her first call after leaving Southampton, has a new exhibition: "Titanic Returns to Cherbourg".

The commemoration of the tragedy acquired a bizarre dimension with the special "Titanic Memorial Cruise" aboard MS Balmoral, intended to emulate the first part of the doomed voyage. On Wednesday she turned back temporarily so that a BBC cameraman in need of medical treatment could be taken off by helicopter. Balmoral had earlier called at Cobh in County Cork. Titanic never actually moored at this small Irish town. But the port, which in 1912 was known as Queenstown, plays an important part in the sad story.

Cobh grew up on Great Island in the vast, deep Cork harbour, one of the finest natural harbours on the planet. During the potato famine in the 1840s, aid ships from the US and elsewhere would arrive here with supplies of food.

By the turn of the century, Queenstown boasted a cathedral, St Colman's, and the railway had reached the quayside, providing connections from all over Ireland. The very biggest passenger ships – now, as well as then – could tie up adjacent to the train station.

A century ago, the large shipping lines had offices in Queenstown. Foremost among them was the White Star Line, with pride of place on the quay. Yet the line's new flagship never entered the harbour. To speed the journey to New York, the captain of Titanic anchored instead just outside the mouth of the harbour, off Roches Point – a dramatic thumb of land on which a tidy little lighthouse and a huddle of cottages still stands.

Departing passengers were ferried out from the White Star terminal in Cobh aboard small tenders. A handful of travellers who would not set out for America were brought back from the ship. One of them was Francis Browne, a theology student and amateur photographer. He documented the first two stages of the maiden voyage, from England to France to Ireland. His pictures were among very few to depict the start of the journey to disaster.

After Titanic sank he put on "lantern displays" of life on the ship. Some of them took place in a house in Cobh called Bella Vista, which 60 years earlier had been the home of Dr James Roche Verling, Napoleon's personal physician on the island of St Helena.

Bella Vista is now a hotel, and one of the stops on the Titanic trail created by a local historian, Dr Michael Martin. It includes locations such as Mansworth's Bar, location for "American wakes" for some of the passengers on Titanic.

A century ago, emigration was regarded as a one-way ticket beyond the point of no return. Families and friends of migrants knew they would be most unlikely to meet again, so departures inevitably took on a funereal air.

After Irish independence, Queenstown became Cobh – not an ancient Celtic place name, but simply the Irish phonetic version of "Cove", which was the port's name before it changed in honour of Victoria. And the White Star Line offices have become the home of a new attraction called Titanic Experience Cobh, which includes mock-ups of the first- and third-class cabins. Most Irish passengers were in the latter, where the proportionate loss of life was far greater.

The best way to see the port remains as generations of passengers have done: on the upper decks of an arriving ship, from which the colourful terraces look their finest. The vessel ties up beside the railway station, which now hosts The Queenstown Story. Twenty-first-century cruise passengers to Cobh are greeted by a model of a news vendor with the placard "Titanic disaster – great loss of life".

This museum commemorates the civilian victims of another maritime tragedy, the sinking in 1915 of Cunard's Lusitania by a German U-boat. The survivors were brought to the port, and despatched home from the railway station.

More than 100 of the 1,198 victims of the "crowning act of Germany's murderous piracy", as a contemporaneous account described it, are buried in the Old Church Cemetery at the back of town. The faded tombstones and crumbling chapel make an appropriate backdrop to remember lives lost at sea – not just those aboard Titanic.

Travel essentials: Cobh

Getting there

* Cobh features on short itineraries from UK ports on a variety of cruise lines. Alternatively, you can reach it by train from Cork, which itself is served by air from airports across Britain.

Visiting there

* Dr Michael Martin's Titanic tour departs the Commodore Hotel at 11am and 2pm daily, price €9.50 and €12.50 respectively, including a drink at the end of the tour at a local bar. Book in advance on 00 353 21 4815211 or visit titanic.ie.

* Titanic Experience Cobh (00 353 21 481 4412; titanicexperiencecobh.ie) is on the waterfront at 20 Casement Square. It opens 9am-6pm daily, admission €9.50.

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