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Mad about Cork: Community groups are fuelling a renewed sense of pride

Kevin O'Brien next to one of his artworks. Picture: Dan Linehan.

There's a grand stretch in the evenings.

All over Cork City, community volunteers will be taking advantage of the lengthening days as summer draws near to get working on various projects to beautify Ireland’s second city, from guerrilla gardening projects to sprucing up hoardings with a lick of paint or some colourful street art.

Even Cork’s formerly drab electricity boxes have become hot property, with arts groups vying to use them as a canvas for street art to celebrate rebel city pride in its various guises: the People’s Republic of Cork (PROC), Mad About Cork, and Reimagine Cork are three such groups.

Kevin O’Brien is a coordinator with Mad About Cork, one of the most active initiatives bringing a splash of colour to city living.

He agrees to meet at Mad About Cork’s community garden on the Coal Quay, located in a formerly derelict site that had been the cause of fears of anti-social behaviour.

“It was all overgrown down here, and there were cars using it for parking, so you couldn’t see into the corners of it, whereas now it’s more open,” Mr O’Brien says, looking around at the assortment of wooden planters, where fruit tree saplings are bursting into spring bloom.

The Coal Quay garden, sponsored by Waterford-based food cultivation movement GIY (Grow It Yourself), gets planted with an assortment of vegetables as well as flowering plants known for supporting pollinators like bees, improving the city centre’s biodiversity.

City biodiversity may seem like a misnomer, but Mad About Cork are learning as they go about the enriching influence of supporting city-dwellers other than humans, Mr O’Brien says: the group recently hosted a bat talk by local expert Ger Stanton, and were amazed to discover what a large population of the nocturnal insectivores the city supports.

What’s good for the wildlife is good for the humans too: last year, developers of an “Urban Mind” app at King’s College London showed a correlation between mental wellbeing and city-dwellers’ proximity to birdsong, trees, and open spaces.

“We see all this as making cities people-friendly,” Mr O’Brien says. “Plants and street art are a lot better than a load of concrete and empty derelict spaces. It makes a big difference to people’s everyday happiness and how they appreciate their city when streets are designed with people’s wellbeing in mind.”

City dereliction is a larger problem than can be tackled with a lick of paint and a plant pot, Mr O’Brien acknowledges.

But he says an injection of positivity is of benefit to everyone, including more than 300 volunteers, most of them living in the city centre, who have worked with the project to date. “We see this as a temporary solution.”

On nearby Kyle St, the group had been occupying a vacant site, using some of it for storage and converting the rest of it into a colourful community garden.

In 2017, the site was sold for development and Mad About Cork moved out. Now, the site has been vacant and falling into disrepair again, while Mad About Cork have had to find a new storage space at Shandon Street Renewal Association’s community garden.

“We know that what we do is a short-term solution, and we know that our projects will have to get taken down and moved as sites get sold,” Mr O’Brien says.

Mad About Cork’s other gardening projects and planters can be seen in plots of waste ground on George’s Quay and Abbey St, as well as brightening up Shandon Bridge and the North Gate Bridge.

But it’s not all guerrilla gardening. Other projects have included painting and decorating hoardings along Coleman’s Lane and Kyrl Quay.

Mr O’Brien views Coleman’s Lane as a particular success story. “It used to be so dark and dingy, and now you see tourists going down there on purpose to take selfies,” he says.

The group has also laid claim to several electrical boxes to celebrate the Cork culture, with colourful tributes to Tanora, Cillian Murphy, local songstress Karen Underwood, and historical figures including Agnes Mary Clerke, the only Irish woman with a crater on the moon named after her.

President Michael D Higgins attended the unveiling of a box commemorating Cork-born South American revolutionary Daniel Florence O’Leary on Barrack Street in February.

It was history that first led Mr O’Brien, who has an MA in history and a special interest in the Irish revolution in Cork City, to become involved with Mad About Cork’s progenitor, Reimagine Cork.

He saw a street art series, commemorating key Cork centenary figures including Tomás Mac Suibhne and Michael Collins, painted on hoardings on Kyle St by artist Alan Hurley in 2016.

Mad About Cork and Reimagine Cork are now two separate organisations, having split in 2017; Mr O’Brien says they had different visions of how to make improvements to the city centre, with Mad About Cork favouring small, continuous activities, while Reimagine Cork have been involved in founding a “Plastic Free Challenge” campaign for cafés.

Reimagine is also embarking on “A River Runs Through It”, a phased rejuvenation project focused on the Lee, which has so far included cleaning, painting, planting, and graffiti removal on the North Mall and the entrance to Sunday’s Well, as well as murals commemorating three historic city centre wells: Sunday’s Well, Franciscan Well, and Lady’s Well.

For Mad About Cork, longer evenings mean they’ll ramp up activities, adding a Wednesday evening volunteering session to their regular Saturday meet-ups.

Using mostly recycled materials, with occasional assistance from Cork City Council or local businesses to purchase supplies, it’s a low-budget activity where a willingness to devote some time is the most important thing volunteers bring, and Mr O’Brien says it’s a fantastic social outlet too.

“We’re not experts, we just figure it out as we go along, and we do our best,” he says.

“We learn a lot too. We have a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities. We get a lot of people over the summer coming from countries like Spain who are here to study English but who find it a great way to get to know locals, and to discover the city. It’s very social and it’s open to everyone.”

A city-wide “Spring Clean-up” on April 6 will see Mad About Cork join forces with other community groups and individuals throughout Cork city and suburbs for an intensive day of painting, planting and cleaning, in as many locations as possible.

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