One of the great retorts your columnist relied on during a long exile in Dublin centred on the river winding its way through the capital.
Or its effect on the city, to be more precise. When Dubliners started with the northside-southside slagging, it was all too easy to point out that in Cork, the mechanisms of snobbery were far too sophisticated to rely on that kind of crudity.
All of which dips some recent developments in a fine glaze of irony.
In the last couple of weeks, arsonists have vandalised the Glen River Park on Cork’s northside.
As reported by Eoin English of this parish: “Firefighters were called to the area on Wednesday evening after a large fire was reported along a south-facing ridge. An area about the size of two football pitches was destroyed.
“Firefighters were called to the park again on Thursday evening when the ridge on the opposite side of the valley was torched. Environmentalists, who have been highlighting the park’s potential throughout the pandemic, posted heartbreaking images on social media of the incinerated remains of animals, including pygmy shrew … and also criticised what they said was a slow response by the authorities to the fires.”
One of the critics on social media asked a valid question: If Fitzgerald’s Park were set ablaze, would the authorities be slow to react?
If at first glance you think this is a tad excessive, consider this intervention from Green Party councillor Oliver Moran on the same incident, as reported by Eoin: “There is a deep irony that the park ranger for the Tramore Valley Park is run from the Glen Resource Centre when the Glen River Park itself is without one.”
Yes, you read that correctly. The park ranger for Tramore Valley Park is based nearly three miles away on the northside, right next to a park which has ... no park ranger of its own.
Maybe there’s something in this northside-southside thing after all, particularly when you drill into the background and look at decisions taken both long ago and more recent instances of neglect.
For instance, a couple of years ago a book about the 80s in Cork outlined the neglect of the northern flank of the city decades earlier.
“For instance, a quick roll call of significant Cork institutions created in the 60s and 70s would include serious, prestigious employers such as the Cork Institute of Technology/Regional Technical College, Cork University Hospital/Regional Hospital, the IDA Technology Park, and the area headquarters of FAS, the ESB and the Cork Gas Company respectively.
“All were located south of the river, providing over 10,000 jobs in those areas — jobs which were largely unaffected by the closures of the 1980s (with the exception of the Cork Gas Company).
“In contrast, once the 80s rolled around the North Infirmary, the only general hospital on the northside of the city, was shut down.” (I know the man who wrote it, he won’t mind me quoting him.)
At the other end of the timescale, as recently as February, Thomas Gould TD, who represents the northside, was part of a protest at City Hall and presented some startling figures.
As reported by the The Echo, Mr Gould said that in the past year there had been four major announcements of funding, beginning with last February’s Sustainable Transport Funding, which saw 31 projects worth €15.8m going to the southside, while just 12 projects, worth €5.8m, went to the northside.
He added that TII (Transport Infrastructure Ireland) roads funding had seen an allocation of €1.16m for the Kinsale Road against €300,000 for the Northern Ring Road, and in the recent Active Travel investment grants 2022, the southern side of the city was allocated 29 projects worth €18.6m. Against that, just 13 projects worth €4.9m, went to the northside.
On one hand, the north-south divide can be a matter of good-humoured banter.
As a very small child in Blackpool, I can recall overhearing the adults nearby trying to trace every member of a large family, but were stumped when it came to one particular brother.
“He got married and went away to the southside,” was the last word, delivered in the same tone used to describe someone heading for Valparaiso or Wagga Wagga: communication was theoretically possible, but the person had removed themselves to deliberately avoid contact with civilisation.
There comes a point, though, when the joking has to stop.
The ‘divided city’ is quite the topic in American urban studies, for instance. Such cities can range from clearly segregated places such as Belfast, Jerusalem, and Beirut to what one source describes as moderately divided cities where divisions occur largely due to production processes, class, race, and gender relations, increasing inequality between the rich and the poor, and urban segregation.
One of the experts in the area is Alan Mallach, whose book The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America was published a few years ago. As you might expect from the title, his work focuses largely on US cities, but what’s worrying is that a good deal of what he says is applicable here also.
For instance, in an interview, Mallach was asked what specific issues can trouble a divided city: “In recent years, we’ve seen a series of trends that have destabilised those neighbourhoods, and in many cases, sent them into free fall.
“First, subprime lending and foreclosures. Second, and closely related to the first, major shifts from owner-occupancy to absentee ownership, leading to increasing poverty and declining maintenance.”
In other words, dereliction.
The prevalence of dereliction all over the city, but particularly on the northside, is a relatively recent marker of division, or second-class status, but as evidenced by the work of Frank O’Connor and Jude Sherry, it’s another indicator of the lack of investment on the northside.
The fact that the northside rubs along and survives despite this neglect is almost by the way. In the same interview, Mallach added that: “A city can survive — and many American small cities do — with little economy, in the classic sense, by relying on the social safety net (federal grants, social security, educational grants).
"This system, which I call the urban transfer payment economy, enables even the most depressed place to survive, but not to thrive.”
Surviving but not thriving. It could fit on a T-shirt.
The recent fires in the Glen take their place in a long list, with entries as various as the overpass which pancaked Blackpool or the lack of a ring road, comparable to the southern equivalent, to facilitate transport north of the river.
It’s not that the authorities are unaware of this, either.
Three years ago Cork City Council chief executive Ann Doherty told a business breakfast meeting: “I’d be concerned that people of the northside do not feel part of the city, because they very much are.”
Caring for the Glen River Park would be a good place to show that.