The 'Pana' Republic


St Patrick’s Street has been at the centre of Cork’s commercial and cultural life since the late-1700s. Much has changed over the years but still holds a special place in the hearts of the city’s residents

IN THE INTRODUCTION to his new history of Cork’s St Patrick’s Street, author Antóin O’Callaghan casts his mind back to 2005, when the main street received a makeover courtesy of Catalan architect Beth Gali. At the time, some locals took offence at the new look and the plan to move a statue of temperance movement leader Fr Mathew. In the end, the statue stayed where it was, and there is now a sense that the city takes pride in the new design, which has given Patrick Street a more European style.

While international in feel and appearance, Cork’s St Patrick’s Street still provides for a distinctly Irish town experience. “Many names of those trading on the street have been there for generations, and so the ordinary Cork people who come into the theatre that is St Patrick’s Street every day are following in the footsteps of their forebears,” says O’Callaghan.

The street, known locally as “Pana”, developed some time in the 1780s, when Cork city began to expand beyond its medieval walls. River channels were filled in and marshland reclaimed, and the street was officially completed with the opening of the first St Patrick’s Bridge in 1789. Its history in the intervening years includes being burned down during the 1920s, rebuilt and then later re-imagined when Beth Gali was taken on in advance of Cork’s tenure as European Capital of Culture in 2005.

More recently, developer Owen O’Callaghan was responsible for one of the largest developments in generations, when the new Opera Lane complex transformed the street.

Walking down St Patrick’s Street, or “doing Pana” as the locals call it, Antóin O’Callaghan recalls his own connection to the street. “I do feel a real sense of ownership about this street,” he explains. “I’d say that since I was about three years of age, there has scarcely been a day when I was in Cork that I haven’t walked down this street. The street is part of my life and it has changed a lot in that time in one way, but not changed at all in another.”

O’Callaghan is not a traditionalist when it comes to assessing how the street has evolved. He points out the controversial lighting system of criss-crossed poles and large hanging lamps installed during the makeover in 2005.

“There are two types of lights used, one is called the ‘Flannery’ light, after a Blarney schoolgirl who won the Young Scientist of Year award,” he says, “I like them personally. You must see them as they were meant to be viewed. They represent the shipping masts of old because this was a river channel. If you can extract them from the rest of the background and put ships underneath them in your mind, you can get an image of what this area was like in the past.”

One link with the recent past has been preserved with the original Dunnes Stores. Situated across from a building where Roches Stores was located and Debenhams department store is now housed, the frontage of the 1940s building was refurbished in 2009 and a new glass section added to the side.

“The original Dunnes Stores opened in 1944, and Ben Dunne had previously worked for William Roche in Roches Stores,” O’Callaghan explains. “William Roche had a slogan, which was all about ‘giving good value’ to the customers. Of course, when Ben Dunne started up, he said he could give better value, and on the side of the original building the sign today still says ‘Dunnes Stores for Better Value’.

“Across the road, many of the buildings were destroyed in the burning of Cork in the 1920s. The fronts of the buildings were rebuilt with a limestone facade – that change is of interest to me, but also the fact that the shops and buildings are still used as department stores today. The names may have changed, but the use remains the same. That is a common feature of the street, still.”

PERHAPS WHAT SEPARATESSt Patrick Street from the O’Connell Streets in Dublin and Limerick is the fact that so many of the buildings in Cork are still used in the same manner as they were a century ago. From theatres to bars, menswear shops to restaurants, many businesses have stayed true to their historical pasts. Of those that have changed, family links between the current owners and those who began the stores can still exist.

“You still have Fitzgerald’s for suits and the old Savoy is still used as a nightclub and music venue having been a cinema and theatre previously,” O’Callaghan says. “The Pavilion cinema is now HMV, so there is something of a link there as well. Vodafone used to be Cuthmore’s sweet shop so that’s obviously a big change. Where clothing shop Vero Moda is, there used to be an ecclesiastical vestments shop. My grandad started out there with a man called Tom Keane and they left and formed their own business. Tom Keane’s grandson, Tim Keane, today runs Michel Jewellers. I love that tradition.”

In recent weeks, the street again took centre stage when large screens were erected along St Patrick Street showing live coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the city.

O’Callaghan says the event only further served to underline the fact that the street is still a place where significant events in the life of the city are celebrated and shared. “It’s just a pity the Queen didn’t get to ‘do Pana’ herself,” he says.

Cork’s St Patrick’s Street: A History