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The Harbour

This is a Four Part Documentary series which I filmed on one of the largest natural harbours in the world – and those living near Cork Harbour insist that it’s also one of the most interesting.

This was the last port of call for the most famous liner in history, the Titanic, but it has been transformed into a centre for chemical and pharmaceutical industry.

Giraffe wander along its shores, from which tens of thousands of men and women left Ireland, most of them never to return. The harbour is home to the oldest yacht club in the world, and to the Irish Navy.


The Harbour: Episode 1

May 8th, 2006, 7:30 PM, RTÉ One

Shore to Shore


The journey through the harbour begins at its centre. Two islands face Cobh – one is Spike Island, with its infamous and now disused prison. The other is Haulbowline, home to the Irish Naval Service.

Eight navy ships leave this harbour to cover an area of 132,000 square miles – that’s five times the size of the island of Ireland. Each patrol is multitasking, and can be called on for fisheries protection, drug seizures or search and rescue.

The programme looks at the contribution made by the 1,100 men and women of the Naval Service to harbour life, and the reason they spend so much time away from it.

At the entrance to the harbour, there’s a reminder that this place was once vitally important to another navy – the Royal Navy. Two centuries ago, three forts were built to guard its entrance from attack by the French. Forts Camden, Carlisle and Westmoreland made it one of the safest harbours in the British Empire, and they stand as a fascinating memorial to the harbour’s rich past.

Once the forts were constructed, the harbour was never attacked. But it saw its fair share of incidents. Evidence from the sea bed just outside its mouth provides a fascinating glimpse into one of the most notorious chapters in Irish history.

Here, on the Smith’s Bank, lies the wreck of the Aud, popularly known as Roger Casement’s boat, which was captured by the Royal Navy as it awaited to unload a cargo of rifles and ammunition from Germany in 1916. The ship was scuttled by its German captain at the harbour mouth to prevent the arms falling into British hands. Ninety years later, divers to the site can touch history by picking up the bullets which were intended for use in the Easter Rising.

Cork Harbour’s shape means it’s one of the safest in the world. But anything can go wrong out there on the water; if it does, a small group of volunteers just inside the harbour mouth is on constant standby. This is the crew of the Crosshaven lifeboat, which stages a rescue reconstruction for the programme.

The lifeboat service in the harbour is essential – and it has become the single busiest station in all of Ireland. Little wonder, because sailing has become so popular on this waterway.

We follow the annual Cobh to Blackrock race on board a yacht skippered by four-time Olympian Mark Mansfield, before moving on to talk with folk musician Jimmy Crowley, on why this harbour is unique.

Watching over all this sailing, and keeping it safe from commercial shipping, is the Port Operations centre in Cobh. The harbour master, Pat Farnan, explains how it all works, and we climb on board a merchant vessel off Roches Point for the trip into Tivoli Docks, catching a unique view of harbour life along the way.


The Harbour: Episode 2

May 15th, 2006, 7:30 PM, RTÉ One

Tragedy and Triumph

On the morning of April 11, 1912, Cobh entered maritime history for all the wrong reasons. Just outside the harbour mouth, at Ringabella bay, the Titanic dropped anchor to pick up passengers for its maiden voyage to New York. It was to be the last port of call for the most famous liner in history.

Our opening story traces the Titanic’s continuing fascination for visitors to Cork, as the Titanic Trail tour retraces the steps of its doomed passengers around Cobh.

Built in Belfast, the Titanic is without doubt the most famous ship to have emerged from Ireland, but the boat building industry in Cork Harbour has also produced its fair share of world beaters.

The St Brendan, the Gipsy Moth IV and the Moonduster are among the boats built at Crosshaven in the Sixties and Seventies. But those boat building skills have begun to decline, as one of the last surviving shipwrights in the area explains.

For most Irish adults, the harbour’s rich boatbuilding tradition is synonymous with one place in particular – the old Verholme Dockyard.

Shipbuilding here ended in 1984, but the site – now known as Cork Dockyard - still provides considerable employment in the ship repair and engineering business. There’s also a thriving art business underneath one of the old slipways.

The artist, Philip Gray, has a unique insight into the subject he paints most – water. As a navy diver, he spent many hours underneath the waterline in the harbour, and around the Irish coastline.

The diving unit is one of the most respected in the Navy. On call from the naval base at Haulbowline 24 hours a day, they respond to marine emergencies, and to search and recovery operations, right around the country.

The Naval base also provides a unique view of the interest other countries have in Irish waters. In a room at the base, the Vessel Monitoring System shows the identity and location of all fishing trawlers off the Irish coast.

But you don’t have to be on a trawler to enjoy the fishing. Every year, hundreds of tourists arrive in the harbour in search of a catch. The Whispering Pines guesthouse specialises in fishing holidays, and the programme joins its three boats as they head out for the day.

Across the harbour in Cobh, the fishing is very different. Here, smaller boats and pots are used to land shrimp, which is later shipped to hotels across Ireland and the Continent.

The fishing is good, possibly because the harbour’s waters have improved, thanks in part to a new water treatment works for Cork city. The programme ends with a look at how the treatment works have improved harbour users’ enjoyment of the water.


The Harbour: Episode 3

May 22th, 2006, 7:30 PM, RTÉ One

Pulling into Port

This is one of the largest natural harbours in the world – and it’s also one of the safest. The harbour’s sheltered waters have always been a great place to learn to sail. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the harbour, near East Ferry, sailing instructor Eddie English is teaching Ireland’s next generation of mariners.

A few miles away, at Ringaskiddy, there’s a more high-tech training process at work. This is the new National Maritime College of Ireland which is equipping Ireland’s future ships captains and merchant seamen with the skills necessary to survive on the world’s oceans.

A few years from now, graduates of the Maritime College could find themselves coming into port on board a merchant vessel. The Port of Cork has responsibility for all maritime activity in the harbour and in the past five years the movement of ships has tripled. This is the harbour’s beating commercial heart, concentrated in Tivoli Docks and Ringaskiddy, but with some activity still reaching up into the old docks area in the city. The programme looks at the major contribution made by the Port of Cork to the economy of the south, south-west and west of Ireland.

The Port of Cork has been instrumental in bringing back to the harbour a sense of the old glory days, with the return of major cruise liners. In 2005, some 30 liners visited the port, bringing significant business to the region as a result.

The shelter offered by the harbour has made it a place of refuge for generations of seafarers. And when the call has gone out for rescuers, it has always been answered.

The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 left 1,200 dead, but many were saved as the people of Cobh launched a dramatic rescue attempt in a flotilla of small boats to the site of the disaster, some 15 miles away. Hundreds of victims were buried in mass graves in the old cemetery outside the town.

Just a few generations ago, Cobh symbolised Ireland’s failure, as hundreds of thousands emigrated from its quays. Today, the story of that mass departure is told by the Cobh Heritage Centre, which provides a multi-media insight into how 2.5 million people left this quayside for life in another land.

Of the hundreds of thousands of souls who passed through this place, one young girl was plucked out for a place in history. Annie Moore left the harbour with her two brothers on Dec 20, 1891. After 12 days in steerage, she arrived in New York on New Year’s Day 1892, and became the first emigrant to be processed through Ellis Island.

But for most emigrants, Cobh never existed. It was called Queenstown, and local historian Michael Martin explains how the name changed.

As the emigrant ships left the harbour over the centuries, one area of Cobh was burned into popular memory - the Holy Ground. The emigrant’s last sight of the town, it was also an area of some repute for visiting sailors.

Over the years, the passage of ships in and out of the harbour has sometimes had unexpected spin-offs for its inhabitants. The Celtic went aground at Roches Point in 1928, but pieces from her cabins still find pride of place in many harbour homes. Even the doors from her dining room have ended up in one of Cork city’s most famous pubs.

Out at Roches Point, there’s a real sense of the harbour’s place at the edge of the cold Atlantic. But this is a massive body of water, and the scene becomes decidedly more tropical as you move further into its heart. The programme ends with a trip to Fota Wildlife Park, and a close-up with one of its residents.


The Harbour: Episode 4

May 29th, 2006, 7:30 PM, RTÉ One

A Delicate Balance

Cork city grew up around its river, rather than its harbour. For centuries, the city docks were the focus for trade, for industry and for jobs.

Gradually, newer industries began to locate further down in the lower harbour, taking advantage of its space, its convenience for larger ships, and its greater tidal flows. Older industries have moved away from the docks.

Far from leaving the city with a problem, however, this represents a massive opportunity, and has given birth to the Cork Docklands development strategy.

Now this area is about to be redeveloped - bringing new life into the city, and connecting it back to the lower harbour.

The harbour is becoming livelier – as increasing numbers of Cork residents take to its waters... and not always in sailing boats.

Crosshaven rowing club is just one of the harbour’s vibrant centres for water activity – for men and women of all ages.

For all water users, those factories are ever-present on the horizon, but they seem to be accepted as just another part of the harbour’s rich tapestry. They provide the jobs that lie behind the area’s prosperity, but there are some who feel that the development has gone far enough.

One of the concerns about industry in the harbour has always been its potential impact on wildlife. But Cork Harbour continues to be rich in birdlife, with about 30,000 present each winter.

The series ends with a brief look at the harbour’s future, and offers a few suggestions for how harbour life might be improved.

More ferries might be a good place to start – there was a time when many ferries brought lower harbour residents to work in the city, and growing traffic problems on roads suggest this could work again.

The harbour also needs new marinas, as sailing becomes more popular, and the proposed marina at Cobh is vital for absorbing some of this pressure for berths.

But people need to be confident about the harbour before they will use it. The proposed waste incinerator is a major worry for harbour residents, and problems caused by previous generations have yet to be cleaned up – as is evidenced by the former Irish Steel site on Haulbowline.

And there’s no shortage of ambitious plans for the site – could it house a landmark building for the harbour?

The challenge for the harbour’s future is to balance industry and leisure. Too much of one, and there won’t be room for the other.

This is a unique waterway – from the Titanic to Viagra, it has met all the demands that have been made of it. The job of this generation is to ensure that its colour and its character are preserved into the future.