‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Cobh

by Brendan McNamara

Cobh

“There is a reason for everything”, my friend said and I nodded in agreement. I was not feeling so sure, however. I was puzzled. Maybe there is no reason, apparent or mysterious, for some things that happen or things that do not happen. Take for example the connection between ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Cobh, County Cork.

I am standing in Cobh and looking out into the harbour across to the islands and out beyond to the great expanse of sea. Some say it is one of the greatest natural harbours in the world, second only to Sydney.1The town sweeps up in terraces behind me, dominated by the impressive cathedral and fronted by neat rows of pubs and shops. But it is the harbour that draws my attention, not just the beauty of the scene but the feeling of standing in a truly historic spot.

The first Bahá’ís to come to Ireland lived here. In those days, the town was known as Queenstown.2 Queen Victoria stepped off a ship onto the quay at Cobh (or Cove as it was known) in the year 1849 and thereafter the name of the town was changed to reflect the importance of the moment. The port town reverted to the Irish form of its name, Cobh, in 1920.

Queenstown was well known all over Ireland and beyond as the point of departure from the old country to new horizons.

Between the years 1815 and 1970, it is estimated that some three million people left Ireland through Queenstown to emigrate, mainly to America but to other countries as well.3 For many years, Queenstown was a hive of comings and goings, a port of call for the many great liners plying the Atlantic route. It came to prominence in 1915 when, in May of that year, the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of County Cork. The survivors, as well as the bodies of those who perished, were brought ashore at Queenstown. One hundred and fifty of those who died in the tragedy were interred in the Old Church cemetery just north of the town and eighty of that number, who were never identified, lie in a mass grave. A monument to the disaster is the centrepiece in the town square.

But all this history, interesting as it is, has not brought me to Cobh. No, I am here to check a hunch as they say in all the best detective stories. Ever since the idea came to me, I have been pursuing, in my mind at any rate, a great and wonderful mystery.

The Celtic

I am in the Heritage Centre4 in Cobh and checking out every display, moving through the years, through the Titanic room (she called at Queenstown on her ill-fated maiden voyage) and finally to what I have come to see—the Celtic of the White Star Line. Can you see the connection now?

‘Abdu’l-Bahá sailed for Europe on December 5th. On board the S.S. Celtic He bade farewell to the Bahá’ís of America…5

And here is all this wonderful information on the Celtic. Yes, there is lots about other great ships of the White Star Line as well, including the Cedric,6 a sister ship of the Celtic and the liner on which the Master had travelled to America, leaving Alexandria in Egypt on March 25th, 1912.7 But the ship on which he made the return journey, setting out that December, was the Celtic and she was bound for Liverpool. And there is so much here about the Celtic! Not only drawings and menus and all kinds of memorabilia, but a mock up of the library from first class, artefacts from third class, as well as a big photograph of the third class dining room. My mind is racing. To think the Master travelled on this ship! I know that these bits and pieces are not that important, only that they bring to mind wonderful thoughts of the Master, in the words of Bahá’u’lláh, “this sacred and glorious Being, this Branch of holiness”.8

This then is the crux of my hunch. It is all set out in a quiet beautiful display. These ships were veritable monsters. The Celtic was over 20,000 tons, which I take to mean that she was very big! When these monster ships called at Queenstown to pick up passengers or drop off those returning to the old country on visits from America, they would anchor in the mouth of the harbour, usually at a place outside Queenstown called Roche’s Point. A big tender, sometimes two, would ferry the passengers and large quantities of mail back and forth to the quayside from the anchored liner. There it is! These ships called regularly at Queenstown. Is it possible that the Celtic, leaving New York on December 5th, 1912 with its most precious of precious cargos could have moored in the great harbour? Is it possible that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited Queenstown or, as we know it today, Cobh? Okay, I know “visit” is a little bit of a stretch. But even the thought that He might have looked out over the patchwork fields surrounding the harbour, surveyed the shores of our ancient land… that in itself would be thrilling!

I am thinking that there must be some way of checking this out. And suddenly, staring out from a frame mounted on the wall is what I have been looking for. It is the White Star Line timetable for the year 1912. Detailed are the sailings for the whole year and as quick as my eyes will scan the small typed script, I am up to December. “December 5th… The ‘Celtic’… leaving New York for Liverpool… calling at Queenstown”.

That’s it. I am convinced and a little elated actually. Before long I will be sharing this new-found information with friends and I know they will be as excited as I am. But there is a niggling doubt in the back of my mind. Sure, that’s what the timetable said should happen but what if…?

The Cork Examiner

I have discovered that you can go to a special department in the city library in Cork, on the third floor away from everything else, with no windows, where a very helpful gentleman called Kieran will set you up in front of a microfilm reader. I ask him for copies of The Cork Examiner, the newspaper for the area, for the month of December 1912. In a minute he has expertly loaded the machine with the tape. I already know that The Cork Examiner of the time carried reports of the comings and goings of ships from Queenstown. (I would prefer not to know this and to have been left with my hunch, up to the moment I found the timetable. But I have to be sure.)

In Mr. Balyuzi’s wonderful book on the life of the Master he records that the Celtic docked at Liverpool on Friday, December 13th, 1912.9 So I am looking for a mention in The Cork Examiner around the 12th or 13th. I work back from the 13th, through pages devoted to a very big murder case from the time (which is hard to follow going backwards) and there is nothing. Not a mention. I try to work out the timescale I am dealing with once more and wonder if a report might have appeared later, sometime after the December 13th. Back up through the 11th, 12th, 13th and into the 14th. My worst fears are realised! A small paragraph under the heading Celtic. It reads something like this:

At 3:00am this morning [this must have been the morning of 13th] the ‘Celtic’ passed Queenstown but she did not touch… The tender went out to interrupt her as there were 175 passengers on board who were to be landed, but she passed well to the South.10

“She did not touch.” “She passed well to the South.” The reason? The weather apparently was abominable and given the late hour at which the ship came up off the coast of Ireland, the captain took the decision to press on to Liverpool. The passengers and mail that were to be offloaded would just have to come back from Liverpool later on. He skipped Queenstown. Completely!

Surely, if things should happen the way they should, the Celtic, which it did on mostly every other occasion it sailed the New York to Liverpool route, and as it was supposed to have done on this occasion, would have called at Queenstown. And we could, with some pride, claim that the beloved Master had visited Cobh… well maybe not exactly visited… but you know what I mean.

Postscript

The Celtic sailed the New York to Liverpool route for many years until one fateful trip in December 1928 when she called to Cobh on her way to Liverpool. A storm was raging and, while waiting for the tenders to come from Cobh, she was blown onto a group of rocks just off Roche’s Point, called “the Cow and Calf”. There was no panic. The 300 passengers breakfasted leisurely and were then taken off the stranded vessel. Attempts were made to salvage the Celtic but to no avail. In fact, three Cobh men lost their lives in the attempt when they inhaled toxic fumes, apparently produced by rotting cargo in the hold. The ship was broken up eventually, part of the wreck being visible on the rocks for years after.11

Maybe the captain of the vessel on the morning of December 13th, 1912 (when the Master nearly stopped at Cobh), maybe he had the right idea after all.

Maybe there is a reason for everything!


  1. Broderick, History of Cobh (self-published), p.1.
  2. Henry S. Culver and his wife, Mary. Henry was U.S. Consul to Cork (1906–1910) and was based at Queenstown.
  3. Information from The Story of Queenstown, permanent exhibition in Cobh Heritage Centre.
  4. Ibid.
  5. H. M. Balyuzi, ’Abdu’l-Bahá, p.343.
  6. The Celtic, Cedric, Baltic and Adriatic, all ships of the White Star Line, were known as the “Big Four”
  7. H. M. Balyuzi, ’Abdu’l-Bahá, p.172.
  8. Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p.242.
  9. H.M. Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p.343.
  10. The Cork Examiner, December 14th, 1912.
  11. The Story of Queenstown.
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