As part of our election coverage, we sent some of our journalists back to their hometowns to report on the issues concerning the people who live there. Aoife Barry from Douglas, Cork City, visited to find out what’s gone wrong and right since the last election five years ago – and what people want to see happen after this election.
“Sinn Féin have done nothing, the other crowd are a disgrace, and as for Fine Gael, they’re in fuckin’ dreamland.” – Tony Coughlan, Cork Penny Dinners user
IT’S BLUE MONDAY – 18 January, dubbed the ‘most depressing day of the year’ – when I arrive back in Cork to take the measure of my hometown in the run-up to the general election.
The city sits below a grey sky, hung with a soft blanket of clouds willing to spatter rain at any moment. The date of the 2016 election hasn’t yet been announced, so lampposts and electricity poles don’t bear candidates’ faces, but in a few weeks that will change.
At last count, almost 120,000 people called Cork City their home. There’s a well-worn adage that Corkonians think theirs is the best city in Ireland, but it’s not without its problems too.
My visit will take me from Patrick’s Hill to a homeless shelter, into the Lord Mayor’s office and back to the lecture halls I sat in as a student. With a general election on the way, what are the biggest issues for people in Cork city? That’s what I aim to find out.
“They ring up and say ‘oh, we’ve had no recovery here’”
Inside Broadcasting House, the team behind the 96FM Opinion Line are getting settled in. Just after 8.45am, editor and co-presenter Deirdre O’Shaughnessy picks up a coffee on Bridge St – the barista gently teases her about the fact she’s still off dairy – before heading back to the studio to team member Brenda Dennehy and presenter PJ Coogan.
Broadcasting House is just off the famously steep Patrick’s Hill, which overlooks the city centre. A walk up it will offer you a nice vista of some of the oldest parts of the city, but leave you gasping for air too.
96FM is one of two major radio stations in Cork, the second being Red FM out in Bishopstown. Cork being Cork, there’s a significant link between the two stations – the Opinion Line used to be headed up by Neil Prendeville, who jumped ship to Red FM.
Coogan – who took his place behind the mic two years ago – is far less of a ‘shock jock’ than Prendeville, but he has to be able to stoke up emotions in his callers, and head off controversy at the pass.
“With this show, it’s the listeners they want to hear,” says O’Shaughnessy of those who tune in.
In other words, people want to hear what people just like them have to say. Homelessness, the roads, Cork airport, Irish Water, paedophiles, renting, and racism are some of the hottest topics for the show.
But sometimes, it’s the subjects they don’t plan for that gather the biggest reaction. “A whole hour went to softening Doc Martens,” says O’Shaughnessy, whose quest to wear a new pair of boots without blisters had listeners phoning up.
The callers tend to mostly be male. “If you personalise [the issue], women ring in,” says O’Shaughnessy, as Dennehy answers another call. “[A woman will say] ‘can you talk about this on air?’, but she won’t go on air.”
“Younger people don’t ring in. They will tweet or Facebook. Once we contact them, they will talk. Older people pick up the phone. New Irish are much more prepared to go on air,” adds O’Shaughnessy.
With some of the people who call us, we’re the only people they talk to every day. Us and the ambulance service.
Labour get the worst flack from listeners, but there can also be an attitude of “all politicians are the same, they are all useless”, she says. Fianna Fáil leader and Corkman Micheál Martin isn’t immune from criticism.
Coogan says that most callers are interested in what affects them directly.
They ring up everyday and say ‘oh we’ve had no recovery here’. Because they haven’t seen it.
“There’s definitely a view out there that I’m getting that the establishment politics has failed and has no answers,” he says.
Coogan maintains that “the people who call in most loudly for change are the very ones who sit at home and won’t vote”.
“He lost his home, they put him into a hotel and he tried to kill himself”
I leave Broadcasting House bound for the City Hall, to meet the Lord Mayor of Cork, Chris O’Leary. The journey takes me across one of the bridges in the city centre that crosses the River Lee. It’s not too far from the Port of Cork, which is currently undergoing a major redevelopment to the tune of €100 million.
O’Leary is a people person. Not in the sense of someone who wants to be all charisma and attention, but someone who believes politicians should do their best for citizens.
A long-time community and voluntary sector worker (who’s also a qualified master jeweller), he was a member of the Green Party before going independent and later joining Sinn Féin.
“Cork has been hit badly. It’s interesting that we hear the economy is booming,” he says, as portraits of former Cork Lord Mayors watch over us.
He arrived into council in 2002. In 2010 he lost his job, and he currently works as a project coordinator for a community development project in the northside of the city, which is home to some of the most disadvantaged communities in Cork.
“In the communities I work with, all too frequently the minute an economy crashes or there’s a crisis in economic terms, they are always the first to lose out.”
O’Leary feels that the government hasn’t been doing enough to address the impact of the recession on people.
“It said a lot about the government and the State’s position to pay banks, to pay the debts of unsecured bondholders, while the most vulnerable were losing services,” he says.
There are 27,000 people on the housing list in Cork City. Since 2010, they have seen “an erosion of the local authority’s funding”, says O’Leary, which means less funds for housing.
We have landbanks which we’ve been sitting on which we could have developed houses on over the last four years, and [with] which we wouldn’t be at the level of crisis that we are in now.
Before I leave, O’Leary tells me about a recent incident which further illustrates how hard the housing crisis is hitting some families in Cork:
I had a letter just after Christmas, a chap contacted me telling me of his situation. He lost his home, they put him into a hotel and he tried to kill himself. He was just fed up [of] weeks and months being in a hotel with his wife and children.
On a personal basis, he thinks “maybe it’s time for a shake-up in government”. “I would like to see ministers taking responsibility,” he tells me.
O’Leary’s concerned about mental health in the city. “In Cork over Christmas you had seven searches in the river - all men, all varying ages. I think that’s a sign of a sick society.”
“I’ve never voted in my life – they’re only in it for the money”
I’ve walked up and down Washington Street – which branches off from Oliver Plunkett Street and will bring you all the way to UCC if you let it – hundreds of times in my life.
But I never paid too much attention to the smaller alleys and roads that snake off this route, unless they led to places like the former Gasworks club and Isobar. But just metres from where carefree students hung out in the early 2000s is the 104-year-old soup kitchen Cork Penny Dinners.
Thanks to a recent revamp by Francis Brennan of At Your Service, the place is bright and toasty warm. Inside the kitchen, volunteers are cleaning up after the first meal of the day.
At a table sits a trustee, Caitriona Twomey. In front of her are piles of odds and ends – a bag of knitted caps and scarves; tins of biscuits; a cardboard box filled to the brim with packets of crisps. It dawns on me that these are donated items, free to whoever wants them.
They’re offered to people in a subtle way. One man lingers over the table, gently picking things up, while others take one item and leave quickly.
Cork Penny Dinners is where people go when they can’t afford a hot meal for themselves. The homeless go there, but so do those like the regular elderly visitor whose wife is ill and can’t leave her bed.
He always asks for permission to take the food. ”If I don’t say he can have it, he won’t take it,” says Twomey, as we watch the man nod to volunteers and leave, dinner in hand.
Tony Coughlan is one of the regular eaters at Cork Penny Dinners. “I’ll tell you what the big issues are,” he says to me, leaning over the table.
The austerity [the government] brought on us. The water tax, property tax – they’ve introduced 33 new taxes, the coalition, since they got in. And we’re bailing out the banks and the banks are treating us like dirt then at at the moment. It’s affecting old age pensioners terrible at the northside of the city.
Where will his vote go to on 26 February? “The anti-austerity crowd. Sinn Féin have done nothing, the other crowd are a disgrace, and as for Fine Gael, they’re in fuckin’ dreamland.” Homelessness has gotten worse in the last five years, he tells me.
Twomey says that they’ve been full since 9am. “A lot of people think we do breakfast. We say no, it’s dinner, people choose to have their dinner early because they’re hungry.”
“They could be living in their own accommodation but they could be cold and they need to come down here. Some of them are even afraid to boil the kettle because they’re afraid to put the money in the meter for electricity in case they run out.”
Each story is unique, she says, but “people are suffering because there’s not enough there for everybody”. She tells me about one woman who meets volunteers nearby to collect food for herself and her children – she’s too embarrassed to go into the building herself.
Twomey says she’s not political, but has a strong belief that when politicians say they are going to fix a problem, they should fix that problem.
Asked about the recent push to deal with the homeless crisis after Jonathan Corrie’s tragic death, Twomey replies:
For years people have been talking about the problem of homelessness. And you have this seminar, you have that seminar, you have somebody going to head up this task force, somebody going to head up this group. But actually nothing is ever done, and the question that now needs to be asked is why hasn’t anything ever been done with all the things that have been set up?
She just wants one politician to pledge “to make an all-out effort not to have people suffering at all, in any way”.
Like Tony Coughlan, fellow service user John Rooney isn’t a fan of politicians. “I’ve never voted in my life – they’re only in it for the money,” he says.”They’re sitting around a big table and they’re talking and they’re doing nothing… ”
“White collar criminals.”
“To us, the city still seems like it’s busy”
Last Friday, the Taoiseach was Cork-bound, on his way to turn the sod on the new events centre at the former Beamish and Crawford site.
After years of lying idle, this is one of a number of locations set to be redeveloped, marking a new phase for the city. 1 Albert Quay is to become home to the city’s largest-ever office development, while work has just begun on transforming the derelict Capitol Cinema into a €50 million retail and office complex.
A new hotel is also set to open off Oliver Plunkett St – it was built just before the recession and never opened.
Gary McKeating and Kevin Foley opened 3 Fools coffee shop on the Grand Parade (an area which itself went under a makeover around six years ago) last November.
“The city still seems like it’s busy, which is very good,” McKeating tells me, as Foley pours a coffee for a customer.
Citywide, the rate of vacancy has dropped to 4%. ”There are still a lot of buildings that are unused, which I would love to see made available to rent,” says McKeating.
Tom Dwyer owns The Cobbler on Oliver Plunkett St, which recently won the UK’s Academy of Urbanism’s Great Street Award 2016. The shop has been open for 35 years.
“The biggest problem the city has is the shoppers can’t get in or out with ease,” says Dwyer. “We need far more commitment from City Hall that they will do something to resolve it.”
He says that people are tempted to shopping centres in the suburbs, like Mahon Point, because of free parking.
Entrepreneur Ernest Cantillon runs eight businesses (six in Cork and two in Dublin), including the Electric and Sober Lane pubs. He was recently on a Prime Time special show about Cork, but was surprised at how it portrayed the city as a whole.
He bought Electric during the recession, and has watched as recovery kicked in and more entrepreneurs started emerging. He’s eager to see what else he can bring to the city: ”I would have no hesitancy in opening a business in Cork right now,” he says.
Being a business owner means he has seen how many people are looking for jobs in the city. “About three years ago we were getting buckets of CVs in all the time,” says Cantillon, who only saw two people handing in CVs the day we spoke.
However, he sees a “huge problem with long-term unemployment” in Cork, though he also points out that big businesses have made their home here.
“Apple computers is constantly hiring,” he points out. He believes that Apple has knock-on effects for Knocknaheeny (where it is located on the northside), in that even if it doesn’t lead to direct employment, it can lead to jobs for service providers such as childminders and café owners.
Patrick St has gone from a vacancy rate of 19% to 6%, he adds. Cantillon, the son of a prominent solicitor, is a Cork success story – he has over 100 employees and has hired “pretty much every year” that the most recent government has been in power.
Running in her first election this month is Julie O’Leary, a Fine Gael candidate from a farming background in Crossbarry.
“I think you can see the recovery in Cork and the beginnings of it, and there is an air of optimism,” says O’Leary.
But she is also conscious that there are people in Cork who “aren’t feeling the benefits of recovery”.
“The focus has to be to spread the benefits of recovery,” says O’Leary, “by continuing to create jobs.”
During the past few weeks, she’s been campaigning for the general election, and says talk on the doorsteps ranges from local issues such as roads, infrastructure and potholes right up to those concerning political reform.
The typical user of Cork Simon’s services used to be an older man. This has changed radically
Behind the plush four-star Clarion Hotel, on Anderson’s Quay, is an unremarkable cream and green building that’s home to Cork Simon’s emergency hostel.
I meet Paul Sheehan, their communications manager, nearby, and he brings me inside to talk to Tom Cremin, the acting head of homeless emergency support services, and Kerry Brennan, head of housing and support services.
It’s my second visit to Cork Simon (you can read about the first one here). ”The numbers that are coming to our services are higher than ever before,” says Cremin. There’s so much demand that the emergency shelter is operating at over 100% occupancy all the time.
The shelter originally held 44 people, but now it has to hold 50. In 2011 there were 35 people sleeping rough in Cork city – last year that leapt to 345 people.
“It’s stretching our resources to the maximum, our staff are under a lot of pressure,” says Cremin. “The people we deal with have very high needs, in terms of mental health, addiction issues.”
It used to be that the profile of the typical user of Cork Simon’s services was an older man with an alcohol problem. Now there are more young people, more young women, and more drug addiction cases, particularly heroin.
People are getting stuck in the shelter for too long, because it can be so difficult to access housing. “Keeping them longer than we should leads to institutionalisation sometimes,” says Cremin. This can lead to depression and mental health problems, he adds.
Last year there were 33 overdoses in the building, a 50% increase since 2014. There were no fatalities.
“A lot of [Cork Simon clients] would feel [politicians] are not interested in their situation at all, that homelessness is not on the top of their priorities,” says Cremin.
Kerry Brennan is responsible for helping people move on and into housing, from sleeping rough or the shelter.
Cork Simon follows a Housing First approach, which has also been taken on by the government.
This means moving way from the system where people come into a shelter or hostel, and have to address their challenges in that unstable environment before being offered housing.
Instead, the focus is on getting them housing while they work on their issues. But Brennan says that at the same time that the government adopted Housing First as a policy, “the housing has disappeared”.
There’s no social housing being built, the private rental market has become completely inaccessible to people in homeless services because the rent supplements are so out of touch with the market rent.
Cork Simon launched their own project where they rent apartments from landlords, and sub-let them to people.
They helped 34 people move into housing in 2013 – 17 into flats of their own – and over 85% have retained their housing after one year, and two years.
“The reality is that we’re housing far fewer people than we’d like to be,” says Brennan. That’s made all the more stark when she points out how essential housing is in the battle to reduce homelessness.
If people have access to decent permanent housing and adequate support around them in housing, then the vast majority of them will not return to homelessness, and it’s as simple as that.
“People aren’t slaves to the past”
A stalwart DJ and radio presenter, Stevie Grainger – or Stevie G as most know him – has noticed “a massive difference” in Cork in recent years.
“There’s definitely a confidence in the city,” he says when we meet in a newly-opened pub on Washington Street.
What he finds tricky is that Cork, unlike Dublin, doesn’t necessarily have the population to sustain many new businesses.
The sad thing about Cork is that if you go down Patrick’s Street on a Tuesday night at 7 or 8 o’clock, it’s dead.
Licensing laws in Cork mean that clubs close around 2am, and not all pubs can afford to buy a late licence.
Grainger says that Cork people’s confidence began to blossom in the 1990s. As things improved, and the Celtic Tiger appeared, he watched as a “vulgarity” seeped in. But things changed again, post-recession.
He praises today’s independent thinking and DIY ventures, as well as Plugd record store – located in the refurbished Triskel Arts Centre – which at one point during the recession closed down temporarily.
He has seen McCurtain Street pick up, and the Opera Lane retail development inject some life into Patrick St. He notes that the homegrown festival Quarter Block Party has also managed to bring people to the somewhat neglected North Main St and South Main St areas.
“There’s definitely a massive buzz in the arts, things I can’t keep up with,” says Grainger.
People aren’t slaves to the past, which is good, because then you can create the future better.
“If we were important, the politicians would be falling all over us”
My final stop for the day is UCC, my alma mater. Its history stretches back to 1845, and it’s home to 20,000 full-time students.
Student Union President Aidan Coffey – a medical student – says that student accommodation is an issue there, as is insufficient funding.
“The reality is we have IT infrastructure that hasn’t been updated in probably 20 years, we are still fighting for basic things like getting sockets installed in the older part of the library; we’ve staff-student ratios way above where they should be,” says Coffey, as we sit in the bustling main cafeteria.
That all said, he says that UCC has been “good at shifting the balance of cuts away from frontline services and towards the administrative side”.
When it comes to politics, Coffey notes the students’ engagement in last year’s marriage equality referendum. ”I think we’re probably on the cusp of something similar with Repeal the Eighth,” he says.
The UCC SU registered 10,000 students to vote in the last nine months, but will it make a difference? Coffey points out that these votes are spread throughout different constituencies, but says:
Student votes – the sad answer is [they are] not important and we know that because if it was important the politicians would be falling over us.
What’s the biggest issue in Cork?
Before I left Cork, I went to Oliver Plunkett Street and asked passers-by what the biggest issue in the city is for them.
Here’s what they told me.
Cork was built on a marsh, and under the city streets lie the ghosts of little islands. It’s not on solid ground: the marshes mean that it’s prone to flooding.
It has seen war, fire (the city was burned by British forces during the War of Independence) and plague (the Black Death killed a quarter of the population in 1349).
But it has survived.
Today, it faces big challenges: homelessness, a heroin problem, unemployment. But if its history is anything to go by, and if the entrepreneurial and community spirit I witnessed is a portent of things to come, Cork will persevere.
Originally published: 10pm, 14 February