Michael Moynihan: Building an appreciation of Cork's architectural heritage

Nothing is more crucial to acknowledging heritage than cataloguing it; by establishing exactly what it is, we have a better chance of preserving it
Michael Moynihan: Building an appreciation of Cork's architectural heritage

Shandon steeple and the Church of St Anne, Shandon, Cork: Frank Keohane has written a comprehensive architectural guide called 'Cork: City and County'. Picture: Larry Cummins

I don’t have to spell out the question, because the answer I got will do that for you.

“My favourite streetscape in Cork City is Emmet Place,” says Frank Keohane.

“The fact that it was once the harbour with the customs house ... I loved it when Johnson & Perrott was still there, a business that started with carriages.

“It’s not quite the same with Opera Lane, but if you go and stand outside the Opera House and you look up to Shandon and across to St Mary’s, it’s terrific. The Mardyke is hard to beat as well.

It’s difficult to pick out a favourite building, but Turner’s Cross Church is fantastic, one of the finest buildings of its time in Ireland. It’s been really well cared for over the years and is great both internally and externally.

“St Fin Barre’s Cathedral is really fantastic and very different to Turner’s Cross. The Honan Chapel, Charles Fort in Kinsale, these are great buildings.

“The old Mansion House – now the Mercy Hospital – is a great building and many people don’t realise it was once the lord mayor of Cork’s residence, and the finest mayor’s residence in Ireland. Obviously as a Cork man, I like to get one over on Dublin.” 

I tracked down Frank Keohane when I became aware of his book, Cork: City and County, which is one of the Pevsner Architectural Guides (Buildings of Ireland).

These are comprehensive volumes, serious studies. They’re not breezy guidebooks that you dip into when you’re trying to track down the best three doughnut outlets in the city centre. 

The idea, Frank told me, is to convey the information about the building “in a very quick, easily accessible way. Some writers might write lengthy discussions about the buildings and give their opinions, without giving the information you need.

“It’s an architectural guide and is very rigorous in that way – the idea is that it’s a single volume and, originally I suppose, you tucked it into your tweed jacket pocket as you travelled.

“These days, you might just fit it into your car’s glove compartment, but the idea is still that it’d be the definitive architectural guide to a county or city in Ireland.

 'It goes into the 20th century, to CIT’s [Cork Institute of Technology's] campus.'

'It goes into the 20th century, to CIT’s [Cork Institute of Technology's] campus.'

“It has to cover all buildings of significance. The earliest [in Cork] would be the Drombeg stone circle and ring forts, but it goes into the 20th century, to CIT’s [Cork Institute of Technology's] campus and the Glucksman Gallery in UCC. It’s intended to be definitive as of the date of publication.

“In some ways it’s very dry, but that’s the writing style for this particular series and you have to learn to write in that particular way.” 

An attentive reader, of course, will pick out an obvious question. Who decides what’s a significant building in Cork? What are the criteria?

It’s up to the author, he told me: “You’ll find some authors are more interested in country houses, some are more interested in medieval buildings, so there can be a slightly different nuance between different volumes.

“Some authors would have very little interest in 20th-century buildings, and a couple of buildings I should have included were the R&H Hall grain towers on the quays in Cork.

“I was convinced they’d be demolished by the time the book was published, so there wouldn’t be much point in including them – but they’re still sitting there.

“It’s subjective to a certain extent and there are a few buildings I included which I don’t particularly like, but they had to be included.” 

Including all the buildings – liked and disliked – took a while. It took Frank over 10 years to finish the work. In fairness, he was working full time as an architectural historian and chartered building surveyor and, as he points out, events sometimes overtook him.

“St Kevin’s burnt down. The Good Shepherd Convent was burnt, so did Fort William behind Silver Springs.

“So did Vernon Mount above Douglas. The church tower in Innishannon collapsed.

“There was a lot of research involved. There was one book before this [ A Portrait Of Cork], written by a former city architect, but he didn’t include any references.

“He came to conclusions I didn’t come to, but it was brave of him to put his views out there. I’m not taking from what he did.” 

Your columnist is no expert in architecture or design – as the saying goes, I know what I like and I like what I know – but changes to the built environment in Cork, and elsewhere, tend to produce sharp reactions.

This led me to ask Frank if Ireland takes its built environment for granted.

“I would say yes, though I’m not entirely sure other countries are much better.

“What I’d say is that we take some things for granted, particularly the buildings we see every day. A lot of the buildings in our towns and cities are quite simple, but that’s because that’s what was needed. I don’t think there’s an adequate appreciation of our older buildings among the public and our elected representatives.

“And it’s not the great buildings I’m talking about. I’m staying in Midleton, a good, strong town; a good main street with lots of good buildings. Some of them may be appreciated more than others, but it makes for a very attractive environment.

“There are different shop fronts, some very nice door cases, key focal points like the bank at the top of the street, the market house, the mill buildings ...

It’d be lovely to live in a town or city in which every building is architecturally astonishing, but that's not really the way the world works.” 

This “lack of appreciation” has a real-world application, by the way.

Cork county receives the least amount of funding for conservation of buildings in the whole of the country.

“Grant money is given out each year for conservation but, when you divide it out between the number of buildings – protected structures – then Cork gets the least.

“Leitrim, by contrast, gets seven times more per protected structure. A bit of a disparity, to say the least.” 

This is the kind of book that Cork needs, because nothing is more crucial to acknowledging heritage than cataloguing it; by establishing exactly what it is, we have a better chance of preserving it.

Frank’s work over the past decade is central to maintaining and preserving a central element in Cork’s sense of itself – the buildings and streets that help to form the very identity of the city and county. Picture: Dan Linehan

Frank’s work over the past decade is central to maintaining and preserving a central element in Cork’s sense of itself – the buildings and streets that help to form the very identity of the city and county. Picture: Dan Linehan

Woolly notions of what’s important and what isn’t don’t serve any purpose, which is why Frank’s work over the past decade is central to maintaining and preserving a central element in Cork’s sense of itself – the buildings and streets that help to form the very identity of the city and county.

“Generally, there’s less interest in our built heritage than in other aspects of our heritage, such as our traditional sports heritage," says Frank.

“I would have less of an interest in our sports heritage, but I believe these elements all have a place in our heritage, because that makes up our culture, and our culture makes us what we are.

“These buildings create towns, villages and cities, which are attractive places to live, work and shop in, and we can lose those quite quickly if we don’t care for it.” 

Well said. And well done for a service rendered to his home place.

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