"I walk around some parts of Cork city, and I can’t look, it makes me so sad..."

Frank O’Connor, who recently organised a dereliction walking tour around Cork city, talks to JENNIFER HORGAN about the importance of retaining the city’s built heritage
"I walk around some parts of Cork city, and I can’t look, it makes me so sad..."

Frank O'Connor of anois.org design for the future pictured on John Redmond Street in front of the old Butter Exchange. Picture Dan Linehan

CORK’S Butter Museum celebrates one of the great success stories of Ireland, the butter trade. It also chronicles the building where it all happened – the Cork ButterExchange, once ‘the largest butter market in the world.’

Jarringly, the building stands derelict a few steps left of the museum entrance. Boarded up. An upturned table or bed, home to tall weeds, lies discarded just beyond the iron bars.

The respect afforded the building inside the museum hasn’t extended beyond it for quite some time. Thankfully, this is set to change. The historic building has just been leased to Recreate Shandon Limited CLG for a term of 25 years.

This is good news for Shandon, but for Frank O Connor, there’s still a lot of work to do. In fact, O’Connor, who meets me in a faded T-shirt with the slogan ‘Live Simply’, wants to put an end to all dereliction in the city.

Along with his business and life partner Jude Sherry, he campaigns for change and for a year has been posting pictures of similar sites on Twitter, with the tagline ‘This is derelict Ireland’.

“We cannot lose our heritage,” he tells me. 

“Why would anyone ever want to visit our beautiful city if it turns into a cluster of glass offices? Why would anyone bother travelling here, when they can see the same glass boxes anywhere in the world?”

When bulldozers demolished the Sextant last year, O’Connor went down on his knees and sifted through rubble, taking pictures, picking up tiny fragments of glass and crockery. He laments the loss of Cork’s characteristic red sandstone in such demolitions, becoming aggregate for our roads.

CATU Ireland and Anois organised a 'Walking Festival to End Dereliction' in Cork City in September.
CATU Ireland and Anois organised a 'Walking Festival to End Dereliction' in Cork City in September.

Throughout our conversation, O’Connor refers to an ongoing project – himself and Sherry are restoring their home, brick by brick, layer by layer. He dismisses the narrative out there, that it’s too expensive to resurrect old buildings.

“Our house will be a lot cheaper than a new build. We paid just €110,000 for it. A similar house down the road just sold for €300,000. It’s over-priced. All you need is the patience to live in a not-so-perfect house for a while.

“The result of our work and all the restoration will bring so much to our lives, and we will have brought back a small part of our city. That matters.

“We talk about cost but in the wrong way.

“We don’t ever talk about the cost of destroying our heritage, the impact of a throwaway attitude on wellbeing.

“We should all feel safe to walk through the city but that’s near impossible when you’re surrounded by dereliction and decay.”

O’Connor and Sherry spent many years in Amsterdam, where they were struck by the in-built dignity of the system there.

“Fifty per cent of the housing is social housing; it’s affordable. Every street corner has a playground.

"I walk around some parts of Cork city, and I can’t look, it makes me so sad. Our city should be a safe place for children and old people. We should all have space: to rest, to play, to work.”

Frank is on his way to see his elderly parents when we meet. His mother’s call is the only one he answers.

“I’ve never been into money. I’m into beauty. Everyone’s entitled to beauty in their life,” he says.

Anois, his jointly owned business with Sherry, is devoted to good clever, beautiful, sustainable design. He sees education as key to ending urban dereliction.

As a schoolboy himself, O’Connor spent a lot of time on the wrong side of the classroom door, shuffling down corridors, lurking between lockers – anything to avoid his patrolling principal.

“I was too energetic. I caused too much disruption. I found it hard to sit still.”

He was suspended just before he sat the Leaving Cert but went on to complete a PhD on the benefits of a circular economy.

Frank is now a highly educated disruptor, lecturing in schools and universities.

“Too many of our product design students are still not coming out with the right skills, understanding and knowledge in sustainability, responsibility and circularity.

“I’m convinced we need a total rethink of how we train emerging product designers to tackle the challenges and opportunities presented in the 21st century.”

A spokesperson for Cork City Council explains why good homes and significant buildings fall into disrepair: “When Cork City Council intervenes around a derelict site, there is always something that can be done, but none of that can happen as quickly and easily as many of us would wish.”

One hopes that disruptors like O’Connor might speed up the process. It would be nice to think that Shandon’s Butter Exchange is only the first of many restorations throughout Cork City.

Until that happens, he will carry on doing exactly what he’s doing.

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