WE are an island nation, and so dependent on shipping for trade.
It’s no surprise then that, over the years, we have showed our fascination for visiting ships and enthusiasm for a maritime festival, none more so than the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race to Cork in July, 1991.
At the turn of the 19th century, city folk would throng the banks of the lower harbour to watch the merchant princes race their classic yachts at Monkstown and Cobh regattas. The rowing gig races, for serious cash prizes, were particularly competitive, with many naval crews competing.
A century later, the excitement and anticipation of the general public for a maritime extravaganza reached new heights when an estimated half a million people visited Cork Harbour to touch and feel almost 100 fully rigged ships docked along the quays.
All but the two largest ships berthed in the city, along the North Jetties, Horgans Wharf, Penrose, Albert and Custom House Quays. A tented village was set up on the South Jetties serving the best of local produce, and there were beer tents and live entertainment.
Regular trains ferried the crews of the ships berthed in Cobh to the daily activities and nightly entertainment.
The 386ft Russian SEDOV, the largest sail training ship in the world, with a crew of 242 sailors, and the 310ft Polish DAR MLODZIEZY, with a crew of 142, had to berth down-river because their tall rigs couldn’t sail under the power lines crossing upriver of Monkstown.
Both vessels were open to public viewing at Cobh’s deep water quay and attracted huge numbers over the four days of the festival.
Several years of planning went into hosting the Tall Ships Race in Cork between July 17-20, 1991, with a diverse range of committees dealing with logistics, entertainment, race management and publicity, directed by a steering committee chaired by Mr T. E. Crosbie.
The overall management of the event was co-ordinated with military precision by Comdt. Ray Cawley.
Sightseers crammed both sides of Cork Harbour approaches from Roche’s Point to the city quays to watch the arrival of the fleet, which received a ceremonial fanfare of trumpets at Blackrock Castle on the Wednesday morning, followed by an official welcome by President Mary Robinson, making her first visit to Cork since she had been conferred with the Freedom of the City.
With upwards of 100,000 people visiting Cork city and the lower harbour regions each of the following days, it was estimated that double that number thronged the harbour, afloat and ashore for the Parade of Sail and departure on the Saturday.
The Parade of Sail was simply spectacular and the sun shone all day. Sailing down river from noon led by ASGARD II, the main fleet was joined by the SEDOV and DAR MLODZIEZY for the sail past Cobh, where An Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey took the salute from the passing ships on board L.E. Eithne. Overhead, there was a fly past by the Air Corps while the 47 bell carillion of St Colman’s Cathedral rang out to send the fleet on its way on the next leg of the race to Belfast.
The first leg from Milford Haven around the Fastnet Rock into Cork was won by Cork’s legendary offshore racer, Denis Doyle on Moonduster. (The ‘Doyler’ repeated that success when Moonduster won the Vigo to Dublin race in 1998 when the Tall Ships came to Dublin.)
But the hero of the 1991 Race was undoubtedly Cork’s own master mariner Tom McCarthy, skipper of Asgard II, which won its class on the Race to Cork and claimed third overall when the 1991 event concluded in Delfzijl, Holland (the other ports of call being Belfast and Aberdeen).
Asgard II was awarded the Cutty Sark Trophy, the supreme award for sail training in 1991, after a vote among the skippers as to which captain and crew had best contributed to the spirit of international friendship which is the essence of the Tall Ships event.
Sadly, Asgard II is no more after incurring hull damage and sinking in the Bay of Biscay in 2008. Fortunately, all the crew got off the vessel safely.
There was a possibility of salvage but the government of the day — Willie O’Dea was the minister with responsibility for Coiste an Asgard, which was wound up in 2011 — claimed the insurance money instead and the ship was left to break up on the seabed.
Purpose-built as a sail training vessel in 1981 by Jack Tyrrell in Arklow, Asgard II was a great source of Irish pride at Tall Ships events and even took part in the Australian Bicentenary celebrations in 1988, flying the biggest ever Irish tricolour in Sydney Harbour.
Hopes of another Tall Ships festival in Cork are doubtful, the limiting factor of the power lines crossing the river at Rushbrooke being one reason, and the proposed light rail bridge across the River Lee near Kent station, if it goes ahead, would finally cut off the city from its maritime heritage.