The City and the Writer: In Cork with Patrick Cotter

By Nathalie Handal

Image of The City and the Writer: In Cork with Patrick Cotter

Special City Series/Ireland 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                              —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Cork as you feel/see it?

The mood of Cork changes with the weather. The citizens are like organic barometers that react to the barometric pressure, temperature, rain and sunlight. Last summer was especially good, with many consecutive days over thirty degrees centigrade—everyone I passed in the street had a smile; it was almost as if they were powerless to resist smiling. Håken Sandell, the Swedish poet who spent some time living here, told me how it can be just as gray in Oslo during winter, but in Cork when the weather systems are low they are singularly oppressive and they do affect a person’s mood—other than these factors, the moods change from neighborhood to neighborhood depending on how economically secure they are. Austerity is hurting many just now and yet the foreign-owned computer companies expand and increase their workforces from year to year, indicating the presence of some sort of optimism. Also, Cork’s atmosphere is influenced by the fact that it lies at the more laid-back end of the pace-of-life spectrum.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

My most heartbreaking memories are ones not shaped by place—they are the deaths of loved ones. But when I think of the dead I think of happy memories that are set in place. I think of my mother’s father sitting with other old men sunning himself on a bench by the Lough or my father’s mother beside me in a bus blessing herself along with everyone else as the bus passes a church. Old men no longer gather together on the benches of the Lough and people no longer bless themselves as they pass a church.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

There is an amazing array of old typography scattered throughout the city on the sides of buildings. Lettering of all styles and periods. Lettering of great beauty and unusual plainness.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Sean O’Faolain and Frank O’Connor are the most read and even Joyce and Beckett visited the city and set scenes in their first published novels here. William Trevor has written affectingly of his childhood visits to the city. The poet Patrick Galvin deserves wider readership. He has written about the city with an aesthetic shaped by strong twentieth-century European influences, particularly Iberian. His memoir Song for a Poor Boy has been deservedly translated and published in many languages, and his poem “Madwoman of Cork” is loved by even people who read no other contemporary poetry.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I return often to St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral. It is a church of the French Gothic style—one of the most beautiful buildings in the city designed by the English eccentric William Burgess, who in Victorian times dressed in medieval garb. At night, under floodlights, its white limestone gleams like a spaceship. I grew up alongside it as a child and it had a forbidden, mysterious allure to it because it was a Protestant church and I was raised Roman Catholic. It is studded with gargoyles and detailed sculpture and the stained glass is also noteworthy. Its grounds constituted a rare spot of vegetative wilderness in a city not renowned for its green spaces.  As a child I lost myself in its undergrowth and climbed high up its centuries old trees. These days the grounds are almost completely manicured, but I still know where to find certain wild flowers I have seen grow nowhere else.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Shandon is the site of another Protestant Church, beautiful, but in a plainer way. In its ancient grounds is buried the nineteenth-century litterateur Father Prout. Samuel Beckett made a pilgrimage from Dublin to visit his grave before emigrating for good. It’s featured in Beckett’s novel Murphy. When there are literary festivals, writers stay at a hotel nearby and several of them have written poems about ghosts inspired by the neighborhood.

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?  

Each generation has an emotional and psychological stamping ground of its own. Sometimes it appears they live and act out their own self-possessed dramas like different species sharing the same savannah who ignore each other like zebras and buffalo. Cork appears to have a special attraction for footloose and fancy-free twenty-something-year-olds—they really thrive here. The older I get, the more hidden their city becomes to me. Cork was a dull place in my youth. Its current attraction for young people from all over the world intrigues me.

Where does passion live here?

In the hearts of its denizens.

What is the title of one of your works about Cork and what inspired it exactly?

In my poems, I am not generally a writer of place. In my teens and twenties I published short stories, several of them set in the grounds of St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral. More recently, I finished a poem I waited over thirty years to write based on me finding a gravestone in St. Fin Barre’s on December 16, 1979. It was the burying place of Sarah Paddington who had died on December 16, 1821, aged sixteen. I was sixteen years old myself at the time. The poem is called “Sixteen.”

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Cork does an outside exist?”

There are tens of thousands of Cork-born who have emigrated to the four corners of the globe and tens of thousands of Polish, Chinese and Nigerian immigrants living in Cork who live everyday with their homes in their hearts.

Patrick Cotter was born in Cork City, where he still lives as the director of the Munster Literature Centre. He has published a verse novella and two collections: The Misogynist’s Blue Nightmare (1990), Perplexed Skin (2008), and Making Music (2009). He has had substantial selections of his work translated into Croatian, Estonian, Macedonian, and Swedish, as well as a handful of poems into many other languages. He has given readings of his poetry across Asia, Europe, and North America. In 2013, he received the Keats-Shelley Poetry Prize.


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