ONCE known as Queenstown, Cobh, a town steeped in history, is famous for being the last port of call for the ill-fated RMS Titanic in 1912.
Who better to have as my tour guide than Sinead Sheppard, who knows the place inside-out.
She’s been in local politics for the past 12 years — including as a county councillor for the Cobh Municipal District for the past five years — but her history with the area stretches back much further.
“I’ve lived in Cobh my entire life and my whole family have lived in Cobh their entire lives.
“We all live within a circle of each other — my grandmother, my mum, all my aunts and uncles.
“I don’t know anything other than Cobh. For years even, summer holidays were taken in Cobh; when we were really small, there was no going abroad. It was off to White Point or Cuskinny — they were our beach days.”
Now, as a mother of three children herself (aged three to seven), life has come full circle as Sinead introduces them to the delights of her home town, made all the more apparent during the pandemic.
“We always knew how lucky we were to live by the sea and to live on the island, but for myself personally, this pandemic and lockdown opened my eyes to how truly blessed we are to live in Cobh and how beautiful Cobh is.
“When we were confined to 5km there was still so much here on my doorstep and I was aware that not everyone had that. Not everyone could go for a walk by the sea; not everyone could put a wet-suit on the kids and run into the water with them or go for a walk in the woods. I felt so grateful for it.”
LOTS TO SEE AND DO
Many well-known attractions such as Cobh Museum, Cobh Heritage Centre and the Titanic Experience have been closed for months and the town has also been missing the arrival of liners, a spectacle that always gave a huge boost, with people travelling in from far and wide to see them.
With a little patience, the days of the liners will come again, but in the meantime Cobh still has plenty to offer — and thankfully the beaches of Sinead’s childhood aren’t going anywhere.
On approaching the island, pause to take in the glorious sight of the beautifully restored Belvelly Castle and then follow the road to the right to find Whitepoint beach, where nearby you’ll find Ellen’s Kitchen (currently open Thursday to Sunday), serving what Sinead describes as “really super pastries and cakes”.
From Whitepoint, she advises visitors to take the Five Foot Way walk, which goes all the way into the town’s promenade, taking around 15-20 minutes.
There’s an extra special treat for kids along the way, with a large state-of-the-art playground, a relatively new addition in the past four years.
Alternatively, take the island’s left approach road to find Cuskinny beach, while there is another smaller, hidden gem further along.
“There’s the tiny Glenmore beach; you can maybe fit 10 families on it. It’s out past Cuskinny, about a 10-minute drive,” says Sinead.
Meanwhile, scarcely a day of lockdown went by that Sinead didn’t bring the kids for a walk in Marlogue Woods.
“It’s divine,” she exclaims, warming to the topic. “You go through the woods, which is really special, and then when you come to the end of the woods there’s a little rope that somebody made — you take the rope to slide down to the beach. Then on the beach there are more rope swings.”
She laughs when she realises she is telling me all her secret places.
Cobh is also fortunate to have Spike Island within reach.
“The aim, prior to lockdown, was to get 100,000 there a year and that is still a very realistic aim,” she insists.
It’s also a great base for checking out Fota Gardens and Fota Wildlife Park.
Of course, all that exploring can be thirsty work, so back in the town centre Sinead points me in the direction of Truly Scrumptious on the promenade, serving coffee and snacks. Directly across the road, Leonardo’s and Sea Salt have adapted to do takeaway.
There’s also a tiny artisan ice-cream shop called Scoops Gelato serving all manner of delicious ice-cream concoctions, including dairy free and vegan options.
Refreshed and energised again, you can take the steep incline up Westview Hill and take a selfie at one of Cobh’s most iconic images, captured in many a postcard. A row of brightly painted houses cascading down the hill, it is known locally as the Deck of Cards.
The majestic sight of St. Coleman’s Cathedral looms in the background, to make your selfie all the more special.
For the less active, quiet contemplation can be had in the Titanic Memorial Garden at the eastern side of town. It features a glass wall onto which is inscribed the names of all those who perished onboard. Also within the garden is a memorial stone to Bruce Ismay, the chairman of White Star Line in 1912, and a survivor of the sinking. It’s a poignant spot with beautiful views of Cork Harbour.
For the historically inclined, a visit to the Old Church cemetery will allow you to pay respects at the Luisitania grave and the grave of Jack Doyle, the boxer, while a living sporting legend — Sonia O’Sullivan — is immortalised in a bronze statue right in the heart of the town.
Sinead’s own business, a performing arts school, has been closed since March, 2020 — although she generously offered free zoom classes every Friday, not only for her own students but to all kids stuck at home during lockdown. Hoping to reopen fully soon, she remains optimistic.
“As a nation, we have an awful habit of thinking the grass is always greener, but we have to take some positives from the pandemic, and definitely for me, that is appreciating what I have and where I live.”
Next week: Martina visits Mallow in North Cork.