A river runs through it: A tale of love in Cork City

Former UCC lecturer Derry Cotter has written Leeside Story, a tale of love in Cork city, says Colette Sheridan.

“Cork people love watching themselves on stage,” says Derry Cotter, the creator of a new show, Lee Side Story, which tells the imaginative story of how Cork city evolved. With songs performed by John Spillane, the show promises to be an indulgence for proud Corkonians.

Although a UCC commerce graduate who taught accountancy at the university until early retirement three years ago and now works part-time lecturing for chartered accountants, Cotter sees nothing odd about a number-cruncher producing creative work.

“I like accounting and economics. If you’re trying to write a play or a novel, the structure in some ways isn’t any different to how you resolve a problem in business. You have an introduction, the main part of a solution to the problem and a conclusion. Of course, when writing, you have to move out of reality and you need imagination but my background is useful because it allows me to get to the end of a story.”

Cotter, who has previously written two plays and two novels (one of the novels, published by Chartered Accountants Ireland, is Cotter’s own take on George Orwell’s Animal Farm) was born on North Main Street in 1955. His parents ran a pub there for Murphy’s Brewery. Called the Lee Bar, it is now Ryans. The Cotter family got out of the pub business in 1958 and moved to Douglas. Cotter’s father went on to work in the insurance industry. Cotter always wanted to write the story of Cork.

I wasn’t so much interested in the historical record but rather the actual culture of the city, the music and the people. The play tells the creative origins of Cork. It starts with Adam and Eve who have been kicked out of the Garden of Eden. As a way of getting into heaven, they have to satisfy a major challenge. The challenge they’re presented with is the creation of the perfect city.

However, Lee Side Story, with a nod towards West Side Story, is a tale of conflict. “It turns out that the city that is created isn’t integrated. The people of the north side and the south side are at odds with each other. So there needs to be redemption because of the cultural divide. The question is, can this city of two great halves find redemption?”

A love story evolves between a north side boy called Jason and a south side girl called Emily. Emily is one of a group of three UCC students who are friends. “They have no knowledge of the north side and what they think they know is misinformed. The guys from the north side, in their own way, look down on the south side, thinking they’re superior. They have different interests. Jason is hugely into greyhounds and some of the play centres around a north side dog attempting to be successful. In a sense, the dog takes on the same battle as his owner.”

Cotter speaks of the north side of the city as having got a raw deal when it comes to infrastructure and industry. “There’s Apple but apart from that, there isn’t much else.”

The south side is represented “as being self-sufficient. The three UCC students want a better world but are not informed about how to achieve a more level playing field.”

Cork navel-gazing often translates as a form of chauvinism, a superiority complex, born of second city status clamouring to be noticed. “There’s an element of that but it’s not arrogance. I think it’s just confidence. Cork people are comfortable in their own skin. They’re also fantastic ambassadors for their city. If you go to places like Salou or Lanzarote, you get waiters talking with Cork accents because they learned English from Cork people.”

Some of Lee Side Story is set in a pub at the foot of Shandon Street. It is run by Jason’s mother. Other backdrops include the quad at UCC. As well as John Spillane singing his familiar Cork songs in a pub which is part of the show’s set, there is a new Cork song written and performed by Jim O’Mahony, a lecturer at CIT and member of a gospel choir.

There’s much comedy in the show. “I’ve gone to the Opera House over the years and seen inspirational people like Billa O’Connell, Paddy Comerford, Michael Twomey and Frank Duggan. Lee Side Story is trying to follow in the tradition of these.”

Performed by the Lee Side Drama Group, Cotter is financing the production himself. If there is any profit made, it will either be divided amongst the cast or it will be reinvested for future productions. Cotter hopes to create more Cork-based material.

“Creative writing is very difficult and it isn’t going to make you rich unless you happen to be JK Rowling.”

Lee Side Story is at the Cork Opera House on March 14

John Spillane on performing his songs in the play

“It was a great honour for me to be asked by Derry Cotter to be involved in Lee Side Story and for my songs to be used as a backdrop to this lovely , light, romantic, humorous play whose central theme is a great love of Cork. It’s lovely to be involved in a wide range of musical activities and to try something new every now and then.

“We learn by working with new people and by interacting with others. Song-writing can be a isolated craft so it’s great to go out and have the craic with people you would not normally meet. The play is quite traditional and yes, there is a hint of West Side Story about it in that it involves a romance between a girl from the south side and a boy from the north side. It is very Cork and I am delighted that I was chosen as the go-to person to reflect this Corkness with the songs.

John Spillane.
John Spillane.

“I am not really acting in it except as myself. I sing four of my own compositions; ‘Princes Street’, ‘The Ferry Arms’, ‘Passage West’ and ‘The Dance of the Cherry Trees’. You could call Lee Side Story amateur drama. We all know the great passion and the incredible amount of work that goes into amateur drama in this country and the fierce high standard achieved by many brilliant companies around the country.

“I believe Lee Side Story will be very well received by Cork audiences and that a warm hearted fun evening will be had by all. On my forthcoming album, there will be another four songs with a strong Cork theme including ‘The Streets of Ballyphehane’, ‘The College Gates’ and ‘Bishopstown’.”

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