Lusitania: Path where our ancestors witnessed history 100 years ago

FOR a superb outdoor experience, salted with a bit of history, none will serve better on this Bank Holiday Monday than a coastal walk from picturesque Courtmacsherry village to Coolbawn (aka Blind Strand) on the Seven Heads.

Lusitania: Path where our ancestors witnessed history 100 years ago

The route, part of the Seven Heads Walk, is well signposted, and about 5 miles (9 km).

All weekend, Courtmacsherry, 50 minutes west of Cork city, was the scene of ceremonies and re-enactments of the local lifeboat crews’ valiant attempt to reach survivors from the torpedoed liner, The Lusitania, on the afternoon of May 7, 1915. The history of how the ship, with its 1,959 passengers, was sunk by a German U-boat submarine, is well known.

Paddy O’Sullivan, a commercial diver, has written extensively about the background and the items he discovered during his many descents onto the wreck. His book, The Sinking of the Lusitania (Collins Press), lays many of the wilder theories behind the sinking to rest.

Find more content related to the sinking of RMS Lusitania in our special report

Regarding the heroic efforts of the local volunteers to rescue those terrified souls that were catapulted from the high decks into the chilly ocean as the great ship listed and, in the short space of 18 minutes, plunged prow-first beneath the waves, is vividly recounted in The History of The Courtmacsherry Lifeboat, by Michael Hurley, engineer of the present lifeboat until recent years.

RELATED: Events in Courtmacsherry to mark Lusitania centenary

This morning, I went to the pier to see an extant example, brought from Cornwall, of the type of lifeboat used that day. The volunteers, fishermen, farmers, and tradesmen, parishioners of Butlerstown, Barryroe, Ballymacshooneen, Shanagh and the other cliff-top townlands had, as the news quickly spread, come running, riding on horses, pedalling on bicycles, rushing to answer the call.

Assembling at the then lifeboat station at Barry’s Point, they clambered aboard the heavy 37ft long boat. It set off, rowed by six men, to make the hard, 12-mile crossing to the disaster site off the Old Head of Kinsale. No wind blew to fill their sail. Nevertheless, the Courtmacsherry craft was the first man-powered lifeboat to arrive.

Arriving at 6pm, they found the ocean scattered with debris and bodies. Warships and tugs from Queenstown were taking bodies to Kinsale. They stayed until 8.40pm. and, rowing home, arrived at 1am.

The Barry’s Point Station is now a family home, Peter Flynn being the second generation of his family to live there. It is in a remote, scenic spot. Nine miles across the sea beyond the Point, the Old Head lighthouse catches the sun on bright days or is half obscured by mist or rain in inclement weather.

Find more content related to the sinking of RMS Lusitania in our special report

The walker’s route will takes us from Courtmacsherry pier past the newly-renovated Pier House Pub, the Anchor Bar, the freshly opened Lifeboat Inn, the tea tables outside Travara Lodge, the coffee bar, crafts and gardens at The Golden Pheasant and the lovely Georgian-era Courtmacsherry Hotel, facing the beach. Beyond, a path across a meadow and through ancient beech woods blanketed in bluebells follows the bay to the open sea. There, at Wood Point, the view to the Old Head and the open, glittering ocean is breathtaking. There is an awesome beauty to the scene — a ‘terrible beauty’, if one remembers that from this very spot, that sunny afternoon in May 1915 one might, with the naked eye, have seen the rescue vessels converge to gather and carry away the drowned.

It is lovely, the cliff walk, gorse laid like a golden shawl on the cliff’s shoulders, pink sea thrift and white scurvy grass in robust flower on the rocks below, the white gulls preening, the fulmar, with stiff wings and hardly a flutter floating on the air almost at our shoulders, the dark shags and cormorants standing upright, wings held wide to dry reminding one of the souls of the dead lighthouse men in the poem Flannan Isle.

RELATED: Lusitania survivors gave Cobh an eerie unreality

Soon, we follow the Fuchsia Walk and then down to the hamlet of Meelman, where a few cottages still carry their unique cockeyed roofs. Then, across the expanse of Broad Strand to climb the steps at the end and pass the memorial to Patrick Keohane, Antarctic explorer, Shackleton’s companion. He, like the brave volunteers who rowed out to the Lusitania, was a son of this coast, a coast that breeds men prepared for challenge, steadfast and unshrinking in the face of danger. From the memorial, the road descends to Coolbawn.

Talks on The Lusitania sinking will be presented today at 2pm at Coolbawn within sight of the original life boat station and the distant Old Head; and at 5pm, at Butlerstown Community Centre.

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