After years of warnings and calls for action, it now appears almost certain that the blaze, which has destroyed the St Kevin’s unit on the grounds of the former Our Lady’s Hospital complex on the Lee Road, was started deliberately.
Lord Mayor Tony Fitzgerald, who stood alongside hundreds of onlookers on the banks of the Lee on Tuesday and watched the building burn, was among those to have, over the years, called for the site to be considered by various state bodies for housing development.
“We have a housing and student accommodation crisis in our city — this would have been an ideal site to address that crisis,” he said.
“And when you think about the cost of security on a premises like this, you’d have to think that it could have been better spent addressing the problems.
“The building has a sad past but it deserved a better future, had we been given the opportunity to do so.
“It’s just so sad to witness the collapse of parts of the building, before our eyes.”
He said he plans to convene a meeting of city and HSE officials in due course to discuss the status of the building now, and what, if anything, can be done to save it.
“But just standing here now, I can’t see how this building can be maintained,” said Mr Fitzgerald.
He also paid tribute to the members of the fire service, under the command of third officer, Gerry Myers, who battled for almost eight hours to bring the blaze under control and managed to save a third of its roof.
The alarm was raised at 8.17pm on Tuesday and eight units of the Cork City Fire Brigade, including two hydraulic platforms and two water tankers, one from Mallow, rushed to the scene.
The fire had taken hold in the roof area and upper floors by 9pm and up to 28 firefighters were involved in the operation at the height of the blaze.
Amid concerns about the integrity of the external walls, and following the collapse of a gable and parapets, they had to pull back for a time and reposition their appliances.
It was 4am before the blaze was fully under control. Firefighters remained on the scene yesterday damping down small pockets of fire inside.
The building was closed in 2002 and boarded up.
Within months, it became a magnet for anti-social activity, with its internal walls covered with graffiti, floor boards burned through by smaller fires, and needles and other drug paraphernalia littered throughout the building.
In 2008, former Fine Gael TD Bernard Allen called on the HSE to find an alternative use for the building after it emerged the State had, between 2002 and 2007, spent €1,590,975 on security at the site — more than €300,000 a year, or nearly €6,000 a week.
He said at the time: “This is one of the biggest derelict sites in Cork and it has been left to decay for years. Not only is it attracting antisocial behaviour and vandalism it is also costing the Irish taxpayer hundreds of thousands of euro.
“If they are going to sell the site, they should sell it. If they are not, they should put it to good use.”
Just months after a fire in 2013 gutted the former Good Shepherd convent building nearby, Fine Gael senator Colm Burke also raised concerns about the vacant buildings on the former mental hospital complex site, which at that point had been derelict for a decade.
He called on the HSE to devise a strategy to deal with the neglect of the buildings.
“We can’t just leave it sitting there. The HSE must actively explore what interest there may be in some form of development on the site,” he said at the time.
The issue had also been raised at local council level on numerous occasions over the years, including as recently as last month.
Sinn Féin councillor Thomas Gould, who has been calling for years for the building to be used to address the city’s housing crisis, said he was “livid” in the wake of the fire.
“There needs to be accountability,” said Mr Gould. “Who is responsible for letting it go into ruin?”