Digging into the past of rich history

NOTHING stands still: not time, not the ground we stand on, and certainly not a city.

One of the two sites proposed for an events and concert centre in Cork could be a place where a happening city hub of the future revisits its equivalent of the recent past of boozing, night-clubbing and pill-popping (think Sir Henry’s nightclub across the road), as well as the more distant, medieval, primitive ‘club to the head’ past.

The suddenly redundant Beamish and Crawford brewing plant in the city’s South Main Street & stands on a site steeped in history; from ancient estuarine marsh to St FinBarre’s arrival, and from the Vikings to the Normans and the rest of us latter-day arrivals. Now, after a 21st century brewery amalgamation, it’s back to Dutch parental control via Heineken. It’s a racing certainty that the old, founding, Hiberno-Norse city walls run under a goodly portion of this profile city site of continuing promise, by the venerable South Gate Bridge. Previous examinations, when the site was still an active brewery, found evidence of the old walls, and former city archaeologist Maurice Hurley has found clear signs of medieval settlement stratigraphy.

There’s still a late-medieval feel to this city quadrant, an enclave/enclosure of defensive social security in a brooding river bend between the humpy arched Clarkes and South Gate Bridges, with the watchful early 17th century Elizabeth Fort standing on a limestone bluff or outcrop above, off Barrack Street.

The next phase of activity on the Beamish and Crawford site is in the lap of the Gods (well, of An Bord Pleanala), after Cork City Council gave an initial green light to a €150m mixed development for the four-plus acres, to include a 5,000 seat concert/events centre. While there’s rich archaeology underfoot, the site also has evident abundance of industrial archaeology on the surface; a recent art installation by artist Dorothy Cross brought hundreds of visitors to marvel at its lofty stone buildings and working-brewery pedigree.

Earlier on the site hosted the Spiegeltent during the Midsummer Festival: while still holding shades of a medieval past, it has a musical flavour lingering from recent decades of Sir Henry’s nightclub.

Archaeologist John Heffernan worked on the Sir Henry’s/Grand Parade sites dig a few years ago, and recalls “they not just yielded the oldest evidence of Hiberno-Norse Cork, but provided all us Celtic Tiger archaeologists with a taste of the Indiana Jones’ life, which falsely lured us all in the first place! In the Sir Henry’s dig, we had a stratigraphic history of Cork from Clubbing right down to Clubbing! Most days, someone would shout in asking us to look out for the bag of pills he lost in the club in ‘93 — Witty! We reached down through medieval Cork to the original wattle and daub houses of the first Norse and Irish settlers down to other clubbing, as in, ‘here’s a polished stone axe to the cranium, St Finbarr: Gold, please!’”

Heffernan more prosaically explains that Cork’s situation on a marsh meant that preservation was excellent.

The Sir Henry’s dig unearthed perfectly preserved artefacts, including immaculately preserved shoes, with stitch-work perfectly embalmed.

There‘s no doubt but that the B&C site is rich in archaeology, Heffernan agrees: after all, it is in a direct line of previously-explored, fecund medieval sites on North Main Street, Washington Street, Tuckey Street and South Main Street, while the public park on Grand Parade has a clear exposition of the old city walls, unearthed and left visible since the 1970/80s.

With National Heritage Week coming up at the end of this month and with medieval Cork again in focus during it, the wider community will be reminded of the obvious and not so-obvious riches beneath our feet of clay. Therein lies the paradox of archaeology: to get back to the past and to understand it, we have to destroy it.

It’s likely that whatever new development goes on the Beamish and Crawford site will be built on top of rich layers of past urbanisation, (notably, there’ll be no underground parking or ‘services,’) but they may now be left for future exploration.

The suggestion is that , rather than digging out the entire site, it will be rafted or have piled foundations, so that whatever is currently buried underground will be left largely undisturbed, for other generations and future technologies to unearth. There’s over 200 pages of archaeological reports in the B&C planning file. But, the bottom line is that the riches of the past will have another layer of use put on top, they won’t stand in the way of the potential of new uses.

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