In a new book Irish Examiner writer MICHAEL MOYNIHAN describes how a spiky self-belief, determined natives and vital new industries made all the difference as the city began the often-painful transition from traditional manufacturing to what we now term 'the knowledge economy'. In this exclusive extract, he explains how Cork's eventual status as a high-tech hub was won.
In the middle of the 1980s Cork was in chaos with major employers Ford, Dunlop and Verolme closing within 18 months. Every institution in the city seemed under threat and critics derided it as a Rust Belt region.
Years later, Cork took its revenge. In 1999, when Jack Lynch died, a state funeral was held in Cork for the former Taoiseach. The mass itself was celebrated at the North Cathedral, a hundred yards from Lynch’s childhood home near Shandon.
As dignitaries arrived at the church gates they were accompanied by civil servants as they walked the 30 yards or so across the car park to the church steps, watched by a large crowd of locals who had assembled at the gates and along the iron bars along the Shandon side of the car park.
When former Taoiseach Charles Haughey arrived there was a chilly silence from the crowd as he made his way into the church - where, to some hilarity, protocol experts decided he needed to be seated alongside one of his old sparring partners, Dessie O’Malley.
But when his state car joined the cortege after the mass there was no mistaking the crowd’s reaction: scattered jeering was audible from locals along the route through the city to the cemetery.
Even allowing for Lynch’s iconic status in Cork, it was a striking show of distaste. But then again, many Cork people could still remember the eighties, which were then recent enough history.
Haughey had been Taoiseach on three different occasions (1981, 1982 and from 1987 to the end of the decade) and many of those in the crowd no doubt remembered in particular the feeling that Haughey had turned his back on the city when it needed help.
Were they correct?
Lynch had fired Haughey from the Cabinet in 1970, of course, as a result of the Arms Crisis, and Haughey had spent years in the political wilderness as a result. When he finally took over from Lynch as Fianna Fail leader in 1979 it was a surprise, as many observers had expected George Colley, Lynch’s heir apparent, to take that role.
To say Lynch and Haughey didn’t enjoy a warm relationship would be a considerable understatement. While Haughey was party leader there was a certain amount of airbrushing Lynch from the party’s history, for instance, and it certainly made sense to Cork people to infer an accompanying antipathy on Haughey’s part as a result towards Lynch’s home place.
Those living outside the capital often feel that no matter what the arena - politics, industry, sport - Dublin exerts a magnetic pull in terms of resources and exposure; that feeling can become stronger the further one gets from the Liffey, and in a time of crisis it’s easy to understand the grip that it exerts.
Haughey wasn’t the only leader seen as detached from reality by Cork people in the eighties - or more specifically, detached from Cork reality, perhaps.
In the flurry of general elections during the early 80s a story circulated widely that Fine Gael leader Garret FitzGerald had been deeply moved by the fellow feeling expressed on Leeside with the Polish trade union Solidarity, remarking on the number of Polish flags on show in support of the union members.
The flags were in fact being flown ahead of an All-Ireland hurling final featuring Cork, though the cursory reference in FitzGerald’s autobiography to Cork’s travails at that time tend to suggest that southern issues weren’t a high priority for him.
However, some of Haughey’s strokes were, if not blatantly anti-Cork, blithely unsympathetic: when the Talbot car factory in Dublin was closed during the early eighties, the workers were promised by Haughey that their wages would be paid by the State. The contrast with Ford, Dunlop and Verolme could hardly have been more stark.
With Haughey the antipathy towards Cork also had an immediate and obvious basis which had very little to do with Jack Lynch.
Whatever his feelings about his former boss were, Haughey certainly didn’t like coming to Cork because he didn’t like dealing with the local media, who invariably gave him a hard time when he visited the city.
The reason was simple. The physical distance between Dublin and Cork also preserved the separation of journalist and politician.
Lobby journalists and political correspondents in Leinster House were seeing Haughey and other politicians almost every day: in the Dáil bar, in the cafe, along the corridors.
Attacking a Taoiseach or Minister personally in a morning newspaper or on a radio show might lead to an awkward enough encounter over coffee and scones in the restaurant that afternoon.
Haughey supporters might claim - and did claim at the time - that media outlets didn’t hold back in their criticism of him, though the obvious retort to that argument is that it took many years for the sources of funding which propped up his lifestyle to be identified.
That was an area worthy of investigation which wasn’t subjected to much scrutiny by journalists who saw Haughey on a daily basis.
On the other hand, when Haughey came to Cork on official business the politician-journalist was quite different. He was usually tackled by the same journalists - Donal Musgrave and Val Dorgan from the Cork Examiner and Dick Hogan of the Irish Times among them - and because they were based in Cork, not Leinster House, they didn’t hold back with their questioning, which tended to be a good deal more forthright than Haughey was accustomed to.
Gerry Wrixon, former President of UCC, has a vivid memory of Haughey being asked directly on one of his trips to Cork about his sources of revenue, for instance.
The man who asked that question, Donal Musgrave, was an experienced, well-established journalist in the 80s and he makes no bones about Haughey - and the background to his own relationship with the politician.
“We wanted stories, and he got a roasting every time he came to Cork,” says Musgrave.
"And I had a personal history with Haughey, too. When I was a young reporter with the Irish Press in the 60s there was a foot and mouth outbreak in Britain, and the government of the time issued a plea to emigrants not to come home that Christmas, as that was the prime time for the disease to spread.
“I got a tip-off from the Irish Embassy (in London) that friends of Neil Blaney were going home from England to Dublin by boat and would criss-cross the country on the way back to Donegal - and that Haughey was behind it.
“I wrote the story for the Irish Press, the Evening Press and the Sunday Press, but nothing appeared. Soon after that I was at a do in the Irish Embassy in London, and Haughey was there.
“When I was introduced to him he said, ‘ah, Mr Musgrave, I understand you’ve been taking an undue interest in my affairs - don’t forget the paper you’re working for’.”
It wasn’t meant as banter and Musgrave didn’t take it as such. It stuck in his memory for what it was.
“A direct threat, and I never forgot that, so I had an axe to grind which the other lads didn’t. He hated coming to Cork and resented the questions, which were perfectly reasonable questions on policy. His officials would try to interrupt and we’d brush them aside, all of that.”
Other circumstances didn’t commend Cork to Haughey as a happy hunting ground.
Musgrave can also recall a particular Haughey visit which didn’t end well for the politician: “John O’Connell, who owns Murray’s Tackle Shop in Patrick Street, was the receiver for Sunbeam when it closed down, and Haughey paid a visit to the factory, which could have been during an election campaign.
“John gave him a parcel to mark his visit, but the parcel contained socks, not the painting. It didn’t go down at all well, either.
“And I think it was the Jack Lynch factor as well - the uncrowned king aspect of Lynch’s reputation, which would have been tangible in Cork.
“Haughey had his own apparatchiks who’d have been on the anti-Lynch side, and Lynch was a strong factor, certainly.”
Gerry Wrixon concurs with Musgrave, though not perhaps on the exact cause of that antipathy.
The academic had a different relationship with Haughey, one that was founded on a very different basis to that of the local media, but he agrees the politician’s dislike for Cork wasn’t an urban myth.
“I think that’s correct. He did have a lack of interest in Cork, whether that was down to Jack Lynch or whatever else, I don’t know. He didn’t talk to me about that, but I had that impression.
“For instance, there was a fuss around that time about a proposed river crossing for the Lee - would it be under the river or over it, that kind of thing. People couldn’t agree.
“And that annoyed him, I remember, that people couldn’t come to an agreement on that. He liked people who could make up their minds and make decisions.” Wrixon, an electrical engineering PhD, had first come across Haughey in the seventies when he’d slipped out of his particular area of expertise and into what was a truly alternative field at the time, and the politician had taken notice.
“I was always interested in solar energy,” says Wrixon, “And in UCC the electrical engineering department had gotten a couple of grants from the EU to look at new types of solar cells.
“I gave a talk at some point in Dublin on solar energy, and not long after I got a call from Charlie Haughey, who was a Minister at the time. He hadn’t been at the talk but must have read the programme, or an account of the proceedings, and he asked me to come and see him the next time I was in Dublin.”
The two men met up and hit it off. Haughey was talking about his island off the coast of Kerry, Inishvickillaune, and in particular the energy sources on the island.
It was an area where Wrixon could help out: “He was saying he was interested in getting sources of renewable energy out there, would I be interested in doing something in that line and so on.
“I went down there to have a look and eventually he decided to get some solar energy to power various things in the house - he worked with other people on wind energy, which was subsequent to my work there.
“This took a couple of years to sort out, so I developed a rapport with him over that time.
Wrixon would also have a front-row seat when it came to Haughey’s duels with the fourth estate on Leeside.
“When we had an opening or some kind of ceremony at one stage in UCC I invited Haughey down, and I specifically remember Donal Musgrave and a number of other reporters came to meet him, and their first question was ‘perhaps you could tell us about your wealth, Mr Haughey?’
“I can’t remember his answer, but it was obvious he was used to questions like that. I didn’t know anything about that side of things.” Wrixon was impressed with Haughey’s decisiveness: “He was interested in the future and was a good ideas person. Quite often you have the feeling a politician is just in a state of stasis, particularly if he or she can’t find consensus: to me he was more of a leader.
“He seemed to have good ideas about various things. From that point of view I got a good impression of him - I didn’t know about all the other stuff that came out later.
“When it came to the solar power on the island, he paid for everything himself, certainly.”
Throughout the 80s, there was a sense in Cork that a serious, dominating politician such as Jack Lynch would have been a huge asset to the city, but in retirement the former Taoiseach kept a very low profile, and Fitzgerald and Haughey were the big beasts of the time.
Despite the distance and apparent dislike, however, Haughey would facilitate one crucial development on Leeside in the face of strong lobbying from Dublin and Limerick, a development in which Wrixon’s relationship with the politician would prove hugely beneficial.
For all the distrust many people on Leeside felt for him, Haughey’s decisiveness - gently, or not so gently pushed, by Gerry Wrixon - would in time enhance Cork considerably as an industrial location and education hub.
Crisis and Comeback Cork in the Eighties is available now from all usual outlets.