| 18.5°C Dublin

The city that never wakes


One Cork boy whose mother could definitely be proud — Ronan O'Gara

One Cork boy whose mother could definitely be proud — Ronan O'Gara

One Cork boy whose mother could definitely be proud — Ronan O'Gara

'Montenotte, boy." Tell somebody from outside Cork that you are from the second city, and it is only a matter of time before they roar this at you in a singsong accent that places them somewhere between Pakistan and Wales. Even though it is as idiotic as roaring "Portmarnock, head!" at somebody from Dublin, and nobody in Montenotte has ever finished a sentence with "boy" (the mortification), it is said as if it were a pearl of wisdom, as if the very essence of the city was captured in those two words.

Thirty years ago, it made some sense. The northside suburb gained national fame due to Cork Mothers of Seven, a brilliantly observed sketch on RTE's satirical Hall's Pictorial Weekly that featured Frank Kelly, among others, depicting women of leisure with expensive haircuts, drinking Barry's tea up in Montenotte and trying to outdo each other with tales of how well their sons were doing. It spoke of old money, sailing and rugby, Pres or Christians for school, and then an office on the South Mall, a bit of class, you know yourself. Most importantly, it conjured up an association with that most precious of all the terms associated with aristocracy Cork-style, the merchant princes.

Barry, Beamish, Crosbie, Musgrave and those other names who sat at the top of Cork's trading tree seemed to control the business life and wealth of the city. As I remember, they attracted more affection than bitterness (which isn't as easy as you might think down in Cork), and if anything were an object of pride, showing how Cork could more than hold its own with that crowd above in Dublin, particularly when it came to flogging stuff in shops and bars.

What about now? Does "Montenotte, boy" capture the essence of a Cork society still dominated by the merchant princes, even after 30 years of seismic change in Ireland?

At first glance, the answer is yes. Have a look at the 2007 Rich List for Ireland and the same old names, such as Crosbie, Musgrave and Barry, are still there, along with Hugh MacKeown, who chairs the Musgrave Group. But all this means is that old money is careful with its wealth.

The fact is, the shackles of society have been loosened in Cork as much as anywhere by the recent boom. The merchant-prince families and their pals on the South Mall have had to push over as the wave of money made by a new breed of hungry, sharp developers sweeps over the city. Owen O'Callaghan, Michael O'Flynn of the O'Flynn Group (when he's not fighting with his brother over a fence), Tom McCarthy of McCarthy Developments, Greg Coughlan of Howard Holdings and Frankie Whelehan of Choice Hotels are just some of the people transforming the look and economic fortunes of the place.

Of course, a lot of old-money noses are being held at the sight of this emerging breed. More than one person has told me the story of Tadgh O'Brien, a former fireman who has made a fortune through Gable Holdings. He is well established on the Cork social scene, but a certain crowd of snobby types on the South Mall still loves to make fire-engine, na-na na-na sounds when his name comes up, just in case he forgets where he came from.

Another of the city's success stories, a self-made young industrialist who prefers to remain anonymous, told me he conducts most of his affairs through companies in Dublin rather than have them talked over by the accountants and solicitors who frequent the coffee houses around the South Mall.

Despite this resistance, there is no denying the new money around town. You can see it in the pages of Cork's monthly society bible, RSVP magazine; it's visible in the huge houses being built on Maryborough Hill and the Blackrock Road. And then, the clincher, there's the rash of Range Rovers on the city's streets.

Nothing says "Fuck off" quite like a Range Rover. Where a BMW might hiss: "Just get out of my way, OK?" and a Mercedes purrs "Sorry there, but think you'll find I'm superior to you," the imposing bulk of the Range Rover, with its straight lines and knuckle-duster chrome grill, is an automotive way of saying: "I've made a fortune in property, now move over."

It isn't just that one of these costs more than €100,000 to put on the road, or that you'll need a petrol lorry to follow you around for refuelling, a fleet of these around a city reflects an emerging attitude in the place, a signal that there is a new crowd around town, a more self-reliant, self-employed crowd who like to make it up as they go along. And right now, Cork is teeming with Range Rovers, with full- and part-time developers doing business in them around town, or their yummy-mummy wives dropping the kids to school in them.

Naturally, the yummy mummies are insisting on status symbols of their own. According to an insider in Cork society, modern Cork ladies have abandoned the quiet cup of tea up in Montenotte in favour of scouring the country's jewellers for their new best friend, diamonds. Apparently, the diamond lust that has led to Cork becoming known as Diamond Town in some quarters has been noted by the Boodles and Dunthorne jewellers on Dublin's Grafton Street, who see a large proportion of business coming from Cork's new rich. I presume the old man drops her up in the Range Rover.

Daily Digest Newsletter

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan's exclusive take on the day's news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

This isn't just about multi-millionaire developers though, as the Cork middle classes have also had a good shaking from the boom. The influx of construction, technology and pharmaceutical jobs into the area over the past 10 years has brought a young, aspiring group to the city and given them a chunk of disposable income. This is exactly the spark that ignited the social life of Dublin and so many other cities around the world, sweeping away dusty old places and replacing them with coffee bars, noodle bars, wine bars, anything and everything that could attract in a young crowd with money.

Why, then, does Cork city centre still feel like a social wasteland? OK, it maintains the charm it always had, with a few pubs full of character and a couple of good restaurants, but the place feels static, unsure of itself -- which is in direct contrast to the newly confident crowd around town.

Rachel Allen put her finger on it when I spoke to her about this recently: "We usually go to some place like the Roundy for a drink, and then onto a restaurant like Club Brasserie, Isaacs, the Boqueria or Jacobs [on the Mall] afterwards. I really like the informality and the fun in these places; it's one of the best things about Cork. Although, I suppose we only come into town once in a while -- I can see how it could get a bit boring if you were doing it every week."

The problem with Cork is indeed that you wouldn't want to be doing it every week, because the choice of nightlife hasn't kept up with the other changes around the city.

I blame norries. And southsiders. And the River Lee. Here's a quick history and geography lesson on Cork. Southsiders have long regarded "norries", with the exception of those from Sunday's Well, St Luke's and Montenotte, as an exotic breed of savages. Worse again, they then patronise these northsiders with the consolation of being "pure Cork".

Meanwhile, the norries look back at their neighbours (who, bizarrely in a city that loves a nickname, they just call southsiders) and feel their wealth is no consolation for being a pack of stuck-up, pretentious langers. Roy Keane is from the northside: this is probably all you need to know.

What is surprising, in such a compact city, is the degree of separation between the two. A future in-law from the northside told me he didn't cross the river alone until he was in his 20s, and that was out of curiosity, as if it were a day trip. A norrie friend in his 30s recently admitted that he has never seen the Lough, a famous bird-sanctuary lake south of the river, which most southsiders think must be visible from the moon (seriously, boy, the size of it). On the other hand, a southside friend rang me recently to help out after he ran out of petrol north of the river, and told me he was somewhere between Churchfield and Montenotte, which is about the width of the northside. When I eventually found him, he was in a condition I would describe as nervous going on traumatised.

This divide runs deeper than the similar divide in Dublin. When property prices rocketed in the capital, pushing southside homes beyond the reach of young middle-class southsiders, who until then would only have crossed the river to get to the airport, they quite happily went to Cabra, Fairview and Stoneybatter to find an affordable home. The result was the emergence of young, rejuvenated villages across the northside.

In Cork, there has been no such migration. Most norries I know are more comfortable up on the northside hills ("What would I want below with that crowd?"). Meanwhile, those younger southsiders who cannot afford houses near their parents in Douglas or Bishopstown have headed for satellite towns such as Midleton, Ballincollig and Carrigaline rather than move over the river ("Sure that lot would eat you without salt"). This flight was plainly visible in the last census, when the population of the city actually dropped by three per cent as the satellite towns mushroomed.

This is at the heart of why the social life in the city centre seems so stale. Of course, it hasn't been helped by the fact that the place has been up in a heap since 1997 because of a new drainage scheme, or that the Garda won't consider granting staggered late licences as they do in Dublin, to give people an option for a late pint. But the main reason for the lack of a diverse social night-life is those with a bit of disposable income, the people who would be expected to drive a decent nightlife, have chosen to live out of town.

The whole thing is beginning to piss Frank Bradley off. Bradley has been one of the main innovators on the Cork social scene for longer than his youthful looks suggest and, as the low February sun dips in the window of his latest venture, Rachel Allen favourite, the Roundy on Castle Street, he's clearly running out of patience.

"It's a slow boil in Cork. You really need to know the place to make things happen here . . . Loads of people have come in with money and great intentions, only to back out again when they saw the way things are done here. Jay Bourke [owner of the Cafe Bar Deli chain and Bellinter House in Co Meath, among others] came in here and was fucked over by everybody."

Alongside the fucking-over of over-ambitious outsiders, there is, Bradley points out, another great problem with the city centre, particularly at the weekend.

"You should be in here on a Saturday night after we've closed. We have to keep the place bolted up solid because of the running riot that's going on outside, with everybody coming out of the nightclubs at the same time, pissed off their heads. It's fucking ridiculous."

Like I said, he's pissed off. And he's right. Everybody I've talked to recently, from ordinary working people to the Range Rover and diamonds lot, has pointed out that they'd love to sample a vibrant social scene in the city centre, if the place wasn't overrun with drunk kids.

The worst-served group of all is the thirtysomething singles, who are restricted to a few places such as the Roundy and Crane Lane, and maybe a trip to the Bodega for a dance and to line up some sex with a stranger.

It isn't just sex with a stranger of course. Ask any single Cork woman in her 30s where she goes to meet men, and she'll throw her eyes to heaven and probably reply: "Dublin".

The social engine for any city on the go is single women with money who are starting to look for a partner, but will settle for casual sex while they wait. They want to dress up and drink cocktails around a table with friends, maybe have some nice food served by a good-looking waiter, and a place with a bit of buzz that attracts men who aren't afraid to dress up to meet a woman. They don't want to go to a three-floor superpub full of guards and nurses, which seems to be Cork's speciality.

There is a scene of sorts in Douglas, a place with a nice village feel 10 minutes from the city centre, where you can choose from a few slightly-above-average restaurants and bars, and not face a running riot at closing time. But it's still no more than a lively suburb, where the taxis that line up outside the main pub, Barrys, to take people home before the babysitter gets pissed off.

The Corn Store on the Coal Quay is showing early signs of greatness, but it stands alone as a lively, modern restaurant. There is still no hotspot, no area with shops, restaurants and bars that will have short-break visitors flocking through the new airport. Which is crazy when you think about it, because the city centre looks like it was designed by the city-break gods, with strings of charming, narrow streets around shopping-friendly Patrick Street, the whole area embraced by the two channels of the river.

It's not just the norrie-southsider thing that restricts Cork's nightlife; there is another thing that prevents brazen new places in the city. Cork people don't like to stand out from the crowd. This might seem a bizarre thing to say about a place that has produced such conspicuously talented people as Roy Keane, Cillian Murphy and our own Eoghan Harris, but, of course, all these have achieved fame away from Cork.

Back on Leeside, the key to survival is to pretend that you are no better than the next man or woman. This is why there is no VIP section in any night club in Cork; this is why there isn't a whiff of a Michelin star restaurant in the city; this is why a number of people I talked to about this article, leading names in industry and the media around town, didn't want to go on the record when criticising the place. Who does that langer think he is?

It might appear that Cork's charm lies in the fact that rich and poor, star and fan, all rub shoulders in gritty, genuine pubs such as Callinans and The Idle Hour. But in reality there is a two-faced, brutal snobbery at play here, because for all the bonhomie and camaraderie in the place, Cork's well-off only do this kind of public slumming because they have to.

A well-placed insider on the Cork social scene, no stranger to lavish house parties on the Douglas and Blackrock roads, or to chatter about who developer Tom McCarthy Jnr invited to party on his yacht in Portofino, tells me that Cork's wealth is only shown off in private or overseas. The man of the people, buying rounds of Murphy's in the city centre pub, prefers a vintage Chateauneuf du Pape when he is at home with friends or at the Monaco boat show, telling patronising stories about the "pure Cork" fella he met in town the other night: maybe he calls him a "real norrie".

This is the kind of old-Cork, Montenotte- boy kind of rubbish that makes Cork feel like a stale, tired old town. And this dusty old snobbery is going to seem quaint in a couple of years, because it is about to be blown away.

The developments at the south docklands, being led by Howard Holdings, are not about tinkering around the edges, putting a bar here or a restaurant there. The project, which was given the go-ahead in February, will transform the city and, with it, Cork society. Along with a new indoor-event centre, offices and a 200-room hotel, there are plans for a residential area the size of Kilkenny city, housed in ultra-modern apartments and houses with the river flowing by the front garden.

Already, there is rumour of a Gordon Ramsay or Richard Corrigan restaurant, and the certainty of a fleet of hip new cafes and bars to serve the expected new population.

This area, although situated south of the river, doesn't have any fixed location in the great norrie-southsider mindset; it's still just a bit of unused land on the way down to Pairc Ui Chaoimh. It will be here, in this virgin piece of the city, that Cork will have a chance to find its feet as a modern European city. With jobs and modern living available on the edge of the city centre, the generation that now lives in the satellite towns, the young people with a bit of money who make these areas tick, will suddenly be in town at weekends, within 15 minutes of wherever anybody is willing to locate a pub or a club or a restaurant that tries something different.

The question is, will Cork people respond and show a bit of flashiness in their own city, the kind of flamboyance that they currently reserve for trips overseas or the privacy of their own home? If we could only replace, "Who does that langer think he is?" with a "Doubtya" when we saw some slightly over-dressed guy trying a bottle of wine in a new bar, the city would be a much better place to live.

Do that, and stop the city centre looking like a provincial British town on a weekend night, and the place could be the talk of Europe. Fail this time, and we might as well admit that we're still back in the days of "Montenotte, boy".

Most Watched