Like everyone else on Cork’s Lee Fields on Tuesday, I watched with great sadness the burning of the old St Kevin’s asylum and had that deep sense of shock and loss — not just at one level but across a number of levels.
St Kevin’s had a harrowing past but its future should not have played out this way.
Chatting to those who had gathered on the river banks, they expressed sadness and frustration that a part of Cork’s social history was being destroyed.
They were sad to see a burnt scar of a landmark emerging on the cityscape in one of the city’s scenic spots; dismayed that it was a potential arson attack resulting out of someone’s boredom; and frustrated that campaigns over the years by resident community groups and public representatives did not result in any action from the owners of the site.
And they were sad that the owners of the site, the HSE, did not get around to pursuing a plan for the site — despite having completed some really tasteful renewal works in the old Cork workhouse at St Finbarr’s Hospital.
They were upset for the almost forgotten memory of former patients and former staff members and frustrated that, in the national context, there are many other old asylum buildings that are decaying and not being utilised for myriad potential uses.
Depths of multiple feelings unveiled themselves along the banks of the Lee as people watched the building burn, feelings all about how to capture for the present and future a city’s — and a nation’s — heritage.
The fishermen who first raised the alarm lamented to the press on the emerging scarred landscape.
The River Lee at this point is bound up with a necklace of beautiful 19th century buildings across its northern ridges — some with harrowing histories like Our Lady’s Hospital and the Good Shepherd Convent with its Magdalene asylum, some with stories of innovative local government like the old waterworks, and some with gorgeous artwork like the stained-glass windows in St Vincent’s Church.
The former Our Lady’s Hospital is now in the last phase of redevelopment by a private developer as tastefully done apartment blocks and the old waterworks is now a notable tourism attraction, run by Cork City Council around the themes of renewable energy, waste, education, and science.
Investment in these sites has worked and a return for the investment is being reaped as well as emanating sustainable best practice in what to do with old building stock. These are best-practice examples.
The now burnt-out St Kevin’s asylum and the ruined and formerly burnt out Good Shepherd Convent remain ‘worst case’ examples of what happens if one does not invest. Or protect.
The hands of local government and local councils need to be strengthened, making sure finance and staff are made available to compulsorily purchase property which is not being developed.
Cities, towns, and regions should not have to endure sadness, loss, frustration, and dereliction.
It is not positive to have buildings, small to large, boarded up for years, to leave them decay, and to not have a plan.
We need to reverse our approaches to dereliction — ideas, future planning, and investment are needed to breathe life into our historic cities like Cork.
In fact, anytime we have done so, the ideas of the past have worked to help frame the visions of the future.