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When all Cork cycled
Kevin Long has been rooting around in the drawers of history looking at how Cork fell in and out of love with cycling. There's a book in there, he hopes.
It was the week before Christmas and Kevin Long - firmly in the #andacyclist camp - had just come from a cycle. But it wasn’t a regular cycle.
Rather, Kevin along with a cohort of parents and volunteers had gathered in the car park outside Red FM’s studio in Bishopstown where about 50 students from Scoil an Spioraid Naoimh Boys were gearing up to cycle to school for their second ever cycle bus.
It is a universal and incontestable fact that kids love bikes, and so the excitement that December morning was, well, fever pitch.
Kevin was there with his five-year-old son, and together the caravan of cyclists, young and old, big and small, decked out in hi vis jackets and Santa hats, made off along the Curaheen Greenway past Murphy’s Farm and the soccer pitches up into Umvar Park and then on over to the school gates.
Kevin told me the cycle passed off smoothly until they got to the school gates, and that’s where the convoy came head to head with the convoy of cars, an everyday sight outside schools across the city and county.
Kevin, though, is not the moaning type - despite some of the popular and not entirely unwarranted tropes associated with overzealous cyclists. Rather, he’s soft-spoken and forward-looking, and, as he told me after that morning’s cycle the caravan of young cyclists will be better prepared and they’ll have more experience for when they meet again next month for the next instalment of their school bus/cycle.
A brief history of cycling in Cork - the headline bits!
Kevin, a father of three living in Bishopstown works as an engineer at Cork Airport. We met up though not to talk about cycle busses, but rather the long history of cycling and bikes and cyclists in Cork which includes trivia such as these:
Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney had a bike. Yes, the Lord Mayor of Cork had a bike. Of course he did! And that bike (pictured above) is in the possession of Michael Collins House Museum in Clonakilty.
The big man too had a bike, yes Micheal Collins also had bicycle. (And it wasn’t something he mounted when the press turned up).
There was once upon a time for a very brief period a velodrome in Cork. The track, as rudimentary as it likely was, ran the perimeter of where the Cork County Cricket Club is currently located in The Mardyke. It was installed during the Cork International Exhibition in 1902 and 1903.
On March 30, 1895 a Mr James Keohane of Rosscarbery applied for a patent to the Comptroller General of Patents in London during the final years of the long reign of Queen Victoria with his design for the “improvements in Cycles”. I won’t do James the injustice of trying to explain his mechanical device but the patent was granted, with its continuance conditional on payment.
Once upon a time in the 1950s Cork’s messenger boys went on strike, and parked up their bicycles for a day. Liam O Huigin, one of the messenger boys, recalled in an interview with the Cork Folklore Project that Musgraves, his employer, told their messengers to take the day off in solidarity with the strikers, many of whom worked for traders in The English Market. As Liam recounted if you didn’t sit out the strike, there was a good chance that your bike would end up in the Lee having been thrown over Patrick’s Bridge.
And once upon a time, Cork was awash with bicycles. Every now and then a photo of such, a throwback to a not-too-distant time in the past will pop up on social media, with men and women looking glamorous aboard their high nellies sailing down St. Patrick’s Street or the Grand Parade. Perhaps what’s most jarring about these images is how much space cyclists had, because the car had yet to come along, take over and drive bicycles and cyclists off the roads, at least in Ireland at any rate.
A lockdown project
As well as being forward-looking, Kevin’s spent a lot of time looking into Cork’s past, specifically the history of cycling in Cork: who did it and why? The short answer there is that for a few decades after World War 1, everyone who could afford a bike or get their arse up on a saddle cycled. And that wasn’t just in Cork, but across the country.
As Dara McGrath, a photographer who works at Cork Public Museum, told me this week when I called round to see what bicycle-related material they had, nowadays we forget how liberating it was to have a bicycle back in 1930s Ireland. A bike was attainable and it opened up the world around you. Back then people went everywhere by bicycle from the crossroads of de Valera’s dances all the way to matches in Croke Park. I remember hearing stories about Kerrymen who cycled to All Ireland finals - and lord knows that was nearly an annual cycle for them.
Kevin went down the Cork cycle history rabbit hole during the summer or 2021.
“It began as a kind of a lockdown project,” Kevin says.
He was reading “Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality” and in it he saw a reference to another book, or set of books called Cycling Cities published by Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. Each book focuses on a city such as The Hague, Munich, Johannesburg and lays out a social history of cycling. The books, which are beautifully designed, are not academic tomes, rather, much like the bicycle itself they are books intended for a wide audience.
Kevin acted on impulse and fired off a “random email to the publisher to ask if they would consider doing other cities, such as Cork.”
“Basically it’s just snowballed from there,” he says.
What that has entailed is for the past six months Kevin has amassed countless hours digging around online and in books and reports and development plans for all things cycling-related. Kevin was the one who alerted me to Terence MacSwiney’s bicycle and the strike by the messenger boys. Invariably, much of his research has led to a different mode of transport, the car and learning how planning laws and lack of political will or vision or both resulted in driving cyclists off the roads of Cork from about the 1960s onwards.
However, throughout those decades there were countless task forces and development plans to try and get the modal share of cycling back up. There still is, and while officially the modal share of cycling in Cork is dismally low, 1% according to the City Council, campaigners like Kevin believe the city and underestimating it, and that will have an impact on future plans. But let’s leave the politics of cycling be momentarily.
Two wheels forward
Before I met Kevin in real life, and learned about his project, he had previously sent me a clipping he come across while down one of his cycling history rabbit holes. The newspaper clipping, from The Irish Examiner, outlined a symposium I organised back when I was living in Cork in the mid 2000s and less jaded than I am now. I was working part-time in The Kino (currently for sale) and Mick Hannigan and Úna Feely had kindly let me take the place over one Saturday morning for a public meeting all about cycling. It was called “Two Wheels Forward” and The Examiner kindly flagged it. A few people turned up, including the usual cycle diehards and my Mam and Dad and some friends. Bless them. All.
I gave a short presentation based on a transport plan, possibly from ARUP and commissioned by the National Transport Authority or some state or local body which had an aspirational plan for cycling. As we were in a cinema, there was a special screening of great little animated Irish short film which I think I had seen at the Cork Film Festival, possibly the year before. As a result of the public meeting I was invited to give the same presentation a few weeks later at City Hall to a transport committee. I remember going along with older brother and being nervous, but also thinking, “what am I telling the councillors and council staff that they didn’t know already know?”
Just after my presentation a councillor asked me where I lived - all politics is local.
“Douglas,” I said.
And he replied along the lines of “Didn’t we put in a bicycle lane there on the South Douglas Road recently?”
That’s what I remember.
But times have changed.
What Kevin wants
Essentially Kevin’s goal is to collect and collate as much material as he can about the history of cycling in Cork from messenger boys to cycle lanes, BMXs and the time The Tour de France came to Cork and everything in between and funnel it into a book.
By way of example Kevin shared a lovely photo of his grandparents (pictured above) taken in 1943 as they cycle along (the middle of) Western Road. Kevin’s uncle, Donal Barry, had the photo in his attic before it was taken down.
“There’s a rich history and culture of cycling in Cork,” Kevin says, and while the subject has been covered in sections of books, there’s never been a “definitive history of cycling in Cork as a mode of transport.”
There’s also another more hopeful reason why Kevin is invested in the book project. He thinks that past can be prologue.
“I’m hoping the book can show that cycling can thrive once again in Cork,” says Kevin.
“It’s using history as a promotion and awareness tool to show that cycling used to be very popular for everyday activities like going to school, work, college, shopping in town, messages, and that it can work again for the city.
“We are a small compact city, and with more affordable e-bikes and the right choice of cycle routes and well-designed infrastructure people will cycle more, the demand is there for it.”
Kevin’s not a writer nor was he a cycling activist until quite recently. As he said he followed “cycling for sport more so than anything else for a few years and I’d followed Cork Cycling Campaign but was never really actively involved.”
“When lockdown hit I started to cycle that bit more around the city, mainly because the roads were quieter and it felt safer.
“As you cycle more around the city you notice more of the issues with cycle lanes or the lack of them, and why people don’t cycle more here.”
His curiosity was piqued as to why, so he went a step further and set out to find out why and where cycling works, which is how he ended up reading “Building the Cycling City” by Chris and Melissa Bruntlett.
There’s a section in the book in which they speak with Professor Ruth Oldenziel of the University of Eindhoven about her research which looks at why cycling thrives in some cities (Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Tokyo) but declines in so many others (Cork, Dublin, Limerick, Belfast the list goes on).
“I Googled Cycling Cities and there on their homepage was the question “Your city next?”
To which Kevin said yes, likely without realising what he’s let himself in for.
The next step
Kevin’s been in touch with the project coordinators in Eindhoven and they’ve guided Kevin and Conn Donovan, a vocal cycling campaigner who chairs Cork Cycling Campaign, through what would be needed to publish a book on the history of cycling in Cork.
Essentially, the research and writing would be carried out by volunteers in Cork and the team in Eindhoven “would provide guidance and expertise on editing, data analysis, management, graphic design, typesetting, printing and binding.”
So what Kevin and the small team have to come up with is the material. But also the money.
The team in Eindhoven have given Kevin a few different budget options, but the outlay will be significant - the lower option comes in at around €40,000 and the more expensive option around €90,000. To be clear, it’s not a profit seeking venture, but it will require a lot of knocking on doors to raise the funds to print a few hundred copies of the book.
Kevin’s talked with councillors and the City Council, the Department of Transport as well as the Dutch Ambassador to Ireland. There’s broad support for the book, and he has some leads to follow up, which he’s hoping will bring in some funding.
In the meantime though Kevin’s hoping to collect more material about cycling in Cork. That could be in the form of photos or memories or stories that you’d like to share with Kevin. They’ll also be looking for writers and editors down the line, or anyone with an interest in history and/or cycling who can pitch in and make the book happen.
Kevin recognises that for many, cycling in Cork is considered too dangerous these days.
“There are too many cars on the road, people drive too fast,” he says, adding that “safety fears are a serious barrier for people and surveys done by the cycling campaign bear that out.”
“The only way to reverse that trend now is for a safe connected cycling network in the city, and traffic calming measures which are always a controversial topic. This book may help changes attitudes towards cycling by showing how it was such a normal part of daily life in the city, and can be once again.”
Before we finish up Kevin starts talking about something you know is dear to his cycling heart, and likely his engineering brain. A cycle way that would flow out of Cork and over the Chetwynd Valley viaduct into the Gogginshill Tunnel and on out to the Halfway viaduct. If some of these engineering works don’t sound familiar, it’s because they’ve fallen on hard times since the South Coast Railway was discontinued. But, with a cycle path along the former rail line Kevin envisions thousands of cyclists pouring out from the city on the West Cork Greenway which he thinks could be one the best in the country.
Sitting there on Princes Street listening to Kevin as he imagines what kind of a cycling city Cork could one day be, you’d like to think his vision might one day come true.
But first, well first, there’s a book that needs to be written and funded.
Kevin Long can be contacted at email@example.com if you’d like to share memories or photos of cycling in Cork or learn more about the book project.
You can also contact Kevin on Twitter.
A special thanks to Dara McGrath at Cork Public Museum for the photos used in this article.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Terence MacSwiney’s bicycle was in the Independence Museum in Kilmurray. That was incorrect.