Michael Moynihan: Should we start marketing Cork as a destination of death and misery?

Michael Moynihan: Should we start marketing Cork as a destination of death and misery?

An aerial view of Spike Island. "What is it that makes a family get up on a Saturday morning and say, ‘you know what lads, we’ll go to a prison, that’ll be a fun day out,'" asks Gillian O’Brien of Liverpool John Moores University.

Everything looks to be on track to open up again (hopefully: no jinxing allowed).

That includes mass tourism, with any luck. And that includes buses to Blarney, streams of people to west Cork, beaches packed in Youghal. All the signifiers of holidaymakers.

Are we missing out on a vital element of tourism, though? Are we missing out on marketing Cork as a location for ... dark tourism?

If you have questions, I have the answers. Dr Gillian O’Brien of Liverpool John Moores University wrote the book on this topic (The Darkness Echoing: Exploring Ireland's Places of Famine, Death and Rebellion) so I asked her for a definition.

“Dark tourism is basically going to visit any site which has something to do with death, or misery, or suffering.

“The darkest of such sites would be somewhere like a concentration camp, where a visit is almost a pilgrimage. You don’t have shops selling souvenirs. It’s not trivialised in any way.

“But while other places may not be quite as dark, they may be associated with unhappy histories, and Ireland is full of those. In my book I had chapters on death, famine, emigration, disasters and so on.

“I started the project when I was working on a project on Spike Island, and I was thinking, what is it that makes a family get up on a Saturday morning and say, ‘you know what lads, we’ll go to a prison, that’ll be a fun day out.’ And I know what makes them do that, because I’m exactly that kind of person.” 

Her initial project was aimed at visiting eleven sites around the country but grew to encompass some two hundred locations.

“I was wondering why we focused on the bad stuff, and not positive parts of our history.

“I think part of that is up to 1922 there’s one bad guy — the English — and we don’t have to take responsibility for the bad things that happened. What happens after 1922 is on us.”

 What’s also interesting is a telling distinction. Tourism doesn’t have to equate to rampant commercialism: exploitation isn’t a given in commemoration, though we often link the two in our minds.

O’Brien agreed. Though without exonerating herself.

The ill-fated Titanic. 
The ill-fated Titanic. 

“If you go to the Titanic museum in Belfast you can get a snow globe there, and when you shake it there’s silver glitter falling on the boat. So it looks like shards of ice are falling on the Titanic, which is permanently under water ... It’s so tasteless — 1,500 people drowned in that disaster.

But I also bought a Titanic bath toy which squeaks and sinks in the bath. Who sat down and thought that would be a great idea?

 Anything nearer to home?

“If you go to the Michael Collins House in Clonakilty you can get buy a Foxford rug which is the same design as the rug Collins had when he was shot. You’re thinking, ‘lads, really?'"

 O’Brien was only warming up at this point.

“Commemorative chocolate for 1916 was one thing, but bullets were fired into the Shelbourne Hotel in 1916 so on the anniversary they issued a commemorative whiskey glass with a bullet embedded in it.

“Then there’s the 19 Crimes wine from Australia. Its label features the images of Irish convicts, including some Fenians, and the ’19 Crimes’ refers to the most common crimes they were convicted of.

“There’s an app involved, so you can hold your smartphone to the label and the convicts then become active on your phone and tell you about their crimes. “ 

We’re beyond taste at this stage, clearly.

“Yes. Total kitsch. But while part of me thinks ‘this is awful’, another part is thinking ..."

 How many can I squeeze into the car?

“Yes. You can totally have two contradictory thoughts in your head. 

The Titanic stuff I find tasteless because so many people died, and, in fairness, you don’t see that kind of stuff regarding the Famine

“And also, a lot of these places, like prison museums, have to generate money to stay open. I still find it bizarre that people can get married in a former prison, but I’m very sympathetic also to the people trying to keep those places going.” True enough.

The darkness isn’t always immediately visible, by the way. O’Brien used Lover’s Walk in Cork as an illustration: “That’s nice in English but in Irish it’s Siul na Lobhar, the walk of the lepers. Not quite as romantic.

“Go into the centre of the city to the Grand Parade and you see the sign, it’s Sraid an Capall Bui, which refers to the statue which used to be on the street — so again there’s a history which isn’t immediately obvious from the street as it is now.” Sometimes it’s even harder to find, she added.

“I’m working on a project at the moment with Jessie Castle, who’s based in Cork, about the links between Cork and the slave trade. Walking around the old historic centre, and the amazing old houses, steps down to where the boats used to put in.

“But even as you admire them you have to wonder, ‘where did all this money come from?’ “Then you start thinking, ‘all that salt beef and butter that left the city a couple of centuries ago, where was that going, and what else were those ships carrying?’

 “Cork’s wealth tells a great story, but it’s not all positive when it comes to empire and slavery. I’m not the only person to look at this but not a huge amount has been done on it.

“Something like the Burning of Cork dominates our perspective, and deservedly so, but what that means is we don’t look at earlier history as closely, such as the built environment which dates back to eighteenth-century Cork.”


American journalist, author, former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1817 - 1895). 
American journalist, author, former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1817 - 1895). 

The ironies begin to pile up pretty quickly here. Recently Cork hosted a Frederick Douglass week, centred on the welcome given to the anti-slavery campaigner when he visited the city in 1845 — witness the commemorative plaque in the Imperial Hotel.

“I thought that was really interesting,” said O’Brien.

“That huge focus on one man coming to Cork who was feted.

“I thought maybe something that was missing from the events of Douglass Week was an acknowledgement that in the case of some of the people who celebrated Douglass when he came to Cork, part of their money had come from enslaved people. That’s something Jessie and I are working on.”

 This is interesting. It’s great to see the visit of Frederick Douglass to Cork celebrated, but as O’Brien points out, the hinterland to that visit needs to be brought into the open as well. How many people have made that connection — that the beautiful Georgian houses which give the city such character may be built on so much misery?

We can all be dismissive of tourists as merely skimming the surface of the places they visit, but this is a situation where a tourist’s insuring mindset could be enlightening for residents.

It’s all the story of Cork. Darkness and light.

(Dr Gillian O’Brien gives a talk today as part of Cork Book Week: see https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/cork-world-book-festival-dr-gillian-obrien-tickets-144450149285?aff=erelexpmlt)

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