Crest the waves at Cork harbour's €530k Cobh Crescent classic

Visitors aboard cruise ships — due to make a welcome return from next month after a pandemic-induced two-year-hiatus — will spot the terrace as readily as nearby magnificent St Colman’s Cathedral, as they approach the seaport town.

Those lucky enough to live in The Crescent have ringside seats when it comes to harbour activity and a unique opportunity to witness history, such as the departure of the Titanic in April 1912, on its final, catastrophic voyage.

Another disastrous shipping voyage 30 years later, also with Cobh connections, did not generate the same global headlines. It was a cargo ship rather than a glamourous cruise liner and unlike theTitanic, no-one had forsworn its invincibility. Its disappearance, close to the US East Coast, went largely unreported because no-one knew for sure what had happened to it until decades later, when the British government released State papers in the 1970s.

The papers confirmed what had long been suspected — that theIrish Pine, chartered by Irish Shipping Ltd, had been torpedoed by a U-boat, just a day or two out from Boston, where she was due to go into dry dock for repairs, before continuing on to Tampa, Florida, to collect a cargo of phosphate.

The story is of significance here because one of the 33-strong crew that was lost in the three-minute sinking of the ship was the father of the man who is now selling No 8 The Crescent, whom he only ever met once, between voyages. Bob O’Brien will celebrate his 80th birthday this year, as well as marking the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the Irish Pine and the loss of his father’s life.

Bob was not yet four months old when his father George O’Brien was lost at sea in November 1942. The last known contact with the cargo ship was when it radioed ahead to Boston Port authorities with an expected arrival time. It never arrived and no wreckage, nor any of the crew members’ bodies, was ever found.

Bob’s mother, Amelia (known to family and friends as Milsie), had already moved back to Cobh from Galway, ahead of George setting sail, and she moved into No 8 in 1942 with extended family, including her aunt, Alice Love, who was the last proprietor of the Love Toomey businesses in the West Beach part of town.

“I remember them telling me that the Irish Pine sailed into Cobh once (prior to the Boston trip) and my mother, who was heavily pregnant with me at the time, ran out along the quays to wave my father off, and her aunt scolded her for doing so,” Bob says.

“My parents had been living in Galway before that. My father had spent more than a dozen years at sea in the merchant navy, he was a marine engineer and spent some years ashore.

“Then Seán Lemass who was in government at the time (Minister for Supplies) put out a call for merchant seamen and he joined up with Irish Shipping Ltd and that was how he ended up on board theIrish Pine.”

When the ship failed to arrive in Boston, word came that theIrish Pine had arrived at another port, but cruelly, that report was erroneous. As World War 2 was raging, there were suspicions that the ship had been torpedoed, but this wasn’t confirmed until 1977. (A report that the German captain who sanctioned the torpedo after following her for eight hours did not record seeing her neutrality markings appears in the book the The Long Watch, by Captain Frank Forde).

George’s tragic and untimely demise meant Bob’s mother had a very long widowhood — 63 years, as she lived to the ripe old age of 93 — and it also deprived him of siblings.

“When I was young, he was a figure away in the distance, someone I heard about, but didn’t know. It’s really in my later years that I have felt his loss, because with family of my own, I realise the importance of a father figure,” he says.

Crest the waves at Cork harbour's €530k Cobh Crescent classic

Nonetheless, his youth in The Crescent was a happy one. Like many households at the time, he lived with extended family as “the war had started and families were broken up, and the remnants stayed together”.

“I have a lot of good memories; it was a lovely place to grow up in. There was a green (communal) out front and there used to be a tennis court and a croquet lawn. And we had a great view of all the goings-on in the harbour,” Bob says.

His mother inherited No 8 after Alice died in 1962 and lived out most of her days there, passing the house on to her son when she died. Bob lived at No 8 until 1971 when a bank job took him to Dublin. He spent years travelling up and down to Cobh so that his own children also have great memories of the town and the beautiful house on Spy Hill.

The pandemic made visits tricky though and he hasn’t been in No 8 since 2018. He has made the decision to sell, albeit it wasn’t an easy one.

He and his family made strong friendships in the terrace over the years. For instance his mother, who had an interest in painting, gave the use of her basement floor to local artist Michael O’Donovan who used it as a studio. He is the father of Colm O’Donovan, husband of chef and foodwriter Lilly Higgins, who lives at No 1 The Crescent.

“I will be very sorry to let the house go, and not so much that, but everything that goes with it, five generations of my family lived there,” Bob admits.

Liz Hannon of English Auctioneers is handling the sale and she brings No 8 to market with an AMV of €530,000. She says The Crescent is modelled along the lines of the famous Royal Crescent in Bath (built in the 1700s), regarded as one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture anywhere in the UK. The Crescent in Cobh is far more modest in scale and composition but it does have a majestic sweep and the views are infinitely superior to what is on offer in Bath. Buildings of Ireland, a database of our architectural heritage, describes the houses as “elegantly proportioned, Italianate-style” and the terrace as “well-composed” making a “positive contribution” to the architectural heritage of Cobh.

No 8, a two-storey over basement home, has all the hallmarks of a period house — high ceilings, fine reception rooms, big bay windows, fireplaces, coving, original timber floors. It also has some of the drawbacks – it needs an upgrade, particularly the basement area, from where there is direct access to a private garden; the heating is electric; the kitchen needs an overhaul.

For an example of how to tastefully transform these homes, it’s worth revisiting Irish Examiner Property July 9, 2021 edition, where Colm O’Donovan and Lilly Higgins’ home at No 1 The Crescent was featured. At No 1, they knocked a wall between two downstairs reception rooms to create a gorgeous, bright, kitchen/diner/living area, with harbour-facing views. Their basement is a self-contained unit — also a possibility at No 8 — with potential rental or AirBnB revenue.

Ms Hannon says No 8 is “a project well worth investing in, as the outcome will,without doubt,exceed expectation”.

Work has been done on the roof and four new Velux windows have been added. Windows along the south-facing front have been replaced — staying with the sash model — and some rewiring has been done. Because No 8 is south-facing, it’s a warm house, Ms Hannon notes.

Those who buy into the terrace — there are 13 homes, 10 built in the mid 1800s, with three more added in the 1880s — tend to be families who stay for life, Ms Hannon says.

Kids can play on the communal green area out front and there is pedestrian access, via steps to the town centre. Each of The Crescent’s residents has a key to open the gate at the end of the steps.

Ms Hannon is already fielding enquiries from as far away as Australia, as well as North America and the UK, mainly ex-pats, looking to return. However the buyer could be anyone, she says.

“You never know who will show up for these houses. The opportunity to buy doesn’t arise very often, but they are ideal for family.”

VERDICT: The pinnacle of terrace living, in a truly special row of homes with unbeatable harbour views.