Ó Bhéal: “The Atmosphere Has Been Welcoming from the Beginning”

For the past eleven years, one poetry night has provided a lifeline for the artform in the city, going ahead every Monday night, rain or shine, 50 weeks of the year. For facilitator Paul Casey, overseeing the activities of Ó Bhéal is a matter of duty to the city’s poetry community, and for the social potential of the artform. Mike McGrath-Bryan finds out more.

Since its first edition in 2007, weekly poetry event Ó Bhéal (pronounced oh-vale) has provided the city’s spoken-word and verse community with a sounding board for ideas, a platform for visiting poets to have their work heard, and various challenges for aspiring poets to wrap their heads around, as they develop their technique and storytelling. With over 500 installments under its belt, and a number of annual anthologies stemming from its weekly ‘Five Words’ challenge, Ó Bhéal, alongside other semi-regular nights such as Cara Kursh’s Sling-Slang open mics, is a lifeline to the city’s cultural offering. Founder and facilitator Paul Casey discusses how the idea came to him upon coming home to Cork after years away. “There were a number of factors. One was that I was moving back to Cork, and I wanted to work in an area that I was familiar with. I have a particular skillset, I worked in film and multimedia for many years, and I wanted to see if I could use those together, but poetry at that point was my mainstay. I ran a venue in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, which was quite productive in terms of creativity, being a remedial, neutral space for tensions in the area. We had a poetry night there that ran every three weeks, and that took off. I was supposed to be back in Cork for the 2005 Capital of Culture that was my aim. I got delayed with a few legal issues, the Habitual Residence Condition kind-of hit me, when I got back to Dublin, I found there was this new law in place to stop me from getting any sort of help until I got a job. I was stuck up there for a few years, in which time I got a good feel for what was happening on the poetry scene. I literally went to every city in the country, to every event I could get to, to get a sense for what was happening. Cork didn’t have anything regular. There were lunchtime readings that Bradshaw Books and Tigh Filí had, they were occasional, not very secure. There was a gap.”

Since its inception, the night has been a place of first call for new and aspiring poets, with an inclusive and beginner-friendly ethos. An open-mic section for poets gives them immediate access to feedback from the night’s knowledgeable regulars, the night’s regular international guests have also provided advice and assistance. As a result, numerous area poets across the age and social spectrum have found their makings at the night, from veterans like Stanley Notte to still-emerging young voices like Matthew Moynihan and Megan Cronin. That accessibility and drive to develop poetry in the city has informed the night from the outset. “We get a lot of first-timers come into us, at the open-mic, reading something that they’ve been afraid to share previously. An equal amount of people have written their first poem at Ó Bhéal, because of the Five-Word Challenge, which was put in place to break the ice for the guests, but also to make the art, the craft itself available to anyone that walks through the door. We’re seeing people get up and read a poem they’d written 15 minutes previous, be blown away by the results, and be encouraged. I found it very contagious for people who came in, and the atmosphere has been welcoming from the beginning, which has become a personality trait of the night.”

Casey’s background in multimedia stood to him as the night’s remit expanded and developed, with one of Ó Bhéal’s hallmarks being the annual Poetry Film Contest, conducted in conjunction with IndieCork Film Festival. Maintaining it over the years, building and screening the contest’s archive on a weekly basis, has been a major point of development for Ó Bhéal, introducing another layer of storytelling to inform new and seasoned wordsmiths alike. “I was involved in film for many years, and became disillusioned with it, because of producers essentially destroying scripts, leaving creatives at their behest. I responded to that by writing poetry. One of my first published poems was a satire against the commercial film industry. I packed that life away for good and was sticking with poetry, and about five or six years later, a year or two into running Ó Bhéal, I was invited by the Munster Literature Centre to attend the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin, 2008. I’d never heard of the two words put together, I had no idea that it was a completely unique collaboration of artforms. I was blown away by it, I must have seen over 300 films in a few days, all a few minutes long. It opened that world up to me, and reawakened my skills in film, specifically editing and directing. I saw an opportunity there, and because this is a generation that is visually oriented, that this could be a way to bring back those people, those visually-oriented human beings, back to the written word.”

The night’s remit of accessibility and innovation, reaching people where they are, has created opportunities for social outreach in conjunction with the City Council and Library. The annual Book of Unfinished Poetry, compiled by local teenagers with help from mentoring writers, and Creative Cork, a programme of culture and integration for the city’s new Irish, have been equally important to the community as they have been to Casey, in ascertaining the place and potential of poetry in Cork’s community. “The Unfinished Book, which the Library started during the 2005 City of Culture, and is a legacy of that… I only took it over seven years ago, when the City Council asked me if I’d be interested. I’ve given workshops to writers of all ages for many years, so it worked for me, and I had a base of poets in the area, so it made sense. It’s one of the most fulfilling projects I’ve ever been involved in. Teenagers get nine intense sessions with an established writer, and they come out with the requisite skills to develop into a fully-rounded writer. It’s extraordinary, the quality of poems we get back are good enough to go into adult journals. The enthusiasm is phenomenal. It’s a difficult one to co-ordinate, ‘cause it’s five schools, five local libraries, five writers. We’ve just finished this year’s one, and because the city is bidding for City of Sanctuary status, a number of schools have been identified as Sanctuary Schools, and we’re working with them.”

Ó Bhéal’s annual showcase event is the Winter Warmer poetry weekender, happening this November at venues across the city. International guests join nationally-established writers and the night’s regular clutch of poets and attendees for a series of special events that comprises the jewel in the Ó Bhéal crown. “Winter Warmer is the culmination of the year for us. We have over twenty poets, usually over two days, and we try to get as many international poets as we can afford. It’s funded by a lot of local businesses. It’s very piecemeal funding, so it’s more of a shoestring budget. But we have a number of partnerships that help us overcome that, such as Ark Publications, who send us over three or four high-quality international poets every year. We put them up, and pay them a fee. We mix it up with national and local poets, but you need that international flavour. We also fuse the artform with others wherever possible, so you’ll have the poetry films, but this year, we have The Ballad of Reading Jail, a three-hander play of Oscar Wilde’s epic poem. We have hurling poetry on the Sunday, and we’re going to have 25 visitors from different festivals join us for a sequence of hurling and camogie poems, before taking them to a hurling match.”

Ó Bhéal happens every Monday night at the Hayloft Bar, upstairs in the Long Valley on Winthrop St.

Doppelganger ‘Zine Fest: “It Was Just a Matter of ‘Let’s Do This'”

The history of Cork music and culture has been marked by the development of its community media. In recent times, the humble ‘zine has been hauled from its legacy context, as a vehicle for literary and community exploration. On October 20th at St. Peter’s, Doppelganger sees a celebration of ‘zines’ cultural impact past and present, with speakers, workshops and a library of ‘zines for public perusal. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with co-ordinator and arts facilitator Oriane Duboz.

From a unique place in the received oral history of Cork music, to formal celebrations and exhibitions in the city’s library spaces, the humble fanmade ‘zine has been an unlikely survivor in a scene marked by near-constant change over the years. Symbolic of the DIY spirit of the city’s creative community, ‘zines find themselves in something of a moment again, allowing publishers and writers to reach people directly, as best seen lately with the success of poetry ‘zine A Vent Zine, an exploration of words and visuals co-edited by Cork-based arts facilitator Oriane Duboz. Following on from the success of the ‘zine and various workshops she’s done with community groups, a celebration of the medium is in order. Doppelganger sees Duboz assemble speakers, workshops and even her own personal zine library for a day-long event in St. Peter’s on North Main Street on October 20th, the result of a lifelong fascination with the medium. “I didn’t know there were ‘zines, as I was getting into ‘zines, y’know? I always liked the content, reading little publications and reading what people do on a small scale, seeing original artwork, political opinions, social opinions. I owned them before I knew what they were, so that’s my personal approach.”

Upon her arrival in Cork a little under two years ago, Duboz’ interest in zines saw her looking to find a project in the medium, amid her work with some of the city’s busiest musicians. Finding a place for it in the modern landscape turned out to be its own challenge, but the creation of A Vent Zine saw co-editor Jonathan Crean provide Duboz with an outlet. “It was brought to me. I wasn’t on the first issue, he created the first issue by himself. Because he was on his own, you know how it is, you can’t do everything. When I saw the first issue, I felt it was unfair that it wasn’t more ‘out there’. I just wanted more people to see his incredible work, and he needed help. I just told people about it, and people were enthusiastic, which is really cool.”

Having garnered an understanding of the Irish ‘zine community by her work with the publication and talking with other ‘zine enthusiasts around the country, the idea for an event that allowed people to see for themselves the impact of the medium wasn’t far behind. How exactly one lays out a ‘zine fair, however, is another matter. “That kind-of evolved. The idea came from people asking me what a ‘zine is, and what the purpose of it is. The old-school ‘zine, which was most popular from the seventies to the nineties, and the new wave of ‘zines are so different, but they have the same purpose, which is to talk about what you want to talk about, without any barriers to communication. I was like, ‘ah, I’ll do that in a pub, people can grab a pint and look at some ‘zines’, so that was the original idea. And then St. Peter’s got interested in the project, and it transpires I have way more ‘zines than I thought. Then Tom from the Forgotten ‘Zine Archive in Dublin let me take a loan of a good amount of ‘zines from the ‘80s. He has over three thousand ‘zines, so I took ‘zines from Cork, Waterford, Sligo. Anarchist ‘zines, feminist ‘zines, some amazing stuff there.”

The highlight of the day-long event for many will be a ‘zine-making workshop, which sees Duboz provide a from-scratch tutorial in creating a ‘zine. Everything from editorial and themes, to binding and presentation is covered, and for Duboz, this workshop is an important entry point for her and attendees to the world of physical DIY publication. “The idea and purpose of the workshop came mutually. People looking for a platform of communication. I was like, ‘I have a platform, if you want, we can do that’. At first, the idea was not to make it a business or anything big, it was just a matter of ‘let’s do this’. Fortunately, it’s become a little bigger than that, again. The way I designed the workshop was with my friends, using their questions and the barriers they encountered. The first thing I want to do is break psychological barriers, that peoples’ thoughts aren’t legit to put on paper. That’s nonsense, but we all have that. So, that’s the first and biggest step. And then we just do it.”

Amassing a huge library of ‘zines between her own collection and trading copies with others around the world, her full library of publications will be available to peruse on the day, with a huge amount of ‘zines on music, culture and politics on hand to read. But adding the final touch to the fair’s offering will be the appearance of speakers from the worlds of ‘zines and DIY music, reflecting on the versatility of the medium. “When you first meet people from the ‘zine community, your instinct is to ‘feel’ if it’s a real ‘zine interest, content and aesthetic and all that. ‘Cause there are people who are interested in the economic side of it, and try to get in and sell a ‘zine for €15. ‘Sure. We’re not even speaking the same language.’ The people I invited to talk, I selected them for that interest. They create DIY, they live DIY, just like punk, y’know. So, Natalia Beylis from Woven Skull, a very cool, very DIY person. Declan Synnott, who wrote his PhD dissertation on punk as a philosophical process. Knows his shit. I wanted someone who knows, and studied the theory side. There’s William from Cork Community Artlink, who’s lived a punk life, his whole life.”

Doppelganger: Cork ‘Zine Fair happens on October 20th at St. Peter’s on North Main Street. Kickoff at 12pm, free entry.

Cork Chilli Company: Too Hot to Handle?

Cork Chilli Company is set to host its first-ever eating competition at its stall at Douglas Farmer’s Market, in aid of St. Vincent de Paul. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with company head Gary Barriscale about what potential contenders are up against, and SVP regional co-ordinator Gerry Garvey about the challenges the charity faces this winter.

It’s a novel idea, albeit one that resonates with both pop-culture kitsch and the county’s growing reputation for homegrown food production. A chilli-eating contest: competitors square up to the specialist produce of the Cork Chilli Company, a Douglas-based start-up, and test their mettle, as the heat intensifies with each round. It’s not for the faint of heart, or the weak of constitution, but oddly enough, Cork’s first chilli showdown, happening on October 6th at Douglas Farmer’s Market, is the product of popular demand. The company’s stall has been kept busy by the adventurous palates of the city’s foodie community, who called for the competition to take place.

Gary Barriscale is part of the team behind Cork Chilli Company, and while the idea is an opportunity for potential competitors to sample a wide range of palate-testing peppers, all proceeds from donations raised by entrants go to St. Vincent de Paul in Cork, a cause close to his heart, as his father was deeply involved in the charity’s activities in the city and county. “It was the obvious choice for our business. We grow more than forty different varieties of chillies here in Cork, so we have the means and raw material to be able to run the competition. Several of our customers had asked about doing one, and running it as a fundraiser seemed like a much better reason to put it on, rather than doing it just for fun alone.”

St. Vincent de Paul has been a source of support and help for people in need throughout the country for generations, assisting families and individuals through difficult times in their lives with the help of public donations. This winter poses the greatest challenge in a generation for the charity, as living costs skyrocket amid an unprecedented housing crisis, and weather events continue . Gerry Garvey, South West Regional Co-ordinator for St. Vincent de Paul, speaks on the importance of fundraisers like this. “We can’t help out people in need unless we get donations and fundraising coming in. It’s particularly important at this time of year, because we’re just into back-to-school costs, and with cold weather now, we’re going to have huge costs for heating, as well as our everyday costs. Now until March is an important time. People are struggling to pay mortgages and meet rental costs, especially people on welfare, which hasn’t risen in line with living costs. People are under immense pressure.”

Barriscale’s family connection to SVP informs his decision to run a fundraiser for the charity, but the other part of this story is also born from homegrown efforts, with the Cork Chilli Company quite literally growing from a window box. “The interest originally came in 2013, from a fascination with growing a few chilli plants on the windowsill at home. In 2014, I filled my window sills with chilli plants, and started a night-course in horticulture to learn proper growing skills. Around that time, I also became very interested in hydroponics. I found it fascinating, as it eliminates the traditional soil-borne challenges with growing, but it also adds many other challenges. In 2015, we built our first polytunnel in the back garden, and in 2016, with the help of some friends we built our first commercial-sized polytunnel. The number of plants has increased every year since then, and all are grown hydroponically. (The same year), we started developing our range of chilli sauces. We had just two to begin with. We also did our first farmers market on 1st of October 2016, selling sauces, fresh chillies and chilli plants. We moved to Douglas Farmers Market in December 2016, where we have been ever since. We continue to develop our range of products, and as of this week we have 8 different sauces, ranging from very mild to blisteringly hot, with several in between to cater for all tastes and heat preferences. We’re happy to keep things small for now, concentrating on growing quality chillies, and making high-quality, small batches of delicious sauces.”

There’s been plenty of interest in entering the contest, but as of yet, very few have been brave enough to line out. For those that fancy themselves brave enough to tuck into some speciality chilli – what exactly will be served up, and how will a winner be determined? “The contest will be run across a series of rounds, with participants able to withdraw at any stage. The chillies will begin at a mild heat, and will increase in heat, based upon the Scoville Scale of chilli-pepper heat as the rounds progress. Each contestant will receive a single chilli in each round, and will be required to eat the entire chilli but excluding the stalk. Chillies likely to feature in the contest will be Jalapeno, Ring of Fire, Habanero, Scotch Bonnet, Ghost Chilli, Moruga Scorpion to name a few, and culminate with the world-record holding hottest chilli, The Carolina Reaper, if anyone makes it that far. The winner will be determined by being the last remaining contestant willing to continue in the contest. In the event of a tie, remaining contestants will be given an additional minute to consume as many chillies as possible, with the winner being the individual that consumed the most whole chillies in the time.”

So, with the gauntlet thrown down and the terms outlined, what’s the interest been like, and more to the point, in the spirit of good fun that events like this are about… what’s at stake? “Loads of people are interested in coming to watch, but what we really need is people to put their mouths where their money is, and enter the contest. The prize for the winner is incredible: a lifetime’s supply of bragging rights… and possibly a small trophy. All going well, we would like to make it an annual event, where the champion can defend that title again next year.”

Initiatives like this are a lifeline for St. Vincent de Paul, providing fun and unique experiences for people to partake in, that come from others’ passions and bring help local communities together for the cause. But with the challenges that lie ahead, fundraising is of utmost importance. Gerry Garvey explains how people can parlay their life’s loves into helping the effort. “Lots of people do fundraising efforts. Schools often do food and clothing appeals, we often have independent companies come to us and ask how to get involved. Our biggest fundraiser are our Flag Days, starting from October, through to the end of December. If people want to organise individual fundraisers, they can reach out to us and speak with our regional fund-raiser Anna McKernan, and lend a hand with our ongoing campaigns.”

Foróige Big Brother & Big Sister: “It Changed Me”

For over a decade, youth work organisation Foróige has been matching socially-minded working people with teenagers that can benefit from an hour or two a week of chat and collaborative activity. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with programme facilitator Sinéad Murphy, as well as programme siblings Martina Lyons and Jamie Halpin, about the project.

For youth work programmes all over the world, the idea of a ‘sibling’ programme has been a mainstay of their services. Pairing working adult volunteers with the experience of a lifetime with young people at a crossroads in theirs has long fostered mutually beneficial relationships, providing the young person with purpose and direction as they move forward with careers and study. On September 8th, Foróige in Cork City will provide training for prospective new big brothers and sisters for their programme, at the project’s headquarters on Watercourse Road. There, potential big siblings will garner experience on both informal and formal levels, regarding the place of their efforts in the wider world of social work in the city.

Programme facilitator Sinéad Murphy gives us some insight into the creation of the programme, explains how the idea found its way to Cork, and how it was implemented not just in the inner-city, but at Foróige clubs around the country. “It came from America, a programme that’s been running there for well over a hundred years at this point. We would have brought it in Ireland in the early-2000s. A pilot programme was set up in Galway in 2003, 2004. We’ve had it in Cork since 2007. The siblings will meet up once a week, usually for an hour or two, to go for a coffee and a chat, or do some fun activities. It’s a commitment for a year: based on studies here and internationally, for the best benefit of a programme for a child, it should be running for a minimum of a year. It’s not something you can dip in and out of – you’re making a commitment to this young person.”

For the programme itself, Foróige liaises with local community organisations and agencies to ascertain young people’s strengths, in order to match them with an adult that can help develop them further. “We don’t seek them out as such – they might come to us through an agency that refer them to us, they might be sent to us through school, through a parent or a youth worker. We have young people from all over the city and parts of the county – it’s not targeted areas, as we don’t want to stigmatise young people over where they’re from, we work with them on the basis of individual need.”

For Murphy, the programme’s reward is in seeing the results of matches, as bigger siblings spend time developing ongoing friendships and mentorships with their charges as their time in the programme moves on. “You can tell from seeing matches, you can see confidence and self-esteem building for a young person when they’re involved. I’ve clearly seen it, in my time working with people, I can see that change. Definitely, it’s very positive in terms of promoting school, and school completion, having a goal regarding what they’d like to do after second level… it definitely does work for young people in terms of development, goal-setting, and helping them with independence and decision-making.”

At present, the programme is in recruitment mode, as the number of children and teenagers seeking mentorship or being referred is beginning to surpass the number of adults currently able to commit. Murphy outlines how people can get involved, and what to expect at training on the 8th. “Contact us directly. We have a Facebook page now, ‘Big Brother Big Sister Cork’, and you can get in touch via our website. We arrange to meet people on an individual basis, where we would chat with them, explain what’s involved, and it goes from there. It’s a stringent recruitment process, because it’s a one-to-one situation, and we have to make sure they’re the right person for the role, really. Interviews, references, garda vetting, big-sibling training and child-protection training. It can be a lot more difficult also, to get male volunteers, but certainly, we’re always, always looking.”

Getting involved with the programme came along at the right time for Jamie Halpin, as his academic career in social work required something a little extra to ground him in his discipline. Working with young people helped broaden his understanding of the demands of his course and the work that would follow. “Originally, I was going to study Social Work in UCC. I met with the director, she recommended that I do some volunteer work before going into it, so that sparked my interest. I went to VolunteerCork on North Main Street, asked for some help with voluntary work, and the Big Brother/Big Sister programme was the one that appealed to me. I contacted them, had an interview with a case worker, and it went from there, and I haven’t looked back.”

Of course, it’s not just a one-way exchange. While the aim is to link up with young people and provide them with direction and encouragement, the perspective that such a relationship can bring to the big sibling bears much consideration, while the supports that are available to him via the programme have helped him in other ways. “Getting involved with the programme is one of the, if not the most, rewarding things I’ve ever done. For me, the main thing is it’s helped me become a far more responsible adult. Spending time with a young person on a weekly basis, biweekly basis, making sure that we’re both on time, because they’re younger, in their teens. Organising with them or a parent regarding where to meet. I always want to have something different, interesting or fun to do. I want to actively listen, then, I suppose, to anything that’s going on for them, good, bad, that’s big in their lives. It was a great way of improving my own socialising too. I’d moved around the country, so finding like-minded mentors (was a big help for settling back down).”

For Big Sister Martha Lyons, once the initial interviews and exams were all done with, the process of getting to work with young people on their personal development was a matter of drawing on her training. Getting herself in the right headspace to be a Big Sister was another matter. “I suppose, sticking with the same time every week to meet with your Little is important, or not going out the night before if you’re meeting your Little the next day. It’s something you do when you can schedule things around it so it doesn’t feel like a burden, you’re excited to do it.” Like Halpin, Lyons’ experience in the programme, working with young people and helping advance their development comes with the upside of getting their perspective, and depending on the young person’s willingness to share, getting into their interests. “I’m quite lucky I have a lot of nieces and nephews roughly the age of my Little, so it wasn’t completely alien. Our parents look at us and think everything we do is out there, but I’m just learning with K-Pop is, what all these PlayStation games are, and I don’t think I’m going to get my head around it! But if she’s interested in it, happy about it, that’s all that matters.”

Getting involved is, as stated, a commitment, and one that requires a lot of thought and planning on the part of potential Big Siblings. Lyons has words of advice for anyone considering giving their time and effort. “Do your research, get stuck in. There’s so much support, and Foróige are so good with support, always on call. Other than that, it’s all down to your Little, what she likes, what she doesn’t like. They will tell you, and you can trust them to tell you!”

For more information on the Big Brother/Big Sister programme, email brenda.keatingomeara@foroige.ie, check out https://www.foroige.ie/volunteer-enquiry, or find Cork Big Brother Big Sister on Facebook.

Rebel Reads: “Our Commitment is to Always Fight for This to Happen”

With progressives and community activists more mobilised than ever in recent years, the time was coming for a hub for ideas, thoughts and events. Enter Rebel Reads, a new community bookshop and co-operative space on Father Mathew Quay. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with co-ordinator Declan Synnott.

The tide has turned in Ireland in recent years. Our well-documented conversion from a once-conservative island fealty to a diverse, forward-looking nation has been an increasingly common international media story. The last thirty years have seen everything, from the decriminalisation of homosexuality and divorce, to liberalisation of laws regarding marriage equality and reproductive rights. The latter saw an unprecedented civic partnership of social and political groups come together, to push for citizen’s assemblies and eventual referenda on these matters, leading to hard-fought but decisive results in its favour. The question of ‘what next’ has many answers, and a great many debates are to be had regarding civil partnership among community groups and progressive political factions.

But on a local level, taking that energy and organisation forward and building on the work of the Together for Yes campaign was of vital importance, especially in the light of the loss of community arts spaces in recent years. Rebel Reads, a community bookshop and organisation space on Father Matthew Quay, occupies the campaign’s former headquarters, and as co-ordinator Declan Synnott reveals, came from the desire to move things forward. “An initial callout was made via Solidarity Books’ Facebook page. Solidarity Books was an anarchist bookshop on Douglas Street, which closed in 2015. People were attempting to reorganise, and we began holding meetings every few weeks to discuss how we’d go about it. The plan was to have a physical space with a bookshop running out of it, that would be acting as facilitators for radical, left-leaning political activities and organising, but also open to cultural and creative activities on the independent level in the city.”

The process of assembling a team and reaching consensus on a mission statement, while building on effort and enthusiasm, had to be taken seriously. In carrying on from Solidarity Books, a hefty precedent exists, and providing a progressive space requires solid policy and a plan. “Within those meeting was an overt focus on dialogue and discussing what individuals wanted and what the city needed, and start to organise according to ability to start to address these issues. That meant setting up working groups, so there was a policy group, for organisation and operation, PR groups for social media and engaging with the outside world. But there was always the understanding that they would be coming from a left-leaning background, working toward the end of social change. That was the discussion, understanding that that’s what we wanted.”

The idea of a multi-use space grew from these discussions. The process of taking ideas from different sources on board, and putting them all in one place to set about actioning them, has been essential to its development and general pitch to the public. “Part of our view is wanting to enable people to do what they want to do, or need to do, in the city. So, we’ve always had something of an open call for people to come and propose uses of the space, and we’ve attempted to enable people to do that by themselves, so that we would be in a facilitation role, providing resources. Again, it’s a conversation, we talk to them, see what their needs and our capabilities are, and find common ground.”

Community spaces right now in the city are at a premium as gentrification continues, which makes the shop’s existence even more important at this time. The response, support and interaction from other community organisations has been essential to its development. “It’s all been incredibly positive, people have been supportive. The space we’re in came through Cork Together for Yes, a lot of us were involved, and we’re, as is our policy, a pro-choice organisation, so that was one very natural relationship. But lots of people from varying backgrounds have been involved, and it’s been a positive response, whether it’s wanting to collaborate or showing support. There is that understanding that having community-focused, non-profit spaces in the cities is getting harder. People tacitly understand our existence is precarious, and want to help work to secure it. We knew space might be transient, and the nature of the rental market, gentrification, our government not really caring about how these things happen once profit is generated. But part of our commitment is to always fight for this to happen, and so many people feel the same way, cares, and reaches out.”

In terms of events – there’s screenings and plans for quiet gigs, and there’s already been cookouts and repair shops. The role of events in the space’s development is that of creating a destination for all manner of interests. “We have regular things, a screening every Friday, music. We have vegan food nights, repair cafes. All of those things are about community outreach, where people feel comfortable coming into a space where paying in isn’t essential, where we can do donations or keep admittance as low as we can, and that emphasises how we operate as a bookshop as well. We have couches, we want people to come in, drink some free tea, hang out and feel like they don’t have to pay any money to be in a space. Having these events is to have a sense of like-minded people, sharing an experience, and fostering a sense of co-operation and unity. Cities are alienating places, and spaces like this are where you find support.”

What’s in the future for the space, and what is its importance in light of the changes happening to the city over the next decade? “I believe that people will always come in with great new ideas. Keeping that open to external ideas, and letting those develop more, and more. It’s gonna add to what’s there and assist in changing things. We’re not focused on development for profit-making. We’re focused on aiding communities and positive, radical social and political change, and we’re always going to be dedicated to that. Offering support, a view to alternatives, and a sense that people care, people care beyond monetary value, about individuals.”

Rebel Reads is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10am-7pm, at 14 Father Mathew Quay, around the corner from RTÉ Cork. For more information on events and concerts, check out @rebelreadscork across social media.

Gender Rebels: Fighting for Visibility and Rights

Gender Rebels are a group dedicated to working on the rights of transgender, intersex and non-binary people in Cork City, negotiating obstacles both infrastructural and everyday, and providing an outlet for social events and peer support. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with chairperson Jack Fitzgerald.

With Pride month in the rear view mirror for another year, and celebrations around the country winding down, it’s easy to bask in the colour, pomp and circumstance that the weekend’s proceedings confer on the city. Inclusivity and visibility have traditionally been at the heart of Pride celebrations, stemming from its roots in civil rights protest. But with criticism mounting in recent times of co-option by major sponsors of the Pride movement, the importance of maintaining that visibility for the city’s LGBT* community on a day-to-day basis has been drawn into sharp focus. For transgender, intersex, non-binary and otherwise gender non-conforming individuals, representation and community has historically been of utmost importance in the absence of substantial infrastructural assistance, with this year seeing Dublin host Ireland’s first ever Trans Pride march.

Enter Gender Rebels, a group formed last year to provide peer support and social outlets with a distinctly Corkonian identity. For chairperson Jack Fitzgerald, being part of its foundation was about strengthening connections between people in the city. “The last peer support group in Cork had kind of wound down, and (advocacy group) TENI was looking for something to fill the gap. Just from other things, they knew who I was, called me and asked would I be interested in taking up the peer support group. From looking at what the support group did and the resources it had, I kind-of figured that I might as well do my own thing here, that wasn’t connected to any organisation. I thought that would give us more of a voice and more visibility.”

Last November saw the group’s inaugural AGM, at the Village Hall community venue on Patrick’s Quay. With the event’s agenda ranging from social events to addressing the wider infrastructural needs of Cork transgender, non-binary and intersex communities, reaching a consensus among members before settling on a mission statement was a considered process. “It took a while. When I set the AGM, the community was very dispersed in Cork, there wasn’t one epicentre for people. Loads of people are online, in online groups, that’s where we advertised it, we got the name out there, as well as networking with people we know, and we booked the space in The Village Hall upstairs for the AGM. It was surprisingly well-attended, about 50 people, which was absolutely fantastic. There, we just said what each wanted from the scene in Cork, what we were looking for, and then, from that, hearing stories. From there, I was able to pull together a steering group, we set it up and outlined the aims of our community, how to raise awareness, and then also to try and get better resources for ourselves here in the city.”

Among the key items on the agenda, and one that has defined the group subsequently, has been that of addressing the needs of the city’s community, in different ways. Recent years have seen an upsurge in national awareness of the issues facing trans, non-binary and intersex people, but on a local level, Gender Rebels have been putting in the work on educating others on the issues that affect people on a daily basis. “The big one is if you’re wishing to transition and get onto HRT, there’s no services in Cork for you. You have to go to either Galway or Dublin, and the waiting list for Loughlinstown in Dublin is twenty months. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get onto HRT after that time, either. They’re using a very outdated mode of care for trans people, they’re not applying themselves to the international standard, the WPAT. There’s a movement in Dublin, This is Me, trying to get the international standard of care brought in. The other issue is people don’t know. They don’t know what being trans is, don’t know what being intersex is. If you’re an individual trying to access a support or service, the people you’re dealing with don’t know what you are. That can be very difficult. People that are going to their GPs or their counsellors are often in the position where they are the educator, and that can be very difficult as they may not know everything themselves, but they are expected to. Other people may choose not to come out because of that, so they may use a service in the city and people may not know they’re trans because they don’t want to have that conversation.”

Among the biggest issues facing the community in Cork at present, is the coarsening of discussion on the topic of gender, thanks in no small part to the rise in agenda-driven online debate channels and personalities. Recurring jokes and memes belittling minority social groups have been a pillar of their online strategies, and Jack has seen the attrition on discourse in his everyday life. “You get the people that think this is some new fad that just came up, don’t realise there’s a history to it, thinking that it’s okay to have “debates” with trans, non-binary and intersex people. This could be a person just going about their day, and all of a sudden, they’ll meet an individual that has this pre-planned debate, made out in their head. You’d be, y’know, just trying to get your coffee. You don’t want to be debating if the ‘they’ pronoun is singular or not. I just want to have a coffee. You’re always expected to ‘perform’. Part of that is, as the gay and lesbian movements have picked up acceptance, visibility and allies, they’re no longer the ‘easy target’. Trans people are likely to be more vulnerable or isolated, so they might be an easier target for this stuff.”

Another stated goal for the group has been garnering better resources with which to work, and provide spaces for people from the community to meet up and support one another. The processes of dealing with officialdom and venues around the city have been relatively easy for the group, with goodwill being extended from different quarters. “It’s been very positive. I was volunteering with Cork Community Art Link, who are at the Lido (in Blackpool). I had asked them if we could avail of the space and they were more than happy to give us that space. So, while you do have those people online that are anti-gay, or anti-trans, the average person is more than willing to be accepting, almost like they can’t do enough for you, and it’s really been heartwarming to see that. People are really kind, or if they don’t know, say, the right way to go about things, they just ask questions like ‘how can I support you better?’, which is really encouraging. Interestingly, we have had difficulty in accessing (lesbian and gay spaces), but it is getting better. The Cork Gay Project has recently changed their remit to include trans men, which is really encouraging. Bi Ireland has been fantastic. I’m surprised by the amount of trans people in bi groups in Ireland. They’re an accepting space and they’ve made sure that they’re an accepting space.”

With the polarisation of online discussion and subsequent second-hand talk, it could be difficult for some people to know where to begin getting up to speed on matters pertaining to the city’s trans, non-binary and intersex communities. Discussion regarding preferred pronouns, gender identities and trans rights have come to the surface in recent years, but for Fitzgerald, knowing how to help starts with the everyday ways in which people interact and support each other. “The biggest one is, first and foremost, view us as human. There’s a lot of ‘othering’ that can happen. Some people can be so different to you, so out of your norm, that it’s easy to other them, but when you do that, you dehumanise them. Just realise that we are human and the vast majority of us want to live our lives. I’d be very unusual, by being very proactive and advocating for trans rights, but the majority want to live their lives and get on with things. The second one is, if someone has come out to you, and has changed their pronouns, to just respect those pronouns, try and use them. I know it can be difficult if you know someone for a long time to change to a new name and new pronouns, especially if it’s ‘they’ as a singular. It can a take to while to get used to it. If you do make a mistake, misuse pronouns, etc., what works best, I find, is to say sorry and move on. One thing that often happens is someone will get the wrong pronoun, and then spend the next half-hour saying sorry for it. It comes from a place of kindness… if it’s an accident, it’s an accident. It happens.”

Another pillar of the group’s remit is raising the local profile of the community in Cork, with this awareness feeding into the main aim of better resources and support in the city. To this end, creating visibility has been a major part of the group’s activities. “I think the mere fact that we exist has created a lot of awareness. I’m after getting phone calls or emails from people where a family member has come out, or they have a client who’s trans, and they go online because they don’t know anything about it, they Google it and they find us. We’re a place for them to ask their questions. Another one is having been involved in Pride this year, which allowed us to have our own trans event. In UCC, I’d do a lot of talks… when anyone calls us asking to do a talk, I’d always raise my hand. During the Repeal campaign, I was asked to provide my perspective as a trans person. Y’know, we have meetups and social events, we do so in public, to reinforce the idea that there’s nothing wrong with being trans. We can exist in public spaces. When we launched the group, a gay man came up to me and said he thought it was unusual that we would have gatherings in public. He said he knew two trans women that wouldn’t “pass”, didn’t ‘look’ female, and because of that they shouldn’t be out in public. It’s that kind of thing we want to challenge. We are as entitled as anyone to be in these spaces.”

While the social events include coffee gatherings, nights out and games nights in places like Tabletop and Barcadia, an important offering for the group is a closed-doors peer support group at the Lido, happening monthly. Provided is an accepting space for people to present themselves as who they are, with group discussions, workshops and changing facilities available. “Mainly, we meet up in cafes. It’s a lot more chill for people. If you saw us sitting around, you wouldn’t twig that we are trans, non-binary or intersex. We just look like everyone else. We get people that go to our peer support meetings, those are closed spaces, people can be ‘more’ themselves, can dress the way they want, act the way they want. Some people can be more reserved in public, depending on how ‘out’ they are and where they are in their transition. It’s a place to support each other, discuss their experiences. If someone is just coming out, don’t know where they fit, groups like this are very handy, they can hear stories, ask questions. Oftentimes, it’s the first space (people) have been in where they’re ‘out’, or the norm, they’re not ‘unusual’. And just to have that, where they’re not the different person in the room, can be very liberating.”

The group has come along in leaps and bounds, with another AGM due later in the year, advocacy work ongoing, and social activities planned throughout. Fitzgerald points to ongoing growth and hard graft. “To grow bigger, have more events. Weekly events. Down the line, our own centre or space. When you look at Belfast, they have the Trans Resource Centre there. Seeing what they’ve done up there, we’d love to have something similar up there, where you can get resources and info. Another thing is more of an online presence, at the moment, we’re all based on Facebook. We want to move from that to our own website, so that will be a resource to access, as people might be afraid of using socials, others might not know they’re out, etc. There’s a few other things lined up, but right now it’s about getting stable, growing and building our community.”

For more information on upcoming peer support groups and social activities, email genderrebelscork@gmail.com, or find Gender Rebels on Facebook.

Tour de Munster: “It’s Not Just About the Bottom Line”

As fundraising season is on for Tour de Munster, businesses and community groups around the county are doing their part. Ahead of this year’s cycle, Noel Doherty, Sean O’Riordan and Rose Murphy of Fitzgerald’s Solicitors get ahead of the peloton to tell Mike McGrath-Bryan about the route, the sights and the work it does for Down Syndrome Ireland.

It’s a trek that involves months of preparation, with twice-weekly training sessions placing participants in the right frame of mind for a physically demanding four days of cycling around the roads and byways of the province. And yet, the Tour de Munster, one of the pillars of the local fundraising calendar for businesses and community groups, is embraced by the people that partake and help make it happen, with proceeds going to Down Syndrome Ireland to assist their activities around the province, including Cork’s centres and facilities. It’s happening this year from August 9th to 12th, and among the businesses most intricately involved is Fitzgerald’s Solicitors, based out of Lapp’s Quay in the city centre, where three senior solicitors are among those that swap the suits and ties of legal life for compression shorts and indoor training. Gathered around the phone at their office, it’s clear that the excitement is building, as they discuss their internal fundraising efforts, as well as those happening around the county.

“We do a fun-run in September or October, in Mahon, usually and raise funds from that, everyone gets an hour on the bike, and we’re there for the day”, says Rose Murphy.  “I run the Facebook page for Tour de Munster, and get to share the events that people put on: there’s a lot of coffee mornings, and concerts, especially in rural or provincial areas, as we get a lot of cyclists from all over the six counties.” Noel Doherty, a veteran of the tour, interjects with stories of the firm’s own fundraising. “We’ve had a cake sale, we’ve made cakes and sold them to other businesses around our building. It takes a great collective effort for (groups around the city and county).”

The tour route, well-honed over the last number of years, is absolutely no picnic, and makes for the polar opposite of an office fun-run. Running 640km in total, the route takes cyclists around the counties of Munster, with more than a few hills along the way. Much to your author’s surprise, it’s an involved process to get in shape and focus, says Doherty. “It’s great because we would be regular attendees of Tour de Munster training in Cork, so all of the Tour de Munster cyclists in the area get together every Monday and Wednesday at 5.45 up at Harlequins, we go with Paul Sheridan, the organiser, and we cycle somewhere between fifty and seventy-five kilometres each. Paul organises a different route every single night. Lots of hills, great fun. You could leave the office with your head bent from dealing with cases and issues, and after half an hour of training, it’s fantastic, the wind has blown all the worries out of your head.”

Although the run of the ride is spread across four days, there’s no two ways around the fact that it’s a hard slog. Having taken on the Tour for the last eight years now, Noel Doherty is more than qualified to discuss the challenges that lie ahead, and advise potential riders on what to avoid. “Saturday is the most difficult and most enjoyable day. You move out from Tralee, out the Blennerville Road and take on the Connor Pass. If you have any wind against you, or rain, I tell you, that’s a really tough ride. But it’s fantastic, because the easy riders and the inexperienced would go up first, about thirty or forty-five minutes ahead, and then, the faster riders chase behind, and everyone congregates at the top. And then in the afternoon, the process is reversed: the fastest head away first from Torc Waterfall, and wait for the others at Moll’s Gap, for the last riders to come up. So it’s a real community.” Adds solicitor and cyclist Sean O’Riordan: “That day, we stop for tea in Killarney at Deenagh Lodge, a project run by Down Syndrome Kerry, an employment for adult and older people with Down Syndrome. It’s really fantastic.”

By the same token, the Tour offers a look at the province’s formidable countryside, and the many views and natural wonders along the way. But for those partaking over a number of years, these are far from the only highlights of taking to the road, according to Murphy. “Just the effort that people from different branches of Down Syndrome Ireland put in to be on the road and cheer us on. They’re out there, they organise every stop and break, and they’re there to meet us. We may not see them again ‘til the following year’s Tour, but it’s a special effort they make to support us.” Doherty chimes in on the effect this support has on riders. “They have different signs on the road, blowing their horns, welcoming us, and the support that you get, really picks you up. You could be very wet and tired, sore, but you’re meeting local families, and they’re there thanking you for the effort.” O’Riordan proposes that the finish is the highlight, but perhaps not for exhaustion reasons. “Patrick’s Hill is an iconic location, you’ve done another tour, been through all the hardship, and for the big crowd and the Barrack Street Band to be there, it’s an unreal experience.”

For Rose Murphy, the benefits of the Tour de Munster and its fundraising drives are more keenly felt: her nephew Finn avails of the local services of Down Syndrome Ireland, and the impact that its local activities have had for her and others’ families and friends is profound. The collaboration of businesses and community organisations to support Down Syndrome Ireland, meanwhile, has meant the expansion of its services in many areas. “The Down Syndrome centre in Cork is very involved in bringing their members along, and one example that I can work from is Finn. He’s just turned nine, and he’s still in mainstream school. His speech wasn’t great, but because of the services of the Down Syndrome centre… they offer half-price speech and language classes in Centre 21, and my sister and brother in law avail of that every two weeks. I’ve gone to the service with Finn and the words are just flowing out of him. They have to take credit for that and right away I can see where my fundraising is going. It’s very hard to keep going back, asking for money, but when they meet Finn and see how he’s progressed, and that’s one-hundred percent Centre 21.”

While it’s important to muck in with Down Syndrome Ireland by supporting your local Tour de Munster fundraisers, those that need its assistance all year ‘round will tell you that there are plenty of ways to get involved with their centres, projects and facilities. “People can contribute in terms of sponsoring and cycling in Tour de Munster, and spreading the word. Other than that, there are projects like the Field of Dreams, next to the greyhound track, designed to provide activities, training and gainful employment for adults with Down Syndrome. It’s a huge horticultural project with a lot of effort put into it by Down Syndrome Cork, whereby we have a two-acre site, with training facilities, catering facilities and offices”, says Doherty. Polytunnels and raised beds, with a lot of people involved in the horticultural project there. People can volunteer there, whether it’s planting or weeding, and that’s a huge support as well.”

As the city centre’s commercial landscape continues to shift amid change and regeneration, the importance of charity to keeping local, Cork-owned businesses involved in the community cannot be underestimated. Social responsibility will be the key to maintaining ties to the city as change continues to make its way outwards over the coming years and decades, says Doherty. “I think it’s vital. Programmes like these vital because they raise the morale, they bring people together, and allows employees to identify with their industry. Like on the Field of Dreams, companies will sponsor their employees to go out and volunteer, doing a particular project, and at the end of the day they can see that they’ve worked hard and the produce they have at the end of the day. The company makes a contribution, the employees go back and talk to other employees. People like to see that there’s a social benefit and that it’s not just about the bottom line.”