One hundred years ago this week, a small town took on the might of the world’s largest empire with an act of defiance which reverberated globally, writes Sean O’Riordan.
The manner in which Cove (Cobh) changed its name to Queenstown on August 3, 1849 contrasts strongly with the democratic name reversal decision taken by the town's public representatives during the height of the War of Independence, says Kieran McCarthy, chairman of the Cobh 1916 commemoration committee.
“Back then [in 1849] there was no statutory elected body in the town of Cove, therefore no legal authority to speak on behalf of all the local inhabitants. It appeared those who took it upon themselves to speak for the townspeople (and change the name to Queenstown) were a minority who only really represented those of the affluent, unionist and military classes,” he says.
They had discovered that Queen Victoria was to visit Ireland that year and lobbied successfully for her to include the harbour town on her visit.
The name change coincided with the last bad year of the Famine.
“Those locals, particularly the lower classes working on the quays, would have also witnessed other ships tied up and watched as they were being loaded with an abundance of food, grain, barley and livestock, getting ready to be shipped off to Britain for profit.
"Neither would it have gone unnoticed that many other of their starving fellow countrymen and women, were being lodged on Spike Island, the convict island one mile out from the town in the harbour, awaiting transportation to the colonies.
"It would, therefore, be very understandable why many, if not most local people in Cobh would have been less than enthusiastic about a royal visit,” Mr McCarthy notes.
By 1920, the fallout from the Famine was still fresh in the minds of some still living in the town and it's hardly surprising that a new revolutionary republican Urban District Council was eager to remove the Queen's name from the town's title after taking up office that January.
At the inaugural meeting of the new town council, the members elected Seamus Fitzgerald as their chairman.
By April, the council had voted an expression of allegiance to the new Dáil Éireann, thereby cutting off contact with the British system of Local Government.
“The Cobh motion was moved on July 2, when Fitzgerald said he would like a discussion to follow on the desirability of taking immediate steps to change the name of the town from that given to it by Queen Victoria. He was supported by Cllrs Dan Ronayne and Maurice Downey,” Mr McCarthy said.
Fitzgerald said: “Mindful of the evils that were rained on Ireland during the Queen's occupancy of the English throne, it is considered she was one of the biggest tyrants Ireland ever suffered under.
"The honour of the town that was supposed to have obtained by her landing here was nothing less than an insult and steps should be taken to wipe out that stain.”
The chairman mentioned that the town's original name used to be 'Ard Nevin', but it was decided that 'Cove' (or Cobh) should be adopted until things settled down under the Republican administration.
Cllr O’Callaghan was less sure, however, and felt that people should be consulted before the name was changed.
After some further discussion, Cllr Ronayne proposed that the name be changed to 'Cove', which was passed.
Three weeks later, the Town Clerk mentioned, presumably after taking legal advice, that the earlier actions of the members had been slightly irregular.
However, this seemed to have been of no real concern for the members who had by then received official sanction from the Minister for Local Government and from Cork County Council.
Within a few short months, the council then adopted a slightly Gaelic version of the name 'Cove' which became 'Cobh'.
“Writing about this period in his memoirs some decades later, Fitzgerald mentioned the name Cobh was really arrived at by default.
"He said he and his Sinn Fein colleagues had earlier discussed the situation before moving to change the town's name, and were considering the names Port Saint Colman and Port Mannix, in honour of the Irish Patriot Archbishop of Melbourne, who had been physically prevented from visiting Cobh by British forces, as possible alternatives,” Mr McCarthy said.
In 1987 Mr McCarthy interviewed the late Geraldine Norris, nee Hawes, for a book he was researching, which gives a flavour of the atmosphere and business at the old Town Hall at the time.
Geraldine who wasn’t yet a teenager at the time of the town's name change happened to be a member of Cumann na Cailiní, the junior wing of Cumann na mBan.
Her older sister, Lily, was a prominent and very active member of that body.
Geraldine recalled attending council meetings regularly with her sister, saying that the women were eager to attend and offer their male comrades moral support, particularly when there were important votes to be taken.
“When I asked what kind of speaker Seamus Fitzgerald was, she reminded me we were speaking about a period before microphones.
"She said it made no difference as Fitzgerald had a powerful voice that carried over crowds. She remembered on one occasion, it may have been the occasion of the name change, listening to him address a packed crowd in Casement Square (then Scott's Square), from an overlooking window of the Town Hall, and saying virtually everyone would have heard every word he uttered,” Mr McCarthy said.
People today may look at it and see it as a simple motion being passed by the elected council of the day, while others would see it as a much more daring and a brave move by revolutionaries in a town under foreign occupation.
“We know, for example, many of the elected members were also IRA volunteers, some even were on the run and were not able to attend all the meetings, due to security concerns.
"From time to time, Cllrs like James Ahern, Michael Hennessey and Fitzgerald himself had to sneak into meetings undercover.
"That meeting on July 2 meant some had to run the gauntlet to make it into our town hall for that crucial vote, which today houses our town library,” Mr McCarthy said.
It had been planned to host a major event to commemorate the centenary, but this had to be cancelled due to Covid-19.
However, it hoped this will happen by the end of the year. It will involve a re-enactment of the meeting will take place and the events outside the building where British military attempted to disrupt it.
A big screen will be erected in Casement Square will also show the re-enactment of the meeting live for those who can’t make it inside the building due to space limitations.