That Sense of Cork
Championing Cork: Cork Chamber of Cork, 1819-2019
Speech, Cllr Kieran McCarthy
Friday 8 November 2019
An Tanáiste, Dear distinguished guests, Dear ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for the opportunity to speak here this evening at such an important occasion. This book took 18 months – a year and a half – to compile, piece together and publish, and all of its roads led to this evening – the actual 200th anniversary date of the Chamber being established.
Eighteen months though is only a very small proportion of time of the 200 years of the Chamber’s history. But for me and all behind this book, this publication celebrates the nature, essence, energy, character and the power of knowledge and marks a group who came together and continue to champion Ireland’s southern capital and region. So for me this book is not just a history book but a toolkit where a cross section of a multitude of moves by the Chamber over the 200 years are documented and mapped.
Two hundred ago today, on a wintry evening a small group of gentlemen- not over a dozen in number – met at Shinkwin’s Rooms on St Patrick’s Street – a small two storey building not overly developed. Minutes were kept, a chair appointed and the rules of the new organisation were set out as their winter meetings progressed.
We are very lucky that those original minute books and 98 per cent of the minute books survive and are now minded in Cork City and County Archives as well as a vast majority of the minutes were written up in local newspapers such as the Cork Examiner. The Cork Examiner in our time is now completely digitised and completely readable online going back to 1841.
On the 8 November 1819, some of the merchants of the city were aware of the need for a Chamber. Dublin and Waterford already had their chamber for many years. The first members of the Cork Chamber don’t jump out of Cork history as highly recognisable figures. But they do come across though as people who cared about the city and region, as hard sloggers, and that they were acutely aware of the challenges of their time and of the acquisition of knowledge to resolve such challenges.
Policy papers didn’t get published straight away – their first forays into galvanising support was through hosting networking dinners, setting up a reading room where all the weekly newspapers of the day could be read, honouring notable Cork emigrants abroad such as Daniel Florence O’Leary, an aide de Camp in Simon Bolivar’s government in South America, honouring the Catholic Emancipator Daniel O’Connell and his diplomatic work in Westminster, and interviewing prospective candidates for membership of Westminster and asking them what their policies were.
So what has changed from those first policies- the dinners are ongoing, the Chamber still honours Corkmen abroad interestingly the Columbian Ambassador recently unveiled an info panel to Daniel Florence O’Leary at Elizabeth Fort recently. The chamber still asks questions of this city’s politicians of what are your policies- and our senior politicians now pass on questions to present day Westminster candidates.
Indeed probably the only aspect that has changed since those early policies is the ability to read 20 newspapers for free in one place– but one can argue that aspect that has been replaced by the glossy and always thought provoking Chamber Link, which always faces the viewer in every corner of the Chamber’s Summerhill North residences.
Awareness and The Power of Place:
I like to think that those members who signed up on the 8 November and in subsequent weeks were aware of their city, walked its streets, had ideas on where Cork needed to go. That their awareness had many facets.
They were aware of Cork’s economic position in Atlantic Europe, not just in Ireland, aware of competitiveness within that space – from Spain through France through the UK and through Ireland.
They were aware of its physical position in the middle of a marshland with a river – and from this the hard work required in reclaiming land on a swampland. I like to think they saw and reflected upon the multitudes of timber trunks being hand driven into the ground to create foundational material for the city’s array of different architectural styles.
They were aware of its place with an Empire, the relationship with Britain with barracks high upon a hill and across the County, and forts within the harbour area.
They were aware of the importance of its deep and sheltered Cork harbour for shipping.
They were aware of the shouts of dockers and noise from dropping anchors- the sea water causing masts to creak, and the hulls of timber ships knocking against its wall, as if to say, we are here, and the multitudes of informal international conversations happening just at the edge of a small city centre.
And they were aware of much unemployment and economic decline following the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
The Power of Vision:
Within this framework of awareness, the new Chamber of Commerce etched out its own vision, which aimed to provide one of the voices in economic development highlight business and provide a networking platform. The process was slow at the start but gathered momentum in accordance with the enthusiasm and energy of its members in getting things done.
The Chamber though was one of several other voices two hundred years ago who also had a vision for Cork plus were responsible in creating the foundations of our modern city and region. They set threads of thought, which the Chamber followed in time.
The early nineteenth century Corkonian had a rich vision for their city and region, much of which still resonates quite strongly in our present day and the Cork of the future.
The Cork Harbour Commissioners, founded in the 1810s created a new custom house complete with bonded warehouses, built enlarged docks spaces at Lapp’s Quay and pushed the extension of the docks eastwards, all of which set up our modern day North and South Docks.
Two hundred years ago the Cork Steam ship Company also came into being which harnessed the age of steam engines and influenced the adoption of this new technology in emerging breweries and distilleries in the city, as well as the creation of a more effective pumped water supply – and in a few short years steam was harnessed to create a commuter system of railways lines feeding into the city and out into the wider region.
The Wide Street Commission aimed to clean up slum ridden areas and dereliction in the city centre and create new and enhanced drainage systems– their greatest achievement was to plan for a new street, which opened in 1824 called Great George’s Street, which was later renamed Washington Street. Indeed, if one walks the older historic streets of the old medieval core such as South Main Street and North Main Street, one can see a form of rough red brick, which once you see it once you can see how much rebuilding was pursued c. 1820 to c.1830 and how much dereliction was cleared.
The inspection methods of the Cork Butter Market reigned supreme but also their vision to create new routeways for their customers from Kerry and Limerick – to become known as the Butter Roads.
The Grand Jury of Cork comprising local landlords and magistrates complimented this work by lobbying Westminster to give funding towards bridge construction across County Cork’s river valleys – such as the Lee, Bandon and Blackwater.
The knock-on effect of the improvement of roads and bridges led to new mail coach systems established in County Cork.
Reading the minute book of Cork Corporation meetings, one can see their continued investment into re-gravelling streetscapes, taking down and replacing of inadequate bridges, dealing with the decaying fabric of the eighteenth century city and investment into a proper water supply scheme.
The Cork Society of Arts emerged in the 1810s and asked for philanthropic support for artists and sculptors. They also welcomed the Antonia Canova Sculpture Casts to the city– the society, which was informal and small in its initial set-up – within a few short decades led to the creation of the Cork School of Art and a municipal art gallery.
Emerging artists adorned the city with the images of the Coat of Arms and also a branding strategy emerged to reflect its history – one can see passing remarks in travelogues two hundred years ago to Cork being one of the “Venices of the North” – of Northern Europe – a reference to a glory age of democracy in Europe plus a direct reference to canals in eighteenth century Cork, which were filled in the 1780s due to mass over silting. It’s not a strong branding platform but flickers every now and again in narratives about the city in the present day.
There also political visions to end the penal laws and enact Catholic Emancipation.
There were also visions to provide new residential spaces for the growing Roman Catholic middle class –Mini mansion in places such as Blackrock and Ballintemple came into being.
The Cork Chamber of Commerce was born in the midst of all these visions – some of the institutions I have described merged with other bodies as time went on- some were done away with economic decline – some survived and evolved into stronger institutions – but the themes I have described the small Chamber took on with gusto as the decades progressed -
– docklands development, the need to harness new technologies, the need for enhanced commuter belt transport,
the need to mind and enhance the City’s appearance, the role of Cork Harbour in the city’s economic development, our relationship next to the UK,
networking and creating opportunities, diplomatic opportunity building, branding the city, breaking silos, working together – all define the core themes of the Chamber’s work over two hundred years.
– indeed in turning the pages of all the minute books over two hundred years – history repeats over and over again, some themes advanced and some themes have regressed but the Chamber and all its members through out the ages kept fighting for a better Cork – some times that road led forward, sometimes led back and sometimes it even split the membership – but in the overall scheme of 200 years – consistency of lobbying shines through.
The Power of People:
The minute books record names of people who stepped up to offer advice, to offer leadership and to lobby. Certainly reading between the lines of the minute books and chatting to members today listening and cultivating action has been very important to the Chamber survival for two hundred years – plus to also to ignite people’s passion for their city and region plus harnessing the concept of their openness, their skillsets, and knowledge.
So this evening we also remember the people connected with the Chamber for over two hundred years. Sometimes history can be just reduced to dates and figures – so in this book you will notice it contains the quotes of past speeches by Presidents and even letters from the general public.
On the aspect of people, I have no doubt there were moments in the early days when the founder members held firm on why they established the Chamber. Tonight, we remember their tenacity and vision.
I have no doubt there have been moments where the Chamber suffered the blows of members who left for various reasons or who passed away. Tonight, we remember past members and not just that we rejoice in the skills and talents of the present members – from the 15 original members to the over 1,000 members now.
I have no doubt there have been moments in the multitudes of meetings where complex issues confounded and angered even the sharpest of members and later in time the Executive, but both members and the executive stood tall in the face of unfolding events. We remember all the past committee members and the executive for their dedication and vision.
I have no doubt that there have been moments in a break of a meeting – when a fellow member asked “is there anything wrong” to another member and a worry was shared -and in that quiet moment – the power of solidarity and friendship prevailed to soften the blows of life. We remember those guardians of empathy and the listening ear.
There have been moments when members knew that at a moment in time – they were the guardians of the city and region and the city’s DNA – an intangible quality of all things Cork – is also embedded into the members.
There have been moments whereby the Chief Executive and his staff felt they has changed something. In particular I would like to highlight the work of Michael Geary and Conor Healy for their respective visions.
Over the past two hundred years, there have been many moments, which this book aims to document. To be a guardian of Cork is no easy task as it filled with much ambition.
In my meetings this week, a member of the EU’s URBACT programme noted to me – you know Cork is all over our social media at the moment – there is so much happening in your city” – I replied – “yep, good, we’re not finished yet, you should see what else we are up to!”.
So tonight, we celebrate 200 years, we reflect on the two hundred years of its history and everyone associated with in the past, present and going forward. We sincerely thank the Chamber for the journey they have taken the city and region on, and we think about the journey going forward.
My sincere thanks to Chamber 200 Committee and Paula Cogan and to Conor, Katherine, Imelda of the Chamber, Robin O’Sullivan, as well as the Chamber Executive or their consistent positivity, ongoing energy and charting a vision my thanks as well to Kieran in the Irish Examiner for help and assistance with the old photographs, to Brian Magee, the City Archivist, and Cliodhna in Coolgrey for her design and patience.
Thank you for listening to me.