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‘Cork needs someone to stand up and beat their chest on its behalf’

Cork votes on Friday on whether it needs an elected mayor. Is it ready to make the decision?

St Patrick’s Street in Cork. “Cork has amazing bone structure: the beautiful river, the harbour, the hills, the lovely architecture,” says Shane Clarke, chief executive of Nano Nagle Place. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

On May 24th, alongside the local and European elections and the divorce referendum, the people of Cork city will be asked if they want to have a directly-elected lord mayor.

The new mayors, if adopted, would take over many of the decision-making powers currently held by the unelected city chief executive, though the full extent of this is still unclear. They would set policy for their local authorities but the power to enforce planning decisions, allocate social housing and grant licences and permits would remain with the chief executive.

They would receive a salary of €129,854, and there would be a recall and impeachment procedure to deal with mayoral misconduct.

Upbeat vision

Cork has changed a bit since John Butts painted it in 1750. Mary McCarthy, director of Cork’s beautiful Crawford Gallery, shows me Butts’s painting, then brings me to a newer part of the building to show me Andrew Kearney’s Mechanism, an intriguing installation featuring something odd crawling across the floor, a big silver sphere and another contraption which plays sounds recorded outside the gallery.

“It plays the city back at us,” says McCarthy.

We stop and listen. Outside in the city, someone is laughing.

There are issues people bring up: sporadic flooding, the long-awaited, unbuilt events centre, a lack of parking, a lack of well-policed bike lanes and a sense of inequality

The Crawford Gallery has been a centre of culture since the 19th century and is based in the old customs house built in 1724. In fact, it appears in Butts’s painting. McCarthy believes the arts can help facilitate civic discussion. In her former role as director of the National Sculpture Factory, she instigated a series of events called Cork Conversations that brought very different people together to discuss the future of the city.

Cork, she tells me, is in a good place. It’s taking advantage of the economic upsurge and is energised by people who have moved back from other European cities.

Crawford Gallery director Mary McCarthy with John Butt’s painting View of Cork from Audley Place. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

When I visit, it’s sunny and busy. The same day, new transport plans, including that for a light-rail system, are announced. The boundary of the city will be extended significantly in June. Last year the council began banning traffic on Patrick Street at certain times of day (this is lauded by some and decried by others).

There are issues people regularly bring up – sporadic flooding, the long-awaited, unbuilt events centre, a lack of parking, a lack of well-policed bike lanes and a sense of inequality (“The richest company in the world is operating in the most deprived electoral local area in Ireland,” says UCC economist Frank Crowley of Apple’s presence in Knocknaheeny).

But there’s also an upbeat vision of the city’s future that seems to be shared by lots of the people I speak to – a vision of a densely populated, multicultural, bike-friendly city centre filled with life and culture. This ultimately requires apartment building, better transport infrastructure and a mindset change.

'Even if the role isn’t perfect it can be refined ... It’s very much worth the risk of voting in an eejit first time round'

“In the 20th century everyone went out to the suburbs and tried to pretend they were living in some kind of American suburb,” says Karl Shane Diskin of Scott Tallon Walker architects and the Academy of Urbanism. “It’s proving to be extremely unsustainable but people have grown accustomed to this suburban lifestyle . . . There are deep-seated psychological barriers to overcome.”

Diskin has a tattoo of a drawing compass on his arm to represent two things: his chosen vocation and his decision to return to Cork after years abroad. He loves the layers of history you can see on Cork’s streets. He loves the river. He’d like to see policies that incentivise city living and that stitch new developments into the fabric of the old city.

And he, like many of the civically engaged people I speak to, would like to see something like a directly-elected mayor to spearhead it all.

“You need someone who’s going to stand up and beat their chest on behalf of this city,” says Diskin. “Even if the role isn’t perfect it can be refined . . . It’s very much worth the risk of voting in an eejit first time round.”

Flood-defence scheme

John Hegarty is standing on front of a wall filled with pictures of Cork’s quays, talking about otters and trees and old walls. Hegarty is an architect and co-founder of Save Cork City, which is resisting the Office of Public Works’ contentious €140 million flood-defence scheme.

He sees it as destructive to heritage and the environment and urban life and thinks that most people recognise this, but that some are fearful of losing money from central government (he quotes a councillor who told him: “We have no history of turning down money”) .

I’m not an engineer so can’t assess Save Cork City’s alternative idea of building a tidal barrier, though this has received the imprimatur of UCC academics and the engineering consultants HR Wallingford.

But I do know the Lee is incredibly important to Cork people’s identity and that a lot of them are simultaneously worried about being flooded by it and alarmed by the notion it might be blocked from view by potentially unsightly walls.

“There’s a publication by the World Bank called the Economics of Uniqueness, and they say that if you have this asset of a historic city centre, use it to create wealth and well-being,” says Hegarty. “If the city is driven to repair itself economically . . . That has to be done in a rounded way because in 20 years’ time we will regret not having an authentic city centre that people want to visit.”

Mad About Cork

Kevin O’Brien shows me the community garden he and his group, Mad About Cork, built in an abandoned corner of Coal Quay. Before they got there, it was filled with rubbish.

Now it features a row of wooden plant boxes funded with the help of the Waterford food movement GIY. There are also a number of electrical boxes around the city with colourful, proud artwork from O’Brien and his friends.

Do they get council permission first? He laughs. Not quite. “We recently got a Lord Mayor’s Community Award – so it’s tacit permission. We know what we can and can’t do. We don’t do political messages or campaigning or stuff like that.”

Kevin O’Brien of Mad About Cork beside one of the group’s murals on North Main Street in Cork. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

Mad About Cork started in the recession when, appalled by dereliction, O’Brien and his friends picked up litter, cleaned street signs and planted bulbs. Then they got artists involved. “It’s a little bit contagious – if they see one bit being cleaned, another person is encouraged to clean up their area is well.”

He worries that, now the city is financially more successful, there might not be space for creative people. He mentions a studio space, Sample Studios, which was knocked to make way for an as-yet-unbuilt hotel.

“We want to make a city for people not cars,” he says as we look at the Coal Quay garden. “This stuff helps. It makes the city friendlier.”

Flood insurance

Claire Nash, the owner of the Nash 19 restaurant on Princes Street, shows me the part of her restaurant that floods. The last time it happened the refurbishment cost her €230,000. The next time, she says, it will wipe her out because no one here can get flood insurance. “I don’t want big high walls, but I want a solution that frigging works,” she says.

She said to one of the Save Cork City people recently: “The next time we flood you’re going to come in with the waders and a shovel.”

That said, she’s optimistic for Cork. She can count 13 cranes on the horizon, many, but not all, at the docklands, and she believes the events centre, if built, will have huge benefits for the 300 independent businesses in the city centre.

Conn Donovan of Cork Cycling Campaign thinks people have grown cynical as a consequence of projects which end up stalled

Nash seems to know everyone. As we talk she directs staff and greets customers (“I got a hole in one yesterday!” she declares to a golf enthusiast). She’s from Limerick originally but her father played GAA for Cork. When she opened here, shortly after he died, Cork people “looked after me”.

Last year she helped instigate a Long Table Dinner on the South Mall. “Michael O’Flynn called me a Limerick girl who plays a good game for Cork.”

Cycle network plan

I go to the wrong pub to meet Conn Donovan of the Cork Cycling Campaign, but that’s fine, he says. He can get to me in five minutes. He’s on his bike.

Donovan, a primary school teacher, is exasperated by how cycling is sidelined here. There’s a Cork city cycle network plan but he doesn’t think that it’s being taken seriously given how people park on cycle lanes apparently without repercussions.

He thinks that a lot of people who, like himself, have lived abroad have come back with different visions of how a city should work. He thinks people in Cork have grown cynical as a consequence of projects – such as the events centre and the Marina Park and the cycle network plan – which end up stalled.

'There are young people in their 20s full of energy and zest. They need a go at running the city. Hand over the baton'

“The powers that be are great for branding and logos and hashtags (‘The City Rising’, ‘We are Cork’),” he says. “But they don’t do the stuff to back it up.”

‘Safe and friendly’

“Cork has amazing bone structure: the beautiful river, the harbour, the hills, the lovely architecture,” says Shane Clarke, the chief executive of the recently opened Nano Nagle Place. “It’s safe and friendly with a great cultural pedigree.”

Nano Nagle Place is built around the old school built by Nano Nagle, and it’s now a garden, community centre, educational centre, heritage museum and venue.

Clarke is a Dubliner and a recently returned migrant who can see the city’s strengths and shortcomings. Planning is often undertaken by older people who don’t even live in the city and drive everywhere, he says.

“Sometimes I think there’s a gap of people in their 30s and 40s in Cork . . . Some of them have come back and there are young people in their 20s full of energy and zest. They need a go at running the city. Hand over the baton.”

A directly-elected mayor might provide some leadership in this regard, he says, but there are risks. “What’s the Cork expression? Some langer might get elected.”

Information evening

In the atrium of City Hall, the committee to oversee the plebiscite on the directly-elected lord mayor hosts an information evening. There’s a PowerPoint presentation waiting on a screen and some looped theme music playing over the PA system (this stops abruptly when a woman complains about its repetitiveness).

Henry Abbott, the chairperson of the committee, delivers his presentation, most of it covered by the committee’s information booklet, before taking questions from the floor.

One woman believes the Government is trying to sneak in a mayor who will drain resources from farmers. The city will then fill with young people: 'And they’re all vegetarians'

These are largely polite and inquisitive rather than argumentative. Someone complains that the booklets are only just arriving on people’s doorsteps. Abbott suggests that having these arrive now, while the vote is fresh in everyone’s minds, might be a good thing, but he later clarifies that this was not a strategic decision.

The most striking thing about the meeting is that only about 20 of Cork city’s 120,000 residents have turned up. “The turnout is shocking,” whispers the woman who is sitting on the seat on front of me.

She believes that the Government is trying to sneak in a “Silicon Valley mayor” who will build a “concrete and glass city” and drain resources from farmers. The city will then fill with young people from all over the place, she warns. “And they’re all vegetarians.”

When I ask people on the street about the plebiscite, incidentally, many haven’t heard of it and those who have are usually most concerned about the mayor’s €130,000 salary.

“A waste of money,” says a man called Bob McCarthy, echoing a common view. “The only thing that works for a politician is his mouth.”


In the Cork Life Centre, in a former lord mayoral residence overlooking the city, I sit down with some teenagers to talk about Cork. The kids at the centre come from all sorts of backgrounds. Some have mental health difficulties or addictions but others simply struggle with mainstream education and come here for an alternative.

“Young people can’t fail the system,” says the director Don O’Leary. “The system fails young people.”

Liam Tague, Caoimhe Cotter, Don O’Leary, Corey Kavanagh and Darragh Cotter at the Cork Life Centre. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

The kids I speak to are funny and clever but feel like the city is not always welcoming to them. They’re always being moved on, they say. “There aren’t enough places to go,” says Jade.

“The most exciting and thrilling thing to do is get on a number 8 bus and go around a few times,” says Cory Kavanagh.

“We end up walking laps around the city centre,” says Daragh Cotter.

“There are no benches,” says Liam Tague.

“[The parks are] a gathering point for people to do drugs,” says Daragh.

They’re also upset by homelessness in the city and they think the health service is a disgrace. Many of their friends have needed mental health services, which they say are woefully inadequate. “They don’t try and sort your problem, they try and medicate it,” says one kid.

Are they proud of Cork? They’re a bit conflicted on this. “I’m proud of Cork because of the people,” says Daragh. “You can talk to anyone on the street and 95 per cent of the time you have a positive experience but I feel it could be far more advanced than it is . . . I was so excited a few years ago when they brought the automatic ordering machine into McDonald’s . . . And then I went to Dublin and saw that they had a Luas?”

Do they feel consulted about the future of the city? “I wouldn’t say so, no,” says Cory.

“I was raised to hate politicians,” says Jade. “I grew up like that – never trust politicians.”

“I feel like they don’t communicate with the public as much as they should,” says Cory.

Daragh, a passionate climate-change activist, thinks young people need to inform themselves more about politics. His politicisation was nurtured here at the Life Centre, he says. “[They] focus on personal development and with that comes a stronger awareness of what your surroundings are. I was told if I see an issue to do something about it.”

In a mainstream school, he thinks, “I’d have been told to sit down and do what I was told.”

“Sometimes I wish ye would do what you were told,” says O’Leary with faux-wistfulness and they laugh.

Some of them would like to be able to vote at 16. “I think it would be pretty cool to be able to vote when you’re young,” says Caoimhe Cotter. “It’s our world . . . [the current voters] are going to be dead soon.”

“Thanks Caoimhe,” says O’Leary and everyone laughs again.

“We have to live with [adults’] decisions,” says Caoimhe. “If they make a mistake, we’re the ones who’ll have to deal with it.”

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