‘YOU DON’T have to sell Cork to me, Huw. After all, to me it’s the most important city in the world. It doesn’t have the spectacular Georgian beauty of Dublin, but it has a quiet charm of its own. You always feel that Dublin is going to get up and address you as if you were at a public meeting, but in Cork, you get the impression that at any moment you may meet one of Jane Austen’s old ladies among the bow-fronted houses.”
We’ll begin with Frank O’Connor’s famous description of Cork, delivered to Huw Wheldon of the BBC when the pair visited the city for a documentary programme in the ‘60s.
And our reason for doing so? Put it this way — it’s connected to the recent teacup-sized tempest that arose after Richard Quest of CNN referred to Cork in less than glowing terms.
Quest’s day job means his piercing bark is familiar to hotel room occupants all over the world and has sound-tracked many a badly-judged room service request. It’s difficult not to imagine his comments in that distinctive transatlantic rasp.
“Some of the places look tatty,” he’s reported as saying. “I thought that in Cork.
I loved the [English] Market, but the buildings look tired downtown.
There was a time when the response to this kind of comment followed a well-worn track, a recognised sequence of events: local media up in arms, and a vox pop of cranky city residents calling him names on TV; statements of condemnation issued by local authorities and all commercial bodies; an eventual half-apology and semi-retraction by the individual concerned held up as vindication for the metropolitan area, and a tacky staged photograph of individual holding up a prized product from the area. Foodstuff, preferably.
One of the key salvoes would take the form of ad hominem attacks, with the critic’s place of origin held up to ridicule before a determined assault on his credibility — as a journalist, as an architectural critic, as a human being.
His appearance and fashion sense would be thrashed, his accent exposed as inauthentic, his glasses derided.
Is that happening in this case, though? Not really, for a number of reasons.
First, speaking as a journalist offering his thoughts on a subject, the notion of a journalist offering his thoughts on a subject as somehow setting the agenda or forming the final word on that subject is seductive but unrealistic.
This isn’t a diss of Richard Quest, as the kids might say, just a statement of the facts.
Second, if you take spurious lists of top holiday destinations seriously when they list Cork and its associated locations as world-beating, then you have to take the negatives as well.
You can’t cherrypick your ratings, though you can question their fundamental integrity.
Third, it’s not as if Quest said he was borne aloft on a throne of gold around the rest of the country. If you look into his comments on Dublin and the rest of Ireland, for instance, he was equally frank (“Go down to the Spire, what do you see? Shops closed. This is not unique to Dublin. And it’s not just urban blight, it’s the result of the pandemic . . . In London and New York, I see the same, but there, new businesses are opening up. I don’t know how long it’s going to take to happen in Ireland.”)
However, the most essential point to be made about Quest’s comments is also the most obvious, and the single biggest reason he’s not being burnt in effigy along the quays of Cork: on the available evidence he’s not wrong at all.
Long-time readers of this column will be familiar with our endorsement of the work of Frank O’Connor and Jude Sherry, whose relentless chronicling of dereliction in Cork has spread to other towns and cities around the country.
The dereliction is everywhere you look, and it would be defying the evidence of your own eyes to say otherwise.
No one can deny that there are parts of Cork which certainly look tatty and tired. In retrospect, Quest’s terms look like the kind of politeness one might expect from a kind-hearted visitor, but which drift a little from the harsh reality. There are zones in Cork that are derelict and dilapidated, abandoned, ravaged and ruined.
That’s one significant reason I suspect the usual ‘how-dare-he, where-is-he-from-himself’ knee-jerk reaction has been conspicuous by its absence: because people recognise the essential truth of what Quest said, which is fair enough.
It’s significant, for instance, that newspaper headlines declaring the Taoiseach was defending Cork against Quest’s allegations, directed readers, in actuality, to comments from the Taoiseach such as:
We have to take on board what people coming to visit say, and there is no doubt the city’s going through a transformative period in terms of the city centres of the future.
That sounds like acknowledgement of reality to me.
All of which brings us back, eventually, to beginning this piece with those comments from Frank O’Connor to Huw Wheldon.
The great man made back lanes and narrow alleys all over Cork immortal with his short stories, and his affection for his home city is evident in the clips you can see online from that programme, but it’s interesting to see him describe Cork as ‘important’, not ‘beautiful’. He was no misty-eyed romantic about the city.
When he revisited Cork with Wheldon he was a full half-century beyond childhood, but the reality of what he had experienced was still vivid.
“There was poverty here in those days and there still is,” he told Wheldon.
“Behind all the gracious houses there are the lanes of little country cabins, each of them with its two rooms and the loft overhead. And not a few dozen of them either but scores, hundreds perhaps of them.
“They may not look so squalid now but believe me, they were hell to live in. I spent the first six years of my life in 251 Blarney Lane, my mother and father and myself sleeping in the one tiny room.
“And mind you, we were aristocrats compared with the families of eight and 10 who lived and died in them.”
That is why Quest’s comments haven’t lit the kind of fire that one might have expected.
For a city and county usually associated with robust self-regard, an honesty with ourselves — and about ourselves — is necessary for any sort of progress.
Interestingly, almost 60 years ago, O’Connor estimated that Cork’s “mental age” was about 18 and a half. Maybe the recent reaction shows we’ve put a couple of years on that and come to the hard-earned maturity of the mid-20s.
There can be no disloyalty in accepting that there are flaws in one’s home place. As we’ve seen with dereliction, the problems only arise when those flaws are accepted as normality.