Kevin Barry paints an auto/biographical portrait of a city that is a man; that is Cork
Cork pub 1983
If cities are sexed, as Jan Morris believes, then Cork is a male place. Personified further, I would cast him as low-sized, disputatious and stoutly built, a hard-to-knock-over type. He has a haughty demeanour that’s perhaps not entirely earned but he can also, in a kinder light, seem princely. He is certainly melancholic. He is given to surreal flights and to an antic humour and he is blessed with pleasingly musical speech patterns. He is careful with money. He is in most leanings a liberal. He is fairly cool, usually quite relaxed, and head over heels in love with himself.
At the very least, the last of this is true: the city of Cork is besotted with itself, and it talks of little else. Quite right, too – it’s a gorgeous place, it’s enormous fun, and it has an operatic atmosphere. By operatic, I mean that its passions are fervently held and fervently debated, and there is a native tendency to melodrama: the hand gestures are near-Italianate. I lived in the city from my early twenties until my early thirties – it is in many ways responsible for the creature that I have become, and I hold no rancour against it for this. In fact, though it’s a decade and a half since I lived there, when I go back to visit now it still feels a bit like going home.
I had maybe a dozen addresses in Cork. I can walk them in my mind, from attic flat to terrace house to glorified bedsit, and I see that they trace out a rough perimeter of the city centre. Cork is compact but a little confusing – it seems to circle back on itself around the quays of the Lee river. Much of the centre of town is built inside a loop of the river. You’re forever crossing little bridges over the river only to arrive at another little bridge over the same river. It would be rare to see the Lee in a mad rush to get anywhere. It seems happy enough to saunter slowly through the streets of the place in a Cork accent. Once I saw a woman try to drown herself in it. She walked down the steps of the river wall at George’s Quay. It was early in the evening and it was quiet around the streets – maybe it was a Sunday. It was the summertime. We were on Father Matthew Quay, across the river, and we called out to her but she didn’t seem to hear us. That it was in daylight the scene played out made it even more disturbing. She hesitated as the water lapped at her ankles – she lurched forward, but she relented again and caught herself. We ran across the bridge. We called to her again. Others who were passing by called to her, too. At last she visibly buckled, as though she’d been struck a blow; she sat down on the stone steps, and the river moved slowly past, regardless. After a short while an ambulance came and the medics fetched the woman tenderly up from the river wall and she was helped away. Maybe the river had spoken to her. Maybe it said – You’re kidding me. You’d leave Cork?
It is built on a marsh and it has a dampness that enters the bones. This has a tendency to turn one both tubercular and poetical. On the Ballyhooly Road I used to put on two extra jumpers to go to bed. I was in a back bedroom of what was at one time a farmhouse, before the suburbs engulfed this area just south of Mayfield. There were huge hooks hanging from the kitchen ceiling to keep the hams up away from the animals. There was a rat behind the wainscotting still – we named him Frank after the Irish for a rat, ‘an Francach’, which means, literally, ‘a Frenchman’. Frank was a very scratchy customer late on in the evening, until we poisoned him.
It was a fine house in the summer but a nightmare in the winter. Five or six of us shared it at any one time – the place was huge. My bedroom looked out over the Glen, a surviving expanse of countryside nestled into the north side of the city. It was a metropolis of notably scrawny rabbits and lads used to hunt them by night in specially adapted vehicles (most often old Volkswagen Beetles) with high-powered headlamps and an extra seat strapped to the bonnet for the shooter. This practice was known as ‘lamping’ and it was scored competitively. Cork was a city of strange fraternities. I’d lie there in the winter nights and listen to the gunshot blasts and watch the icicles form inside my window frame. There was no central heating. I had sleeping bags, blankets and coats mounted a foot thick on top of me. I was determined to be to Cork what Saul Bellow had been to Chicago but it wasn’t working out so well.
But there was a tang in the atmosphere of the city that made you want to create something in answer to it. The place felt closed-in, enveloping and somehow unpredictable. Paul Durcan described Cork’s feeling well when he wrote that it was ‘as intimate and homicidal as a Little Marseilles’.
Once on a summer night from that same bedroom I heard a woman sing after midnight in a garden. I didn’t recognise or don’t remember the song but her voice was extraordinarily sweet as it came up from the darkness, and it caused a great hush of feeling in the gathering that she was a part of. I lay on the bed with the window open to the summer night – I was as rapturously lonesome as you can be only in your mid-twenties – and I listened to the song and I was so moved I tried to communicate messages by means of telepathy to a girl who was at that moment sleeping across the city. This didn’t work out so well either.
There is a sense when you’re in Cork that the rest of the world is receding. Oh it’s still out there, somewhere, in the noiseless distance, but after a while it fades from view, and it has no more than the wispy quality of a rumour. When you walk across Patrick’s Bridge and the north side of the city lofts itself handsomely into being before you, it is hard to shake the sensation that you’re at the centre of the universe.
The city is self-important but not in an egotistical way – it has such a solidity of atmosphere that, when you’re there, it seems silly to consider that other places might have a similar heft or reality. Its atmosphere is very dense but it is made merely of these floating voices and shifting humours, of the fumes of the snarled teatime traffic, of the hoppy waft of the breweries – almost enough to drunken you on a clear bright winter’s morning – of the dead-poultry perfume from the English Market, of the suggestions of a nearby sea, unseen but palpable, of the mildewed bedsits and the terraces that reek of three hundred days’ rain. It is made of a starry night above St Fin Barre’s Cathedral and a wet morning in the Glen as a white-arsed bunny tumbles into a hole in the hill.
But there are in fact other places in the world, and Cork’s relationship with them is complicated. Its tendency with regards to Dublin, for example, is to studiously ignore it. To recognise it as an entity at all would be to grant that it might be considered as an alternative to Cork, even as a rival to it, and that would be ludicrous. When Cork people laughingly refer to the city as ‘the real capital’, the laughter is just a mask, or a defence mechanism – they are in fact utterly serious. Dublin is four times bigger, physically, but Cork people will insist that in terms of culture, food, pubs, natural beauty, hipness, setting, glamour, atmosphere, music and people, it is not just a little but markedly inferior.
If there is a great flaw that runs through the life of the city, it may be that it is so hopelessly attuned to class distinctions. There are some awful old snobs about the place. Read from almost any of the literature of Cork and this will quickly become apparent – beneath the surface of every sentence of a Frank O’Connor short story, the characters are being very precisely placed, socially, and to a near-neurotic degree. It’s this that he springs almost all of his comedy from.
Cork is so careful with its money because there was ever only so much of it to go around, and it was kept in few enough hands. The merchant princes who have always run the city are perched still at a lofty remove above it. There is a certain Cork face – prosperous, pink, jowly and male – that has smiled over deals made in the vicinity of the South Mall for centuries. They bought and sold the place. They treated Dublin with disdain – trade ideally was with the Continent, and Cork was the most northern city of the Mediterranean. These princes still reign, though nowadays they retire when they’re about 52. They journey down the hills from their splendid Victorian terraces and have morning coffee with each other at the Imperial Hotel on the South Mall. I often stay there myself and I love to eavesdrop in the café around 11 am. They compliment the quality of the scones – where would you get finer? The sentence inflects at its end to a high-pitched lilt – all middle-class Corkmen have a natural campness. They talk of daughters in New York and boats in Kinsale. Their voices are running velvet, their eyes soft with nostalgia. They talk of the glory days on the Mall. They talk of it as a world within a world.
In many ways, Cork has always operated as a kind of city state, related but not quite attached to the rest of Ireland. In the early part of the 20th century it had a share of industry unusual for an Irish city – it was more like a north of England city than an Irish one. And always there was an entrepreneurial streak. Sure didn’t Henry Ford come from the place? (Italics for rising lilt.)
On the North Mall, I lived at number 23, and my landlady was fabulous, a woman named Helen Helen (Helen is an old Cork city surname). She was very kind, very old and very chatty, and she would tell me labyrinthine stories and ferocious gossip from around the town; often the stories would involve senior members of the Garda Síochána whom she knew to be having affairs. If the walls of the Bridewell station could have talked at all. Helen Helen had the full suss on the city of Cork, in both its amorous and business affairs. I used to call upstairs to her to pay the rent and I’d end up there for hours, drinking tea and jawing the fat. She had watched the city for decades from her eyrie on the top floor of number 23.
It was a very nice perch. The Lee eased itself past outside – no rush on – and we were right by the South Gate Bridge and so by the original spine of the city. The city was built up first between the two Gate bridges, along North Main Street and South Main Street. All sorts of ghosts and shades move there still, unseen and unceasing. Helen Helen pointed out the changes that were soon to come. They were knocking the old quay buildings across the river and putting up a cineplex and apartments. It will be unbelievable, she said, eagerly. She was delighted that the horrible old stone buildings were coming down – miserable damp places, she said, and not worth a spit. She died not long after this. The cranes and wrecking balls moved in across the water and the Gate cineplex went up and quickly another quarter of the old city had been taken apart.
But this is a city ever-memorious for its lost selves, and it has an atmosphere that conjures sentences. Time is never entirely fixed on these streets. There were the nights on Half Moon Street when the patrons would tumble from the Opera House and make for the Alaska Bar, singing as they went the songs that were popular then: Miss Me When the Twilight’s Blue or By the Light of the Silvery Moon. The child John Whelan – later to reform himself as the writer Seán Ó Faoláin – would listen to them from the attic room of his home, a lodging house for touring hams and fourth-rate tenors and stage magicians, and it was a new century then, the 20th, with horse dung and hay still ripe on the street’s air, and everywhere the stench of fowl and coal smoke, and a rhythmic clanging all day and all night from the cooperage down the street. It was a city of wine vats and cobbled yards, and storied characters like Bob Helen and Ebenezer Bogan, and people still spoke of the gang fights that had raged between the Molly Malones and the All-For-Irelands. It was a city of hot, verminous slums and romance by dusk-light along the quays, the girls using their long black shawls to wrap their lovers tightly against them – on the Coal Quay the girls wore purple stockings and caps with golden tassels, the bright colours a rebellion against the city’s natural hues, which Ó Faoláin caught so perfectly as ‘the raingod’s green, dark as passion, and this pallid immensity of sky’. It was a dark, damp valley, a miasma, but also it had steel at its heart, and sometimes enough to gleam.
At some point I started working shifts for the local daily paper, the Examiner, and for its sister, the Evening Echo. I’d walk from the North Mall down the river and cut across Half Moon Street to the newspaper offices on Academy Street. This was half past six in the morning, and often I would be up late rather than up early. My first job was to phone every Garda station in Cork city and county and ask them if they had anything from overnight: ‘Anything at all, lads?’ There could be 14 dead after a riot in Midleton but they wouldn’t tell you unless you rang and asked them. It was very useful to get a look at the inner workings of a small city. In terms of fiction, the best research is the research you don’t know you’re doing at the time.
It was a proper old newspaper office, with a printworks out the back, a fine cuttings library, and it resounded all morning, as newspaper offices should, with the constant hacking of smokers’ coughs. From the library, you could see out onto the main drag of Patrick Street, and I remember watching in awe what was in essence an early premonition of Celtic Tigerism. It was the run-up to the Christmas of 1999, the economy of both the city and the country at large had rebounded from a long recession, and everything was starting to thrum. The shopping on Patrick Street had taken on a fever-heated charge, almost a nastiness. It seemed as if people were scrawbing each other’s eyes out to get into the stores. There was a monstrous quality to it. I don’t think this is with the benefit of hindsight – I believe that even at the time it was clear that the city was coming up against the greatest threat yet to its independent spirit and ethos: the animalistic surge of 21st-century consumerism. Inside 10 years, the Examiner had sold its beautiful old Deco-fronted building on Academy Street to developers and moved down to the docks. The building is now an H&M.
The Well Inn, on the North Mall, was a pub where people would go when they were having secret flings. It was just far enough from the prying eyes of the city centre to be discreet. You reached it down a covered sideway that indisputably reeked of a medieval time, but that’s neither here nor there. The Well was full of hidden nooks and crannies, and you could get a late drink, too – I believe that I was once pulled a pint there at half five in the morning. When I was living down the street, at number 23, I’d often go and drink quietly and watch the whispering huddles, and I’d make notes for short stories. I was going to do for hot-faced adulterers in Cork what Flannery O’Connor had done for wooden-leg-stealing Bible salesmen in Georgia. At this stage, my fiction writing was typically done at around 4 am and at that hour the sentences would have the certain burnish of genius, were made of a moon-shot prose, were so vivid, glamorous and alive. Then the sober light of morning would creep in across the harbour. But the Well Inn certainly had the waft of ‘material’ in its air, and I was by now gathering material in a methodical way. I was training my ear. I was listening in. The city cried out to be fictionalised. There seemed to me to be far too little of it in print. The glorious language of its working-class estates had never yet put in an appearance in Irish literature, so called. (I was very cheesed off with Irish literature.) Characters seemingly ideal for fiction seemed to lurch into view all the time, from left and from right. There is a heightened theatrical quality to faces in Cork that’s hard to describe – the faces can seem almost overdone, like in a David Lynch film, or like stone gargoyles from the Middle Ages. The gestures also can lean towards the overwrought. One night at the Well Inn a man of middle age, expensively dressed and with a face on him like a slow-roasted artichoke, stopped as he walked across the lounge, got down on one knee, wept aloud for about 20 seconds, stubbed a fag out viciously on his forehead, and then got up and walked out of the door as if nothing had happened, his forehead marked as if it was Ash Wednesday. You couldn’t put this in a short story – I know because I’ve been trying for years. You couldn’t make it up.
I would spend hours trying to describe the place. 4 am. An empty flat. An electric typewriter (would you believe), a box of fags, and all the usual rookie mistakes – trying to describe something that had happened last week, or last month, or last year, without allowing the soak of time, and perspective, into the process. The flat I’m thinking of now was on Adelaide Street. I’d give up on the latest masterpiece, and I’d open the window back wide and sit on the sill and look out to the sleeping city. I’d put on a record, low – usually dub reggae. The Cork accent can, to a suggestible ear, seem to have an almost Jamaican quality, and it was one of the better summers, maybe 1998, and the empty city streets by night seemed positively sultry, and I thought if you cut the place off from the rest of the island and let it float south, it might find at last its true coordinates, and its rightful place under the sun.
It often takes years to describe in fiction the places that you come from and that were formative for you. I was gone out of Cork nine years before I started to get it, in any way, on the page. When I’d used the city in short stories, the material, I felt, had always lurched into sentimentality. When I allowed it to creep in disguised, when I used it to give textures to a fantastical novel, City of Bohane, about a lawless Irish city in 2053, some of the proper notes started to come in, and I started to get the voices right.
You couldn’t buy Italian sofas on MacCurtain Street in my day. You could get a clatter outside the Uptown Grill at half two in the morning. But gentrification has made its soft-shoed shuffle along the north-side thoroughfare over the last decade or so. The effect is unmissable – there is a certain spruced-up quality where once there was scruffiness; the cafés and the stores are fancier; the people even seem a bit cleaner, a bit more groomed. The shoes are better. Something is missing, and something new has arrived.
Cork is an extremely liveable city and the secret appears to be out. It’s much more multicultural now than it was – a process that began in the mid- to late 1990s has taken the mono-ethnic look off the place. It still seems at a slant to the rest of the island. I think it is at a delicate moment in its history, when it must decide what it needs to be. I hope that its future is as a creative place, that it accepts its true fate is to be a city of artists. Everything is in place to make this happen. The rents aren’t bad; the coffee is good; the beer is excellent. The weather is given to violent mood swings but this is not unhelpful for those of creative temperaments. The city will thrive economically if it gives itself over fully to this happy fate – everything is in place, it just needs to be allowed to happen.
From an original text published in issue 135 of Granta magazine, ‘New Irish Writing’
This piece is featured in the AR June 2019 issue on the islands of Ireland – click here to purchase your copy today