Is Cork still the best place to survive the apocalypse?
When nuclear war loomed in the 1960s, Cork was deemed the safest place to be
Boom time: The aftermath of nuclear war has always been fertile ground for post-apocalyptic films, novels and TV series. Photograph: RomoloTavani/Getty Images
In January 1962, the cover of Esquire magazine trailed a feature on the influence of then US president John F Kennedy on men’s fashion, including his “celebrated lack of ease with a hat”. Kennedy would be dead by the end of the next year, making descriptions of his penchant for precise tailoring poignant.
On the cover were teasers for Philip Roth’s latest novel and Gore Vidal’s new play. And there was a piece about the complexities of racial integration in schools.
But front and centre was Esquire’s major New Year story, “Nine Places in the World to Hide”. It looked at the parts of the globe where you might survive “in the event of atomic war”, with just three in the northern hemisphere: Eureka in California, Mexico’s Guadalajara (which could make Trumpists reconsider the building of their wall), and Co Cork, dubbed “the safest place in Europe”.
More than half a century later, nuclear war is back in the news, so what, if anything, have we learned? Did people move to Cork for a little Cold War warmth? Do Esquire’s arguments hold true today? And what might Cork life be like if apocalypse comes to pass? While history and science address the former questions, it’s art and literature that appear to hold the most accurate answers to the latter.
Looking back, uncanny echoes resonate across the 55 years. A great deal has changed; the Esquire piece, disturbingly, rules out an entire continent on the basis that the natives need to be friendly. “This puts just about every place in Africa out of bounds to the white man.”
But, with the bellicose blustering between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, we seem to have otherwise come full circle. The Washington Post recently reported that the US was reinstating nuclear “alert pads” (sites where bombers stand waiting) for the first time since the Cold War, which makes one think that the Stanley Kubrick/Peter Sellers film Dr Strangelove (1964) should become required viewing for all presidents and military personnel.
Nuclear destruction was a background buzz right through the 1960s. It was there in art and popular culture, just as it was in the news. In 1961, two B-52 planes carrying nuclear missiles crashed in the US; a reactor exploded in Idaho; and the Soviet Union resumed nuclear testing. Nevil Shute’s 1957 atomic catastrophe book On the Beach had been made into a film starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire. Variety’s reviewer wrote: “The spectator is left with the sick feeling that he’s had a preview of Armageddon, in which all contestants lost.”
My mother remembers believing that everyone would be wiped out in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. People debated the meaning of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. Esquire, however, notes how Herman Kahn’s cheery recent publication On Thermonuclear War (which also popularised a term Kahn had coined: megadeath), was responsible for spreading the new idea of survival. Mutually assured destruction was no longer a total deterrent, as perhaps “all the might of Russia and the United States combined is not capable of destroying everything”.
This led to the construction of fallout shelters, and also to what Esquire describes as a “safety” boom for Ireland. “Ireland now has only half as many people as it fed a century ago, and . . . the country has everything a modern economy needs except oil and iron ore.” Cork is the chosen county because of prevailing currents and wind patterns, the Whitegate refinery, shipyards and new industrial installations, which “have been built by thriving West German companies as insurance of company survival in the event of nuclear war”.
Constructing a refuge room at home includes fortifying the space with wardrobes (not ideal for anyone who has made the switch to Sliderobes)
The Swiss government of the day took heed. They bought Skibbereen’s Liss Ard estate, and, under the direction of the retired spy colonel Albert Bachman, planned to move their gold stash to Cork for greater safety. “The story goes that he had a pint too many in one of the local bars,” Liss Ard’s owner Timo Stern told me a couple of years ago. “And then it was no longer a secret, so the plan was scrapped.” Swiss art dealer Veith Turske took over ownership of the estate, and it was he who commissioned James Turrell to create what is now the Irish Sky Garden on the grounds.
Local lore also has it that the western Europeans, arriving in numbers to the area, were responsible for Co Cork having decent coffee before anywhere else in Ireland. This was viewed as positive fallout, but fallout of a more deadly variety was also on the minds of the Irish government.
UCC president Patrick O’Shea gave me a copy of the 1965 Civil Defence publication Survival in Nuclear War. Stark graphics on the cover are an expressionistic sketch of a nuclear detonation from a submarine (the UK Polaris programme to develop nuclear submarines was announced in 1962), and a family sealed into their house. “Bás Beatha” (death, life), starkly screams the headline.
Sections include “radiation sickness”, and “how to stop bleeding”. Yellow flags would hang along roads to indicate the final fallout warning, it advised. Constructing a refuge room at home includes fortifying the space with wardrobes (not ideal for anyone who has made the switch to Sliderobes). A family member should be designated to care for the cow.
Apart from the yellow flags, the advice is reasonably practical, and much more so than that of US postal service, which, when asked to draw up an action plan in the 1980s, arranged for the printing of change-of-address labels. “What good will that do?” Massachusetts Democrat representative Edward J Markey responded, according to the New York Times. “There will be no addresses, no streets, no blocks, no houses.” I wonder if the makers of Kevin Costner’s 1997 The Postman, a hugely enjoyable post-apocalyptic flop, had taken note.
O’Shea says that the Civil Defence publication is what got him initially interested in science. He’s now a physicist and electrical engineer. It has also informed his agenda as an educator. “As a scientist I can tell you how the world works,” he says. “As an engineer I can tell you how to build it, but I can’t tell you if it’s ethical. That’s the job of the arts and humanities. Science and art got separated, and one of my jobs is to reintegrate them.”
The last time we had a big influx of refugees was after the Ice Age, as the fertile areas of Africa became uninhabitable. We became the go-to place
Since Noah’s flood, creative types have occupied their imaginations with the apocalypse. While the nature of the threat changes with the ages, the imagined aftermath is where it gets really interesting. Throughout history, artists have had a fascination with ruins and destruction. The downfall of humanity has exercised creative minds, perhaps because it is inevitable, but more probably because looking at what happens next tells us everything about who we are.
From Day of the Triffids (the film version landed in 1962) to The Walking Dead (begun in 2010 and ongoing), it’s clear that personal survival hinges on how society can recreate itself. However your imaginary apocalypse is convened, we stand a better chance of making it in groups. “Society is very tenuous,” O’Shea agrees. “You can see that all over the world. I think you’ve got about a week after the initial event . . . I had survivalists living near me in the United States. The idea of personal survival is ridiculous. It has to be about society.”
So what might that look like in Cork? After consulting with experts across UCC’s departments, O’Shea tells me that the science still holds true, and that Ireland is also well positioned to be self-sufficient in food. That doesn’t necessarily reckon with refugees. “The last time we had a big influx of refugees was after the Ice Age, as the fertile areas of Africa became uninhabitable. We became the go-to place. We’re all the descendants of climate-driven refugees.”
On the other hand, he points out, compared to countries such as the Netherlands, Ireland is underpopulated in terms of density. “We might have to change how we eat,” he muses. “But the essential questions are: can you survive and can you rebuild?”
The effects of nuclear war are unimaginable. It’s arguable that a great deal of the literature of preparation, such as the Civil Defence guide, is actually a panacea against panic. Like former minister of state Joe Jacob’s iodine tablets of 2001, it’s a distraction against the awful realities. Nevertheless, maybe it’s time for those in the People’s Republic of Cork to stock up on some science fiction for research purposes, just in case it ever turns into fact.
Final chapter: What we can learn from literature in the event of apocalypse
In Clifford D Simak’s linked series of stories, the end of humanity is due to decadence and apathy, rather than any malevolent force. Perhaps this creates the necessary space for better things to come? Your family dog might have the answers.
When the Wind Blows (1982)
Raymond Briggs, creator of the loveable Snowman, turns his attention to nuclear fallout, and its effects on retired couple Jim and Hilda Bloggs. Optimism, stiff upper lip and a belief that the government knows what it’s doing is unlikely to do you much good in the long run.
The Road (2006)
In Cormac McCarthy’s bleak novel, the catastrophe is unspecified, but, as McCarthy explained in an interview, when everything else is gone, the only thing we have left is one another. He means it very literally.
Station Eleven (2014)
The cause of collapse in Emily St John Mandel’s novel is a flu pandemic. Survivors cluster in communities, each with a different ethos, some more dangerous than others. New histories emerge and, though life is hard and frequently brutal, what remains is loyalty, art and beauty – things that turn out to matter very much indeed.
An exploding moon heralds the end of days in Neal Stephenson’s doorstep of a book. What can we learn? Give people something to do. Use your ingenuity. Never trust a politician. And most of all? Be prepared to wait, a very very long time.