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Moon rises over the City of Cork. Picture: Denis Scannell 
Moon rises over the City of Cork. Picture: Denis Scannell 

Here’s the story we need to shout about Cork

CORK — in fairness, like — is not an Irish city. Never was.

That’s not a conscious choice or a state of mind. It’s a fact dictated by geography and history.

Look at a map of southern Ireland and you will see Cork County, bordered on almost all sides by mountains. The city itself is in a steep river valley backed by high walls of hills, out on its own on the south coast of this island.

Cork’s history, since it started trading with France and Spain in the 14th Cent and then, later, with the wider world, made it a mercantile port, a place which exported the bounty of rich land behind it, with more in common with ports like Hamburg and Porto than Irish cities such as Kilkenny or even a harbour town like Galway.

The energy and destiny of the city has historically flowed down the river, out through our epic harbour and by centuries old sea-lanes to the far corners of the world.

Through its long history, even though we have recently forgotten, Cork has not been an Irish city. It has always been an Atlantic City.

When sail ruled the waves, Cork exported vast quantities of the staples — sea-biscuits, butter, salt pork and beef — which sustained countless numbers of merchant and navy sailors for hundreds of years. And — in a darker chapter of our history — also made vast fortunes for the merchant clans who victualled the slave ships sailing the Atlantic.

At one stage, Cork butter was a worldwide commodity, internationally traded, prized and priced in the same way grain, pork belly and beef futures are today.

Corkmen were sailors and sea-traders. It’s in our DNA — so many Leesiders served in the British Navy that in the pre-WWI era of the fearsome Dreadnoughts - the British Navy was said to be “Steel On The outside — Cork On The inside”.

For most of its long history, going back to the Vikings who settled and traded where the river meets the sea, Cork has been a city of outsiders coming in, to build, trade and define what this port was.

Its architecture and streetscape is a mish-mash of foreign influences. A faint echo of Viking, traces of Elizabethan Planter, the distinctive doll-houses of French Huguenots and later, and most profoundly, Quaker, Presbyterian and Protestant merchants, sea traders and servants of Empire. These “outsiders” built the city. And for hundreds of years ships sailed up the river and docked right in the heart of the town.

So Cork was always an open, diverse, welcoming city. It had to be. Open your front door of a morning and you would find a ship in from France, India, South America or anywhere in the vast British Empire parked there right in front of you. You had to get used to seeing strangers around the gaff.

But that all changed with the worst thing that ever happened to Cork — Irish independence. Overnight Cork was cut-off from the Empire we fed and traded with.

Ireland retreated and turned inwards, established trade, cultural and psychic barriers against the outside world. Cork City and its port went into its long decline and the once great mercantile city turned inwards on itself, literally, putting its back to the river and the increasingly sleepy docks and losing the energy and connectivity that once flowed through the river, harbour and the wide Atlantic Ocean.

We became a little bitter. We made grim jibes about being the Real Capital. How dat lot up in Dublin never did nothin for us.

We left. We forgot. So the story of Cork became the story of lost mercantile greatness and fading, shabby grandeur. Slow, inexorable decline and the bitter word. Or worse, a chip-on- the- shoulder, put-on arrogance that has annoyed the rest of the country and baffled anyone from the wider world.

We still retained that distinct sense of Corkness. Our customs and language have always been a little....off. We have Bonfire Night in the middle of the Summer (St John’s Eve, a strange echo of pagan times that we share with those on the Celtic fringes of Northern Europe). Have a conversation with a Leesider and you will be doing a lot of; “Wait, what!?”; The humour is surreal. The attitude is a little ...Mediterranean? Anarchic? Madly individual.

But we lost a lot. We held on to the small stuff, the little quirks, but couldn’t retain the real sense of ourselves. Our story.

Joe O'Shea, journalist, broadcaster and Brand Storyteller
Joe O'Shea, journalist, broadcaster and Brand Storyteller

However, now, if we can only see it, we have come full (or full-ish) circle.

How’s this for a symbol? The Hibernia Express undersea cable — the most modern fibre optic cable connecting north America & Europe and the first new one in almost a decade - came ashore in Cork in 2015. Another one is on the way.

Trace the line of these cables and they follow the copper telegraph cables that first spanned the Atlantic. Trace them back further and they overset the sea-lanes and trade routes taken by ships sailing to and from Cork for centuries.

In recent years, home-grown and international tech, pharma, agri-biz and bio-science companies have brought an incredibly diverse population back into the city and county.

Cork is connected once more. Diverse once more. Open once more. It’s a compact, brilliantly livable city. We need to get that message out to people in Dublin, London, San Francisco, Paris and Berlin. Imagine a compact, culturally-rich, affordable city where you can live, work and play on the most beautiful, uncrowded, unspoilt Atlantic Coastline in Northern Europe. With the best food, the best schools and the best quality of life you could hope to find. It should also be a great destination city for those looking for something a little different, a little intangible, a little eccentric.

And that, my fellow Leesiders (and ye children of a lesser God) is the story we need to tell about the city today. Shout about Cork. From the rooftops, with one, clear, unified voice.

An Atlantic City, open and connected to the world. A port city where the energy and focus flows in and out with river and tide through the harbour.

It’s time we defined ourselves once again. And told our own story. It’s a good one.

And by the way, New Rule. The next Langer who utters the phrase “De Real Capital”; gets strung up by the neck from that Goldie Fish atop of Shandon.

Joe O’Shea is a journalist and broadcaster with a strong interest in Brand Storytelling, crafting and defining the stories of people, place and trade. Recently returned to Cork City centre after many years abroad — first in Dublin and more recently London — he is deeply interested in Cork’s past, its future and how we tell our own story to the world. He passionately believes it is time to define ourselves once more, as what we were for centuries, an open, energetic, confident and connected Atlantic City.

You can find Joe on twitter @josefoshea or see his blog at http://josefoshea.blogspot.ie