Eccentric and engaging look at five centuries of Cork characters

 

BOOK OF THE DAY: Hidden Cork: Charmers, Chancers and Cute HoorsBy Michael Lenihan Mercier Press pp256; €19.99

GIVEN THE inherent quirkiness of the native mindset, perhaps Corkonians can sometimes be guilty of taking their chancers for granted and allowing them drift casually out of folk memory. And who could blame them? The thing is, the locals are spoilt for choice. Author Michael Lenihan has trawled through a personal archive of books and documents to present a collection that reads like a history of Cork Jimmy Crowley style.

Having lived on the patch for almost two decades, I can attest to the continued existence of the eccentric Corkonian, such as the late councillor Bernie Murphy, who patrolled the South Mall at lunchtime, tapping the legal profession whilst lecturing on European wars. Or well known bar owner Brian O’Donnell, who I once heard shout “SPACE INVADERS” at a couple sitting on the only couch in his bar nursing their drinks too long.

What Lenihan sets out to do in Hidden Corkis to remind Corkonians they were always quirky. From priest-hunters to scab labourers, whipped criminals to eccentric mayors, the author brings together humorous anecdotes and historical episodes spanning the past five centuries. Or, as the sleeve notes boast, Lenihan has chosen to “dump the boring bits” and bring to life “the flow of time through the streets of Cork.”

Often though, it’s in illuminating the supposed “boring bits” that genuine historical commentators excite the most.

Hidden Corkis neither a historical examination, nor a flowing narrative, rather an ad-hoc miscellany of incidents and personalities, from the burning of Cork to industrial tales, which catch the eye of the author for no particular reason, other than they caught the eye of the author.

Readers expecting underlying social commentary, or analytical historical comparisons between the present day and the ages, will be disappointed.

Drawn from a concise and varied selection of primary and secondary sources, the style is unfussy, yet at times predictable (such as the use of dates and timeframes to begin many chapters). The layout is slightly unnerving, especially the inconsistency in allowing spaces after commas and full stops, evident from the foreword onwards. Also, while the sub-title – “charmers, chancers and cute hoors” – may be convenient for promotion purposes, it doesn’t quite capture the content fully or accurately.

Having said that, there are some genuinely engaging passages, such as an account of Vesian Pick, a Huguenot who was elected mayor in the late 18th century. His political manoeuvrings may have been overshadowed by his erratic attempts to master the English language, evident when he wrote to the Lord Lieutenant during the failed French invasion of 1796 – “I am writing this letter with a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other,” he began.

Baron Spolasco is another character that caught the author’s eye; he is described as a “notorious quack doctor” from the early part of the 19th century. The baron, who is alleged to have cured everything from cancerous sores to blindness, had to get out of town in a hurry, eventually ending up in Cardiff jail having administered his wonder pills to a patient who subsequently died as a result.

Present-day Corkonians may also be drawn to the passage recounting the floods of 1820, which occurred following the thawing of the river Lee after a severe winter.

“Boats navigated up and down the streets which had become waterways and they were the only means of rescuing those poor wretches from drowning,” Lenihan notes. So much for progress then.


Brian O’Connell is a journalist and author of Wasted: A Sober Journey through Drunken Irelandpublished by Gill & Macmillan