100 years on, Fitzgerald Park adds to extravagant history

Fitzgerald Park on Cork’s Mardyke is once again open fully to the public in all its floral and artistic glory, flanked by Diarmuid Gavin’s controversial Sky Garden and the restored Fr Mathew Fountain.

100 years on, Fitzgerald Park adds to extravagant history

It is all part of the Mardyke Gardens project, a €2.3m regeneration of the park that represents the single largest investment in more than a century.

Once described by Worker’s Party councillor Ted Tynan as looking “like the axle of an old tractor”, the futuristic flying pod that won gold at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2011 is set to be a scene stealer. It has been refurbished, painted pink, and installed on elevated stilts to provide a spectacular viewing platform over the River Lee.

Like Gavin himself, it looks like it could walk on water, although the gardener has no more to do with the project.

In 2011, Cork City Council dispensed with Gavin’s services and decided to press ahead with the project with other contractors after he said he was embarrassed to be associated with it.

Gavin might not be so embarrassed now, as his iconic pod is already drawing hundreds of admirers.

Today and tomorrow a series of festivities will greet locals and visitors alike, with organisers praying for good weather.

Not for the first time: To quote the Cork Examiner of May 1, 1902, “If fair skies favour today’s comprehensive function, it should be a joyous as well as a memorable day for Cork and her myriad visitors.”

That was by way of preamble to the Cork International Exhibition, an audacious showcase of industry and art at the beginning of the 20th century. This was a time of buoyant hope and relative prosperity before war, revolution, and destruction cast a shadow over the city and far beyond.

Though a small city by international standards, Cork has always punched above its weight, making an exhibition of itself on three occasions — 1852, 1883, and 1902.

The last of these was judged such a success that it was kept going for a further year to allow King Edward VII to attend.

The 1902 exhibition took place in what was to become Fitzgerald Park, named after Edward Fitzgerald, then Lord Mayor of Cork and the driving force behind it.

The site chosen was an area of parkland between the Cork County Cricket Grounds and Wellington Bridge. The plans were imaginative and ambitious and promised to be the most spectacular exhibition ever hosted in Cork.

The grounds were laid out meticulously, with pavilions, kiosks, ornamental walks, tea houses, an enormous water chute, and a switchback railway featuring among the attractions. Exhibition halls were built and a house on the grounds named ‘The Shrubberies’ was renamed the Mansion House for the duration of the exhibition. It was originally a private residence built by the brewer Charles Beamish on land he had purchased from the Duke of Devonshire.

The event had attracted exhibitors and visitors from across the globe and surpassed all expectations. After it officially closed on November 1, 1902, it was decided to stage a similar exhibition in 1903. This show repeated the success of its predecessor and was graced by a visit from King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra who, although less than welcome on the streets of the city, were feted in the Mansion House.

The Cork International Exhibition finally closed on October 31, 1903 and Edward Fitzgerald was created a baronet for his troubles.

An illustrated history of Edwardian Cork as seen through the records of the International Exhibition has just been published by the Irish Academic Press.

Written by Dan Breen, assistant curator at Cork Public Museum, and historian Tom Spalding, its colour illustrations give visual breadth to this spectacular occasion.

“They had experience of hosting smaller ones down by where the City Hall is now, but this was a much bigger step-up in terms of logistics and organisation,” Breen explains.

“They were very innovative. They saw what Glasgow had to offer and were determined to do it better — and they did. The whole thing was done in 14 months and I cannot see anything of that scale being done today. They made enough money from it to purchase the land. At first it was going to be called Exhibition Park but, for obvious reasons, it became Fitzgerald Park.”

This weekend’s opening is unlikely to match the glory of 1902 but promises a full programme of free entertainment, beginning at noon today until 6pm tomorrow.

“This weekend will showcase what the ‘new’ Fitzgerald Park can be,” says Cork City Council project engineer Aoife Mahony.

“The changes really enhance the park experience. It should be a weekend to remember. ”

For further details go to corkcity.ie

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