Cork – What Makes the City?

On May 2nd, 1917, nearly a century ago, the Cork Improvement Bill passed the Report Stage in the House of Commons. The Bill had been brilliantly shepherded through its Parliamentary votes by the determined Co. Cork MPs, Maurice and Tim Healy whose great fear had been the opposition of Ulster Unionist MPs who might have been worried by the setting up of the Ford Motor Works at Cork. But Tim Healy’s advocacy won the support of Captain Craig, Sharman Crawford and Bonar Law. The Ford assembly works, the beating heart of Cork’s industrial might for the next sixty years, had come into being. The approaching centenary of this Bill in 2017 should remind us of how well the interests of Cork were protected by the old and now forgotten Irish Party. The care of this second city of the State, and its interests, is one of the highest duties of Irish public life, and members of the old Irish Party were keenly aware of this. We would do well to remember them, to understand how the interests of cities need to be protected at the highest political level. Cities are massive human and economic constructs and we should plan their fate with great political care.

And why should we protect the interests of our cities? Can’t cities with their population density and commercial imperatives look after themselves? The answer is, no, they can’t. More than ever cities are subject to regulations on how to plan for the future, as well as transport and housing limitations. The future of the world lies in its cities. A city can be choked by deliberate political acts, just as a city can spring to life after seventy years of inertia by a Bill such as the Cork Harbour Act of 1820 and the Cork Improvement Act of 1917. To watch a city rising is a beautiful thing. A city is a living organism and the purring sound of this organism as it thrives and grows is the sound of people assembling and dispersing, on buses, bicycles, trains and cars. There is a poetry in city life that’s beautiful. Writers like Frank O’ Connor or Mary Leland, or Conal Creedon and Kevin Barry, have captured the essence of Cork life in their books. They are our eternal witnesses, their works giving us glimpses of a deep urban soul. Reading them, and others, should centre our sense of recognition, as well as giving us huge hope for the human permanence and future of local urban life. 

I’ll always remember the day when I became conscious of this urban power of Cork. It was during the closing days of Cork’s reign as a European Capital of Culture in 2005. I was taking an official from the Ministry of Culture in Budapest on a fact-finding and historical tour of the city, something I loved to do. This highly placed official was an historian by profession and she wanted to absorb the atmosphere of an Atlantic city. She was impressed by the total package of Cork; the beautiful winter city, the energy of Patrick Street on Friday morning, the aromas of the English Market, the burning candles in St. Peter’s and Paul’s Church, the Crawford and Glucksman galleries, the Rory Gallagher memorial, the great James Barry exhibition, the young European engineers she met drinking at café tables. At such moments, on days like that, Cork City makes a deep impression upon an educated stranger. This impression is not false, it is pure gold, and it is what good planning strives for. It is why hours and hours are spent researching, developing, resourcing, the City Council’s strategies and reports. It is how the people of the City and ambitious local politicians create the most intelligent city possible, a city that shares the burden of the nation, not just a region. Cork has a great deal to offer Ireland, not just Cork; and as Cork demonstrated during its reign as European Capital of Culture or when hosting Queen Elizabeth II, the city responds to any national challenge with a generous sincerity and confidence. Cork is ready to put its shoulder to the wheel, to do the heavy lifting for Ireland as well as for itself. This is how it should be –


And why a document such as this is placed before you; an examination of facts and an arrangement of strategies. The work of planning continues; it is ever on-going. Here is PURE CORK, then, a framework for decision making and resource allocation; and a continuing sign that the best minds are still at work among the inheritors of Healy’s and Redmond’s love of Cork. The future opens for us all when the people of the City stand together and call our city forward into an even more brilliant urban light.                          

THOMAS McCARTHY, May 2016.[1]


[1] Thomas McCarthy was born in Cappoquin, Co. Waterford in 1954 and studied at University College Cork. His poetry collections include The First Convention (1978), which won the Patrick Kavanagh Award, The Sorrow-Garden (1981), The Non-Aligned Storyteller (1984), Seven Winters in Paris (1989), The Lost Province (1996), and Mr. Dineen's Careful Parade, New & Selected Poems (1999). He has published two novels, Without Power (1991) and Asya and Christine (1992). He has also published a memoir, Gardens of Remembrance (1998). For many years he worked as a librarian in Cork City Library, and in 1994-95 he was Humphrey professor of English at Macalester College in Minnesota.