A truly unsinkable experience for all the family

The kids were watching television at home the other night when one of those ubiquitous advertisements for summer holidays burst onto the screen.

This one was for Brittany Ferries.

They love these ads — whether they’re for Euro Disney, Disneyland, Key Camp, whatever. Every five second flicker of a packed, aqua blue swimming pool is followed with the same excited chorus of “Mum, can we go there this year pur-lease?”.

Normally, I pay such requests scant regard and just grunt “yeah, no problem” without looking up from what I’m doing — that being sufficient to keep them quiet until the next 30-second package of sun, sand, waterparks and ferris wheels whirls onto the screen.

This time was different though. The 10-year-old turned to me with a stony glare: “Mum, we are not going on a ferry. No wa-ay”.

I didn’t quite get it for a second and then it hit me and I burst out laughing. We had just spent the day in Cobh, east Cork, at the newly-opened Titanic Experience audiovisual centre. The facility charts the story of the Olympic class liner which left from the town on her maiden voyage on Apr 11, 1912. Four days later, the ship that had been declared “unsinkable” floundered in the North Atlantic with the loss of 1,517 lives.

The Cobh centre tells the wider story of the tragedy but focuses on the 123 people who boarded the ship at Cobh, or Queenstown as it was known then.

The centre, the brainchild of Gillen Joyce and his wife Sonia who battled the odds to raise the finance, is based at the original White Star Line building in the centre of the town, from where the Titanic passengers boarded the tenders that brought them out to RMS Titanic. The White Star Line building was previously the site of the Titanic bar, founded by former National Lottery winner Vincent Keaney.

When you enter the Titanic Experience (it’s good value at €18 for a family ticket), each person is given a ticket with their Titanic identity — I was Nora O’Leary, a mere slip of a 16-year-old from Kingwilliamstown in Cork. The boys were both seven- year-old Eric Rice, one of a family of five who were travelling to the US with their widowed mother.

My mum, meanwhile, was revelling in being 35 again. She was Kate Connolly, a gorgeous young woman from Tipp she told me, seeking a better life. All of us were third class.

Once you’ve assumed your identity, you are led to believe that you’re stepping into the White Star Line boarding office as a porter greets you, welcoming you aboard and filling you full of facts about the sheer size, utter luxury and engineering feat that is the ship you are about to board.

From there, the two Erics, Kate and Nora moved along the same decking area used by the latterday emigrants, taking in their last view of their homeland. Along the way, storyboards and audio tell Queenstown’s history, that of the White Star Line and that of Fr Browne, the Cork-born Jesuit priest who only travelled on the first leg of the ship’s journey, getting on board in Southhampton and disembarking in Queenstown. In that time however, he made a massive contribution to Titanic lore as he took hundreds of photos of the ship which, after the disaster, plastered the front pages of newspapers worldwide.

The same porter then welcomed us into our cabin, a reconstruction of the steerage facilities we would have used.

They were basic but an awful lot better than the animals’ kennels-type scenario depicted in James Cameron’s 1997 film. From there we headed to the first-class rooms with their sumptuous woollen carpets, atmospheric lighting and beds that could sleep a small family comfortably.

Events suddenly took a turn for the worst though and suddenly our “oohing” and “aahing” gave way to the reality of the story.

We were ushered into another room where an audiovisual display described in bleak detail how 1,517 passengers ended up in a watery grave 400 miles off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Survivors of the Titanic are reported to have woken for the rest of their lives hearing the screams of drowning passengers and the cries of children. This section of the tour recreates this aural history well — the sound of the boat cracking in half is something that I particularly took away from my day in Cobh.

Chastened, we all then wandered into the next area where we must have spent 30-45 minutes looking at the touchscreens, video, electronic maps and portholes which present the various stories that combined to create the monster tale of Titanic. From the role of the nearby ships, the Carpathia and California to the design flaws and human errors that contributed to creating the nightmare, it’s all explored.

The 10-year-old was genuinely enthralled in this room, being particularly fascinated with the gruesome details of what hypothermia entails. At the end of the trip you also find out whether you were one of the lucky 44, who embarked in Queenstown and survived. The kids were genuinely shocked to find out Eric Rice went down with the ship and his body was never identified.

I’d highly recommend the trip. From schoolchildren to people with a cursory knowledge of Titanic, there is something there for all.

* The Titanic Experience is open seven days a week from 9am-6pm. Pre-booking is not necessary but to avoid disappointment, it is advised to telephone 021-4814412 or email info@titanicexperiencecobh.ie

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