A Run on the Banks

Frank McNally on the glories (and shortcomings) of Cork

Aerial view of Cork City centre

From my breakfast table in Cork’s Metropole Hotel during the week, I had what should have been a magnificent view of the river Lee and its quays. But then and while strolling the same quays later, I was struck instead by how little the city makes of this famous feature.

After all, the Cork anthem does not just sing the praises of the waterway itself. It specifically eulogises “the banks”, now shorthand for the song. And yet the city-centre quays are all-but devoid of charm or character, or of anything other than function.

No doubt even the proudest locals would admit the riverbanks’ shortcomings compared with, for example, the Seine’s. At the risk of causing deep offence, however, I suggest that even something like the Liffey boardwalk would be a big improvement. Certainly, to use a buzzword beloved of summer schools, Cork’s quayside could do with a bit of reimagining.

The city centre in general was the subject of negative comment recently when a high-profile tourist, CNN business editor Richard Quest, said that much of it looked “tatty” and “tired”. He probably meant the derelict buildings of which, as in most cities these days, there are many.

But as his comment also reminded me, Cork’s alleged appearance of fatigue is not a new thing. Writing of the city more than half a century ago, British journalist Claud Cockburn noted:

“This is a confusing city, of which Irishmen everywhere who do not come from Cork profess to be afraid. And it is a fact that while it reclines there between the arms of the River Lee, looking beautiful and a little raffish and a little tired, as though it had too many things to remember, it is also a volcano of energy spouting out people who go out and take over great tracts of government in industry in Dublin, Pittsburgh, and Sydney.”

On the plus side, if the appearance of tiredness is well established, the bit about the city’s dynamic human exports may still hold true too. Leading the defence against the CNN man’s criticisms, as quoted by the Evening Echo, was local TD and Taoiseach, Micheál Martin.

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As I learned only while staying there, the Metropole is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. It still has a pleasantly old-fashioned feel but one of the many things that must have changed in the intervening century is the habit, now universal in Irish hotels, whereby staff constantly assure customers that everything is either “perfect” or “no problem”.

Over breakfast I even heard a female guest, who had mentioned having a gluten intolerance, being assured that this too was “perfect”. And to be sure, gluten intolerance is not the worst affliction. Most restaurants offer gluten-free menus these days. Even so, I thought the waitress’s verdict on the condition was overly positive.

Reading about the hotel’s many famous past residents, by contrast, I was amused at a story involving the Hollywood movie star Dawn Addams. While staying there during a Cork Film Festival in the 1950s, she demanded a bath of milk. Furthermore, she wanted it in a black bathtub, where the milk’s purity would be more obvious.

To coin a phrase, this was not no problem. The black tub request may or may not have been feasible. But it was a time of general deprivation in the city. Bravely, and earning international news headlines, the hotel manager said no to the waste of good milk.

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On the way to West Cork on Tuesday, we passed what must be one of the most beautiful stretches of road in Ireland. It winds alongside a river between Inishannon and Bandon, with steep, densely wooded hills on either side that could hardly be improved by a landscape painter.

The view has not changed since the first time it stopped me in my tracks, back in the 1980s. But as a travel anthology called The Grand Tour of Cork suggests, it may not have changed much in centuries.

The scene was also rhapsodised by one Georgiana Chatterton, who in her 1839 book Rambles in the South of Ireland, wrote: “About Inishannon, the country is very pretty, the banks of the winding river well wooded, and adorned with many country seats.”

I can’t comment on the country seats: the only seats I visited in West Cork were in coffee shops. But here, at least, are banks worth singing about.

Unfortunately, the Lee can claim no credit for them. Proving that the area’s reputation for beauty was established long before her visit, Chatterton went on to quote a 16th-century tourist, Edmund Spencer, whose tribute to the same scenes also identified the river: “The pleasant Bandon, crown’d with many a wood.”