Cork is certainly not the ‘real capital’ – but it could be great

Could that slightly strained bravado be masking the reality that Cork is actually punching below its weight?

“If we do think Cork offers something unique, then we should prove it.” Above, Patrick Street. Photograph: Eric Luke

“If we do think Cork offers something unique, then we should prove it.” Above, Patrick Street. Photograph: Eric Luke


I’m not sure who first came up with the “real capital” tag, but those who resort to this rejoinder to Dublin’s pre-eminence are doing Cork no favours.

Noam Chomsky once called the US an 800lb gorilla that keeps needing to sniff under its armpits. To many outsiders, the rebel county sometimes appears more like an overexcited chimpanzee, earnestly proclaiming its qualities from the treetops.

Those who actually think they are the best don’t need to go around shouting about it. Last year, after seven years as an economic migrant in Dublin, I returned to Cork to commune with my people. Upon returning home, I found a few things disconcerting.

In short, the city’s traditional quiet swagger had morphed into a self-aggrandising superiority that would make an Austrian corporal blush. In Cork, as nowhere else, radio bulletins were presaged with the slogan “Broadcasting from Ireland’s greatest city”.

But could the slightly strained references to the real capital – a term denounced by local poet Gerry Murphy – be masking the reality that Cork is actually falling down the pecking order?

Our traditional on-field supremacy has gone, for one thing. Cork footballers haven’t won an All-Ireland trophy since 2010, and the senior hurlers are undergoing their longest All-Ireland drought since the 1960s. The senior hurlers last won the Liam McCarthy Cup in 2005, coincidentally the year Cork was European Capital of Culture and Cork City FC won their most recent league title.

Throughout the recession, the city was blighted by empty shopfronts, emigration and declining air connectivity.

According to the latest census, just over half a million people live in Dublin city, and 1.34 million in the city and county combined. Add in Louth, Meath, Wicklow and Kildare, and there are more than two million people in the sprawling greater Dublin area, with its attendant transport, housing and water infrastructure problems.

And yet, last St Patrick’s Day, Trevor White of the Little Museum of Dublin described the capital, in an Irish Times article, as being like a person stuck in a bad marriage. The abusive partner? Rural Ireland, towards whom the frightened Dublin media supposedly tug their forelocks. White’s thesis propagated the idea of Ireland comprising Dublin on the one hand and the countryside on the other.

This narrative leaves out our provincial cities. Indeed, John Moran, the former secretary general at the Department of Finance, has floated the idea of rebalancing urban Ireland, by recasting Limerick as a city of 750,000 souls in waiting. This is worth dissecting. Limerick city is home to 57,106 people, compared with 125,000 people in Cork city and about 300,000 in the Cork metropolitan area.

The gap is widening, too: Cork grew 5.4 per cent since 2011, compared with 2.1 per cent for Limerick (the national average was 3.7 per cent). Far from a potential competitor to Dublin, Limerick is the state’s fourth biggest city. It’s actually closer to Waterford city (which is in fifth place and growing more quickly) than to Galway (75,529 people) in third, let alone to second-placed Cork or first-placed Dublin.

Development boom
So we are left with only one city capable of truly balancing Dublin’s gravitational pull. But if the capital and rural Ireland are locked in some sort of abusive relationship, Cork is surely the eldest child left starving in our dysfunctional Republic.

There are motorways radiating out from Dublin to all our major cities (and, er, Cavan), with another one from Shannon airport to Gort. But the N20 Cork-Limerick road remains a dishevelled country track, after plans for an M20 upgrade were kiboshed by Paschal Donohoe when he was minister for transport.

The city is on the cusp of a development boom, with huge plans afoot for Albert Quay, Anglesea Street courthouse, a UCC business school on Lapp’s Quayand redevelopment of the Horgan’s Quay side of Kent Station. Talks continue on the jewel in the crown, a 6,000-capacity events centre on the former Beamish & Crawford site, the centrepiece of a new Brewery Quarter.

Work is at an advanced stage on a huge redevelopment of the old Capitol Cinema site on Grand Parade, where shops, offices and a food hub are planned. Developers are also circling sites at the relocated Port of Cork, and former R&H Hall. But Cork needs a directly elected mayor to truly balance the Pale’s centripetal force.

However, far from encouraging green shoots on Leeside, central government, in the person of former minister for the environment Alan Kelly, has actually hamstrung the city by approving the Smiddy Report. Its proposed merger of Cork City and County Councils would create a gargantuan super-council responsible for 542,000 people, scattered over an area that takes three hours to drive across.

Kelly’s successor, Simon Coveney, says he is not wedded to the idea. Given he is already acting as the city’s de facto chief (he has had a hand in both the Beamish and Capitol projects), and has expressed personal preference for directly elected mayors, there may be hope yet.

Of course, for the People’s Republic to actually be transformed into any sort of a semi-autonomous city, councillors would need to vote to divest themselves of power. The biggest claim to fame of the city’s councillors in recent years was voting to send millions in National Transport Authority funding back to Dublin rather than let cycle infrastructure be built across the city centre (it was built anyway).

There is much that an accountable, powerful mayor could do to turn Cork into a destination city. It’s perhaps instructive that the Tripadvisor picture for the city (seventh in their top 10 in Ireland, behind Donegal town) is actually a hill in Cobh.

The city is unique among European cities in having 500 acres of riverside land waiting to be redeveloped. Done right, the docklands could rival Belleriverstrasse in Zurich – a huge promenade that skirts that city’s lake.

It would also be the perfect site for a new Cork financial services centre, capitalising on the impending white-collar Brexodus from London and further adding to the huge contribution to the exchequer from the IT and pharmaceutical industries dotted around Cork Harbour.

To complement the city of spires, we could develop a Lee Valley Park, planted with native trees, encompassing the Lee Fields, Ballincollig Regional Park, Farran Wood and, in time, the flooded sylvan graveyard of the Gearagh.

Taking off
To imagine the sort of southern powerhouse that could be built with an accountable local leadership, just look at what’s being done under the most inauspicious of circumstances. Cork Airport has finally stopped the rot, with passenger numbers up 19 per cent in June 2016 compared with a year ago.

This is despite being in huge debt, despite being run by Dublin Airport Authority and despite opposition to a Boston-Cork route from the US Department of Transportation.

Dublin city is five times the size of Cork city, but Dublin Airport handles more than 10 times the passengers handled down south. It’s just another example of Cork punching below its weight nationally.

If we do think Cork offers something unique, then we should prove it. We used to produce giants, from Roy Keane to Frank O’Connor, Jack Lynch to Michael Collins.

Perhaps the depredations of this past decade might be ending. It’s possible that some combination of Micheál Martin, Simon Coveney and Michael McGrath will head the next government, signalling the end of the rural-Dublin duopoly.

Here’s hoping they can ignore the phoney war between “rural Ireland” and Dublin, and the dead end of diluted decentralisation, and focus on making Cork an urban alternative to the Pale.

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