WATCH: A retreat from busy city life

Nano Nagle Place, known locally in Cork as the South Pres, has buildings and grounds transformed into an oasis of almost spiritual calm, says Tommy Barker

YOU don’t have to be overly religious, or religious at all, to simply say ‘Praise be’, and to count secular blessings.

Cork city has a new public space, a green lung; gardens to inspire calm and contemplation, publicly accessible niches between 18th century buildings slowly revealing their past, and thousands of footsteps gone before you, many vocationally so.

There are education and community support facilities, a visitor and citizen attraction and heritage centre, and a religious shrine. Further, in phase 11, a contemporary building (hush! hush!, it’s still in negotiations) is set to accommodate a transplanted UCC/CIT joint School of Architecture, housing 150 students in contemporary comforts. And it’s all being done with a liberating, rejuvenating spirit.

This is all within a five-minute walk of the South Mall and of the city centre and of the English Market, and the bustle of retail and office frenzy.

Put it on your physical map, your mental map, and — depending on your persuasion or mood at the time — on your contemplative map. Take time out. Come up the road, or down the road, or over the road. Just come through the entrance. Chill. It’s free, mostly.

Welcome to Nano Nagle Place.

Generations of Corkonians will know this as the South Pres, the inner-city location of girls’ schools, where ‘the nuns’ lived, behind unyielding high walls along Evergreen Road, and mixed, give-little-away facades on narrow Douglas Street.

Turns out, there were 3.75 acres there, of what’s now prime city ‘property’, with historically relevant buildings, a pedigree going back to the burgeoning era of developing Cork in the latter half of the 1700s, and especially to one Hanora ‘Nano’ Nagle, the Cork icon who founded the education-focused Presentation Order on this spot 250 years ago.

Thankfully, it has gone the route of education, building conservation, cultural and historical appreciation, and repurposing, and it’s all been done with an open-door policy, too.

There’s an entry charge only for the visitor/heritage centre, which eschews hagiography for historical contextualisation, while the space(s), and the air, and the openness, even the enclosure, and the sense of deep-rooted city presence and importance, are all free to savour. Hallelujah to that.

Come and roam around, poke around, stroll around. Bring a book, the paper, the crossword, an open mind, a busy mind, a frenetic mind (writer Kevin Barry has just been blown away by the place, after a sojourn in one of the five, choice, loft apartments here, which will be available to let short-term).

Have a coffee (a cool, pavilion garden café is on the way in the coming months, and now up for lease via agents Lisney), or a herbal tea. Smell the roses, but mind the bees; there’s a bit of wild biodiversity here, yet to be fully classified.

Even notionally, the ‘free’ and ‘open’ ethos of Nano Nagle Place (yeah, yeah, the South Pres), which had a ’soft’ opening on Wednesday, is refreshing. More importantly, the open spaces that are now being made public here are captivating, beguiling, surprising, seducing. Calming.

Cork city doesn’t score highly in terms of quality open spaces or parks, although stalwart Fitzgerald’s Park has stepped up to the mark, so fair dues to the city council for making it more relevant.

Bishop Lucey Park, on Grand Parade, is a welcome gusset of release in the city core, but is relatively tiny. It’s no St Stephen’s Green, or even a Merrion Square.

The Peace Park, by South Mall/Grand Parade, is tinier still: fighting for a bit of non-commercialised space here sort of defeats the ‘peaceful’ purpose.

The Crawford Gallery has a tinier bit of green, hardly larger than a function room’s dance floor.

At Cork’s dead centre is the diminutive Huguenot Cemetery, but that’s already taken: you can look, but not stretch out, at least not on a temporary basis.

The city quays have open space, but they’re not yet green. Shalom Park is well-poised, but under-used, while, beyond, the Marina is sublime, and the Blackrock Castle/Mahon walk is a life(style) changer.

Bell’s Field, atop St Patrick’s Hill, got a walk-on part in the Young Offenders movie. Blackpool’s Assumption Road has a lovely walled garden, polytunnels, a playground, and friendly conservatory cafe, but wider Cork has yet to truly unearth it (disclosure: office-bound types in the Irish Examiner and the Revenue Commissioners, who are based alongside, would be bereft without it.)

And, then, you have a small handful of constrained, generally unimaginative suburban and municipal parks further out. There’s the Glen’s massive acreage and freedom to roam, plus Ballinlough, Beaumont and Douglas Nursery parks, and Tory Top Road, amongst others, the criminally underutilised Lee Fields ( facing the criminally destroyed St Kevin’s Hospital building,) and the contrast of the massively-realized and massively appreciated Ballincollig Regional Park.

Smell the wild roses, and a new bouquet arrival: Nano Nagle Place truly is a city centre-based garden, and a far-from-incidental building cluster, fully formed, yet still evolving, there for hundreds of years, with hitherto limited appreciation and access, but only now properly opened up.

For want of a horticultural cliché, it’s a flower bud that is confidently unfolding.

Soft unfolding, or opening day, was Wednesday of this week and it’s hoped this €10.5m investment, by the 1,400-member strong Presentation Order (in 24 countries and now a self-financing registered charity) will get a grander, garlanded launch later this year, with a dignitary or two invited.

The PR quite fairly bills it as “an unexpected oasis in the centre of bustling Cork city, the iconic birthplace of the Presentation Congregation, founded by Ireland’s first global social pioneer, Nano Nagle, celebrating her vision of empowerment through education, community inclusion, and spiritual engagement for a contemporary world.”

Just how deep the roots go is evidenced by the presence not only of the shrine-like tomb of Nano Nagle (who died in 1784), but also by many of her deceased Cork Presentation sisters (plus, at a suitable distance, the remains of some Presentation Brothers), a sorority whose names are recalled in this ethereal cemetery: the simplest cluster of identical small headstones recalls, perhaps, 100 names.

A new installation of seven glass pieces, and rippling water, encourages a visitor to stand still or sit, take stock, think. Any religion, faith or creed, or none, will savour this slice of lives, travails, toils, glories.

As this wider, inner-city campus stretches to find its feet and new purposes, it’s probably best to taste it in small, repeated courses, entrees and heritage-site revisits. But, already, it’s a joy of a publicly accessible space, and it’s only fledging (there’s a nuns’ novices’ walk that is yet to be delivered, offering the promise of a forest school of biodiversity, not a just ‘hedge’ school immersive experience.)

Curator/CEO is Shane Clarke, a Dubliner who spent 22 years in urban projects in London, and, appropriately, who has moved a young family to a new start here, having chosen Cork before finding this rapidly evolving job, with a core crew of five staff, nine part-timers so far, and volunteer/ambassadors, including a local city resident from South Korea. Shane describes his job as the equivalent of being given the care of an old Italian hillside village.

The charity has a board, headed by Jim Corr, with under-the radar delivery overseen, to date, by development director, Michael O’Sullivan.

The architects (spanning concept, conservation, new builds and interconnectedness) of this inspired multi-factorial project are a broad church at Jack Coughlan Associates. Builders are PJ Hegarty & Co, and due to come on board is the School of Architecture, in an inner-suburban game-changer, via CIT and UCC. But, that’s hush! hush! still.

As the Irish Examiner visited Nano Nagle Place (the South Pres), we crossed paths with a redoubtable Presentation Order sister, Emma Rooney, from its Newfoundland Province, and who, in her (quite senior) years, bravely relocated across the Atlantic, just last year, to Cork city’s old core. She’s embraced the move with huge gusto, and is energetically working with the Lantern Project, which encourages life-long learning, second starts, and discovering a sense of self-worth.

Somewhat tellingly, she mentioned teaching a disempowered 62-year-old woman how to make her first-ever cake.

The woman didn’t want to sully the cake by cutting it or by eating it. St Emma told her it was made for the tasting, and for enjoyment.

So, too, now, is Nano Nagle Place. Dig in.

see www.nanonagleplace.ie



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