But there is also much to be proud of in a city dotted with church steeples and home to interesting buildings from the medieval to the commercial. As part of Cork Heritage Open Day tomorrow, a public conversation entitled Crumbling Cork takes place at Civic Trust House.
Local historian, Cllr Kieran McCarthy, will chair the discussion. The panellists are John Hegarty, conservation architect, Kevin Connolly and Kevin Hurley of An Taisce, and Anthony Wade from the newly-established Cork Decorative & Fine Arts Society (Cork DFAS).
Before attending the discussion at 4.30pm, Cllr McCarthy is encouraging the public to visit some of the 40 buildings that are opening their doors for free for one day only. Organised by Cork City Council with the support of the Heritage Council, this is the ninth year of Cork Heritage Open Day and is an opportunity to see buildings not normally accessible to the public. These buildings include the Masonic Lodge on Tuckey Street and Skiddy’s Alms House in Shandon.
Cllr McCarthy says there are “so many lovely 18th and 19th century buildings in the city that we take for granted. Cork is lucky that we don’t have rows of the same types of buildings, unlike Limerick and Dublin. In Cork, part of the character of the city is the fact that there are limestone and sandstone buildings of different sizes, shapes and colour next to each other. Cork Heritage Open Day is all about appreciating the city’s rich and colourful heritage”.
The public conversation, however, is about a lot more than making soothing noises about the beautiful city by the Lee. “We need to see if there are examples out there that we can harness and use to move forward. I would say that the best example of an old building being given a modern slant is the Lifetime Lab on the Lee Rd. This building used to house the old waterworks. It has been given an educational focus as it is now a science lab for children and their families.”
Other examples of iconic buildings being renewed are Blackrock Castle Observatory and Christchurch at Triskel, one of the city’s most attractive venues.
“Owned by City Council and run by CIT, Blackrock Castle Observatory is very project- oriented. It is linked up with astronomy labs in the Bay area of San Francisco as part of the twinning relationship between the two cities. Links have been made between schools here and schools in San Francisco. It’s very practical.”
But there are parts of Cork that are a real cause for concern, says Cllr McCarthy. He cites Blackpool, “which has 60 derelict buildings”, and mentions “old historic streets like Barrack St, where there is massive decay. Apart from the pubs on Barrack St, what else is driving that area? We need to get people back living in the inner city. I’d like to see an artistic quarter developed in Barrack St, like what you’d see in Montmartre. You could put in some artists and invest in someone who would be the tourism manager for the area.”
Cllr McCarthy says that Cork fails to exploit its potential as a tourist spot. “There’s so much going on in the city but we don’t push it enough. There are probably 60 cruise liners arriving into Cobh this year with a lot of the passengers coming up on buses into Cork. I get the sense they don’t know where they’re going. There should be ‘ambassadors’ to show them around.”
He suggests that Cork City Council be given “more powers to deal with dereliction. There are property owners who can’t move on their properties because they don’t have the money. But they should make sure their properties are well painted on the outside and are not collapsing. Some property owners are fantastic. They can’t make their buildings work but they paint them. The council has painting schemes in the older historical areas and people have availed of that. Maybe the council needs to work closely with community associations to empower people to get out and paint their shop fronts.
“You don’t need an enormous amount of money to make a street look well. We definitely need to look after the places where Cork began, such as Barrack St and North Main St.”
On the plus side, he points to the 18th century Unitarian Church on Prince’s St. “The people there are working with city council to develop the building into a food tourism market which will give people a sense of the history of the English Market. There’s a huge leap of faith there because the building is going from being a church to a tourism centre.”
At the Civic Trust House discussion, Wade will talk about how Cork DFAS aims to contribute to the conservation of Cork. “The cultural heritage of Cork is more than its buildings and monuments, important as they are,” he says.
He points to UCC’s Honan Chapel, with its renowned Harry Clarke-designed stained glass windows. “These were made by and for the people who worked and lived in Cork. In order to develop more persuasive public opinion for the conservation of our cultural heritage, it is essential to grow awareness of our wider cultural heritage among a broad and diverse group of local people.”