Cork on a Thursday

Every decent conversation about Ireland starts with the weather, so let’s get that out of the way. There’s lots of rain, yes, I was expecting that, and the wind makes it worse. In the winter it gets dark real fast. Sometimes it rains for weeks and the streets flood. Have you bought your ticket yet? But listen, here’s why I stayed another year.

There are nights where the wind just stops. And with the wind gone, so is the cold. It’s not warm. It just is, like the lights switching on in a big, empty theater. On nights like these I can climb out onto the roof of my apartment with just a hoodie on and look out onto the steeples and telephone wires, the Christmas lights off in the City Center, the Ferris wheel blinking red and white out on Grand Parade. The sky is dark, but it’s—alert. I don’t know how else to explain it. The moon is one big open eye, staring back at you, totally awake.

Cork has this feeling to it, like it’s old but it never grew up. It laughs at its own jokes. It’s all about the banter. Its houses are tumbling down hills and its pubs are tangled together in a knot of streets. But there’s something ritual and ancient about following the lights of the ferris wheel down Barrack Street, where the old Viking settlement was, like you’re following the smoke fires down to the river.

Down the hill, past the old fort, and that Japanese place I love, you start to hear the chatter of voices. You can see the families, couples, and packs of students passing in intervals, walking towards the noise. Cross the river and you hit the lights. A crowd. Pop-up stalls. The smell of mini-doughnuts and chips frying. Christmas lights strung across the lamp posts and over streets. It’s not big by any means. This is Cork after all. But it’s bursting with life. The lights and the colors, and the people milling about—it all reminds you why we’ve needed festivals of light during the darkest months of the year.

Cross back over the river and turn the corner. You’re alone again. It’s just you, the moon, and the raven perched on a gable. A street winds up a hill into the quiet, leaving the village behind.
In the Spring, when the days are longer, the sun doesn’t set until nine pm. My friend Jackie and I look out the windows that run across the length of our third floor studio space. From here we can look out onto Grand Parade, where the Ferris Wheel was in the winter. Now it’s just a busy street, where the library is and the covered market, and that memorial to dead soldiers, and the park that people call the Peace Park, which I learned about when I googled “Cork, Ireland,” last year.

But that’s all on the other side of the river, where we aren’t looking or thinking about. We’re looking at the river—the Lee, that runs right below us. Once, from this exact spot, I saw a seal that had come in from the ocean, just swimming along through the city. Right now all I can see is some very distinctive debris down in the water, the remains of some kiosk awning that got swept up by the wind. It’s stranded there under the bridge and it’s stressing me out that no one is going to save it.
Jackie doesn’t notice. She’s wondering about the color of the river. Is it brown? Is it green? Sometimes it’s red? It’s a very painterly thing to wonder. And now she’s got me wondering, too. I close my eyes. I picture the river. It’s red, isn’t it? I peek. It’s green. Or was it red before and it shifted some time when I was looking? Maybe it gets up to things. Has adventures, reinvents itself. Slips into new colors. But you only ever see it in passing, the river, when you stop to look at it, and you have this tinge of regret that you haven’t put in the time to stay in touch, like it’s an acquaintance that could be a real friend if you only put in some work.

Someone told me once that before the levees were built, Cork was a canal town, with flooded streets and boats that docked at these doors you see, with the steep steps below them and the iron rings—like door knockers, but on the walls. That’s where they’d tie the boats up so they wouldn’t float off. I’m told much of the river still runs just under the streets and that once, when the road collapsed, right there where Grand Parade meets Washington Street, the river returned. It sprung out of the ground and took its course. It remembered where it used to flow.

I think about Old Cork a lot, actually. It’s hard not to when you read the street names. Cove Street used to really be a cove. Castle Street had a castle. And whereas the fancy English Market was covered and reserved for the Protestants, Cornmarket Street had the outdoor market the Catholics were relegated to. North and South Main Street used to be all that Cork was.

At one intersection, North Street meets Castle Street, where Old Cork used to meet the river. Castle Street was all water, where the Viking ships came in carrying wine from France and salt from England. So if you stand there in the intersection and you can see exactly how wide the ships were. You can imagine them sailing down towards you under the cover of the castle. You step forward on the pavement, and you’re standing right where the river used to be, where it probably still is under the road.

It’s a warm summer night and there’s a busker here, singing I’m gonna love ya, I’m gonna love ya. Love and treat you love and treat you right… It’s three am and the city is mostly asleep, except the little concert that’s sprung up here. Most everyone is drunk and singing along. There’s a woman dancing like she’s somewhere else. It’s a silly, mad little scene, and something about it is older than the street names. Something about the way the streets are empty except for us strangers. Something about the way the woman is dancing; her back arching, her arms reaching out to the sky.

Sam Lai, Uversity graduate, 2015/16