A journey to Cobh, a point of departure for the Irish

Steve Fye
Tommy Hexter jumps from a pier into Port of Cobh in Ireland Sept. 6. He was among 33 pilgrims that took part in The Catholic Messenger Pilgrimage to Ireland.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

COUNTY CORK, Ireland — Tommy Hexter took the plunge on day seven of The Catholic Messenger Pilgrimage to Ireland. Cheered on by his companions on the journey, he stripped down to his swimming trunks and jumped off the pier into the Port of Cobh.

“For the last several years, I have found that I never really feel like my soul has visited a place until I submerge my whole body in some of the water there. When we got to Cobh (and keep in mind it was a cold, cloudy, rainy day) I asked our bus driver Peter if he thought there would be anywhere to swim. He said, ‘You’re mad, mate.’ He thought I was out of luck.”

However, the sun began to shine as the pilgrims returned from Mass at St. Colman Cathedral, just up the hill from the harbor. Tommy saw two boys jumping off the pier into the Port of Cobh, the second-deepest natural harbor in the world and the last stop of the Titanic before it sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912.


Tommy, a member of St. Mary Parish in Grinnell, ran to get his swim trunks (his fellow pilgrims said they would hold the bus) and jumped into the harbor. “I went deep into the water and felt a huge surge of renewal, like a baptism of freshness. I came up and everyone (even the boys) were cheering for me. It was a moment I’ll never forget, and really made me feel like my soul has been to Ireland!”

Tommy was among 33 pilgrims on the pilgrimage, most of them from the Diocese of Davenport and one couple from Indiana and another from Minnesota. They traveled throughout Ireland Sept. 1 through Sept. 8, stopping at historic and religious sites along the way with their spiritual leader, Bishop Thomas Zinkula.

The visit to Cobh on Sept. 6 was poignant as well as spiritual for many of the pilgrims. They began the day with a tour of the Cobh Heritage Centre, where they learned about the struggles of the Irish, oppressed by the British, weakened by famine and desperate for a better existence. The haunting story of the Titanic also unfolded in the center’s displays, along with the story of the Lusitania, torpedoed by the Germans in World War I.

“Cobh was the port from which about two million immigrants departed to foreign lands. As we entered the center, we were given a card with the name of a Titanic passenger, and we discovered during the tour whether or not we survived the sinking of the Titanic,” said Richard Hanzelka. He participated in the pilgrimage with his wife, Mylene. They are members of St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf. “Mylene was the survivor between the two of us!”

“We also learned the story of Annie Moore, a 15-year-old girl from County Cork, Ireland who, on Jan. 1, 1892, made headlines as the first immigrant to be processed at Ellis Island. Annie has been memorialized in many ways over the years — in story, song, history books, dolls in her image, and holiday ornaments. She is clearly a symbol for immigrants of all nations,” Richard said.

Cobh, initially referred to as The Cove because of its deep-water quay and port, was renamed Queenstown in 1849 by the British to commemorate Queen Victoria’s visit to Ireland, Richard noted. “In 1921 when Ireland was established as the Irish Free State it was given its Irish name, Cobh.”

A placard at the heritage center states, “Between 1851 and 1901 the population of Ireland fell from 6 million to 4.4 million. Emigration became an accepted pattern of life…. The catastrophe of the Famine marked a watershed in Irish society. Those at poverty level were at least halved in number.” Altogether, “Between 1855 and 1920 three and a half million people emigrated from Ireland settling mainly in the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South America.”

They left their homeland because of war, famine and convict transportation, another heritage center placard states. “Whether voluntary or forced … the Irish have had a huge influence on the world’s population. It is estimated that over 100 million people alive today are of Irish descent.”

“Time after time, Irish people have been struck with tragedy and many of them were forced to leave their homeland,” Tommy reflected. “Time after time, their faith has carried them through to new places. Today, Irish descendants have spread far and brought the culture of faith of the Irish to every corner of the Earth.”

Pat Hunt
Pilgrims climb to St. Colman Cathedral, which overlooks the Port of Cobh in Ireland.

The pilgrims celebrated Mass in the towering St. Colman Cathedral, which overlooks the Port of Cobh. Construction of the cathedral, dedicated to St. Colman who established the Diocese of Cloyne in 560 C.E., began in 1868 and took 47 years to complete. “St. Colman’s is the tallest Cathedral in Ireland!” Tommy said. “Having the ceilings so high, vaulted above the altar, made it especially easy to feel the ‘thin-ness’ of the place, the close connection between heaven above and us pilgrims in the pews below. I was also very struck by the ornate decorations in St. Colman’s and how each unique feature represents such a commitment and dedication of God’s handiwork here through Irish people from over a century ago.”

“The visit to St. Colman Cathedral was truly a spiritual experience,” Richard said. “It began with a walk from the port level that included an almost impossible climb on streets that were very steep and seemed to last forever. That was probably the penance part of our cathedral visit! When we finally made it to the cathedral, we found it was very much worth the penitential climb.”

“The structure is a fine example of neo-Gothic architecture by the architects Pugin and Ashlin. We were in awe of the carvings and arches and a general sense of the spiritual. Awesome would be the best word to describe the structure,” Richard said. “Adding to the awesome spirituality of the church itself was the Mass we were able to celebrate together in the cathedral. Bishop Zinkula seems to make every Mass a truly meaningful experience, and, in this setting, the whole Mass was even more inspiring than usual.”

“To walk and share faith with fellow pilgrims on the journey of life is always our mission, even when we are home,” Tommy said. “To go away from home and walk on new paths and share Eucharist in special holy places is a true gift. I learned to see God’s work on Earth as the beautiful mystery that it is and to share in that appreciation with other pilgrims from the diocese.”

(Editor’s note: This is the third in a series on The Catholic Messenger Pilgrim­age to Ireland.)

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