Travel In Ireland

Friday 23 February 2018

Autumn's duo of double-edged anniversaries

Cobh harbour
Cobh harbour

Fiona O'Connell

'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," was how Charles Dickens famously opened A Tale of Two Cities. Such contradictory sentiments seem apt, this second-last season of the year, with autumnal beauty ironically born of death and decay.

But the conflicting lines could equally apply to a tale of two centuries that I discovered in Cobh, on Co Cork's coast, as epitomised in two double-edged anniversaries.

I detoured there during a working holiday late last month, for no better reason than I had never been before. Which turned out to be a wonderful whim, for Cobh is a fantastic surprise. It feels like a micro-world, with its streets bursting with history and a vibrant community. Not surprisingly, the pulse of this seaport town is strongest on the promenade, where they were unwrapping a statue that afternoon.

I had just passed St Colman's Cathedral, one of the tallest buildings in Ireland, so I thought it was a religious figurine, possibly the crucifixion. But they had unwrapped enough by the time I was leaving for me to realise that it was actually a statue of one of Ireland's greatest athletes, Sonia O'Sullivan, her arms raised in victory.

The sculpture was the brainchild of Cobh Tourism to mark the 20th anniversary of O'Sullivan's gold medal at the 1995 Gothenburg World Championships.

But the benefit of hindsight turns this into a tribute to true talent; not only a celebration, but also a canny form of compensation for what was denied this immensely likeable athlete in her heyday. Doping is hardly new nowadays, but back at the tail end of the last century, we did not know for sure that it was sometimes the cynical cause of seemingly superhuman abilities.

O'Sullivan is now recognised as one of the primary victims of drug cheats in the 1990s. Which makes this home town homage a compassionate reminder of Sonia's skills.

Speaking of turning back time, it seems fitting that a woman who is considered the queen of Irish athletics should hail from Queenstown - as Cobh was known near the beginning of that same century, when a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale. The ship sank in just 18 minutes, killing 1,198 people.

The 761 survivors were ferried to Queenstown, where they were put up in local hospitals, lodging houses and private homes. This year, Cobh marks the 100th anniversary of this tragedy with a photographic exhibition, mostly taken in the town in the aftermath.

With refugees still drowning in European seas, the haunted faces looking out from those images seem to ask if the world beyond this wise little town has learnt anything. Or if more than autumn leaves must continue to bleed.

Sunday Independent

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