Built Upon a Swamp - Dr Kieran McCarthy
The city possesses a unique character derived from a combination of its plan, topography, built fabric and its location on the lowest crossing point of the river Lee as it meets the tidal estuary and the second largest natural harbour in the world. Indeed, it is also a city that is unique among other cities, it is the only one which has experienced all phases of Irish urban development, from circa 600 AD to the present day. There is a very diverse set of archive and library records, some of which are very complete and some which are very fractious. Hence there are many diverse public spaces, historical structures and characters listed in this book.
Standing in the city’s central Bishop Lucey Park, for example, are multiple monuments – remnants of the blocks of the town walls, the arches for the old Corn Market gates (once behind City Hall), the smiling shawlie within Seamus Murphy’s statue, and the swans of the fountain representing Cork 800. The fountain was placed there in 1985, a nod to the city’s celebration of 800 years since the city’s first charter in 1185. Then there is the imposing sinking tower of Christ Church and its ruinous graveyard. There is the ghostly feel of the buildings that once stood at the park’s entrance. Along the latter stretch, living memory has recorded Jennings furniture shop, destroyed by fire in 1970; the toy shop of Percy Diamond who was cantor (a singer of liturgical music) at the Jewish synagogue; and the Fountain Café over which the famous hurler Christy Ring had a flat for a time. Of course when I mention just these strands, there are other layers I have not mentioned. The layered memories at times and their fleshed out contexts are endless and often seem timeless.
The presence of all these monuments in the Park often plays with my own mind on every walking tour – there is so much one can show and say. These urban spaces seem to slide between the past and present, between material and symbolic worlds. The mural by Mayfield Community Arts on the gable end of the shop next door to the park, entitled “connecting our imagination, how do we imagine a positive future” is apt. The past does play on the imagination; it interconnects between spaces and times into our present and future. Memories flow and bend across the story of the development of this North Atlantic big-hearted small city.
The displayed lower sections of the town walls are from the thirteenth century. During its excavation shards of pottery from Normandy, from the Saintonge region of France, from England, and from other parts of Ireland were also found during the excavation of the wall. For nearly 500 years (1170s to 1690), the town wall symbolised the urbanity of Cork and gave its citizens an identity within the town itself. The walls served as a vast repository of symbolism, iconography and ideology and as symbols of order.
The former town walls like this city were rebuilt in parts by inhabitants through hundreds of years. The river and the tide eroded at their base taking away the various sandstone and limestone blocks and perhaps re-shaping the more resistant ones. The surviving section in Bishop Lucey Park invites the visitor to reflect on life and resistance within the town and how layered the city’s story is. There is wear and tear on the stones presented, which cross from the era of the walled town to the modern city. It invokes the imagination and if anything the wear and tear on our built heritage allows our minds to wonder and reflect about the life and times of people of the past and offers us ideas to take into our future world.
From the creation of the first port, the city’s coat of arms, to building international confidence as one of the self-proclaimed Venices of Northern Europe. Cork’s historical development and ambition knew no bounds! However, certainly colonists such as the Vikings and Anglo-Normans and immigrant groups (and eventually citizens in their own right) such as Huguenots and Quakers led the settlement to have a role in the wider North Atlantic trade and beyond. All were involved in physically altering the townscape, constructing new buildings and quays and improving the interface with the river and the sea. Some key events such as Cork’s role in the Irish War of Independence in the early twentieth century also led to changes to the city’s fabric. The Burning of Cork incident led to many of its main street buildings, City Hall and Library being destroyed. The City rose from the ashes with a rebuild plan plus also strategies for the growing population and their requests for new housing areas.
The array of public spaces and buildings that the city possesses is impressive. You can get lost in and around the multiple narrow streets and broad thoroughfares. Every corner presents the visitor with something new to discover. The pigeon filled medieval tower of the Augustinian Red Abbey and the ruinous room of an old Franciscan well are rare historical jigsaw pieces that have survived the test of time. The dark dungeon at Blackrock Castle, with its canon opes, dates back to 1585 whilst the star shaped fort of Elizabeth Fort has stonework stretching way back to the early seventeenth century. The City does not have much eighteenth century built heritage left. What does exist such as the Queen Anne ‘Culture House’ on Pope’s Quay, represents an age where Dutch architecture was all the rage. A high pitched roof and elaborate and beautiful brick work combines to make a striking structure. The legacy of the city’s golden age of markets is present in the English Market, written about and critiqued since 1788.
Many architects have come and gone over the centuries but the rivalry of The Pain Brothers and the Deane family in the early nineteenth century inspired both families to excel in the design of some of the most gorgeous stone-built buildings from banks to churches to the quadrangle of UCC. All were embellished with local limestone, which on a sunny day, when the sun hits such a stone, lights up to reveal its splendour and the ambition of Ireland’s second city. The settlement is also a city of spires linking back 1,400 years to the memory of the city’s founding saint, Finbarre. The old medieval churches of St Peter and Christ Church are now arts centre but many of elements of their ecclesiastical past can be glimpsed and admired. Couple these with the beautiful St Anne’s Church tower and the scenery from the top of its pepper pot tower, the nineteenth century splendour of the spires and stained glass of St Finbarre’s Cathedral and the sandstone block work of SS Mary’s and Anne’s North Cathedral, and the visitor can get lost in a world of admiration and wider connections to Global religions. Then there is the determination that led the city to also possess the longest building in Western Europe – the old Cork Lunatic Asylum or Our Lady’s Hospital and the tallest building in the country – County Hall, and only in recent years surpassed by the Elysian Tower.
Then there are the buildings which belong to the people. The current City Hall, the second building on the site, is the home of the City Council, formerly Corporation, which was established in Anglo-Norman times. The building is a memorial to the first building, which burned down in 1920, and to the memory of two martyred Lord Mayors, Terence McSwiney and Tomás MacCurtain. Terence died on a hunger strike and Tomas was shot in his house in Blackpool, both dying for the Irish War of Independence cause. The train station, Kent Station, also links through its name to Irish Easter Rising martyr, Tomas Kent. The station is the last of six railway stations, which travelled out into the far reaches of County Cork.
Cork’s ambition was also displayed and carried by its people – its famous sons and daughters. Cork can boast connections to the wider world through its artists, architects and sculptors. They were renowned in their day, not just in Ireland but wider afield. Artists like James Barry and Daniel Maclise brought their own unique style into Britain’s art worlds and galleries. Sculptors like John Hogan’s and later Joseph Higgins and Seamus Murphy inspired a generation of artists to take up their own artistic endeavours and created a Cork and international public who wanted to see their work.
Here is a city as well that brought forward great writers of international standing such as Denny Lane, Daniel Corkery, Seán O’Faoláin, Frank O’Connor, and Seán Ó Riordáin. Composers range from Seán O’Riada to Aloys Fleischmann. Rory Gallagher, the famous electric guitar star of his day, is also remembered and his legend recalled regularly. Dancing into memory is the great ballet dancer and director Joan Denise Moriarty.
Amongst the city’s eminent list of social reformers are Nano Nagle, Mary Aikenhead, Thomas Dix Hincks, Fr Theobald Mathew, Fr Christy O’Flynn and Br James Burke. All sought to help the city’s impoverished. Amongst the remembered political leaders is Jack Lynch who became the city’s only Taoiseach or Irish Prime Minister. Then there are the local heroes who gave the citizens employment, promoted freedom of expression, and above all showed that Cork is well able to fight for its position as Ireland’s southern capital.
I have often walked around Cork in attempt to get lost in its hidden corners, to be a tourist in my city, reading clues from bye-gone ages. The City does remember historical events– the enormous temperance campaign of Fr Mathew is immortalised in his statue on St Patrick’s Street, the National Monument commemorating Irish struggles against the British Empire before Independence. The World War I memorial on the South Mall is nestled into a nice green area and is set against the backdrop of the boardwalk.
However, weaving in and out of side streets and laneways, the visitor can get lost in the world of historical tales. Check out the city’s former Mayoral house, a street made for a cornmarket, a graveyard for deceased sailors, stories of steamships, educational morals in an art gallery, casts from the Vatican Art Gallery and tales of immigrants and their experiences from other parts of the world. Cork can boast to have a National Sculpture factory in an old tramway engine house, colourful Harry Clarke windows, a former nineteenth century waterworks made into a science centre, and an old famine relief project road, which turned into the site of world record motorcycle speed test attempt in the early twentieth century.
There is an underbelly to Cork’s history. It’s a city where its ambition was pushed forcefully through takeover and colonisation. One image that always strikes me are the heads on spikes in the 1575 Pacata Hibernia map of the city. As a centre of power it created tensions between those who lived within its walls and those outside. Eventually the strength of the walled town succumbed to attack by Irish and Jacobite attack and in turn they were attacked the city heavily damaged. Out of that event and an enlarging economy and population came crime in abundance. Many crimes were attempts to attain food for impoverished families. Watchmen patrolled the city’s area where most offences occurred. Many were interred in Cork City Gaol. The more malicious criminals such as murderers and anti-crown supporters were hung at Gallows Green off Bandon Road, one of the city’s large southern approach roads.
A look at the story of working life of Cork reveals a very busy city through the ages. From medieval craft-making to creating the largest butcheries in the island of Ireland, Cork citizens were dedicated to making the port of Cork the premier harbour in the North Atlantic. Cork possessed the largest brewery and butter market in the country, hence hosting large scale employment and inspiring other businesses to root themselves in the city and region. In the twentieth century, the firms of Fords and Dunlops gave employment to thousands of Cork people whilst creating a production empire of tractors, cars, tyres and even golf balls!
Not everyone was involved in the economic boom. Life in the city for the poorer classes was a struggle. Built across a swamp, life was damp – the streets were flooded regularly by the river and the tide. Economic boom brought a population explosion. Those were not successful in securing employment filled the hallways of the poor house of the House of Industry in Blackpool and later during the Great Famine years and beyond, the Cork Union Workhouse on Douglas Road. Many left from ships on Cork’s quays bound for countries such as Great Britain and further afield such as America. The story of Annie Moore and her adventure to the metropolis of New York is representative of hundreds of thousands of people who became part of Ireland’s Irish diaspora legacy.
Scattered across the city are several sites, which have entertained the combined masses over many centuries. Take a stroll at the Mardyke, the Marina, and the Lough – they are institutions in the southern city. Barracka and Buttera Bands seem to have been around for time immemorial, entertaining citizens since the nineteenth century. Grabbing a ticket and sitting in Cork Opera House, Everyman Palace, the Firkin Crane and the Granary, the visitor can see the depth of dramatic talent and an opportunity to see the citizen uniting to support music, drama and the wider arts. The ideas of creating a spectacle, Cork has always taken to heart. It can also boast of building show grounds, viewing towers, Turkish baths, and world fairs! So what are you waiting for take a historical walking tour!
Extracted from The Little Book of Cork City (2015, Irish History Press) by Kieran McCarthy, www.corkheritage.ie, @cllrkmac; facebook: Cork Our City, Our Town