Kieran’s Article, Place Matters in Cork, Irish Examiner, 21 January 2023

It is thirty years since I gave my first walking tour across the flat of Cork City and penned my first history project on the city. Cork is a great story to research and to tell. One cannot but be pulled into the multitudes of narratives, which have framed Ireland’s southern capital. I have really enjoyed researching and promoting Cork’s story.

Cork’s place and story has been carved over many centuries and all those legacies can be found in its narrow streets and laneways and in its built environment. The legacy echoes from being an old ancient port city where Scandinavian Vikings plied the waters 1,000 years ago – their timber boats beaching on a series of marshy islands – and the wood from the same boats forming the first foundations of houses and defences.

We will never know and will always speculate upon their raison d’être to construct such a settlement upon a wetland. Themes of survival, community life living on the edge, ambition, innovation, branding and internationalisation are etched across the narratives of much of Cork’s built heritage and are amongst my favourite topics to research. Indeed, I fully believe that these are key narratives that Cork needs to break the silence on more.

However, for all the tours and for all the writing projects, I still seek to figure out what makes the character of Cork tick. I still read between the lines of historic documents, archives and placenames. I get excited by a nugget of information, which completes a historical puzzle I might have started years ago. I have sat in the library pouring over a book or old newspaper on many an occasion trying to figure out where a piece of information sits in my researches.

I still look up at the architectural fabric of the city and at name plaques to seek new discoveries, hidden treasures and new secrets. I encourage people on my tours to look up and around and always they see something that I have not seen. I am still no wiser in teasing out all of Cork’s biggest secrets. But I would like to pitch that it’s biggest secret is itself, a charming urban landscape, whose greatest secrets have not been told and fully explored. In essence Cork has a living heritage and history, which defines it.

I have articulated over the years that there is a power of place – that the concept of place matters. Cork is a place of tradition, continuity, change and legacy. It is a place of direction and experiment by people, of ambition, experiences and learning, of ingenuity and innovation and a place of nostalgia and memory.

Cork’s urban landscape is filled with messages about the past – from positive to negative. That beyond the physical surfaces of a city such as Cork, there is a soulful and evocative character etched across the flat of the city, the estuary of the river Lee and surrounding valleysides.

Place matters in Cork. Within this topographical frame is a heritage – physical and spiritual to a degree – that needs to be minded, cherished and nourished for the Cork of the future.

Several of the locations around Cork possess a strong sense of character, culture sentimentality, place and belonging, symbolic ownership and are a source of inspiration – from sites such the Fitzgerald’s Park to Ballincollig Regional Park to Blarney Castle to The Lough, to our universities to the English Market to old industrial sites in Blackpool to the fabric of our city centre streets to woodland trails in Douglas or Glanmire to the towering heritage of St Anne’s Church, Shandon or St Patrick’s Hill – to name a small number of sites. Much has been written over many years on all of the latter sites and their cultural relevance in Cork.

Some sites Corkonians deem such sites as being appealing, timeless, ancestral, eternal, enshrined or sacred in conjuring and summoning a sense of place. Cork possesses a number of sites such as St Anne’s Church Shandon or Pairc Ui Chaoimh, which are synonymous with Cork  – they frequently are mentioned to be a representative image of the city.

So it was not on a whim I rolled into the debate on the proposed re-naming of Pairc Ui Chaoimh this week. It is not just the name of the place at stake but what the name means and echos within the heart of Cork’s character, heritage and memory.

There were many ideas bouncing around in my head – the story, legacy and memory of Pádraig Ó Chaoimh – raised in Cork, was a member of the Cork IRA in the Irish War of Independence, secretary to the Cork GAA and then National secretary in the early Irish Free State. His legacy includes doubling the amount of grassroots sports clubs in Ireland and forging club owned premises. There was a strong reason his name was chosen in 1974 for then new Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Pádraig was a legend in his day for many aspects – very much in his development of the GAA in the form we have today as a champion of the culture of the game and the encouragement of young people to join their local clubs and participate in them.

Páirc Uí Chaoimh as a place also possess a strong sense of culture, character, sentimentality, place and belonging, symbolic ownership and is a source of inspiration to those who play on the pitch or support the GAA.

We all become blind to our home place and its stories. We walk streets, which become routine spaces – spaces, which we take for granted – but all have been crafted, assembled and storified by past residents. It is only when we stand still and look around can we hear the voices of the past and its secrets being told, and hopefully build many of them into future, maintaining and enhancing the rich sense of pride and place and history and memory that Cork possesses.

Visit Kieran’s website for more on Cork history.