Beloved Cork city is dying of neglect

As he takes a stroll down memory lane — Patrick Street in Cork city — JIM McKEON bemoans the lost heritage of his youth, and says more must be done to make it attractive again
Beloved Cork city is dying of neglect
A view of St. Patrick's Street, Cork circa 1910.

ON a recent stroll around Cork city centre, I realised how much this beautiful playground of my youth had changed. The Marsh was gone. The cinemas had disappeared. The Coal Quay was gone. Kathy Barry’s, Cork’s first nightclub, was no more. Only her memory lives on.

Patrick Street was once a bubbling, chatterbox of a street, overflowing with laughter and a sense of inquisitive mischief. It had the warm intimacy of a village. The characters are now long gone. As one old lady succinctly put it: “No one knows no one no more, not even their next door neighbours.”

Cork has been neglected. Patrick Street has been turned into a synthetic unloading bay, a glorified taxi rank. I have been told this is progress but one has to wonder if progress is really going backwards. Parking is impossible. You cannot stop, even to post a letter. Traffic wardens, right on cue, will pounce, like a lurking vulture. Is this really necessary?

Our city centre is being strangled. Boarded-up shops are more and more prevalent. Who is to blame? Could our city fathers do more? Cork seems to be shrouded in a cloud of apathy.

Yet nearby Killarney and Tralee are buzzing. Kilkenny is a gem of a city, the way Cork was 50 years ago. Galway is the most exciting place in Ireland and Dublin is a combination of Paris and Rome, bubbling with life, laughter, art centres and theatres. There are countless riverside cafes, boats scurrying up and down the Liffey, and overflowing tourist buses.

What is wrong with Cork?

Alright, the money is in Dublin and the government ministers surround Galway.

Geographically, Cork is the most attractive city in Ireland — like its accent, full of ups and downs, a small, intimate city with the second best harbour in the world.

Why not daily boat trips to Spike Island, Crosshaven, the stunning view from Bunnyconnellan’s bar, trips to Cobh, the Titanic, St Colman’s Cathedral, Kinsale, Charlesfort, the fantastic whiskey brewery in Midleton, walking tours of the city pointing out our colourful history, showing how and where the burning of the city took place?

Down the years there have been half-hearted attempts to remember the city’s heroes; MacCurtain, MacSwiney, Frank O’Connor, Seán O Faoláin, and Daniel Corkery. The statue of Christy Ring has been dumped outside the airport. The plaque on MacCurtains’ home where he was murdered was relocated. The birth home of O Faoláin was demolished. The plaque in North Main Street to MacSwiney is 20ft up. It can’t be seen.

The plaque on the home of O’Connor’s birth is on the wrong house. O’Connor would have loved that. The house in Bachelor’s Quay, the Doll’s House, where he set his novel was demolished in1966. His home in Blarney Street was demolished in the seventies.

Daniel Corkery, their mentor, has been sadly swept under Cork’s literary carpet. An Grianáin, the little theatre in Father Matthew Street where they all met and spoke Irish, is painfully neglected. This could make a fine city centre historical library.

Why not a daily bus tour to the beautiful Lough, taking in St Finbarr’s cathedral, the Gallows Green, Elizabeth Fort, and ending with a chat and meal in the Hawthorn Bar overlooking the Lough? A bus trip of O’Connor’s Cork would be popular, taking in all the relevant landmarks from the Women’s Jail where he was interned, his first school, his mother’s birth home, to where his parents are buried. Again, this could end with a talk and a meal in the Ambassador Hotel.

To me, the immediate area around Shandon steeple is the most fascinating in Ireland, overflowing with colourful anecdotes.

On my stroll around Patrick Street, I was surrounded by ghosts from my past at every corner. First stop was Mangan’s old-world watchmaker’s and optician opposite the old clock on the pavement which had been the meeting place for countless courting couples.

As the street begins to turn at the corner of Winthrop Street we had the Lee cinema. This intimate venue held many memories for me. Once, a friend and I agreed to go there with two girls on a warm Sunday night. At the last minute my friend changed his mind and went to the pub. I ended up in the front row, an unmerciful crick in my neck, flanked by two girls. I’ll never forget that film, Sands Across the Desert. While my tongue was hanging out with the thirst my friend was drinking pints of Guinness in the Long Valley. It took me years to forgive him.

Across from the Lee was Cudmore’s shop and then Fitzgerald’s tailors, the Munster Arcade and Egan’s jewellers where I had my first job. Memories flooded back. I was farmed out to Egan’s during my school holidays, a naïve 12-year-old, earning 12 shillings (60 cent) a week for my mother. I worked in the ecclesiastical department, the word was bigger than me.

Moving on, to the graceful Victoria Hotel then Woolworth’s; every child’s Mecca. My mouth began to water at the memories; ice cream, a variety of sweets, delicious broken chocolate. I reluctantly moved on; the Man’s Shop, Market Lane, the Oyster and Market bars, the famous Dan Hobs shop, Con Murphy’s on to O’Callaghan’s chemist on the corner.

I crossed to the other side of Pana. At the corner of Daunt’s Square was Woodford Bourne’s. I lingered and closed my eyes to take in the unique smell of groceries, wine and tea. I quickened my step and could still see in my mind’s eye Fielding’s chemist, Guy’s printers, Lipton’s, Bolger’s stores and Elvery’s sport shop, with that replica elephant over the front door. We got all our sports gear here. Hurleys cost a staggering one and sixpence (7.5 cent).

I was now heading for Patrick’s Bridge, passing the Pavilion cinema with its white marble front. This was a venue for a special date.

I hurried past Brennan’s, Hipp’s tailors, Murray’s gunsmiths, the Moderne, Barter’s tourist office, Le Chateau bar, the Examiner office, Foley’s sweet shop, Robert Day harness-maker. Again, I could smell the leather and polish in the air. Then Dunnes Stores, where I helped my mother with her shopping, and the unique Savoy cinema.

Then it was Tailorfit’s, Dowden’s, Pigott’s record shop, Vard’s furs, Barry and Hyland’s shoe shop, the Old Bridge restaurant and, finally, that great sporting bar, the Swan and Cygnet. My brief stroll down memory lane came to an end. As I stood on the corner I had mixed feelings of frustration, nostalgia and a sense of time passing. I felt surrounded by history. Off to my left my eyes followed the vast sky-line of the northside. Away to my right were the distant mansions of Montenotte, and right in front of me was Shandon Steeple, stiff and erect, with its four faces glowering down at the people in Patrick Street.

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