Cork on show: The Cork International Exhibition of 1902-1903

WHEN I visited the revamped Fitzgerald Park recently, I wasn’t thinking about former Lord Mayor Edward Fitzgerald. I had only thought in passing about who the park was named for, and had never heard of the event that led to its foundation.

If you would like to know more about the development of modern Cork, Daniel Breen and Tom Spalding’s book, The Cork International Exhibition 1902-1903, will fill you in on an extraordinary event that resonates through the city’s present.

International exhibitions were a popular way for countries and cities to present and invigorate local trade, industry and culture throughout the 19th century. In the modern world, where so many business, social and cultural interactions occur online, the importance these events once held can be difficult to grasp.

Yet the palpable vitality of a city moving with one purpose can certainly have a special effect, as Breen and Spalding describe.

They begin with vivid depictions of the exhibition’s opening ceremonies in 1902, including the procession of societies and trade unions from Parnell Place to the site on the Mardyke. Citizens excited by the possibilities the occasion held for their city had painted their homes brightly, and the streets were replete with banners and bunting. A correspondent from this paper said, “the streets presented the most abundant tokens of the universal rejoicing”.

At a time when Home Rule was at the heart of national discourse, and political and social tensions ran rife, citizens of all classes, creeds, and viewpoints banded together to help make Cork’s exhibition a success.

A similar sense of togetherness could be felt at the park this year, when Corkonians came in droves to experience the facility’s renewal. It seemed like the entire city was flooding to the Mardyke, and there is something incredibly harmonious about travelling in a large group to experience something as one. This history of the exhibition serves as an important reminder of the benefits of this type of event.

Cork seems to have embraced its duties as host city with gusto.

One reporter from The Times looked forward to the event, suggesting that, “The genius of Cork is well disposed towards great public displays. The sprightly habit and intellectual aplomb of the Munster man will endow the coming exhibition with a brightness and artistic finish which might not be found in Dublin, and certainly would not be found in Belfast”.

Whether the correspondent’s views on those other cities were accurate or not, Cork’s exhibition seems to have been full of liveliness and vigour.

This is made perfectly clear by the startlingly gorgeous illustrations displayed throughout, which add immensely to the prose.

Photographs of the commencing parade on Patrick Street show a sepia toned wonderland of banners, trams and throngs of people, and bring the excitement surrounding the celebrations to life.

Although the breadth of the project prevents the authors from covering the Cork International Exhibition’s relationship to any one aspect of city life in depth, the number of areas they touch on gives a clear impression of its significance.

They move fluidly from political turbulence to agricultural progress, touching liberally on architecture, industry, sport and art in between. They pack their chapters with detail and context, and provide the reader with a clear impression of the era.

Perhaps the book’s most interesting contribution is its exploration of the exhibition’s continuing influence. Breen and Spalding highlight aspects of Corkonian and Irish life that owe their beginnings to the fair, from the cultural events taking place in Fitzgerald Park, to an improved focus on vocational, technological and agricultural education.

On a lighter note, lovers of the RTÉ football panel might appreciate the influence the exposition has had on their enjoyment of John Giles and Eamonn Dunphy.

William Herlihy, Assistant Secretary of the 1903 event, met his wife during that period; they married in 1904.

His grandson is none other than retiring RTÉ broadcaster Bill O’Herlihy, who has moderated debates between some of Ireland’s most prominent football pundits for years.

The legacy of 1902-1903 Cork is hardly known, but widely felt. The city’s ability to hold such a successful international gathering, at a time when its population numbered just 80,000, remains a remarkable achievement. As the authors observe in their concluding chapter, it was many times smaller than other cities that had hosted similar fairs, and the ambition civic leaders showed to put on an event of its calibre is to be admired. While it is questionable how much it succeeded in boosting local trade, the exhibition stands as a reminder of what a small city can achieve, and can remain a point of pride for Corkonians.

The Cork International Exhibition 1902-1903 A Snapshot of Victorian Cork Authors: Daniel Breen and Tom Spalding


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