“WORKING together, we’ll get out of any problem in Cork,” said the outgoing Lord Mayor, Joe Kavanagh, as he reflected on an unprecedented year that became characterised by “doing things differently”.
The Montenotte-based Fine Gael councillor had an atypical start to his mayoralty.
Mr Kavanagh’s election took place in City Hall’s concert hall, rather than in the historic council chamber, to facilitate social distancing.
Serving as the city’s first citizen during the Covid-19 era, deviations from the norm were to dominate his term.
“You had to reinvent everything. You had to reimagine yourself as a person,” Mr Kavanagh told The Echo.
“It’s very much a leadership role and you do your very best to lead from the front.
“How you execute the role depends on the circumstances and the circumstances, obviously, will always be dictated by events of the day.
“In my case, the events of the day were very much dictated by Covid and the various restrictions that Covid imposed on all of us.”
Mr Kavanagh, who describes himself as “a 100% community-focused individual”, spoke about the importance, as Lord Mayor, of staying connected to communities, while adhering to the Covid-19 guidelines.
“There is a culture out there of taking the easy option and just canceling everything — that doesn’t wash with me.
“The word ‘can’t’ doesn’t exist in my vocabulary.
“There have been so many people out there who have been so innovative and have looked for ways of doing things differently and within the guidelines, but still producing the same results,” he said.
“You have to keep in touch with people. So many people have been isolated over the last 16 months and that isolation has played havoc with people’s mental health.”
When physical meetings weren’t possible, because of restrictions, Mr Kavanagh held them online and, on November 9, made history chairing the first online ordinary meeting of council.
In his mayoral speech last June, the Lord Mayor said that his priorities for the year included leading the safe and gradual recovery of the city’s economy, a reimagined Decade of Centenaries programme, and fostering environmental awareness in local communities.
“At the start of the year, I spent the first two or three weeks with Stephanie, the lady mayoress, calling to businesses and, I think, the personal touch is very important and speaking to people about their real-life issues, the real challenges they faced because of the lockdown in 2020 and when they started to reopen during the summer of 2020, there were, obviously, challenges there, because this had never happened to them before,” Mr Kavanagh said.
“It was like starting a new business, as one person said to me.
“We spent a lot of time going around to communities and we highlighted the importance of people supporting their local shops and if they’re going to shop online to also shop local — buy it online, but buy it from a local company, if you can.
“That keeps the money in the local economy, which is of critical importance.”
Throughout the year, the Lord Mayor led numerous commemorative events, in line with Covid-19 guidelines, such as marking 100 years since the Burning of Cork, as well as the deaths of the city’s martyred Lords Mayor, Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney, and various other patriots.
Additionally, Mr Kavanagh also launched his Cork Against Litter campaign at the start of the year — a campaign he intends to keep up after his mayoralty.
Indeed, it has been a busy year for the Lord Mayor, who paid tribute to his wife for her support during his term.
“Stephanie played a stormer all year. We worked in the role as a team, really, from start to finish,” Mr Kavanagh said.
“I certainly couldn’t have executed the role without Stephanie’s support.”
Despite the challenging circumstances, Mr Kavanagh described his time as Lord Mayor as the highlight of his public life, with no shortage of unforgettable moments.
Amongst the standout occasions were the Lord Mayor’s Culture, Civic, and Community and Voluntary Awards 2021.
“We did the community and voluntary awards, but we reinvented that this year: We called it Covid Heroes.
“Mayfield GAA, for example, won a community and voluntary award. They’re a sporting organisation, but all the players got into their cars, they collected prescriptions for old people, they delivered shopping; they did all of that.
“We like to call Cork the real capital, but Cork is the real capital and it’s the real capital for a lot of reasons.
“One key reason is we are definitely capital of volunteerism and that came to the fore in an incredible manner during Covid.”
When asked about his most memorable meetings as Lord Mayor, Mr Kavanagh said the courageous Oliver Lynch made an indelible impression on him.
The Ballincollig schoolboy, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, raised €37,000 for three charities with his ‘5k in 50-days’ walk last year.
The inspirational Oliver later had another €20,000 added to the tally, after he was named one of Axa’s five community hero winners.
“I was blown away by the courage of Oliver Lynch. His courage far exceeds anything I’ve come across during the year,” Mr Kavanagh said.
“I said, if an eight-year-old boy can rise to that type of challenge and deliver that, surely me, as Lord Mayor, if I can deliver half as good as little Oliver can do, I won’t have done a bad job as Lord Mayor.
“I gave him a civic award purely for his courage and, hopefully, it will inspire other young people.”
Looking ahead, Mr Kavanagh said he is confident Cork can bounce back after Covid-19 and is optimistic about the vision for the city.
“We’re putting together a Cork City Development Plan at the moment, so Cork is going to be transformed over the next 10-15 years; you won’t recognise it.
“You can see, already, the docklands is starting to develop — I recently attended the official opening of Penrose Dock; that didn’t exist a couple of years ago — we have Navigation Square and we have Horgan’s Quay and we’re building on both sides of the river, out eastwards down as far as Tivoli and beyond.
“There are tens of thousands of jobs being created in the docklands and people will be able to work and live there.
“We’re also investing in the Grand Parade Quarter — we’re building a brand-new library there, which will be so iconic.
“Our target is to have over a million visits there per year, which would be rivaled only, in this country, by Dún Laoghaire library, so it will be one of the biggest libraries in the country by the time it’s finished.
“That’s all part of the development of the city centre.”
Developing sustainable travel and enhancing the outdoor experience also form key components of the plans for Cork’s future, with some progress already made in this regard.
“We’ve pedestrianised 17 streets in the city centre, which is the immediate development we have here, and we’ve waived the licence fees for the likes of restaurants and pubs to put their outside furniture on the streets that have been pedestrianised,” Mr Kavanagh said.
“We can’t go to Europe, so our attitude is, ‘Let’s bring Europe to us’.
“Hopefully, that will enhance our tourist attraction, because we were the first city in the country to do it last summer and it was replicated right across the county.
“I know people who came down from places like Westport and Donegal and they rang me and asked where Princes Street was — they wanted to see this amazing street that had been on television.”
After a whirlwind year, with plenty of firsts, Mr Kavanagh pauses when asked what advice he would give to the incoming Lord Mayor.
“I would say — brace yourself! Be prepared to be open-minded.
“Do the very best you can, but also take pride in the role, because you will be first citizen of the most wonderful city in the country by some distance.”