Thanks to Instagram and other social media platforms, holiday greetings can be sent from any far-flung location in the blink of any eye, but when it comes to getting a glimpse of how we lived in the past, nothing can beat a postcard.
Cork City Reflections is a collection merging historic postcards from Cork Public Museum's archives with recent colour views, showing the changing face of the city in the last century or so. Authored by the museum’s curator, Dan Breen and local historian, Kieran McCarthy, the collection makes judicious use of the museum’s growing archive of interesting and rare images.
It is their fifth collaboration, and this book builds on another postcard collection, Cork City Through Time, which was published in 2012. According to McCarthy, it is also responding to a growing public appetite for old photographs.
“In the last five years or so, the public have been using social media to publicise old pictures. There are so many different possibilities coming on stream, we can do a lot more with these photographs, including stitching the before and after together, which is what we have done in this book,” he says.
“This year, in Cork, we are looking back to 100 years ago, to 1920 and the War of Independence. When you look at a lot of the witness statements from the War of Independence, they talk a lot about places in Cork. There is a real sense of the importance of place, which is also something we are trying to capture in this book.”
He says the postcards also offer a valuable lesson in terms of how we will remember the present time in the future.
“A hundred years from now, when people reflect back on 2020, despite the fact we have been through a pandemic, there is no central archive capturing people’s pictures or perspectives.”
The postcards feature a range of images, under thematic headings including main streets, public buildings, transport, and industry. Looming large is the International Exhibition in 1902 and 1903, hosted at Fitzgerald’s Park on the Mardyke. According to McCarthy, the postcards were also a marketing tool, trying to sell Cork to visitors — and investors.
“You can see what they were trying to say about Cork as a place, how they were trying to market it. There is huge interest in the physical fabric of the city, the bridges in particular, the art gallery, the main streets. They don’t give you an insight into poverty or slums, they stay away from things that because if people saw they wouldn’t invest in the city.
The postcards of Cork city are all about spectacle, especially the 1902 exhibition, which Dan has been doing a lot of work on. It is one element of Cork history that is always remembered — along with things like the murder of Tomás McCurtain, the hunger strike of Terence MacSwiney, the work of Nano Nagle and Fr Mathew. There are these historical characters we keep coming back to in Cork history and the same places we return to.
"We are drawn to places like the Shakey Bridge, Fitzgerald’s Park, the Opera House, the Crawford Art Gallery. We don’t know who a lot of the photographers were but we do know that they just wanted to capture the essence and the DNA of the city. Whether it is Shandon or the Mardyke, if someone comes to the city today to take photographs, they will go to the same areas.”
There are clear parallels with the pandemic crisis we are dealing with today, says McCarthy, as well as the civic spirit that was in evidence when the city began to emerge from the turmoil of the War of Independence.
“One of my lockdown projects last year was to read the Examiner from 1920 to 1930, I turned every page. I catalogued everything into themes, and I had about 50 themes about how they tried to improve Cork after the Burning of Cork [in 1920]. After the last building in Patrick St had been rebuilt and reopened, they had a huge carnival in the city, telling people to come into town, to give custom to the bars and restaurants. The same is happening in the present day — all these people who really care about Cork are coming forward. There are huge parallels with the present day,” says McCarthy.
“Places like the Marina and the Mardyke were viewed as very important recreational spaces a hundred years ago. In the present day, they have come back into focus a lot more — the Marina has probably saved a lot of people’s souls, especially in the last stage of the lockdown. There are many sites down the Marina that somewhere in the 1960s and 1970s, were just allowed decay. There was a bandstand, a caretaker’s lodge and a drinking fountain. The Marina and Mardyke have drifted over the last few decades and we need to have a big discussion on that going forward. Something like the Lee to Sea scheme, with a huge walkway along the river, I would like to see that sort of ambition,” says McCarthy.
“This wasn’t a typical postcard of the time, someone created a postcard of it, it wasn’t mass-produced in any way. I would like to see some diverse cultural usage here. It is a protected structure but doesn’t give that any heritage protection really — someone could come in, apply to An Bord Pleanála and that would be the end of it. We need to keep an eye on it. Cork people were proud of their industry and they wanted to showcase that,” says McCarthy.
"Apart from showcasing the city’s architecture and industry, culture was also very important to the city. Reading archived editions of the Examiner, you can see there were listings given every day for Cork Opera House, and the cinemas in the city. The Opera House was an escape for many people and there is a real respect there that is very rooted in community. The old building in the postcard began its life as a concert venue, The Athenaeum, there was a lecture hall where Charles Dickens gave a speech. When it burned down in 1955, there was a huge public fundraising effort for ten years, it reopened in 1965. People still talk about the first Opera House, over 70 years later. When I give walking tours of town, the older people will talk about the Opera House at length,” says McCarthy.
“This is a very powerful image. The burning of Cork sped up how the city thought about itself and that it needed to deal with the issues not really noted in the postcards - the hidden poverty. There was over 120,000 people living in squalor in the city at the time and the burning of Cork sped up the provision of social housing. Cork Corporation received some of the compensation money which was directed towards social housing in places like Gurranabraher and Turner’s Cross. The burning of Cork really pushed the city into a new way of thinking and one could argue the city is at the same cusp today. There are accounts of the public health doctor at that time, Dr John Saunders, going into every slum in the city and collecting data. It is incredible some of the work they did a hundred years ago,” says McCarthy.