Cork Revisited

Cork was built on an island between two branches of the River Lee. It means marshy place and is very prone to flooding. There were monastic and Viking settlements here, but is first noted as a city in the reign of King John, Lord of Ireland, in the late twelfth century. I regularly passed through on the way to family holidays on the south coast, and later with friends in those halcyon days; heading for Kinsale, or other vague destinations, by Hook or by Crooke. We once camped near Shandon, but more salubrious accommodation would come. 

I stayed here in 1980 for the Jazz Festival and the Labour Party Conference. We stayed up late at the Metropole which had formed into one of those festival club montages, wandering from room to room as different jazz performances floated from doorways – solo piano, bebop combos and goodtime trumpet playing band. The Jazz Festival was born in 1978 when Jim Mountjoy, marketing manager of the Metropole, was looking for something to coincide with the new October  bank holiday introduced by Labour minister Michael O’Leary the previous year. This often coincides with Hallowe’en, the ancient Celtic festival of the dead. Wild and windy, and wonderfully spooky, what better time for a festival of the devil’s music in a southern delta. The sponsors then were John Player whose cigarettes provided an excellent companion to all forms of music, though perhaps forever associated with Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog.

We sailed for parts unknown to man

where ships come home to die

no lofty peak nor fortress bold

could match our captain’s eye

Ella Fitzgerald headlined at the Cork Opera House that year, and for forty five years the festival has featured the cream of local and international jazz, and its children too.

Our accommodation then was more modest than the Met. When the last note sounded in the wee small hours, we got our car and headed south of the river. Darkness still reigned though the rain had ceased. However, that most Corkonian of downpowers must have burst the dykes and the streets turned to waterways. Back in Venice again, at the wheel of my own motor launch, a Renault 4 to be precise, I drove milk float slow with water halfway up the hub caps.

This time we take the train. There’s a train every two hours from Dublin Heuston, and the journey takes about two and a half hours. The frequency ensures it’s not too crowded. I avail of my free travel pass, with M being my designated minder. We arrive in Cork Kent and make for McCurtain Street. The Isaacs Hotel is opposite the larger Metropole hotel. McCurtain Street itself is north of and parallel to the River Lee. 

At the foot of McCurtain Street, St. Patrick’s Hill takes us down to the river. This is the north branch of the River Lee, embracing Cork city centre on its low lying island. Patrick Street, across the bridge, is the wide and winding principal street. It has the most ugly street lighting you are likely to see, a deranged bundle of oblique scaffolding and spotlights which clash with the elegant streetscape. 

Cork is Ireland’s second city. Recent boundary changes have seen its population surge towards the quarter million mark. Back in the day, in the seventies and eighties, it held barely a hundred thousand souls. Walking the city streets in late summer, that increase is palpable. There’s a buzz abroad.

Narrow lanes lead off Patrick Street, boasting such colourful names as Drawbridge Street, Bowling Green Street and Half Moon Street. The names evoke an olden atmosphere and this pervades much of the streetscape too. There are plenty of cafes and bars with outdoor seating, bohemians, students and tourists mingling with the ever growing throngs of modern shoppers.

The Crawford Municipal Gallery is within this warren. The Crawford is always a port of call for myself and M when in Cork. William Horatio Crawford, brewer and philanthropist (a good mix) funded the art college here. Beamish and Crawford produce the famous Beamish stout, a black ale with creamy head just like Guinness. Originally the building was the Custom House for Cork, built in 1724, it later was home to the Royal Cork Institution. The Art School was rechristened for its benefactor in 1885 and became the Crawford Municipal Gallery in 1979 with the relocation of the art college to new premises.

We are returned to our own college days inside the door where there’s a permanent display of casts of classical Greek and Roman statues by Italian Antonio Canova. Donated by George IV (as Regent) these came originally from the Vatican. Most spectacular is Laocoon and His Sons, which was also an emblem of our own college. It dominated the entrance to NCAD, then in Kildare Street alongside that other parcel of rogues, the Dail or Parliament. The Crawford also includes work by leading Irish artists: the stained glass of Harry Clarke and Evie Hone and paintings by William Orpen, Jack B Yeats and Nano Reid. Crawford College painters, James Brennan, Henry Jones Thaddeus, and William Barry also feature. The Zurich Prize Portrait exhibition was the main visiting attraction. We had seen it in Dublin but it was well worth seeing again.

From the Crawford on Emmet Place, we head along Paul Street to a small plaza ooutside the shopping centre: Rory Gallagher Place. There’s a sculpture by Geraldine Creedon which depicts a swirling guitar emitting streams of Gallagher songs. Gallagher is the much loved blues guitarist who founded Taste in the sixties. For my generation, seeing Gallagher play was an early rite of passage. Always on the road, his annual stadium gig, and the odd festival appearance were a must for the young rock fan. Gallagher was actually born in Donegal, in the later forties, but his family moved to Cork when he was five. As a teenager he played with the Fontana showband, but was ever moving towards the Blues-rock scene. With the power trio Taste, he enjoyed live success in Belfast clubs, and achieved chart success with their first two albums, Taste and On the Boards. His solo career brought him guitar hero status, but his fame waned in the eighties. He died in 1995, aged forty seven and is buried at St Oliver’s Cemetary in Ballincollig on the city outskirts.

On the Boards is Gallagher at his best. There’s a jazz sensibility in his playing and arrangements. Saxaphone, played by Rory, adds a particularly moody dimension. Released in 1970, it was their last album as Gallagher went solo after the Isle of Wight festival. What’s Going On was a hit single. Gallagher’s disregard for such fame didn’t  help his career, or indeed musical development. Railway and Gun is another number that showcases his range as a guitarist and composer.

Keep your railway and your gun

Just leave any time you choose

Tell me what you hope to find

I’ll tell you what you’ve got to lose.


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