HAVE you ever been to China? If the answer to that question is “no” then it’s a fair presumption that you have never walked on Chinese ground.
Well, that presumption would most likely be incorrect.
If you’ve set foot in Cork city any time in the last few years, then you’ve almost certainly walked on Chinese-produced stone.
Our city streetscape is covered in Chinese granite.
Caroline Street, Winthrop Lane, the paving surrounding Cork County Hall, St Finbarr’s Market, the paving surrounding Cork Savings Bank and the General Post Office on Oliver Plunkett Street all feature Chinese stone.
It may also be surprising to learn that Red Abbey, the historic 14th-century Augustinian abbey — a designated national monument — is surrounded by Chinese stone, while the Fr Matthew memorial at the top of Patrick Street also stands upon imported material.
The National Monument on Grand Parade does not have any Irish stone around it at all.
So why is a city, which is famous for its limestone — a type of stone that has been exported all over the world — not making more use of native stone?
The answer is cost. It’s cheaper to import Chinese granite than use locally sourced materials.
Furthermore, Cork limestone is not as readily available as it once was. The two main quarries where it was sourced from at Beaumont and Little Island — now a golf club — are largely inaccessible.
There is a stock of Cork limestone at some locations dotted around the city but it is not known whether these are catalogued in city archives and there appears to be no plans to integrate them into the cityscape or council-led projects.
Stone experts are calling for the practice of importing foreign stone to pave Cork city’s streets to be reduced and for more Irish stone to be used, especially in areas of historic significance.
They also want to see the stocks of Cork limestone stored on Cork City Council lands to be recorded, protected and slated for use in future building or heritage projects.
Cork Masons Historical Society member Jim Fahy is a lifelong mason whose family links to the trade go back several generations. He is also one of the last remaining speakers of the unique Mason language developed in Cork, called ‘Bearlager na Saor’.
He fears the remaining stocks of Cork limestone will be lost forever unless they are protected and integrated into projects such as the flood defences for Morrison’s Island — the first phase of a €140m overhaul of the city’s flood barriers.
“We are not utilising the Cork limestone that we have,” says Jim.
He said other historic artefacts and fixtures are sitting in depots and yards around the city.
“In Fitzgerald Park we have a limestone horse trough and the Nagasaki monument — which was once on Winthrop Street. There is a busman’s shelter — or fireman’s rest as they called it — out there too. It used to be covered in plastic but now it is out in the open. In the Mahon City Council depot, there are beautifully fluted limestone columns that are just being used to store gravel. There is tonnes and tonnes of Cork limestone just dumped there.
“I’ve spoken to councillors, lord mayors and I’ve told them all about this. A lot of the Cork limestone needs to be catalogued and stored, cleaned up and then we could decide what to do with it. At the moment at the horse trough in Fitzgerald Park, there is a load of gravel and pallets thrown up on top of it. Something should be done with it. It’s a historic item that is probably about 200 years old. All these things need to be highlighted.
“Someone needs to put together a group that involves historians that can do this. They can research the history of the item. Once you have it catalogued you can plan what you want to do with it.
“Once you measure all the stones that are there you should be able to fit it back together again,” he adds.
Jim says the mason trade is dying out but he believes there are tourism opportunities for Cork to exploit and a whole industry that could be revived by placing an emphasis on using native stone.
“My family go back in the trade generations but I’m the last. It’s up to me to ensure that I leave something there for the next person to come along to. Even if it’s not my son, it’s someone else that can take up the trade and have the opportunity to carry on something that has been in this city for generations.”
While there is not enough Cork limestone available to service all City Council developments and projects, the use of Irish stone from other parts of the country is dwindling due to the cheaper practice of importing Chinese granite to pave the city’s streets.
Tim O’Connell of O’Connell Stone, based in Ovens, says Irish suppliers of stone have been negatively affected by the increasing use of imported stone and believes it is diminishing our heritage.
He adds Irish companies have been unable to compete with Chinese prices but this is slowly starting to change.
“Chinese granite has almost completely covered Cork,” he says.
He cites the Cork Public Museum site in Fitzgerald Park as an example of an important civic amenity where foreign stone has been used in place of natively sourced materials.
“Tom Barry’s bust is there, Michael Collins bust is there and if you want to learn anything about Ireland and Cork, that’s where you have to go, to the museum. Now the museum is covered in Chinese granite. Where is the Irishness in that? They completely obliterated the Irish stone there,” says Tim.
“[That] has to change. If you go to cities like Barcelona, Paris, Verona or Rome, they all use native stone. The locals want it and they are supporting their own industry. It’s money that goes around in a circle within their own community.
“We are lobbying for Cork City Council to use a bit of Irish stone at Morrison’s Island, at least — not to be covering that in Chinese granite again. We’ve had enough of it. We’re not saying everything has to be Irish but let’s support Irish stone businesses,” he adds.
Ian Winning of Cork City Council’s transport division said there is very little Cork limestone used in local infrastructure projects.
“The Roads Department does not, for the most part, make any use of Cork limestone blocks or cut stone which is, without doubt, a very attractive and distinctive building material used quite extensively in the past,” he says.
“Road traffic systems and bridge construction depend on the specification of works that make use of a variety of other materials and infrastructure available directly to the market as standardised components and systems for the purpose of putting key infrastructure in place to cater for the operation and maintenance of the transport network,” he adds.
The City Hall Architect’s Department provides architectural services and advice to the City Council and city manager.
In a statement to the Evening Echo they said: “Chinese Granite is more durable and readily available. It also provides a better grip underfoot than Cork limestone.”