Narratives of History
Deputy Lord Mayor, Cllr Kieran McCarthy,
Nano Nagle Centre, 23 November 2019
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
Many thanks for the invitation here this afternoon.
It’s two years since the Nano Nagle Centre opened and for two years the management team here with its board have worked very hard to make the site and all its components work and make it sustainable. Phase one – the re-imagining of the site here was ambitious but phase 2 has also brought that ambition to life but also new readings of this place – how places are made and remade, surprises out of the programming process, seeing what works and doesn’t work, and the looking toward other possible components for this place – and in essence forging new methodologies on the challenges facing such an important heritage site from the local to the international.
Certainly management and the board have underlined the importance of having an open mind and an open debate on the splicing together of different genres of thinking about concepts of heritage – in areas around the place of cultural heritage in national and international narratives, how we make local history within a cultural heritage framework relevant, the place of local history in supporting a city’s future, and in areas such as how we remember and how we approach local history and public story telling in the 21st century.
All these concepts may sound similar in their character but in essence are all different avenues of thought, which if aligned make place-making stronger. Some of these concepts such as the writing output of local history in a city such as Cork have been highly championed – Cork has a high calibre of people who study and write about it – passionate local historians, public agents of history, and local historical societies,
but on the other extreme, as a city we can be poor as developing new story telling methodologies and new ways to make our cultural heritage relevant in an ever changing world. And sometimes the narratives are stuck in the same topics with a truckload of sub topics sent to a purgatory of stories waiting for a champion to draw them down and to make them relevant again and some never breaking through to primary narratives in our local history.
The story of Nano Nagle in the city’s collective memory or memory bank of stories has always remained active for over two centuries leading the site here to become a pilgrimage centre to an exhibition centre- the Presentation School movement making sure her story was never forgotten from generation to generation -the social inclusion which still place on the site. Hence Nano’s story has always been up there with the primary historical characters remembered in the city – like Fr Theobald Mathew, Terence McSwiney and Tomás MacCurtain.
What I have seen in the past two years is that the Nano Nagle Centre has strived to create new ways of thinking about Cork’s heritage and its role in a wider context – I think that process is ongoing – the past two years has seen this centre amass justifiable awards – even the bookshop even before we have officially opened it this afternoon was given a national bookshop award last week.
I think we have seen nothing yet with the adjacent school of architecture. We will read more and more about the narrative of its positive effects on the study of architecture and its different sub-disciplines and its transformative thinking on thinking around public architecture. Certainly a walk through its halls on any open night such as Culture Night one can see many local buildings drawn out and some really exciting proposals for them as well as bigger questions such as heritage management in cities such as Venice.
This afternoon marks another launch of another phase in this site’s development -perhaps phase 6 or 7 when one adds in the educational programme, lecture programme and event programme, and the genealogy centre programme, social inclusion work and the exterior work which management engage with around what type of City Cork could be in the future. All of these have created their own methodologies and cross disciplinary thinking and all splice together like some kind of cross-wiring to create an enormous light of sorts – a lighthouse in this corner of Cork’s world.
Today new wires are added in terms of the heritage of a map room where the city’s historic maps are on display, the launch of the bookshop, and the Cork Print Makers room. I welcome these new collaborations with Cork Council’s library service and the fantastic and always thought-provoking Cork Print Makers, and I know many local writers are quite happy to have a new space to sell their books.
I am particularly enamoured by the fact that the narratives behind how the city’s historic map collection came into being. For me it is important to speak about the City’s second public librarian Eugene Carbery who took on with energy the job from James Wilkinson, the city’s first public librarian. Eugene Carbery laid the seeds of the founding of a local history library in the emerging new city library over 1934 and 1935 and gathered a map collection from different sources, sources he published in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. Eugene also continued the quest to rebuild the library’s book collection after the Burning of the Carnegie Library in 1920.
I can be biased and say I have spent over 25 years of my life being a regular visitor to the local studies room and from my travels I have yet to see a better local history room collection. So I am delighted to hear of this collaboration here today, which for me is about celebrating the 75th anniversary of the local history library as well.
It is also important that the stories behind the cartographer’s maps are outed and that we begin to unpack their narratives and meanings. I know a scan of John Rocque’s 1759 map features in the exhibition space and will now be getting an extra focus as well as others on what maps can tell us about a city’s contemporary development but also why it is important to read between the lines of a historic artefact and history itself.
By John Rocque’s Map of Cork in 1759, the medieval town walls of Cork were just a memory- the medieval plan was now a small part in something larger – larger in terms of population from 20,000 to 73,000 plus in terms of a new townscape. A new urban text emerged with new bridges, streets, quays, residences and warehouses built to intertwine with the natural riverine landscape. New communities created new social and cultural landscapes to encounter.
The 1759 Map is impressive in its detail. John Rocque (c.1705–62) was a cartographer and engraver of European repute. He could count among his achievements – maps of London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. In Britain, his many projects included plans of great gardens, several county and provincial city maps and a great and a great, highly innovative, survey of London which resulted in a 16-sheet map of London and its immediate hinterland (1746), and an immense 24-sheet map of the city itself (also 1746), laid out at a very large scale close to 200 feet to an inch.
Of course as all of who use maps know they tell lies and never give you a true sense of a place. John Rocque’s map shows off key sites of interest all connected to the Georgian era of kings– and the Georgianisation of British towns and cities – on the Cork map and on the later 1773 map sites such as Hannover Street, public squares, the custom house, the butter market, the Theatre Royal, the King George II horse, tree lined canals, sailing ships, riding track circles, bowling greens – all of these though are all given preference over the lighter delineations of the laneways and poorer housing, where the majority of the city’s population lived and where Nano frequently visited. Indeed, truth being told Nano’s mind map is probably the opposite to John Rocque’s one.
It is known that Nano walked this great city a lot – there are multiple constructed narratives of her physically holding a lamp and weaving in and out of the dark streets of Cork – as the city’s public lighting was only large wicks in oil. From a metaphorical perspective, I like to think that people on the streets of Cork through her lamp knew she was present and cared – she searched out and engaged with the disenfranchised. She sought to give them a voice.
In those late 1770s and early 1780s Nano would have encountered an Atlantic city of great export – where the harbour and the sea was a huge economic asset – a multitude of wooden sailing ships creaking and bouncing off each other as they were tied up– a diversity of sailors from different backgrounds trying to communicate with each other– a port where the languages of Irish or English were in the minority – a multitude of goods awaiting their shipment, paper work as long as people’s arms – Cork docks was where a Corkonian one day could jump on a ship and a few weeks later emerge from the deck in the Caribbean or in the food markets of Lisbon.
In the year 1780 Nano’s world of Cork City had a population of 80,000 people, which had risen from 20,000 eighty years earlier – it is a world where one could estimate that just over 20 per cent were employed and many lived and struggled in poor conditions.
I have no doubt that Nano would have listened to debates about the city centre and its expansion from walled town starting around 1700 to populating 75 % of its marshy islands by 1780 – complete with busy quays, mud filled streets, over-flowing canals – and new local electoral areas – and new neighbourhoods all being politically defined as the city expanded..
In 1780 Nano in her wanderings in the city would have heard the debate about filling in the canals of the city – the great dumping of rubbish in them over many years – in particular the great canal which once filled in would create St Patrick’s Street.
Worries reigned with the owners of quaysides who did not want their mooring posts taken away and their mooring rights done away with. They were challenged with a new vision for the city – a move from ship movement to more pedestrian movement.
Nano would have heard before her death the debate in the Council Chamber in the commercial centre called the Exchange on Castle Street about creating a new bridge on the north channel. She would heard the physical uproar from ferry crossing owners about how the new proposed bridge of St Patrick’s Bridge would put them out of business.
In 1780 Nano would have possibly seen the 1780 drawing for the south docks where a main street and 20 side streets were planned.
And finally, I always think Nano would have heard about the debate, cost and dilemma and quest by the Councillors of the emerging city for a new Mayor’s chain. Nano didn’t live to see it being placed on the shoulders of Mayor of Cork Samuel Rowland on 9 June 1787 or to see two gold chains being given to the city sheriffs. All were voted on by the court of D’Oyer hundred – or the city’s assembly of freemen. The sum of £500 was given as a bond by the then Mayor who needed to be paid back, and the money sent onto the London goldsmith. It is unrecorded if he was ever paid back, just in case an ancestor from late eighteenth-century Cork ever appears within Cork.
Ultimately when you look at that time of the eighteenth century Nano Nagle viewed a modern Atlantic City evolving within its time complete with a micro world of challenges and worries – which all still linger in our time –and in truth all still in echo in this Atlantic city and drive this city’s ambition and its future proofing.
So today as this phase of the Nano Nagle centre is launched there is much to celebrate and much to reflect upon. The Nano Nagle Centre has travelled far within 24 months to get to this point today – to be a lighthouse- The splicing of different ideas and openness, and a hard work ethic has opened up new avenues and new questions on the role of this cultural heritage space within Ireland’s southern capital and further afield.
I wish everyone the very best going forward – the team and the board.
Thank you for listening to me.