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The City and the Writer: In Cork with Billy Ramsell

By Nathalie Handal

Special City Series: Ireland 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                              —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Cork as you feel/see it?

I detect newfound buoyancy and optimism, an expectation (hopefully not entirely misplaced) that maybe the economic wounds we’ve suffered over the past decade might finally be healing. 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I’m lucky in that in I’ve seen nothing here that would count as heartbreaking on a European scale. This is a relatively safe and stable place, one nestled in a minor stable democracy on the very edge of the Eurasian landmass, far from its “bloodlands” and contested zones.  The most recent major armed conflict in the city and its surrounds was that against British occupation in 1920–22. 

Of course in recent years I’ve seen the heartbreaking effects of economic recession: viable businesses closing for no good reason, emigration, poorer citizens unable to access proper housing and medical care. But many people from those aforementioned “bloodlands” would give anything to live in a place like this.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most of the city?

There’s a mini-weir or waterfall under South Gate Bridge, by one side of the old Beamish and Crawford brewery. It’s a kind of breakwater thing where the river flares and foams, sometimes into a wedding-dress white, sometimes a murderous-looking fawn shade, before settling abruptly into flawless blackness.  I love that. My grandmother used to live right by there and my aunt still does. It’s a geographical feature that rarely seems to come up in conversation.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

I’ll confine myself to two names: Frank O’Connor (1903–66) and Patrick Galvin (1927–2011). O’Connor is best known for his short stories. I think everyone should read “Guests of the Nation” and “My Oedipus Complex.” Galvin is probably best known as a poet, though he also wrote fiction, plays, and songs. I think both capture the city’s essence in their writings. But both also had extraordinary lives beyond Cork and indeed beyond literature itself.    

Is there a place here you return to often?

I run most days through or past FitzGerald’s park. It’s a public amenity that’s always felt somehow very “English” to me; manicured, cultivated, Victorian. Perhaps it’s a reminder that for centuries the city was very much an outpost and bastion of Empire.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Would it be too stereotypically Irish of me to mention a pub?  The Long Valley bar on Winthrop Street has literary associations that go back through several generations literary scene. The Ó Bhéal poetry readings take place there every Monday evening.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

There are indeed. One that’s always intrigued me is the old docklands area. It’s kind of redundant now as most cargo is processed through a newfangled facility at Tivoli, a few kilometers downriver.  But the old docklands still idle on their inaccessible rectangle of real estate; full of silent towers and beautifully industrial oblong edifices.

Where does passion live here?

I have to mention Páirc Uí Chaoimh, the local stadium for Gaelic games. It’s filthy, gray, dilapidated, and soon to be demolished. The final championship game to be played there took place last July was an extraordinarily passionate occasion. Cork versus Limerick. We won. 

What is the title of one of your works about Cork and what inspired it exactly?

My first published poem is called “An Otter” and it was inspired by a story I heard from a beautiful woman in a pub a long time ago. She’d seen two otters in the city center on Christmas Day when the streets were at their stillest. An eerie and utterly unlikely sighting. Her tale stayed with me.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Cork does an outside exist?”

To be honest, for Cork people there’s barely an “outside Cork” to begin with.  Despite (or perhaps because of) the city’s manifest insignificance, we feel that it’s somehow the world’s only “real” location. Everywhere that’s not Cork—the Amazon rainforest, the Sydney Opera House—merely exists in a grim kind of half-life. This is an attitude our fellow Irish people seem to find amusing and irritating in about equal measure.


Billy Ramsell was born in Cork in 1977, and educated at the North Monastery and UCC. He held the Chair of Ireland Bursary for 2013, edits the Irish section of the Poetry International website, and has read his work at festivals and literary events around the world. He has published two collections with Dedalus Press: Complicated Pleasures (2007) and The Architect’s Dream of Winter (2013), which was shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award. He lives in Cork where he co-runs an educational publishing company. 

Published Mar 24, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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