Reimagine Cork - A volunteer's perspective

I began noticing the work Reimagine Cork was doing on social media in March of this year and since then I have been excited about the numerous projects, energy and dedication of the volunteers. For many years I have spoken with friends about the appearance of Cork city centre and the massive potential our small city had to be more beautiful, vibrant and inviting. Cork people (myself included) are almost genetically predisposed to believe that Cork is the best city in the world (and it is!) but somehow in the last few years, the way we feel about Cork was no longer reflected in much of the city centre’s appearance.

Parts of Cork started to decline into a state of neglect and the city became less green, less bright and generally tired looking. A Turkish friend told me years ago that she enjoyed a trip to Cork with her friends and said that the people were friendly and fun but that the city looked grey, dull and depressing. I guess she was comparing Lee side to the Mediterranean glow of the Bosphorus in Istanbul and when she stood outside St Finbarre’s or St. Anthony’s probably thought “it’s no Topkapi Palace or Hagia Sophia”. Her words stuck with me later as I walked through town and saw graffiti, buildings badly needing a lick of paint and an absence of colour on the streets and in the empty or absent plant boxes. This was further in my mind when I would visit Berlin, Barcelona or other towns in Ireland or the UK and see cool street art, sculptures and urban gardens. I would often think “someone should do that in Cork...we have a small city centre and a few projects can make a big difference”.

Someone did. Eoghan and Alisdair kicked off a social movement that captured the imagination of people and a handful of pioneers swelled to an expansive network of partners, sponsors, supporters and dedicated volunteers. I followed the progress of the Reimagine group and decided to take up their open welcome for new volunteers. As I headed towards St Peter’s on a sunny Saturday morning in June, I was a little nervous and unsure what to expect. I approached three other volunteers waiting outside and introduced myself. You couldn’t meet a nicer and more chilled bunch of people. We were quickly joined by the omnipresent Alan Hurley with his bag full of paints and tools and headed to the Batcave at the end of Coleman’s Lane to plan our next move. Alan has done so much amazing work lately, I’m convinced he has an identical twin to be able to do it all and still have time to post to four separate social media platforms with the #reimaginecork.

I was put to work painting panels on the Cork Educators shop front on North Main Street with fellow newbie Claire and over the watchful eye of Alasdair who warned us to make sure our masking tape was secure (no pressure) before starting. I was unconvinced of the Lilac colour at first but it turned out lovely in the end. I hadn’t picked up a brush but already fancied myself as an urban Michelangelo who had happened to get the bus in from Glanmire that day.

Before we knew it Alasdair was fearlessly up the ladder spray painting the guttering fascia and telling us all about the projects on the go. What was so positive about the experience was the reaction from passers by and meeting new people. One man approached us and bought us a lottery ticket with strict instructions to spend 10% of the possible winnings on a holiday for ourselves, 30% to Marymount Hospice and the rest for Reimagine projects (Unfortunately we didn’t win). Two women offered us Fast Al’s pizza and coffee while a man with his daughter had explained that her school had been involved in the fabulous History of Cork Mural. People are supportive, generous and happy to see this work taking place. For the rest of the day we sawed wooden pallets (the most precious raw materials in Reimagine Cork) to create more planter boxes for the lane. Everyone was relaxed and chatting in the sun as we got to work and there was plenty of good banter. I guess it is no surprise that an initiative such as this attracts sound people.

The following sunny Saturday I was fortunate enough to join the gang again in time to tackle George Boole’s garden. The afternoon was well spent removing years of debris, rubbish and weeds to reveal the fertile soil underneath. We found everything from carpets, jackets, an old hoover and a few items that are best left not mentioning. What we ended up with was a beautiful Victorian town garden: just in time for the builders to start work on the redevelopment (you’re welcome lads!). Again we spoke with many passers by and got help from local residents before retiring to the Franciscan Well for a well-deserved pint.

It’s amazing how quickly you take pride in the work and don’t feel at all self-conscious about being in the middle of the street on a busy Saturday, acting like you own the place. I guess that’s the whole point of this and it’s baked into the mantra of Reimagine Cork which is “be the change”. We all do collectively “own the place” and should take pride in its appearance. More than that we should act on that pride with our ideas, our voices and our hands. I would encourage anyone interested to join the amazing volunteers at Reimagine Cork on a Wednesday evening at 6pm or Saturday morning at 11am. Whether you’re holding a paint brush, spray can, a saw or a bedding plant: you’re making a difference. Small differences add up and have a large collective impact. I no longer walk through town noticing the grey, dilapidated spaces but see the pockets of colour from planter boxes, electricity boxes and murals, and see the potential for more still. It’s that potential which makes this an exciting time for Cork.

Kevin O’ Mahony

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