Cork Strolls is streets ahead

A new guidebook, ‘Cork Strolls: Exploring Cork’s Architectural Treasures’, offers a revealing view on the Rebel City’s heritage, says Dan MacCarthy

Armed with Gregory and Audrey Bracken’s Cork Strolls: Exploring Cork’s Architectural Treasures, Dan MacCarthy stops in front of the former Provincial Bank on the South Mall, which dates from 1865

OF the myriad of books written about Cork City perhaps no one captures this beautiful city so eloquently as Tom McElligott in his Six O’Clock All Over Cork, where he described the city as like a bouquet of flowers strewn along the valley. There have been other walking guides of course, such as Paul Cussen’s Cork: A Pocket Guide, published by Collins Press to coincide with Cork’s European City of Culture status in 2005.

There is no such commemoration in Cork Strolls: Exploring Cork’s Architectural Treasures by Gregory and Audrey Bracken, rather a continuation of Collins’s series on strolls in cities, having previously covered Dublin.

Cork is largely a vernacular city which is to say it has much indigenous architecture. However, it also has a huge variety of other styles, Romanesque, Neoclassical, Victorian, Art Deco and Edwardian, to name but a few. Gregory and Audrey Bracken, he an architect and she a classicist, are siblings who have previously published guides to Dublin (the other in this series), Bangkok, London, Paris and Hong Kong. Natives of Co Kildare, they bring to Cork an outsiders’ perspective and put us under the microscope as it were. It is a very revealing microscope, as often we are too close to things to see them clearly. Wood, trees, etc.

The guide is divided into 11 sections taking in most of the city, as well as dipping its toe into the county, Kinsale and Cobh to be precise. It is aimed not only at the casual stroller with an interest in architecture and history, but the general reader too, keen to acquaint themselves with alluring back streets. No mountain boots required here.

Unusually, the book has no photographs but instead opts for some technically brilliant sketches rendered by Gregory to illustrate the buildings and others sites.

Here are three of their routes:

South Mall and Oliver Plunkett Street

The South Mall started life as a waterway and was only covered much later. It has some of the grandest buildings in the city, if not the country. Starting at the top of the street, the ambler armed with guidebook gazes up at the Cork Savings Bank. Designed by brothers Thomas and Kearns Deane it was completed in 1842. We learn “the building’s beautifully balanced facades elegantly address both Lapp’s Quay and Parnell Place each one a model of self-restraint”. Ionic columns support an entablature with the bank’s name incised in gold lettering. The story of Ireland it might be argued.

Across the road we encounter the Provincial Bank which dates from 1865 and together with the Savings Bank “the two Victorian masterpieces act like gateposts into Parnell Place.” It is an opulent Italian-style palazzo with arched windows set into its ground floor.

Strolling down the Mall we learn, this street was reclaimed from Dunscombe’s Marsh which lay to the east of the Medieval walled city. The marshes were reclaimed in the 18th century as the city expanded.

We learn that the street is one of the city’s “most gracious” where upper middleclass professionals lived. The North Mall on the north riverbank is its counterpart, equally fashionable in its day.

The Imperial Hotel has a grand history. The great Hungarian composer Franz Liszt once gave a piano recital here and Charles Dickens gave a reading in the Clarence Room — is that Nicholas Nickleby that just ghosted across the lobby? — and Victorian novelist William Thackeray met the apostle of temperance Father Matthew for a cup of tea. Strong spirits not appropriate.

Dan MacCarthyin the Imperial Hotel, where Charles Dickens gave a reading. Picture: Denis Minihane

We now take in the Assembly Rooms with its elaborate facade which once hosted opera before being converted into a cinema. The other sites on this walk are the old Munster and Leinster Bank, now AIB, built in 1914 by Sisk, with its giant fluted Ionic columns. Finally, the wonderful Oliver Plunkett Street shopping hub with its huge variety of styles, was formerly called George Street. The GPO dating from the 1720s and Winthrop Street conclude this walk.

UCC to Sunday’s Well

Our perambulation now takes us to the west of the city. The authors rightly enthuse about the “magical” UCC complex with its magnificent quadrangle dating from 1845, designed by Thomas Deane and Benjamin Woodward and other architectural masterpieces of the Honan Chapel, and for postmodernists, the Glucksman Gallery. Quiddities of information sprinkle the book: A First World War soldier found an acorn sprouting in a friend’s pocket and brought it home to Cork where it was planted in the grounds of UCC. It is now a towering oak. Not apocryphal, true. The walk from the Dyke Parade, through UCC emerges on the Mardyke which is mentioned in Joyce’s Ulysses. The dyke. or embankment, was built in 1719 by Edward Webber to stop the Lee coursing across the floodplain. Plus ca change. Webber had Dutch ancestry and named the area Meer Dyke (lake dyke) which changed to Mardyke.

Walk onwards to Fitzgerald’s Park named after the Lord Mayor who held the Cork International Exhibition there in 1902/03. The hugely popular park has several highlights including the pavilion and the neoclassical Cork Public Museum which has exhibits dating from 7,000 years ago.

Cross Daly Bridge (the much-loved Shaky Bridge) and up the hill into the affluent suburb of Sunday’s Well. Higher up is the oldk City Gaol whose brutal edifice must have struck fear into the many prisoners who called it home between 1824 and 1923, including Countess Markievicz. Other attractions are St Vincent’s church and the elegant private houses and gardens.

Further afield

Okay, strictly not a stroll this one — more for the bike or the car, but it is such an assortment of varied buildings it is well worth the effort. First up is the Old Cork Waterworks on the Lee Road. It is described as the best Victorian pumping station in Ireland and commands a superb vantage point on the banks of the Lee. It is a John-Benson-designed structure and when operational had a steam-powered waterworks. It is decorated in a Lombardo-Romanesque style.

Next, take a spin to The Lough and enjoy the birdlife before scooting to Blarney to see the 15th century castle and kiss the stone — if you must. Continuing the castle theme, to the east of the city is the folly of Blackrock Castle designed in 1829 by brothers George and James Pain.

Then, try a visit to Fota House which belonged to the aristocratic Smith-Barrys before being remodelled in the 1820s by Richard and William Morrison. But don’t stop there: take a look at the arboretum and the wildlife park for good measure.

Cobh is worth a day in itself — Spike Island, the Heritage Centre and the Cathedral being irresistible sites. Also worth a full day is Kinsale with James Fort, Charles Fort, St Multose Church and the Lusitania Museum.

If you’ve still got energy after all of the above, there are many more places suggested here to visit. So get discovering.

Cork Strolls: Exploring Cork’s Architectural Treasures, Gregory and Audrey Bracken, Collins Press. €12.99


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