Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 23 November 2023
Launch of First Citizen – Sean French, Cork’s Longest-Serving Lord Mayor
The life and times of Seán French – a 12-term Lord Mayor of Cork, councillor and TD – has now been recorded in a great new publication called First Citizen, Sean French, Cork’s Longest-Serving Lord Mayor. For many years Seán’s life has just been reduced in history to a few words and sentences. However, this new book by Dr Aodh Quinlivan and John Ger O’Riordan has done a superb job in rescuing the memory of Seán from being on the reductive history heap in Cork history and in capturing the everyday life of local politics in early twentieth century Cork. The book is rich in historical detail and there is much to learn from reading it from a citizen perspective and from a local politician or public representative perspective.
Firstly, the A team, of Aodh and John Ger, have once again pursued a fantastic job in reading between the lines of narratives in old newspapers, old Cork Corporation documentation, government reports and the conversations within debates within the City Council Chamber. They offer lenses in understanding the holistic perspectives of Council topics and that it not an easy task on many occasions to follow one line of logic when there is a multitude of other perspectives feeding into a debate. Indeed, the research methodologies Aodh and John Ger have developed over many years now can be adapted to other potential research projects on the history of Local Government in Ireland and further afield.
Secondly Aodh and John Ger’s focus on Seán French reveals the character of a local politician who never gave up on his early political beliefs and on Cork. Those who have championed Cork in the past for the most part do not get a look in despite the multitude of books and newspapers charting Cork history. So, this publication is another welcome addition in revisiting and renewing forgotten narratives in Cork’s past.
In his early years being a sportsman and a person with a good sense of humour gave Seán a strategic foundation and a caring mind – first showcased in establishing his own pharmacy business and then running in the 1920 local elections. Securing of a seat on the City’s historic council chamber Seán carved himself out as a voice for the underprivilege high cost of living in the city and horrendous slum conditions.
In Seán’s early months in the council chamber it coincided with the deaths of two Lord Mayors – Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney and a War of Independence spilling out across the streets of the city – and culminating in the Burning of Cork in December 1920 and the destruction of the city’s house of democracy in the shape of Cork City Hall. Such latter and tragic stories would affect the way historians of Cork would tell the story of Cork for the ensuing century to come.
Seán pursued his work on several sub committees of Cork Corporation with deep interest becoming a quasi-expert almost in topics such as local government finance, public works, social housing and technical education. Indeed, this book relates how much he was at the forefront of subcommittee work and how much he pushed for work to be pursued and work practices to be amended in many cases, and his diligent passion for evidence and forensic detail.
On Seán’s accession to being Lord Mayor of Cork on 30 January 1924 he delivered a short acceptance speech, stressing that improving and progressing Cork had to be the primary duty of all of the elected members. He stated that he had always stayed true to his ideals and that would not change.
However, the nature of politics within the emerging Irish Free State led to a heightened public expectation for improved services and the modernisation of Ireland’s cities, towns and villages – and ultimately the nature of how Local Government did its work had to change. In particular Seán politically led the city in a time of large scale physical and large scale societal change.Even a politician like Seán French could not stop the tides of change, which swept through Cork in the 1920s. It is always argued that a week is a long time in politics – no mind several years – and the authors describe the backdrop of Seán’s world in detail. The decades of 1920s and 1930s Cork is showcased here and this book even sets up further frameworks for further narratives to be researched and written about.
It worth keeping in mind that Lord Mayor Seán French bore witness to everything from the dissolution of Cork Corporation in 1924, to a new City Manager in the form of Philip Monahan, a new City survey plan, an energetic Cork Progressive Association of commercial individuals, clearing some of the city’s worst slum conditions, new social housing in suburbs like Turners Cross and Gurranabraher, the re-opening of St Patrick’s Street with a brand new modern look, to the closure of the historic Cork Butter Market, to the expansion of Fords and Dunlops, to the creation of new cinemas like the Pavilion and Savoy, to investment by the ESB in Ireland’s cities, to the creation of new tourism projects for the Cork region and all the way to the Cork Industrial and Agricultural Fair in 1932 and even the opening of the popular Lee Baths in 1934 – to name but a few more iconic moments in 1920s and early 1930s Cork.
As a third and final note, one can argue that this book is also an ode in its own way to all former Lord Mayors of Cork and councillors who have stood up on the Council Chamber floor to add their commentary to debates on the challenges and opportunities for city of Cork throughout the years. Indeed, reading even more between the lines of this book, one can see history repeating itself and connecting into the present day.
First Citizen, Sean French, Cork’s Longest-Serving Lord Mayor by Dr Aodh Quinlivan and John Ger O’Riordan is available in Waterstones and Vibes and Scribes.
1129a. John Ger O’Riordan and Aodh Quinlivan, authors of First Citizen, Sean French, Cork’s Longest-Serving Lord Mayor (picture: John Tyner, UCC).