Cork Needs to Watch Its Back

They had Rachel Allen in the Patrick’s Day Parade in Cork this year. She seemed to appear out of nowhere on the South Mall, waving from the back of a vintage car alongside the Lord Mayor. The huge crowd on either side of the Mall burst out laughing and waved back. Nobody laughed harder than Rachel herself. It was very Cork; saluting one of the most popular people on Leeside, while laughing at the pomposity of it all. It sat well in a parade that had more wit and ambition than previous years. Cork feels like a place that is back on the front foot.

It looks like it too. The city centre is suddenly full of young professionals from all over the world, giving each other the eye. Tired old areas like McCurtain and Washington Street are fizzing again, with new restaurants every other month. There are plans for a forty-storey tower in a new development at the Port of Cork site at the east end of town.  Unemployment is down at 6.4%. Rents are gone a bit Dublin, with a one-bed apartment close to town coming in over €1,000 a month. It looks like anything could happen.

It also looks a bit like Reading, or one of those sanitised places you see on Location, Location, Location, where the young couple can’t afford to buy in London. For all the welcome activity around town, it also feels a bit samey, a bit safe, like it could be anywhere. Say what you will about Cork, but the second city didn’t build its reputation on samey and safe. It has always been about obsessive personalities, shooting for the stars in a small city struggling to control its hormones.

They mightn’t have been to everyone’s taste, but there was nothing else like Café Paradiso or the Ivory Tower when they opened their doors back in the 1990s. (There still isn’t, really.) This diamond in the rough trait goes beyond food. Cork doesn’t produce many top-level soccer footballers. But it did produce Roy Keane. It was never that good for nightclubs. But it did produce Sir Henry’s. It doesn’t Galway’s reputation for the arts.  But it is home to the Corcadorca Theatre Company.

Cork is supposed to feel like an act of madness, perpetrated by someone with nothing to lose. It’s what you’d expect from a city build on a marsh. Now? It’s starting to feel a bit middle-aged.

It’s not like Cork can afford to relax. The Second City title is up for grabs. If the economy keeps growing, it’s only a matter of time before the government will complete the M20 motorway, ultimately linking Cork to Galway and setting up a counter-weight to Dublin. One of Cork, Limerick and Galway will emerge as the major urban centre along this route. Galway is out in front on the arts and hospitality front; business and political figures in Limerick have serious plans to steal the crown. If you think losing second city status doesn’t matter to Cork people, then you’ve never met one of them.

It’s not like Cork has nothing to offer. Hipster bible, New York Magazine, noticed the place last year, listing the city alongside Gothenburg and Rotterdam as a suitable place for a weekend escape. In fairness, there is plenty for hipsters and like-minded foodies to enjoy around town. They almost need a queueing systems to control all the burger and smokehouse places opening up. Cork would probably get a new motto on its coat of arms, if someone could figure out the Latin for ‘How Would you like your Burger?’ These burger joints are being joined around Cork by their hyperactive younger cousin, the donut shops. We’re not sure why donut outlets are thriving now; presumably it’s because injecting sugar into your eye in public isn’t a great look.

This isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a place. We all like a sugar shot now and again, and Cork has shown that it can do a sassy, buzzy burger joint as well as anyone else. If you fancy carbohydrates surrounded by people on the pull, then Cork is probably the city for you right now. It’s not only grill houses either. The Japanese restaurant, Miyazaki, has people falling at its feet. Rachel Allen’s new place on Washington Street is going to raise the bar in terms of buzz and food. Salt on Victoria Road has got tapas just right and the people-watching could give you whiplash.

But still, you wonder, why Cork doesn’t have a Michelin Star? You might think this doesn’t matter, that an upstart punky place like Cork doesn’t need the thumbs-up from some French fuss-pots. But it will matter when the motorway runs up to Galway, and the Vice President of some corporation is deciding where she wants to locate their European HQ. Will it be Cork with its buzzy burger places, or Galway with its own buzzy burger places and two Michelin star restaurants? This isn’t about food, it’s about the brand. An executive looking at this from her office in Shanghai would draw the obvious conclusion; Galway is about excellence, Cork likes making noise.

This donut and burger thing will pass and Cork will be left looking like someone who still uses an iPod. The city needs to start pandering to someone other than the hipsters. The problem with hipsters is they have this weird notion of travel, where they want to get in a plane for eight hours and arrive at the place they just left. The fact they can fly to Buenos Aires and find two guys with beards selling cookies means they are on the right side of history. They have somehow managed to convince themselves this is cool and subversive, when it’s really just what McDonalds and Starbucks did in the 80s and 90s. They will drag Cork into the mire.

Anyone who thinks Cork won’t be caught by Limerick or Galway doesn’t like their sport. Empires fall, and fast. There was a time when most people in the county had seen Cork win an All-Ireland, at least once in their lives. The international soccer team had Keane and Irwin. Cork players were all over the team sheet for the international rugby team. Now, there are more Cork accents on the RTE rugby panel than there are on the pitch.

The Gaelic footballers lost to Clare in a league match recently. GAA people don’t do disrespect, but that’s like China losing a ping-pong game to Horse and Jockey. The hurlers look like they might be the weakest team in Munster, bar Kerry. And that’s being optimistic.

A shiny new Pairc Ui Chaoimh is opening this summer; the problem is Cork’s senior men’s teams mightn’t last long enough in the Munster Championship to give it a decent day out.

Soccer fans might tell you Cork City are doing well in the league, but they probably won’t go to see them play a home game in Turners Cross; the average attendance last year was barely over 3,000. You’d get more at a freezing cold Pairc Ui Rinn in February to watch Cork lose a hurling match in the Allianz League.

The only exceptions are the women’s GAA teams, who are still good for a silverware homecoming in late autumn. But they are the exceptions that prove the new rule – Cork seems to be running out of steam.

Tell Cork people this and they’ll shoot you down with the latest good news stories. Such as, scheduled direct flights to the U.S. from Cork Airport for the first time in its history. This isn’t as good as it seems.

Back in February, the head of Norwegian Air arrived in Cork Airport and announced three flights a week to Providence, Rhode Island. It would have been fine if he left it at that. Unfortunately, Norwegian also announced 12 flights a week from Dublin and four from Shannon. Talk about pissing on someone’s parade. These flights were supposed to be about Cork catching up with other cities. Instead it was left further behind. The Limerick-Galway axis still has much better access to the States.

Business figures are quick to point out the cranes on the skyline as evidence that Cork is on the up. But appearances can be deceptive.

The first thing you notice about the new event centre is that there isn’t one. Enda Kenny, Simon Coveney and more turned out in February last year to turn the sod on a 6,000 arena, on the site of the old Beamish Brewery. The fact this was one week before the general election should have alerted us to what would happen next. Which is, basically, nothing. The site has remained untouched for over a year, with arguments over who should foot the bill.  It appears that Cork can’t organise an event centre in a brewery.

At least One Albert Quay got built. There was so much fuss made about this development, you’d swear it was going to be like One World Trade Center in New York, with knobs on. It is in fact a pleasant, seven storey glass box, the type that gets built in groups of 12 on Dublin’s Silicon Docks. It’s hardly world beating. The proposed new tower at Port of Cork will raise the skyline, but that won’t be enough.

Cork needs to do a Bilbao. Forget about the glass boxes and towers for a while. Instead, make a statement, with something like Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, a place that is more about swagger than function. Not only would that raise the bar and set a new tone for everything else around the place. It would be in tune with the old-school awkward, diamond in the rough, Cork. And it would be unlike anything else in Ireland right now.

Cork could take a lesson from Ronan O’Gara. He was the standout star of RTE’s Six Nations coverage. It’s not that he has more insight on the modern game; it’s his attitude that grabs your attention.

The modern pundit is supposed to be eager and positive. He subscribes to the notion that Ireland should be winning every game.  He is ready with a quick fix when we lose.

O’Gara refuses to play ball. He kind of slouches on his chair, like he is back in geography class, trying to get a reaction out of the teacher. You wouldn’t be surprised if he put a farting cushion under Eddie O’Sullivan.

His response when Ireland lost to Wales in the crunch Six Nations tie back in March?  It’s very hard to win away from home in the Six Nations. Another pundit might have tried to tell us why we struggled in the lineout or that something was wrong in our ‘fronting up.’ O’Gara just told us the truth. It’s hard to win away from home in the Six Nations. It turns out he’s infuriatingly right. Check the stats. Or just ask England.

Cork basically needs to do an O’Gara now. Stop playing ball, stop playing it safe. Rediscover a shot of the old crankiness. Channel the kind of risks the Corcadorca Theatre Company took in their staging of Enda Walsh’s play, The Same, in Cork’s old prison. Don’t open a Michelin star restaurant, open three of them.

Make the same statement that Donal Og Cusack made, when he shouted “We are Cork, we are Cork” at the Clare players during the parade before the 1999 Munster Hurling Final. That’s the kind of cocky madness that Cork needs right now. Because Limerick and Galway aren’t far behind.

What do you reckon?