ONE of the many great services offered by the City Library on the Grand Parade is free access to the Irish News Archive, and one of the newspapers in that collection is Cork’s own local paper.
The librarians are unfailingly helpful, will set you up on a terminal and show you how to navigate your way back through the decades.
It’s a wonderful resource, even if there are some frustrating gaps in the archive (not the fault of the library).
The early front-page layouts of the earliest Echos is typically 19th century and almost unreadable to modern eyes, dominated by advertisements, with news stories running in long, squinty single columns.
Some of the ads are of their time, to say the least: “IN CASES OF SICKNESS: Woodford Bourne & Co: INVALID’S BRANDY, INVALID’S WHISKEY, INVALID’S PORT WINE.”
Missing, sadly, are editions that reported on the Cork International Exhibition of 1902, and the visit a year later by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandria. There is a gap between June, 1914, and January, 1919, so we can’t read the Echo’s coverage of the Great War, the 1916 Rising, much of the War of Independence, or the arrival in Ireland of the Spanish Flu.
News, it is sometimes said, is the first rough draft of history, and there is something strangely moving about looking back from this unimaginable future and reading that first draft as it was read when it was news.
Perhaps nowhere does the Echo’s role as the first - and often beautifully written - draft of history become more evident than in the 1920s, when events in Cork take on national, and often global, significance.
On Tuesday, March 23, 1920, the Evening Echo’s lead story begins: “There has been abundant and recurrent evidence that the shock occasioned by the foul deed that hurried Lord Mayor Tomas MacCurtain into eternity is nationwide. The sorrow welling in the public mind over the appalling tragedy is in no less confined. The grief that is peculiarly Cork’s is shared with a deep sympathy by the whole province of Munster, and throughout the country.”
The funeral procession is “the most imposing and impressive ever seen in Cork”, and the city closed in respect for the murdered Lord Mayor.
Roman Catholic Bishop of Cork, Dr Daniel Cohalan, was joined by Church of Ireland bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, Dr Charles Dowse, and Cork’s Jewish community was represented by the Rev Mr Klein.
“All factories, shops and business establishments were closed,” said the Echo. “Ships at the quays stood idle, no trams ran, there were no evening papers, and a conspicuous section in the procession was a bugler boy, his cap bearing the words ‘U.S. America’, leading about 300 of the workers at Messrs Ford’s Marina works.
“On every side there was that stillness peculiar to the proper honouring of a sad event. It was a truly remarkable manifestation of the deep-seated grief of the citizens of all creeds and classes. A dull, overcast sky intensified the depression everywhere felt.”
Six months later, on Friday, August 13, 1920, the Evening Echo’s headline read: “Big Cork Sensation, City Hall Surrounded, The Lord Mayor Arrested”.
The story of Terence MacSwiney is told in a gripping style, recounting the dramatic sequence of events the evening before, when a large group of soldiers arrived by lorry and surrounded City Hall.
Soon, “a large crowd had assembled in Anglesea Street, along Albert Quay and Lapps Quay, and even on to the South Mall. Traffic was stopped, and the City Hall being hemmed in soldiers entered the building. They carried rifles with fixed bayonets...
“The crowds outside were naturally incensed at the actions passing before them. They expressed their feelings in jeering. The situation was made more menacing still as more lorries with complements of soldiers arrived. There was the common belief that the object of the raid was to arrest the Lord Mayor, who, it was generally known, was in the City Hall.
“Word came that he had successfully eluded the military, and the report undoubtedly subdued to a great extent the natural disposition. The rumour was, unfortunately, incorrect, for amongst the first arrests affected was the Lord Mayor.”
Over the subsequent months, the local newspaper faithfully covers the story of the arrest and imprisonment of Lord Mayor MacSwiney, and his hunger strike, and on Monday, October 25, it carried a heart-breaking headline: “The Lord Mayor Passes Away”.
It reported: “Mr Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, died in Brixton Prison at 5.20 this morning on the 74th day of his hunger strike. During the past week his lordship had been subject to fits of delirium, and his condition had become steadily worse. The Lord Mayor’s sisters waited outside the prison for a long time yesterday determined, as one of them said, to wait there until the end.”
On November 1, 1920, the Echo reports on the Lord Mayor’s funeral, an occasion which was marked across the world, and which brought not just Cork, but much of the country, to a standstill.
“The last sad scenes in the funeral obsequies of Lord Mayor MacSwiney, the martyr of Brixton Prison, were enacted in Cork yesterday under circumstances that strikingly demonstrated the great esteem and respect in which he was held by all creeds and classes, and the profound grief that his tragic death produced.”
On the same page, to compound the sensation of reading history as current affairs, a short report reads: “Kevin Barry, medical student, aged 18, was hanged at Mountjoy Prison at 8 o’clock this morning.”
Just over a month later, on December 13, 1920, the Echo headline marks the Burning of Cork: “Destruction in Cork City; At Least 40 Shops Destroyed” and the report begins: “It was only today, in a calmer atmosphere, when the shock and excitement of yesterday had somewhat subsided, that the appalling magnitude of the devastation became apparent.”
Skipping ahead a year, to December 6, 1921, the top Echo story, headlined “Irish Peace, Splendid News”, begins: “At 3am, our London correspondent and our special reporter informed us over our private wire that when the Irish conference broke up at 2.20am, it was announced that an agreement had been reached.”
By the following August, that splendid news had evaporated, the country was torn apart by civil war, and on the 22nd, Michael Collins was dead.
Our lead story two days later reports on the arrival of Collins’ body at Dublin’s North Wall Quay, and it contains some interesting, if numerically questionable, anecdotal details. “Several of those of the ambushed party accompanied the body on its journey. Among them a boyish figure wearing a ragged civilian coat and a tweed cap with a Lewis gun slung across his shoulders. He said that when his ambushers opened fire, the driver of General Collins’ car wanted to drive on at full speed but the General ordered him to stop, ordered the troops to take cover, and took command of the whole situation. There were at least 250 against twelve of them. When hit, the General, though bleeding, continued firing.”
The presses the Evening Echo shared with the Cork Examiner had printed the First National Loan for Collins when he was Sinn Féin finance minister in 1919, leading to the British authorities briefly shutting down the papers. Ironically, the IRA damaged the printing presses in 1920, and the anti-Treaty IRA destroyed them in 1922.
Global news has always shared the same space as the everyday in the Echo. “Body That May Be Hitler’s: Russians in ‘Little Doubt’ Of Charred Remains” reads a June 6, 1945, headline. Across the page, Ballinacree Lass, In Any Case, and Some Chicken are tipped for the next day’s racing at Limerick Junction.
“A roar resounding from outside the City Hall heralded the arrival of the motorcade,” begins our report on U.S president John F Kennedy’s June, 1963, visit to Cork.
“Outside on the quaysides, there were tremendous scenes of excitement, for, as the President’s open car pulled up outside the entrance to City Hall, the thousands who had been watching the procession through the centre of the city swarmed to vantage points around the focal point.
“Within minutes, the entire of Lapps Quay... was solidly jammed with wildly cheering people. Outside the cordons at either end of the City Hall, the people poured in on top of the scores of gardaí who strove manfully to prevent them breaking through. On the rooftops they were perched and on the parapets of both Parnell and Clontarf Bridges, hundreds of men and youths clung precariously.” Six months later, Kennedy would visit Dallas, and such joyous, chaotic scenes would become, abruptly, unimaginable. The next day, one of our front-page stories reads: “Solemn requiem Mass for the repose of President Kennedy’s soul will be celebrated at the Cathedral, Cork, on Monday next at 10.30am.”
On January 8, 1979, we covered the Whiddy Island disaster, that had occurred around 1am that day, when the oil tanker Betelgeuse exploded at the Bantry oil terminal, killing 42 French nationals, seven Irish nationals, and a Briton. Only 27 bodies of the 50 were recovered. A Dutch diver also died during the salvage operation.
That March, Declan Hassett reported on the funeral of hurling legend Christy Ring: “The heart of a city stopped beating when they carried him shoulder high through the streets for the last time.”
Some 60,000 people attended, and Ring’s old friend, the then Taoiseach Jack Lynch, gave the graveside oration.
In August, 1980, 18 people died and more than 70 were injured in the Buttevant rail disaster. Ray Ryan and Maurice Gubbins reported: “Firemen, gardaí, first aid squads, Civil Defence and CIE workers went ahead today with the grim task of searching the Buttevant crash scene debris for more trapped bodies. Large cranes were used to lift carriages still blocking the track which will be closed to traffic until tonight at least.”
The 1980s were a dire time economically, and, in July, 1984, Vincent Power and Donal Musgrave reported a hammer blow to Cork. “Black Friday, the 13th, dawned under grey skies in Cork today as 800 employees of Henry Ford and Son Ltd clocked in to work for the last time. For them it was a dismal, bleak morning, the end of what had seemed a secure job for life. For Cork it was the end of an era as the brightest star in its once flourishing industrial crown faded away.”
It came a year after the closure of Ford’s neighbour, Dunlop, with the loss of 850 jobs. The Verolme Cork Dockyard in Rushbrooke would close the following November, with another 500 jobs lost.
On March 4, 1991, the Echo, for 99 years a broadsheet, became a tabloid, and a front-page editorial by Tim Cramer promised that “after a century of service to the people of Cork and beyond … this service should now be extended to cater for tomorrow’s people”.
Our front page of Friday, May 21, 1999, declares: “Lift-off for Jack’s tunnel”, as then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern opened the £80m Lee Tunnel.
Jack Lynch would go to his reward five months later, his name forever linked to a vital part of Cork’s infrastructure.
A small, page 2 item on April 27, 2001, records the official opening of “the Sunday’s Well Life Centre” by then Health Minister, one Micheál Martin. Whatever became of him?
Our 9/11 coverage brought the biggest news story of the young century home to Cork with the stark headline: “My brother was in the building, my sister was in the plane”.
The Evening Echo of May 21, 2011, carried a souvenir supplement featuring pictures of Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Cork, with a page 2 headline reading “The best was kept until last in the real capital”.
On February 6, 2016, Kevin O’Neill reported: “The only remaining synagogue in Cork closes today, ending 135 years of Jewish history here. The South Terrace site has been the centre of Jewish worship in the city since 1905, but members say emigration and financial constraints have left them with ‘no money, no members, and no future’.”
On March 4, 2019, the Evening Echo became The Echo, and a front page piece by Gráinne McGuinness quotes editor Maurice Gubbins’ promise to readers: “Our mission is straightforward: Cork news and Cork sport for Cork people!”
Just over a year later came the first mention of Covid-19, and our front page headline on March 18, 2020, was a quote from then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: “This is the calm before the storm.”
This has been a purely subjective dip into the archives, a whistle-stop skip through 130 years of news.
Cork City Library offers, free of charge, public access to the entire surviving history of The Echo, so you can go and read a century and more of Cork’s story, in the pages of Cork’s own local newspaper.