THE sight of their grandchildren playing beneath a huge tree in Camden Fort Meagher is a day that the O’Brien sisters, Marion and Eileen, thought they would never see.
It is a sight that catapults them back to when they spent their own childhood living at the fort, as their father John was caretaker there.
They have wonderful memories from that time. But when their father passed away, the family moved out. Despite going back regularly to see friends who remained there, it wasn’t until 2010 that they found themselves back ‘home’ again — this time as part of a crew of volunteers, all working to get the fort open to the public.
Marion O’Riordan (nee O’Brien) said: “This has always been home to me. We visited here when the kids were growing up.
“In 2010 I had not been here in a while, I came in and saw the condition of it, it was so overgrown, I started crying … I said; ‘I’m in…’
“I started helping that September in 2010. The committee was formed in November, 2010.”
When I went along to the fort last Saturday to meet some volunteers, days before the visit by the King and Queen of the Netherlands, this Friday, the sun peeked through the rain showers and the entire place looked pristine — a far cry from its condition almost a decade ago, when the fort had been left fall into ruin.
Back then four original volunteers, Skully, Vinie Farr, Paul Brierly and Noel Condon, kick- started efforts to bring the fort back to life. It had been closed to the public from 1989 to 2010 and buildings had fallen into disrepair and become overgrown. Back then, the Fort opened with just two rooms, volunteers had renovated the gallery and the Irish Room.
But the support was phenomenal, according to Chair of Rescue Camden, the voluntary committee, Noel Condon.
He said: “We opened in September, 2010 and over the two weekends, we opened on a Sunday, 2,000 people went through the gates.”
Since then there has been an extraordinary amount of work by volunteers, Cork County Council (owners of the fort) and local employment scheme workers.
The fort has a labryinth of tunnels and chambers, now opened to the public. There are the casement buildings, which have been redeveloped, as well as a tea room and deck overlooking Roches Point, which is run by Bernard Lynch’s team from Crosshaven Centra.
The priority initially was to repair the roofs of the buildings, restore windows, and ‘weather seal them’ to ensure no further damage.
The fort is now home to numerous exhibitions — Camden Fort Meagher Irish Story, Camden Fort Meagher British Story, a Naval Exhibition, the WWI Exhibition, Rescue Camden Story and the Gunners Room Story. There is also a display of artillery equipment.
The fort also hosts events and re-enactments throughout the summer months, from film screenings to weddings and concerts.
Noel estimates that an investment of around €4 million has been made in the fort by the council over the past decade. In particular he is praiseful of Martin Riordan, former County Manager, for ensuring the fort re-opened to the public.
In the past year 15,000 people have passed through the gates. Volunteers run the fort, spending hundreds of hours managing admissions, but also giving tours, and helping with maintenance.
When the fort is fully developed, Noel estimates that up to 60,000 people a year annually could visit.
In expectation of its growth and continued success, Cork County Council, who own it, have set up Camden Fort Meaghar DAC, and its directors are John Forde and Sean O’Sullivan.
There were special mentions on the day I visited too for Site Manager Dermot O’Keeffe and Conservation Officer Bert O’Brien.
A committee oversees the 35 to 40 strong group of volunteers and co-ordinators are Eileen O’Brien Murphy and Paddy Kitteringham.
What is evident is the pride and passion each of the volunteers have for this magnificent place. It seems only fitting that royalty come and meet them and pay homage to their efforts.
Chairman Noel Condon said: “It is a privilege they picked Fort Camden to visit for their Cork visit.”
Paddy Kitteringham described the visit as “superb, fabulous, we never expected it. We are thrilled. We are all looking forward to it.”
Also commenting on the upcoming royal visit by King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima was Director of Fort Camden Meagher DAC, John Forde, who said: “The feature of the visit is to get a sense of how volunteerism is integrated into the fabric of Irish community life.
“The royal couple will meet with volunteers from Rescue Camden, but also the Men’s Shed Carrigaline — who are exemplary of sheds groups — Ballynamona Clean Coasts, who won the recent County Mayor award, also Carrigaline Tidy Towns and the girls Under 14 Sarsfield Camogie Club, who will do a display — they will meet the coaches and volunteers with the club.
“The Royal couple seem keen on the impact volunteerism has on the community. It is a reflection of all the work volunteers put in over the last number of years.”
These volunteers are on site every weekend, summer and winter, and even mid-week too. They only take December and January off.
Even when not on site, Marion O’Riordan (nee O’Brien) says they are addressing emails, taking bookings, or organising printing, etc.
She described the upcoming royal visit as a “boost to the volunteers”.
“For someone from the Netherlands to come and acknowledge what is going on is amazing.”
Her daughter, Anita, volunteers too and her love for the place is equally obvious — she had her 30th birthday celebrations at the fort with the group. Her daughter Elaine visits from Galway too with her kids.
“See that tree over there,” she points it out to me, “we played there, under the tree — it was our HQ as children. To see my grandkids playing there that day... Never in my life did I think I would see it. Eileen gets to see her grandkids playing there too.
“I have happy memories of this place. Every bit of it means something. I’d love to go back in time...”
Marion recalls a regular dream she had of coaches pulling up to the tea rooms at the fort, and her father coming out. She recalls asking him what was he doing here and his replay was ‘ I am always here...’”
You can tell, talking to Marion, that she truly believes he still is.
She said every one of the 35 to 40 volunteers, are equally as passionate about the fort as her family.
“Some are passionate about the guns. Some are passionate about the buildings. Some are passionate about exhibitions.”
And it’s not just locals who are volunteering — they come from Cork city, from Passage, from East Cork. One man even travelled from Athlone.
Marion was also full of praise for ‘friends of the fort’, people in the village of Crosshaven for their support over the years.
But — and I say this as a local myself — it is the people of Crosshaven who should be thankful to these volunteers.
Marion’s sister Eileen said: “I never imagined a king and queen would come into the Fort — little did I know that when I was running around as a child. It is wonderful.”
She said their volunteers are from all walks of life and they are like “one happy family here”.
The conversation is cut short when she is called to another part of the fort — as volunteers keep busy painting, cleaning, washing deck ensuring all is well for their upcoming guests. Friday is a landmark day for them — but even when royalty departs, you know that their passion will not wane and they will continue to look to the future... and a deluge of tourist coaches finally pulling up outside.
A TASTE OF CORK
Another person who is excited about the visit by Dutch Royalty is Dutch native, Thecla Cronin, who has lived in Crosshaven for 42 and a half years.
“I am very excited,” she said, as she prepares to host a lunch for Dutch embassy officials.
Thecla has kept up her links to her home town, she gets back there twice a year.
She will host a lunch for the embassy and government representatives on the day in the family business, Cronins.
Will she fly the Dutch flag outside the family business, which celebrates 50 years next year: “Yes, and the Irish one too!”
She is also keen to stress that Irish food will be on the menu, in particular local producers, giving a real Cork flavour.
MORE ABOUT CAMDEN
Camden Fort Meagher is internationally recognised as being ‘One of the finest examples of a classic Coastal Artillery Fort in the World’.
It overlooks Cork Harbour and is nestled on the edge of the cliff in Crosshaven.
Nearly 65% of the fort’s military installations are underground The fort is steeped in history from its earliest fortification in 1550.
It played a major part in the defence of Ireland, Wales and the West Coast of England.
Most of what is seen today was constructed by British Forces in the mid-1860s, over a ten year period.
In 1938, the fort was handed over to the Defence Forces.
The fort has a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers.
It was one of only eight installations to house the world’s first practical guided missle, The Brennan Torpedo.
Visitors can view the last anchorage point of the Titanic at the entrance of Cork Harbour.
Thomas Francis Meagher, after whom the fort is named, introduced the Tricolour to Ireland.
OPENING TIMES: June to mid-September, Saturday and Sunday, 12 to 4.15pm last entry.
ENTRY PRICE: Single €6, Child €4, Family €16, Season Pass €27, Family pass €60. See camdenfortmeagher.ie