Discerning readers may remember Klondyke (Jeremiah Healy), one of the most colorful characters in Cork’s civilian life.
A city councilor in the 1940s, Klondyke focused heavily on one issue: providing public toilets for the city’s women. Legend has it that his rallying cry was relevant at the time (“they’re building arsenals all over Europe, all we want is a urinal”).
(literal-minded reader: But if it was a women’s restroom, why-
Me: stop, you’re killing the magic.)
The great man, of course, succeeded, although the toilets built at his request were demolished in the eighties. Who tells his own story.
We could do with another Klondyke now, not so much for toilet access, although that would help, but maybe campaigning for some simpler benches for the streets of Cork.
Last weekend, your correspondent went downtown, accompanied by research assistants. During the mission, one of these assistants got a bit peckish, and to satisfy her high notions, we went to the sushi restaurant in the English market.
(The other research assistant cast a nostalgic glance at a lunch box of O’Flynn fries and sausages, which her father agreed to help her with.)
Then we headed out into the fresh air of the Grand Parade and looked for a place to sit.
It’s a trickier proposition than you might think. There has never been so much seating on the streets of Cork, but there aren’t too many places to sit, paradoxically.
The explosion of street furniture sometimes seems literal – one day you are walking down a street unhindered, then the next day there are seats, stools, tables, chairs of all kinds, temporary and permanent barriers, dogs on a leash attached to these barriers, people lying on the chairs
Where once the sidewalk stretched ahead, smooth and untouched, now appears an obstacle course to test even the mountain goats among us when it doesn’t force people off the trail and onto the open road to tackle the circulation.
This has consequences for people. I won’t embarrass the outlet in question, but there is one particular corner in the city center where hundreds of people are funneled down a narrow hallway due to the way the area has been colonized or infested with tables and chairs. A minor inconvenience for someone healthy and hearty even if loaded with groceries; a major challenge for those pushing young children or those with mobility issues.
Back to my field trip last weekend: yours truly and the research assistants must have tried a picnic on the large smooth blocks set up on the Grand Parade outside the market entrances on this side.
Lord knows that in my youth I snacked in worse places and at worse times, but if a reader has ever perched on one of these blocks, he will know that the traditional accompaniment to his coffee or his sandwich (or his sushi roll) is an invigorating whiff of exhaust from the vehicles parked right next to them. So our visit.
(It’s true that there are benches across the road in Bishop Lucey Park, but that’s being redeveloped, which means the space will soon be inaccessible to the public. Move around a bit further down the Grand Parade and there are places to sit outside the main library branch, although there is a problem with the local bird population, which is. .. not served by its own Klondyke, in other words.)
If you look around town, however, you won’t see a seating shortage, thanks to the sudden adoption of the Covid-enforced continental outdoor seating model.
Contrary to the gloomiest predictions, this street furniture has survived a few winters and we have all become accustomed to sitting outside cafes, bars and restaurants as if we were Mediterranean in appearance, vision and temperament.
However, these seats are all provided by a private company. No doubt if my own train of wagons carrying California rolls and O’Flynn’s Breakfast Sausage had made its way from the blocks of Grand Parade to nearby chairs, we would have been politely told that the seats were there for the benefit of customers – customers of the outlet that supplied them in the first place.
Perfectly understandable and on some level, quite acceptable. If a cafe or restaurant table is occupied by teenagers killing time, or a retired couple doing sos beag, that means less room for people who will pay to sit there: these are companies that are managed, not social services.
But we can also look at this in a different way. If a business plants tables and chairs in front of its front door, it is occupying the public space while charging those citizens if they want to use that public space. Is it right?
The obvious defense these businesses could mount is to point out that if the local authority does not provide places for people to sit in the town, it is not the business’s job to do so for them. Of course, the council should provide more benches and seats for its citizens in the interest of their safety and comfort.
(A similar point could be made about the inaccessibility of public toilets in the city, which would probably surprise Klondyke if he could return from the afterlife).
But there’s a reason I mentioned teenagers and retirees above, not to mention those with mobility issues.
The first two are groups of people for whom six or seven euros, or more, for a coffee and a cake is a high price to pay for a place to meet and talk or rest for a few minutes.
The same may be true for those in the third group, who also have an added challenge of simply negotiating streets that are much more crowded than they have ever been before.
What I don’t notice is a chorus of voices defending these groups of people. Alliance is the loud cry of our time, with many declaring themselves strong supporters of a particular cause, often signaling their commitment with determined strikes or courageous emoji work.
However, some causes and some people seem to attract vocal support, and others do not. Why not? Because there isn’t a gratifying trend associated with these causes?
Asking the citizens of Cork to be aided by clear paths and plenty of council seats is not a cry of freedom meant to adorn a thousand t-shirts; neither is your columnist about to alarm anyone by saying “first they came for your right to sit on a bench, and your children are next”.
Improving life in the city is about a thousand small changes, however, and not a few headline-grabbing moves. Cleaning up the streets and installing more benches would make Cork more enjoyable for the very young and the very old.
And as we’ve seen time and time again, improvements that target these groups are improvements that benefit everyone.