6 Jul 2017

Kieran’s comments, St Kevin’s Asylum, Irish Examiner, 6 July 2017

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Losing the Past, Losing Ourselves
Published in Irish Examiner, 6 July 2017

   Like everyone else on Cork’s Lee Fields, I watched with great sadness the burning of the old St Kevin’s Asylum (built c.1895-1899) and had that deep sense of shock and loss – not just at one level but across a number of levels – Yes – St Kevin’s Asylum had a harrowing past but it’s future should not have played out this way.

   Chatting to Corkonians they expressed their sadness and frustration that a part of Cork’s social history was burning and being destroyed; they were sad to see a burnt scar of a landmark emerging on the cityscape in one of the city’s scenic spots – dismayed that it was a potential arson attack out resulting out of someone’s boredom, frustrated that campaigns over the years by resident community groups and public representatives did not gauge muster with the owners of the site, sad that the owners of the site, the HSE, did not get to pursuing a plan for the site (despite having completed some really tasteful renewal works in the old Cork workhouse at St Finbarr’s Hospital), upset for the memory and almost forgotten memory of former patients and former staff members, frustrated that in the national context, there are many other old asylum buildings that are decaying and not being utilised for a myriad of potential uses.

   Huge depths of multiple feelings unveiled themselves along the banks of the Lee last evening – feelings that were all about responsibility around harnessing and how to capture for the present and future a city’s (and a nation’s) history and heritage.

  The fishermen, who called in the fire sat on the river railing, lamented to the press on the emerging scarred landscape. The River Lee at this point is bound up with a necklace of beautiful nineteenth century buildings across it northern ridges– some with harrowing histories like Our Lady’s Hospital and the Good Shepherd Convent with its Magdalene Asylum – some with stories of innovative local government like the Old Waterworks, some with gorgeous artwork like the stained-glass windows in St Vincent’s Church. The former Our Lady’s Hospital is now in the last phase of redevelopment by a private developer as tastefully done apartment blocks – the old Waterworks is now a notable tourism attraction run by Cork City Council on Ireland’s Ancient East with themes around renewable energy, waste, education and science. Investment into these sites have worked and a return for the investment is being reaped as well as emanating sustainable best practice in what to do with old building stock. These are best practice examples.

   The now burnt out old St Kevin’s Asylum and the ruined and formerly burnt out Good Shepherd Convent remain ‘worst case’ examples of what happens if one does not invest. The hands of local government councils need to be strengthened – that finance and staff are made available to compulsorily purchase property, which is not being developed. Cities, town and regions should not have to endure sadness, loss, frustration and dereliction. It is not positive to have buildings, small to large, boarded up for years, to leave them decay, and to not have a plan. Going forward we need to reverse our approaches to dereliction – ideas, future planning and investment are needed to breathe life into our historic cities like Cork – in fact anytime we have, the ideas of the past have worked and have always helped frame the visions of the future.

Dr Kieran McCarthy, Independent Councillor, Cork City Council, www.corkheritage.ie

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