Michael Moynihan: Cork is the ideal size for snobbery and always has been

Michael Moynihan: Cork is the ideal size for snobbery and always has been

Blackrock Castle silhouetted against early morning dawn light in Blackrock, Cork. Snobbery in Cork is a closed book to outsiders unless they are willing to put in the hard work that allows them to recognise the subtleties involved.
Picture:  David Creedon / Anzenberger

Last week I had a coffee down in Blackrock, on that nice horseshoe-shaped seating area around the little inlet.

It’s a lovely amenity, one which should be replicated in a few more places along the waterfront of the city. If the notion is to turn Cork towards the river eventually, why not convince people with real facilities like that?

That’s a topic I intend to return to here shortly, by the way, but if that happens I hope such amenities are not infested by the likes of the two ladies who sat along from me last week.

It wasn’t the volume at which they spoke, and their perfume wasn’t objectionable at all, but the conversation itself was a hilarious overlapping of duelling commentary.\

Oneupmanship about overachieving daughters and summer homes and provisional holiday plans which left me ... my best metaphor would be bobbing in a hot tub loaded with bath bombs of snobbery, with a lather of pretentiousness covering everybody’s skin (please stop for everyone’s sake — ed).

I bailed out — if their plan was to take my seat they only had to ask — but later, after I got home, I felt compelled to reach out to the acknowledged master in this field, Ask Audrey of this parish (mistress is the preferred term — A. A.).

She confirmed that in order to gather the stories she dissects every week, she places operatives at key locations who simply have to open their ears.

And hold their noses, if my experience is anything to go by.

Still, Cork snobbery is a fascinating topic to me and always has been. This is partly because Cork is the ideal size for snobbery and always has been.

 A reflected view of the River Lee at Tivoli viewed from The Marina. Picture: Larry Cummins
A reflected view of the River Lee at Tivoli viewed from The Marina. Picture: Larry Cummins

(For instance, the two loud arrivistes in Blackrock didn't even get their coffees in Pronto. Imagine!) Dublin, on the other hand, is just too big. 

This is not to say that there is no snobbery in Dublin, because there is, but it’s too broad-brush, too generalised. 

There are swathes of the capital which are unknown to those living in other parts of the city, which gives a surprisingly parochial tinge to the snobbery.

From the outside it looks like a simple northside-southside division, but that’s always seemed to me like an appeal to the lowest common denominator. If the river ran east-west then the geographical/social division would be equally random and meaningless

In my years working there (consider me a UN observer of the social-climbing Dub) I can recall a friend, native to the capital, rolling his eyes at what he called the great Dublin snobbery giveaway.

That consisted of people agonising or being vague about their postcodes, this being a time when Dublin was the only place in Ireland with numbers involved in addresses. Odd number? Northside of the city. Even? Southern.

This man’s great obsession was Dublin 6W — a subdivision of the area of Dublin 6 which he often claimed, with some heat, was simple pandering to those in the general vicinity who were outside Dublin 6 proper but wanted whatever cachet was attached to being associated with that area even when the city eventually expanded beyond the recognised boundary of Dublin 6 ... hence the ‘W’, introduced to placate them.

See the point about being too parochial?

Of course, some people in Cork have tried to apply the northside-southside template to the city here, but I feel sorry for them, frankly. Cork snobbery is far too nuanced to be characterised like that.

In evidence I enter the work of Sean Dunne, the late lamented poet whose writing illuminated this newspaper in the nineties.

As a Waterford city native — his memoir In My Father’s House is a fantastic read  — Sean was able to bring an anthropologist’s eye to the many shades and stylings of the Cork snob.

He delineated the Shandon Snob and the Rochestown Snob, but some of his best field work was done when, strolling along North Main Street, he suddenly came across another example, much like a fossil-hunter on a remote dig somewhere in the Kalahari: the Middle Parish Snob.

In 1993 he wrote that the Middle Parish Snob: “ ... walks slowly through the streets ... knew Katty Barry when she was six and when she was sixty ... thinks of the Middle Parish as an independent area bounded on all sides by outlying suburbs of a place called Cork ...  (was inhabited by) shawlies who had nothing but whose sons and daughters grow up to become big doctors, big professors up in the College, big guards, small Mother Superiors, big teachers and big JBC drivers in Boston, Texas and Camden Town.

“The Middle Parish Snob has no time for others who claim to be Corkonians.” 

Sean’s work on the delicate differences between the snobs of Cork deserves a wider, modern audience, if only for the slightly awkward laughter it might provoke among those recognising themselves for what they truly are in his descriptions.

He would surely have been appalled, on the other hand, by the crudity I once witnessed in a large office in Leinster House, one with TV monitors covering what was going on in the main chamber of the Dáil.

At this particular moment a TD was on his feet making a point about something or other — a pleasant gentleman most would rank as mid-table among our parliamentarians — when someone from the same county piped up from a desk nearby: “To think he used to make deliveries to our house.” I don’t enjoy tormenting readers by keeping the details cloudy, but it’s probably best for all concerned if I do so here.

I can recall, however, that the next weekend I was in Cork I shared that story when I met a couple of friends for a drink. After I finished, someone else joined our group.

‘You won’t believe the story he just told us,’ said one of the earlier arrivals. ‘The snobbery would stun a buffalo.’ ‘Wait a second,’ said the latecomer. ‘If it’s snobbery, can I guess the county?’ And he was correct with his first try. He told us that he had once put down a couple of weeks with work there and had returned to Cork with his head reeling from tales of spoiled priests, counterjumpers, grabbers, squatters and social climbers.

‘Each one of them was trying to blacken the names of everybody else,’ he concluded.

He didn’t need to add that snobbery in Cork is a closed book to outsiders unless they are willing, as Sean Dunne was, to put in the hard work that allows them to recognise the subtleties involved.

My all-time favourite example comes from a well-known department store in Cork in the early nineties.

There was a clearance sale and a lady approached the till with one of the bargains of the day, four mugs for two pounds or some such.

The shop assistant rang up the purchase and popped the mugs in a plastic bag: ‘There you go, they’re a fine job, aren’t they?’ ‘They are indeed,’ said the lady, handing over the money. ‘We use Stephen Pearce ourselves but the builders are coming in to do a job for us next week.’

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