When I was asked to put together an anthology of poems and songs about Cork City, the first thing I did was to look at The Cork Anthology, edited in 1993 by the late Seán Dunne, poet and Cork Examiner journalist.
Seán’s anthology contains only 15 poems and songs; most of it is prose. And it ranges widely around the county, while my brief was to include only poems and songs about the city. While I feared that would be a limitation, in fact the narrower focus gives the collection a strong identity.
I began with an empty notebook, and looked for material for one day a week for five months, spending long, enjoyable hours in the city’s libraries. As word got around, poets, book collectors, historians, and singers pointed me to their favourite poems and songs. The notebook filled up rapidly.
There were some surprises: no suitable material at all from the 17th and 18th century, but a wealth of late 19th century work, collected in one volume, aptly entitled The Gems of Cork, including some resounding ballads by John Fitzgerald, the Bard of the Lee, far more memorable than ‘The Bells of Shandon’.
Another surprise was that the poets I thought of as young — my generation — Thomas McCarthy, Theo Dorgan, and Greg Delanty – are now old. New names are winning awards — Billy Ramsell, Leanne O’Sullivan, John Fitzgerald, John Mee, and Dioreann Ní Ghríofa — and an even younger generation is coming on — Dean Browne, Roisín Kelly, and Victoria Kennefick.
The importance of the River Lee, with its numerous bridges, its swans, herons and otters, its floods, regattas and the frequent rain remains consistent down the years: it is as crucial to Edmund Spenser in the 16th century as it is to today’s poets. The titles tell the story — ‘My Father Spoke with Swans’, ‘Wet Wet Cork’, ‘Frogman’, ‘Heron’, and ‘Lee Song’.
Since the earlier anthology Cork has seen boom and recession, a year as European Capital of Culture, a huge growth in tourism, and the ethnic diversification of its local population, all of which is reflected in the poetry. Again the titles bear witness: ‘My Stolen City’, ‘The Dying Synagogue on South Terrace’, ‘Ghost Estate’, ‘The Emigrant’s Apology’, and ‘On the Demolition of the Arcadia Ballroom’.
The question of how to organise the material was a puzzle, until one evening I had a brainstorm, and grouped the poems by theme: the River Lee, the city’s landmarks, its characters, its streets and markets — there is even a chapter on Cork city’s ghosts — including the one in the Jack Lynch Tunnel – and another on exile from Cork.
But below the themes there is continuity. The lively anarchic streak in the work of ‘Raggy Boy’ Patrick Galvin, Cork’s working class hero, persists in Gerry Murphy’s short, spiky poems and Donegal poet Matthew Sweeney’s wild fantasies like ‘A Calf in the English Market’.
Iconic Cork figures haunt the generations, their names recurring — the ground-breaking musician Seán Ó Riada, dead at 40, the superb Irish language poet, Seán Ó Riordáin whose work stands with the best in Europe, the sculptor Seamus Murphy, Frank O’Connor and Seán Ó Faoláin, and more recently Seán Dunne and Gregory O’Donoghue: Cork has its own pantheon.
Cork inspires great affection: Derek Mahon’s ‘After the Storm’ empathetically describes recent floods on the Western Road, while Englishman Robert Nye captures an unforgettable glimpse of an old woman and her beloved dog in a Cork alley. Bernadette McCarthy’s poem, ‘On the probability of moving to Dublin’, begins ‘I wept.’ Yet the pages are also full of laughter.
I never knew how much I loved Cork city, where I lived only to the age of three, until I put this collection together. I hope other people will see the city afresh through these brilliant and ingenious poems and songs.
Collins Press, €17.99