News Eoghan Harris

Sunday 21 September 2014

A Christmas visit to my sweet Cork on the Lee

Published 22/12/2013 | 02:30

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Cork city

Last week I spent two days in my native city of Cork, which I left when I was 20. I stayed at the Imperial Hotel like a tourist, acting as my own guide to some landmarks of my youth. As compensation for the mushy bits that follow you will learn that I have solved the mystery of why Roy Keane is the way he is, and my original theory about the origin of the Cork slang term "langer".

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We took the train. The noise of the non-stop announcements made normal conversation nearly impossible. But in between, Gwen approvingly read out bits of an interview with Roy Keane.

A dog lover herself, Gwen claims his passion for canines makes up for Saipan. As I have not quite accepted his half-apology I drew her attention to Roy's refreshingly bracing view of the basics of a good marriage. "Having a dog in your house makes it a home."

Apart from being a great hotel the Imperial is part of my family's political history. A sepia photo of the cast of The Land, taken in the hotel in 1907, shows my grandfather Pat Harris, a dapper young Edwardian, posing with a dozen members of the Cork Celtic Literary Society. He later told the Bureau of Military History the society was linked to the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers with whom he rose in 1916.

The tall window of the well-proportioned room looked down on the South Mall. Craning my neck I could see the firm of Barry O'Meara, Solicitors, a firm still revered in our family because they gave Pat Harris his clerk's job back when he came home from Frongoch prison camp in Wales.

Famished, we went straight to the Farmgate restaurant, in the English Market, the living lung of the city. Even on a wet day the market exudes an elixir of energy. Much of it generated by the genial Paddy O'Connell, the famous fishmonger who made the Queen of England laugh like a cat.

Leaving the English Market we turned down the Grand Parade and stopped for a minute at the War Memorial. Not so long ago mad nationalists used to kick the wreaths of poppies to pieces. By now Gwen had had enough of the dead generations and headed off to check out Oxfam in Castle street.

So I began a long loving walk up a Christmassy Oliver Plunkett St, stopping only to poke my head into UNEEDA books run by John Coffey, a hale 82, who always had a guerrilla crime and records bookshop going in the South Parish. We spent a happy 10 minutes slandering Limerick and Kerry people's slowness in picking up a joke.

Further up the street I stopped at a shrine for Cork nationalist intellectuals: Liam Ruiseal's bookshop. And recalled standing at the window, listening to the late Sean O'Riordain, immaculate in gabardine and trilby, taking short TB breaths, while he warned me against what he saw as the dark genius of Conor Cruise O'Brien.

Inside, the display shelves were proof of Niall Toibin's belief that Cork people are nostalgic for Cork even when they are in Cork, a city protective of its cherished myths. But Gerard Murphy's Year of Disappearances was to be found in the back of the displays.

As darkness came down I went up Patrick Street and sat under the heaters outside Le Chateaux, chatting to my sister Maura, the glue of the family. She lives on the Northside and knows more about Roy Keane than Eamon Dunphy. But then someone mentioned Frenchchurch Street nearby and a bulb went off in my head.

The reminder of Cork's Huguenot history, plus sitting outside a pub called Le Chateaux, had suddenly solved for me the mystery of why Roy Keane was the way he was -- intelligent, moody, driven, disciplined, and argumentative

"Eureka," I exclaimed aloud. "He's a Huguenot!"

Of course he is. Cork was heavily marked by Huguenots -- French Protestants who could not be bribed or browbeaten. Calvinists with a highly disciplined work ethic, who, being French, loved to argue. Do I have to draw you a picture?

Next morning we walked up Washington Street, parting at the Court House, Gwen going to the Glucksman gallery in UCC by way of St Finbarre's, me going towards the Mardkye. A few minutes later I was outside the premises of the old Cork County Library where I learned a lot about plot and character by reading Richmal Crompton's 'William' books.

Next door was the old Presentation Brothers College. Here I stood for a while and let memory do the work. Long sunlit afternoons as Dan Donovan read Tennyson's Lady of Shalott "the helmet and the helmet-feather burned like one burning flame together" and into our minds forever.

Pres was where I learned to speak in public, debating with George Hook under the supportive supervision of John O'Shea. Later John would lead me -- as he led Cork -- to love the great plays of the world in Everyman Theatre.

Not all my school memories were good. Pres gave me my first brush with press censorship. As punishment for putting up a handwritten wall newspaper with a few harmless jokes, I was sentenced by a religious principal to be given six on each hand in every class of the school. Luckily most of the lay teachers, like Dan, nodded me through.

Later, I bounced gently on Daly's Bridge and looked up to Sunday's Well. To me it is haunted by the ghosts of merchant princes and the grimmer ghosts of the republican aristocrats who replaced them after the War of Independence. Like the Mulcahy Sisters in Mary Leland's The Killeen, one of the few great novels, as distinct from short stories, to come out of Cork.

Back in town, I meet Gwen for coffee in the Crawford Gallery. She tells me UCC is festooned with banners saying "Great Minds... Don't Think Alike". To which she adds, "Right." Doubtless she is thinking of the blanket silence from the faculty after my invitation to be a keynote speaker at TV50 was cancelled.

After a short visit to my brother Frank and sister Siobhan, I meet my brother Michael in the Imperial Hotel. After years as a printer with the Cork Examiner he retired on a recession-reduced pension to carry out his retirement project -- to walk every inch of Cork Harbour.

Michael tells me the biggest cultural change in his lifetime is how Cork has woken to its maritime past, to the sea, to its Imperial history. It was then the second bulb blazed brightly. Suddenly I knew where the Cork term "langer" had come from.

The scores of Cork soldiers who served the British empire brought back many pets from India. Apart from Dalmatians one of the most attractive would have been the small langur monkey, who has a long thick tail -- like a flaccid penis aka, a langer.

Acting the monkey, drinking so much you end with a flaccid member, like a langur's tail? QED. Happy as Hercule Poirot, I boarded the train for Heuston.

Irish Independent

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