Academic journal article Geography

'Sea, Sail, Steam and Emigration': The Imagining of a Heritage Tourist Town in the Republic of Ireland

Academic journal article Geography

'Sea, Sail, Steam and Emigration': The Imagining of a Heritage Tourist Town in the Republic of Ireland

Article excerpt


This article reports on an ongoing project in the harbour town of Cobb, Co Cork, Ireland. In recent years, this town has been reimagined as a site for the consumption of selected heritage stories and much emphasis has been placed on its marketing as a heritage tourist end-destination. A 'heritage signature' based on the localisation of Ireland's wider emigrant experience runs central to the organisation of Cobb as a tourist space. The construction of this heritage tourism identity is considered here, as is the way in which 'tourist product' is marketed in the town. It is found that tourist product is built on a very specific imagining of place and that the town's history as it relates to its location on a transatlantic axis is elevated above all other histories.


Tourism is now a well-established growth industry internationally, and a major source of foreign earnings (Feehan, 1994, p. 97). It is, therefore, unsurprising that many countries have targeted this sector for development. As Binns and Nel (2002, p. 245) state, tourism has become 'a definable growth path' in many contexts. Ireland is no exception here. Indeed, foreign earnings from tourism in Ireland increased by 250% during the 1990s (McManus, 2005, p. 243) and visitors from overseas contributed over euro3.8 billion to the Irish economy in 2000 alone (Government of Ireland, 2002, p. 6).

As well as growing overall, the tourist market has also diversified. New sectors have developed and destinations previously regarded as being of little interest to the leisure tourist are now frequented more regularly A steady growth in 'cultural tourism', particularly to historic towns, has been significant (Orbasli, 2000, p. 2) and the consumption of urban heritage is now a major component of this growing international tourist market. Markwick (2001a, p. 252), for example, shows how the tourist industry in Malta has been extended and diversified from its previous focus on the seaside to include such sites. This pattern has not gone unnoticed by Irish governmental planners who, under the assumption that heritage, as a tourist product, inevitably acts as a major 'agent of change and prosperity', have targeted this sector for development (Duffy, 1994 in Cooke, 2003, p. 26). The National Development Plan 1989-1993, for example, identified 'Ireland's heritage and culture ... as one of the areas with the greatest potential for tourism development' (CERT, 1993, p. 112) and visits to heritage sites are now the most popular tourist activities in the country (Cawley et al., 2002, p. 63). A new tourist geography has been created, and with it the construction of a series of new tourist places.

The advent of the then Department of Trade and Transport's Operational Programme for Tourism (1989-1993) was instrumental in the development of this heritage-style tourism in Ireland (Breathnach, 1994, p. 47). 'Millions of pounds' were made available 'for tourism-related heritage projects' at this time (Duffy, 1994, p. 80). A particular flagship project revolved around the creation of a series of 23 'heritage towns'. Each town was developed as an interpretive site, where a particular historical theme, or set of themes, could be marketed for tourist consumption. The effects of this process have been widespread and 'the impulse to sell the past' has been written into many urban landscapes (Hubbard and Lilley 2000, p. 221).

This article reports on the development of this 'industry of commemoration' (Foster, 2001, p. 28) in just one of these towns: the harbour town of Cobh, Co Cork. Fieldwork observations are drawn upon and plans pertinent to the organisation of this project are considered, and, after Hubbard and Lilley (2000), this article seeks to use the construction of a commodified heritage place in Cobh to illuminate how different readings of the past can influence the creation of place. An examination of how some stories have been valorised over and above other aspects of local history clearly demonstrates that this is neither a straightforward nor predictable process. …

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