Cork’s harbour history shows county’s potential was let sink

It is interesting to think what Cork might have, if the Cuskinny port proposal and a seaplane harbour were successfully developed.
Cork’s harbour history shows county’s potential was let sink

A heron on the lookout at Whitepoint, Cobh, Co. Cork. Cobh showed massive potential to be a major player in both maritime and aviation affairs. However, much of its potential was left untapped. Picture: Denis Minihane

CORK could have been a major seaplane base, but history had other plans.

Long before Dublin had its stronghold on Irish aviation affairs, Cork Harbour Commissioners set up an Aviation Sub-Committee to advance the proposed project. Whitepoint near Cobh was the proposed location. The Harbour Engineer was instructed to compile a report on its feasibility.

Cuskinny and Belvelly were other locations considered, but a suggestion for Little Island was rejected.

The Aviation Sub-Committee was to hold its first meeting on March 12, 1929, but only the chairman of the commissioners turned up; not an auspicious beginning to the process which had stirred public interest.

Cork could become “the airport of Ireland” on the water, then “distinguished aviator Sir Alan Cobham of Cobham Aviation Ltd” (as he was described in reports of the time), told the commissioners when he met them. Cobh was as near to Cork as any flying-boat base could safely be, he maintained.

A national Port and Harbours Tribunal had been set up by the emergent independent Irish Government in 1927 to inquire into “domestic maritime affairs”. Like many State bodies, even to modern times, it was not making quick progress.

Cork Harbour was not doing very well financially at the time and needed to develop operations. The commissioners had asked American Consulting Engineer, George Nicholson, to examine port facilities. They wanted to restore American liner trade that had downturned. He was critical of operational aspects, describing machinery as fit to be scrapped and recommended Cuskinny as the location for future port operations. An aeroplane base in Cobh would be part of the restructuring.

Harbour Commissioners’ board chairman Richard Wallace had been the only one to turn up for that first meeting of the Aviation Sub-Committee. He owned Wallace Express Carriers and told the commissioners’ board that other cities were making representations to the government to establish Irish-English-European air services. Dublin appeared to be leading the way.

By July of 1929 things were moving at the Aviation Sub-Committee. The commissioners had an outline from the Department of Industry and Commerce of “regulations for the establishment and control of aerodromes in Ireland”.

The Harbour Engineer and Harbour Master reported that the requirements could be met in Cork Harbour: “We are confident that, if the matter is taken seriously in hand, Cork Harbour can be made the best Seaplane Station in Ireland.”

In 1930 the government published ‘Air Navigation Regulations.’ This stimulated national debate about air services and intense competition between several cities. Colonel Charles Russell, who had commanded the Irish Army Corps, suggested an ‘experimental air-mail flight from Cobh to Paris to make Cork’s claim, but the Harbour Commissioners thought the costs too high. However, they formed a joint committee with the County Council, the City Corporation and Cobh Urban Council to “investigate the establishment of an airport.”

County Council Surveyor, Richard O’Connor, reported to it: “We have lost control over all shipping lines using Irish ports, but there is now an opportunity of gaining full control of airways.”

He recommended Belvelly as the site for an aerodrome “from which planes could operate in conjunction with the shipping lines to attract transAtlantic traffic, which would lead to the development of continental routes.”

Seaplanes did land in harbour waters off Cobh, but the intense competition for a seaplane location was stronger than Cork could resist. In December 1935, Foynes in County Limerick, on the Shannon, was announced as the European terminal for the transAtlantic air service.

The joint sub-committee of the Cork Councils responded with a shore-based proposal for an airport near Midleton. That was rejected by the government the following year.

After that ‘seaplane and airport-weariness’ ended Cork’s foray in air traffic and it was years later before Cork Airport was realised.

It is interesting to think what Cork might have, if the Cuskinny port proposal and a seaplane harbour were successfully developed!


After last week’s report in this column concerning local disagreement with Cork County Council over piers at Glandore and Union Hall (old pier), a reader sent me a photograph of a notice from Cork County Council affixed to poles in the port area, warning that contact must be made with the Harbour Master to register a tender for storage within a port area. It says that “if no contact has been made within 14 days any derelict vessels abandoned here will be removed for disposal.”


“No man served a day at sea without knowing his shipmates were beside him to help...”

John Gregory read a poem about ‘Shipmates’ at the Mars commemoration ceremony in Cobh organised by the Royal Naval Association’s Cork Branch. Moving and emotional, I have used it as the introduction to my Maritime Ireland radio show. It is worth a listen.

  • Comments, opinions, news and information on maritime matters are welcome.

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