John Dolan: Last orders for historic Cork pub... but let’s raise a glass (box) to brighter future

Let’s not get too misty-eyed about the demolition of The Sextant, so says John Dolan in his weekly column
John Dolan: Last orders for historic Cork pub... but let’s raise a glass (box) to brighter future

The demolition of The Sextant Bar, Cork to make way for a 25 storey residential 'build to rent' scheme. 

THEY say the view of the Manhattan skyline from the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the modern wonders of the world, guaranteed to take the breath away from even the most jet-lagged, travel-weary arrival.

On the two occasions I visited New York, I must have been looking in the wrong direction, or was too busy gabbling away to the cabbie. The famous view failed to sear itself in my memory.

In fact, my fondest memory of all the buildings and stunning architecture in Big Apple was of something rather incongruous.

When you catch the ferry to Staten Island or the Statue of Liberty, your eyes are drawn back to the colossal skyscrapers of Manhattan as they rear up one by one, while the ferry nudges away into the distance. It’s a sight that never fails to stir the soul.

And there, standing out like a sore thumb amidst all the dazzling modernity, lies a small, historic building, The James Watson House.

Although it is dwarfed by the glass giants around it, the House and adjoining church stand small but proud, a token slice of history in a city where the present and the future almost always hold sway. Stand in the way of progress in Manhattan and you’re likely to get hit by a yellow cab soon enough!

The House has stood here since 1793, the days of the French Revolution, refusing to budge, and giving the lie to the old trope that America has no history.

James Watson House in New York.
James Watson House in New York.

I adore history, and the view of The James Watson House and the church next door, shrine to a Limerick woman called St Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, are a sight to life the spirits. They don’t diminish the phallic Manhattan skyline in any way, they enhance it. The perfect symmetry of the surrounding skyscrapers is only improved by the imperfect, out-of-place old House.

I can only imagine the amount of times in the past 227 years that a developer has asked to tear down the old building and replace it with an office block or high-rise apartments; and has been politely but firmly told to go take a hike, buddy.

I was reminded of that incongruous piece of architecture last week, when historic Cork city pub the Sextant was torn down as part of the ongoing development of the docklands.

On social media, many people bemoaned the demolition as sacrilege — another piece of Cork history lost. Some suggested the pub should have been incorporated into the new design in some way.

The Albert pub in London
The Albert pub in London

Photos of a famous London pub, The Albert in the English capital’s Victoria area, were shared, showing how it could have been done.

And it’s true; like The James Watson House in New York, there is a beauty to this beguiling mixture of old and new architecture.

But I couldn’t help thinking that Cork isn’t New York or London; and that, as much as I love history, the decision to knock the Sextant was the right one, and the vast majority of people would agree.

Let’s start off with the most obvious point. If you’re watching photos, commentary and video footage of a building being ripped asunder, live on your social media feed, then it’s a bit late ij the day to be objecting. There is a process to go through.

The plans for the development were extensively and frequently reported in The Echo and other media, as was the fact it would be last orders for The Sextant, yet the number of submissions to An Bord Pleanala was just seven — and two of those were in favour of the proposal!

Of the other five, some cited concerns over the visual impact of the project, or said it would set an undesirable precedent. How many of those five objected to the actual demolition of the Sextant is hard to ascertain, but it’s fair to say it was a mere handful.

Its true that seeing a pub you have oft frequented being obliterated, while mulling a glass of wine, can make you misty-eyed, nostalgic and sentimental, but you had your chance to object.

When you look closer at the planning application, you then note that the Sextant wasn’t a protected structure, but that two actual protected structures — the two-storey former Cork, Blackrock and Passage railway offices and the adjoining ex-ticket office — are being renovated and reopened as part of the development.

Of course, we haven’t even gone into the positives of this overall development at the docklands of one of the country’s tallest residential buildings.

It will create 93 one-bed apartments, 104 two-bed apartments and four three-bed apartments — precious places for people to live where and when it is desperately needed.

How many of the Facebook and Twitter objectors the other evening thought housing was the biggest issue in the recent General Election? And how many of them would jeopardise the creation of more than 200 apartments because they want to save a pub whose door they probably haven’t darkened in many a long year?

Local councillor Kieran McCarthy, a man who consistently and passionately cares about the city’s built heritage, was right when he said in the aftermath of the Sextant demolition that we need a debate about how best to retain the city’s heritage and character. But any debate will have to be balanced by the realisation that parts of Cork city are crumbling before our very eyes.

How many times this year alone have we heard about falling masonry and scaffolding being erected around some of our older buildings?

The problem with old, historic and even listed buildings is that there is a duty of care on us, via our councils, to keep them standing, at a minimum, and even improve on them if at all possible.

Clearly, many buildings in our city are reaching the end of their shelf life and require urgent and often expensive modernisation or, failing that, an appointment with the wrecking ball.

When a building is listed and has historic value, I am all in favour of retaining it. But when the experts say it is beyond hope and a developer can replace it with a business or a place to live, let’s not get too misty-eyed.

Nobody is suggesting that the Sextant was in bad shape in any way; indeed, the Victorian facade looked fine and dandy to my eyes.

But the An Bord Pleanala Inspector’s Report in January — which ran to a comprehensive 110 pages — made it clear that the retention of the pub, built in 1877, had been weighed up and firmly rejected.

It stated: “Its heritage value has been significantly compromised by numerous alterations over the years. Furthermore, the context and setting of the building has irrevocably been altered.”

That seems fair enough to me. Sometimes clear-eyed logic trumps emotion.

Many of those objecting to the demise of the Sextant said its replacement was “a glass box”.

But a glass box where people can live... I raise a glass to that.

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