Outside the Lloyd’s Pharmacy on Grand Parade, on an electrical box tucked inside the shadow of the imposing St. Patrick’s Buildings and plotted neatly between two trees is a mural commemorating the American abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass. A gesture of artistic solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter installed as the movement caught flame across the U.S. earlier this year, as well as a clenched fist of support to the #EndDirectProvision movement which continues to gather steam on our own island, the mural is an impassioned international statement with its feet planted firmly in Cork.
The man behind this mural, along with a collection of similar staccato bursts of visual culture pasted across the peoples’ republic is Kevin O’Brien. A UCC alumnus and self-proclaimed passionate storyteller, Kevin is the co-founder of Mad About Cork, a street art and guerrilla gardening volunteer group responsible for numerous such murals which have been splashing the city in colour since 2017. Kevin’s involvement dates back further still, with similar work being done from 2015 under the remit of Reimagine Cork, an antecedent group which first sank the anchor of this Cork institution almost six years ago now.
“We were motivated in those days by the recession and the dereliction that could be seen across Cork at that time. Lots of empty shops and buildings that were left fall into a state of ugly disrepair. Many still lie idle today”
Bringing vibrancy to that which seemed laid to waste offered a noble motive for the group, with a desire to whet cultural appetites and inspire pride among the people of Cork quickly establishing itself as the goal.
“The challenge we set ourselves was to try and improve the appearance of these places through street art and guerrilla gardening, and by doing that we wanted to build on Cork people’s pride of place in the hope that more people would get on board and look after their buildings and premises.”
The concept of guerrilla gardening was new to me, but it comprises a good portion of the work done by Mad About Cork. A once derelict patch of gravel on the Coal Quay is now home to a vibrant vegetable garden, installed as part of the ‘Get Ireland Growing’ campaign. As well as promoting sustainability and offering aesthetic value, it’s a monument to history. The garden occupies the site of Cork’s original Irish market, set up in 1840 on the back of local government reformation as somewhat of a riposte to the renowned English market. Another inkling from the past etched afresh on the bones of our city.
For Kevin, the project also represents a cosmopolitan touch which – before Mad About Cork got going – the city was in need of. “It seemed to be something that was happening in other cities across the world for a while. In Cork, [I] think it was the People’s Republic of Cork group that probably got the ball rolling here with the street art on electrical boxes.”
Electrical box murals have become a staple idiosyncrasy of the group as they have steadily worked their way into the city’s cultural fabric over the past half-decade. Frederick Douglass on Grand Parade; the Ballintemple-born ‘Schindler of Ireland’ Mary Elmes on the South Mall, who drove Jewish children hidden in the boot of her car to rescue through a WWII-torn France; Irish Traveller and Folk legend Maggie Barry Leeside on the quays – all figures who crossed the water to shape the world, but – like the murals which honour them – left their mark indelibly on Cork.
“We try and keep it simple really when coming up with ideas, so there’s only a small set of criteria to meet. All the artwork needs to be positive and we try to make it relative to Cork – its history, its humour, or just famous or otherwise noteworthy Corkonians”.
With a master’s degree from each of the Rebel County’s most renowned third-level institutions – specialising in the history of the Irish Revolutionary Period at UCC and Journalism & New Media at CIT – Kevin O’Brien is a man with Cork running through his veins. As for putting his work on show for the whole city to see, he has no qualms: “For me, the most rewarding part when you’re painting on the street is seeing the reaction from passers-by. In the beginning, people would look at you as if you had two heads when you were out painting an electrical box. Now, everybody knows the craic. They’re excited to see you painting and love to know what the artwork is going to be”.
Indeed, this guerrilla beautification has not gone unnoticed among the people of the Real Capital, and in true Cork fashion, they show little hesitation in having a friendly word with Kevin if he’s spotted out working on a project. “There has been a fair few [interactions] and overwhelmingly they are positive. It’s one of the main reasons why I love doing them. One of the standout moments for me was while repainting a tribute to Mary Elmes on South Mall. It had become a bit weathered so needed a bit of a touch-up. Elmes was from Cork and had worked as a humanitarian during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, becoming well known for saving hundreds of children from entering concentration camps. Anyway, while we were there doing it, a young guy approached us and introduced himself. It turned out he was a great-grandnephew of Mary Elmes’. It was great to hear that the painting was well received by Elmes’ family”. These icons, though immortalised on the walls of our city, thus remain among us – people of Cork, lineages still unfolding.
As for any murals which may serve as standouts, Kevin seems indifferent: “Hard to say which are the most popular but there’s really something for everyone with such a great variety of subjects depicted, from famous Cork people, history, Cork slang and just general good humour”.
Calling to mind the homage to Sultans of Ping’s “Where’s Me Jumper” situated outside Bishop Lucey Park, I broach the subject of vandals, and the effect they have on the work being done by Mad About Cork. “In the five years since I’ve been doing this, there have been very few incidents of vandalism, and at that they have been only minor incidents. It was a worry at the start, but it’s been very encouraging since then to see them being well received. When it does happen, the best thing to do is to just fix it up as quickly as possible and move on”.
Fixing up and moving on encapsulates the spirit of Cork in more ways than one, though if recent circumstances have taught us anything, it’s that not every problem can be made right with a lick of paint and a can-do attitude.
“Unfortunately, this year has been very hard for the group because of the pandemic and we haven’t been able to work on as many projects as we would have liked”.
It’s a story that’s become all too topical: artists and their work kept in a Covid chokehold, with not enough being done by way of funding. Whether it’s theatre at the Everyman or the Opera House, independent booksellers smothered by closures and restrictions, or something as fluid and nomadic as street art – the effect of Covid-19 across the arts has been ruinous. Yet, a glimmer of hope for what the new year may bring shines on: “We’re still here, and we’re just biding our time before we can get back into the swing of things. All going well, we’ll be able to kick back into gear early in the new year”.
Though recent stimulus packages for music production and distribution as well as a million-euro scheme involving Cork’s own Crawford Art Gallery to buy and sell Irish artwork offer some solace, the struggle for artists is far from over.
Frederick Douglass’ trip to Ireland will forever be imprinted upon history as a proud testament to the compassion of our nation. And outside 8 Grand Parade, standing proud, is a symbolic reminder of this history. It is only due to the voluntary efforts of a few good rebels who are simply Mad About Cork that such historical echoes remain breathing. And now, at a time when our shared responsibility for each other is greater than ever, we cannot let them choke.
Pictures and accounts of all Mad About Cork public artworks, as well as more information about the organisation can be found at madaboutcork.com. Go to vivamediacork.com for more information on Kevin, as well as to access his amazing print store in time for Christmas.