Tom Spalding: River Lee



Tom Spalding: River Lee


Life History; Immigration; Childhood; River Lee; Cork Exhibition


Tom is the author of several books on design history relating to Cork City such as “Cork City: A Field Guide To Its Street Furniture and “Layers”.

Tom speaks about how he was born in England and came to live in Cork aged seven when his father got a job in the Chemistry Department of UCC. About growing up in Rochestown Road in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. About the lack of facilities there, description of a tin shack shop ran by an elderly lady which is no longer there. Description of the River Lee and the Douglas Estuary. The disused Blackrock Railway line and the metal pedestrian bridge which at the time was semi derelict. About mullet that swam in the estuary and his fathers attempts to fish for them from the pedestrian bridge in the belief that they were sea bass. About early years in Cork growing up in a number of half finished housing estates in Bishopstown and Rochestown and his father using discarded building materials to build sheds etc. He speaks about his fathers work in Leeds and Sussex universities before they moved to Cork and he describes a period of his young childhood when his father got a job in Ahmadu Bello University which is located in Zaria in Northern Nigeria and the family moving there. Tom’s description of the mainly western enclave they lived in, of picking up some phrases of the local language Hausa and of a prank where himself and some other boys set fire to the bush.

He speaks of the difficulties he had in learning Irish in primary school in Cork and how in later years he came to appreciate the language and adds his thoughts on how the language is thought and its future.

Tom speaks about the relationship Cork City has with the river Lee. About the mainly working class anglers you would see fishing near the Shaky Bridge aka Daly’s Bridge. About canoeing and boating on the river. The history of river ferries on the River Lee and one that was still running up to the 1980’s bringing GAA fans across the river from the Ferryboat Inn on Lower Glanmire Road across to the Marina. On the proposed Cork City flood defence walls and his thoughts on it and alternative options and the Save Cork City movement. Of the negative relationship Cork City has with the River Lee and comparisons with that of other cities. He speaks of the Cork Main Drainage project and how it has improved water quality in the City. About how sewage and effluent from farming would flow into the river. Of the killer whales that entered Cork Harbour and swam up the River Lee in 2001. He speaks about the group Meitheal Mara who sail currachs on the river Lee. He talks about the O Flynn brothers who were the last of the traditional salmon fishermen in the Lee and how their boats could be seen on the quayside by the Trinity Bridge.

He speaks of the Cork Exhibition of 1902/03 and water based attractions such as the giant waterslide which was located on the riverside by Fitzgerald’s Park. About the huge rowing regatta which attracted record crowds and the general growth in popularity of water based activity during the Edwardian era.


1 September 2017




Cork; Ireland; Rochestown; England; Nigeria; 1970s - 2000s


Other Interviews with Tom Spalding:



Cork Folklore Project Audio Archive


Cork Folklore Project










98m 27s



Original Format


Bit Rate/Frequency

24bit / 48kHz


The following is a short extract from the interview transcript, copyright of the Cork Folklore Project. If you wish to access further archival material please contact CFP,

KM: I suppose we've talked a lot about the river and the urban setting. Do you have any experience or knowledge of the rest of the river and it's source?

TS: I used to canoe quite a lot on the Lee, twenty odd years ago. Myself and a friend from work after work, we'd take my canoe and we'd pick a bit of the river and we'd canoe it from the weir above the bridge near the Ballincollig regional park, Inniscara, near the Inniscara Bar or whatever it's called. We'd canoe that area between those two weirs. We canoed from Ballincollig down to the city. We canoed on the lake in Inniscara, the resevoir. One time I canoed from, and it's not the Lee, but I canoed from Bandon to Kinsale on the Bandon river. And you get a totally different view of the journey. Sometimes the river runs close to the road and it's noisy and loud, and then you go around a bend, you go a hundred yards from the road you hear the birds singing, you see the kingfishers and stuff. You're in a different country really. If you canoe down the Lee from the Anglers Rest into town there's a point at which you see the County Hall. And it's just sticking out of the trees. You can't see any other buildings, you just see the County Hall and it's staggering, just shimmering there in the sunshine. You know then as you get close you start seeing the old mental hospital and waterworks and other parts of the city. It's a great way of coming into Cork, by far the nicest way to enter Cork is by river from the west. The problem in terms of canoeing is the river is actually pretty shallow there and a lot of the time you're walking, carrying the bloody canoe. Especially in the summer time, spots might only be four or five inches deep, rippling over the stones. So unless you find a perfect path through. We capsized plenty of times as well. But by the time you're kind of down the Straight Road, that area, it's a different river. It's very gentle and deep, it's great. But the Kingfishers are just amazing, amazing things to see.

KM: What is it about them?

TS: They seem much bigger than they really are. They're only about the size of a robin, so they're eight or nine centimetres long. But because they're electric blue and they move so quickly, they appear to be the size of a crow or something. You see this bluey orange dart. They can be sitting on a branch for god knows how long and you never spot them, even though they are bright blue. But when they move you just see this bullet of iradescent blue. You don't forget it, it's just really nice. So that'll be my experience, swiming at the Angler's Rest when I was a kid and canoeing up and down. At the time anyway, the river near Ballincollig was pretty stinky. I'm still not sure whether Ballincollig has anymore than primary sewage treatment. As far as I know that's taking the lumps out with a big net. I think they take the lumps out and apart from that it just goes straight in the river. And when you go through Ballincollig there's a definite kind of cloudiness to the water and a smell. And that would kind of put you off. But you go further down and it gets a bit diluted so it's not so bad, but just especially in the Ballincollig area it used to be really stinky.

KM: And would you feel safe or would you feel any sense of danger when you're swimming or canoeing in the river?

TS: No. I'm quite confident, probably overconfident on the water. We had lifejackets. If you capsize often enough in a canoe you'd kind of know what's coming next. You get to 'Here we go. Don't let go of the paddle.' That's the golden rule and then you're snookered. You can't make yourself go anywhere.

Time Summary

0.00.02 - 0.03.34

Introduction by Kieran establishing that this interview is part of the Lowell Project on the subject of the River Lee. Tom starts with a bit of his background stating that he was born in England and he moved to Cork at the age of seven when his father got a job in the Chemistry Department of UCC (University College Cork). Tom went to primary and secondary school in Cork and then went on to Dublin to do a post grad and worked in London for about five years. He returned to Cork in 1998 and has been here ever since. Since he came back he has lived on the Northside. As a child in Cork he grew up in Rochestown in what he terms suburbia. He didn’t like suburbia and prefers the living in the City. When asked what he didn’t like about suburbia he says he was a long way away from all his friend houses for starters. He adds that his mother didn’t drive and they didn’t have a car so it was quite isolating. He says the Summer holidays seemed very long and growing up as a teenager there seemed very little to do locally. He would cycle into town to meet his friends or take the bus sometimes. He speaks of the lack of facilities and adds that there wasn’t even a shop on the Rochestown Road when he was living there. He says there was a little old lady who had a store located just on the bend near where the Rochestown Park Hotel is now. He describes this store as a little corrugated iron shack and she sold Majors cigarettes, bread and milk. He says they thought she was a little old hag but he says she was probably a lovely lady. He says this lady and her tin shack were the shopping facilities between Rochestown and Douglas at the time. He jokes that he didn’t need Majors or milk or bread. He adds that she was kind of scary. He adds when she died the shop was demolished and a housing estate was built on her land. Then the Douglas Court Shopping Centre was built in the mid 80’s. Before that there very little around he says. When asked by Kieran what he would have hoped for locally he says a playground would have been good as there wasn’t one locally. He says there was nowhere to cycle your bike apart from the housing estate which was all cul de sacs. He says as a teenager there was always a sense that there was nothing to do, he adds that a lot of that would be your own state of mind. There as no cinema or thing that would attract a teenager he says.

0.03.35 - 0.07.26

When asked could he see the rural River Lee from where he was in Rochestown Tom says they could see it. He says when they moved there in circa 1978/79 the following Summer his mother was dying to take them out for a daytrip as they didn’t have a car. From where they were living all that first Winter they were able to see the Douglas Estuary and in a certain light it looked sandy which he adds is not impossible for a river. The following Summer his mother decided they would go to the beach, she thought they could walk there. So they walked down the hill with buckets and spades etc. They went down a little farm track which was located near where the Bloomfield Interchange is now and where St Patricks Catholic Church on Rochestown Road now stands. (Note: St Patricks Church was built in 1991). Down that lane there was a farm.  They hopped over a couple of hedges heading towards the river thinking that there would be a lovely beach. He says when they got there they found it was not a beach but a mud flat.  Tom and his brother ran into the mud and he was they were black from the thick smelly mud. He says his mother was upset because she had planned the day out for them and it hadn’t quite worked out as she had planned. Tom says you could see the tide coming in and out. He says you could see across the river to Little Island and Tivoli Docks so he says this was one of the better things.

He speaks of the disused railway line that is now a walkway and which ran out to Blackrock over the estuary. (Note: this is the Blackrock/Mahon walk which follows the old Blackrock railway line). Tom says this was all overgrown and virtually impassable in the late 70’s. He says it was only really made accessible in the early 1980’s maybe 1984/85 or 86. He remembers using it to cycle to school around that time. It was basically a barren track at first. He speaks of the old red painted steel bridge that runs over the Douglas River and that has girders on it. Tom says at that stage the bridge had no decking, just girders so you could cross the Douglas River at that stage but you would have to be very careful putting one foot in front of the other walking along the girders which he likens to a tightrope walk. He says not many people did this but a few tried it. Tom says he never did this himself. He says his father had what he says was a brilliant idea. His father looked in the river and saw what he thought were sea bass and Tom says no one in Cork ate sea bass in the late 1970’s. Tom says these were probably grey mullet. His father got it into his head that they were sea bass so he got a mackerel trace with five hooks on it on a line. He climbed out onto the red steel bridge and dropped the trace which he weighed with a lead weight off the bridge into the low tide and then tied it at the top. His idea was that he would go off and come back at his tide and then come back and pluck the fish off the trace. However he forgot about it for a week and came back and there was no sign of the trace so Tom says either the weight of the fish had pulled it into the water or someone coming along had spotted it and took the fish and line for themselves. He says his father didn’t try this again.

0.07.27 - 0.12.15

In answer to the question did his father do stuff like this all the time Tom says not usually but he would sometimes get notions. Tom says they grew up in what could be called a ghost estate these days but it wasn’t called that then. The name of the estate was Rochestown Rise and it is still there. He says they needed a shed so his father picked up small windows for the shed from the building site. He say the estate was a bit of a shambles as it was built over the period of fifteen or twenty years over various booms and busts of the Irish building industry and it was built by several different developers who would build a few houses and then go bust and then another developer would go in and build a few more and then go bust and so on. He says all the houses are different and he quips that they are “all uniformly crap”. He says that there would always be things like bits of  wood, concrete blocks, bags of nails, bits of glass etc lying around when Tom was young so they would make things like treehouses, dens and carts etc. Tom’s father decided to build a shed rather than buy one so he scavenged materials from the building site and built his own shed.

Tom says his parents are not from Cork. His father is from Kingston in Surrey, England and his mother is from St Albans in Hertfordshire. He says they have no Irish blood at all which he says is unusual as many British people have an Irish granny somewhere down the line.  He says they came because they were unemployed, his father’s contract in Leeds University had come to an end and he saw the job in Cork advertised, he applied for the job and he got it and they moved to Cork. Previously he had worked in the University Of Sussex and he had also worked in Ahmadu Bello University which is located in Zaria in Northern Nigeria and Tom lived there with his family for three years. He says these were all short term contracts which are still the model today. Tom says his father was lecturing chemistry. When asked does he have any memories of Nigeria he says he has loads of memories. One memory is when they tried to set fire to the bush; he and his friend where they lived in an ex pat community. He says this community was outside Zaria but it was not a gated community like the ones they would have now which would have armed guard etc. He says most of the residents were American, British, Dutch, French, German’s etc. He says there were just a few African families who would be well to do. He adds that the only family who had a colour television was one of the Nigerian families. Tom says the father of this family was nicknamed the Nigerian Prince, He doesn’t know who he was but he could afford a house in this community and colour television. Tom goes on to say himself and some friends decided to steal some matches and they went into their house (the friends family’s house?) and they waited till the cook had left then they sneaked in and took and the matches from the kitchen drawer, closed it and ran out.  They then went out into the fields and he adds that the estate where they lived was some distance from a railway line which unfenced so you could walk right up to the line. Tom goes into detail about how in the dry season it doesn’t rain much and its 40 degrees centigrade every day and no clouds. They were lighting matches and setting bushes on fire and were quite happy with this for a while until one bush went up in a very large fire. They reacted to this by running away and he says for all he knew they could have burned thousands of acres but he doesn’t know what happened next. They got in trouble for stealing the matches in the end. He says you remember this kind of stuff.


0.12.16 - 0.18.40

Tom says he didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what Cork would be like before he came here. Living in Nigeria he didn’t know any Irish people. He says in primary school his teacher Ms Crowther got the pupils to write him going away cards before he moved and most of the children spelled Ireland as Island. His knowledge of geography when he was seven was that Britain looked like a potter with a turban on and Ireland looked like a teddy bear. He says he never thought of Ireland or had any connections there before they moved there. He says he would have to check with his parents but he doesn’t think they had any pre conceived ideas about Cork. He adds that his father had been over to Ireland on a cycling holiday in the 1960’s around West Cork, Connemara and Kerry touring around. He thinks his mother hadn’t been over here before they moved.

When asked about his first impressions of Cork he says they at first lived in Bishopstown in an estate called Don’s Court which is still there. He advises to never buy a house in Dons Court as it’s built on a bog. He says that Winter of 1978 was very damp and cold. He remembers that it was another ghost estate, the roads weren’t paved and there was no street lighting. He says there were ruts in the road and when they froze over they would have ice in them and he would break the ice. He remembers finding a hypodermic syringe in the ghost estate. He says that unlike nowadays this ghost estate had a night watchman. He doesn’t was paying for him but he had a little sentry box and he was supposed to keep away the element. He adds that he obviously wasn’t doing that great a job. He describes it a really “manky” place. He says the houses were new but they were all covered in mildew and mould and cracks in the wall and it was pretty grim. His parents said the rent was very expensive, he thinks it was 250 or 500 pounds a month. He says the landlord was Pearse Wyse who was a local Fianna Fail politician. Tom says Pearse would arrive every now and again or else one of his “minions” and Tom says Pearse Wyse would be driving a gold coloured Rolls Royce. He describes it as like something out of a comedy sketch.  He says they were living in what he describes as a “piece of shit” house in a ghost estate. He adds that he is sure he was a lovely man in case anyone’s listening (Note: Pearse Wyse died in 2009).  

Another early memory of Cork is starting school and trying to learn Irish. He decided then that he didn’t want to learn Irish as to him it was a foreign language. He went to school in St Finbars National School in Gilabbey St. When they then moved to Rochestown he went to St Lukes National School in Douglas but he never got much further in Irish. When asked how long did it take for him to turn against it he quips probably fifteen minutes? He says it wasn’t the fault of the teacher. The teacher told the class they were going to be doing gaeilge and he didn’t know what she was talking about and he didn’t know what she was talking about but he decided he would engage with it. The teacher started the class doing an exercise and came around to Tom. She asked him if he knew anything about Irish.  He asked the teacher what was the Irish for yes and she said that there isn’t really an Irish word for yes. He then asked what the Irish for no is and she said that there isn’t really a word for that either. He remembers thinking how is he ever going to cope with this language. He says the shutters came down from that minute and they didn’t really go up again for about ten years. He says he is much more positive about Irish now. He says he sees the beauty in it now and tries to encourage his children to engage with it. When he was a child he was coming from Nigeria where everyone spoke at least two languages and in some cases three. He says you would have English, also Hausa which is one of the major language groups and then they might speak a tribal language. He says in Nigeria they had servants in the house. They came with the house and when they started renting it the servants turned up for work. Tom says that according to his mother he became fairly fluent in Hausa when he was living there. He still has one expression “Sannu da aikî” which means greetings at your work. He says it is a formal greeting. He was used to the idea of bilingualism and he says when he came to Ireland everyone spoke English so he was trying to learn this language that nobody spoke on a day to day basis and he thought at the age of seven that there was no point to it though he does see the point of it now.

0.18.42 - 0.22.05

When asked what caused him to change his mind he says he had the luxury of giving up Irish after the Enter Cert so he had compulsory Irish from the age of eight to the age of fourteen. When it was no longer compulsory he says he became much more open to it. He says his attitude really changed in the last five years when he started writing his book Layers (Layers: the design, history and meaning of public street signage in Cork and other Irish cities). He was writing on the subject of street signage and street names in Cork and he says a lot of that goes back to the Irish language. He says as part of this he interviewed Eamon Langford who has links with Cape Clear. Tom says he opened his eyes (to the Irish language).  Tom then found a book by Séamus Ó Coigligh called Sráidainmneacha na hÉireann. This book was about street names in Irish and there was a chapter on street names in Cork which Tom got translated from Irish. Since then he’s been much more well disposed towards the Irish language. His children do Irish in school and that has changed his attitude too. He says historically speaking the introduction of mandatory learning of Irish in the state in 1926 has done very little to prevent the decline of the language whereas in Northern Ireland where it is optional the language is going quite strong. He says there are Unionist communities picking it up as well as Nationalist. He says in that case it is something you do because you love it and there is a point for the removal of the mandatory rule. He says that Douglas Hyde said in 1918 when the Gaelic League was banned by the British that it was the best thing that ever happened to it. He says ten years before that membership had collapsed. When the British banned it it became subversive and membership shot up again. He jokes that they should do the same with Irish to increase its popularity.   

0.22.06 - 0.27.13

Kieran asks Tom if he ever saw anyone else fishing at the spot where his father had tried it and Tom says not on that stretch. He says it’s probably because it’s marshy and tidal. There aren’t many spots where you can to the river. He mentions Hartys Quay as a place where you can get to the river which is by the Rochestown Inn. He says Mahon Peninsula wasn’t accessible as there wasn’t a walkway or paths then. He says also its mostly grey mullet in the water around there. As grey mullet is a bottom feeder it tastes like fishy mud and it doesn’t have a sweet flavour. He says all you could do with it is stew or curry it. He says this sis a reason why many people would not go fishing for it. He says he ate it once in France, he adds the French will eat anything. He went to the aquarium in La Rochelle and the tanks had information explaining where the grey mullet is found, its eating habits and saying it was delicious etc. He says there were tasting tips on all the fish in the tanks. He adds that he’d be willing to eat it but it’s not a fine food. He adds that he sees a lot of Eastern Europeans fishing here for fish that the Irish won’t eat such as carp or roach. They especially love carp which is another bottom feeder. He says that even they don’t go after the grey mullet so he says maybe it’s just the French.

 When asked where does he normally see people fishing these days he says he lives in Sundays Well so he would see people fishing around the Shakey Bridge.  On the North Mall you would see people fishing. Also he sees a lot of people fishing along the Weir by the Old Cork Waterworks on the Lee Road. It always amazes him how popular it is. He says it’s very much a working class thing with people in the city. He often chats to people and asks what they’ve caught etc. He says they always have strong working class accents, he says not once has he spoken to someone who sounds like they might come from Rochestown Road. He says it is young and old, you would see young lads skiving off school etc. He adds that he’s only seen a woman or girl once or twice. It’s nearly always males he says. He says it’s great that they have that connection because threes a perception that working class or city people don’t care about the environment. He adds that these people would have their fishing gear but they wouldn’t have waders or fishing clothing but hoodies etc. They would be smoking cigarettes and chatting away while fly fishing by the Shaky Bridge. He looked at them and realised that if you took away their fishing rods and left them with their hoodies and smoking their fags people might think they are dodgy characters loitering but put a rod in their hand and they look like sportsmen. They are them a man of leisure and in touch with nature. He jokes that they might not be that but that is the impression. He also says give a couple of fellows out wandering a dog and they are respectable members of the community. He says without the dog they might look like trouble.

0.27.15 - 0.33.10

He agrees that the river Lee is an important resource. It is hugely important for a lot of people. People fishing on the Lee are engaging with it directly. He says walking through Fitzgerald’s Park on the Friday before the interview he saw an otter directly below the Shaky Bridge. He says he has also seen seals and herons and water birds there as well. He says it is amazing to see such wildlife more or less in the centre of town. He says it is a great privilege and there is no entry fee, you need just go down the river and see coots and moorhens, ducks and geese and otter. He says you can see the grey mullet still but not as much. Tom asks Kieran if he remembers the killer whales which swam up the River Lee about ten to fifteen years ago. (Note: He is referring to when three killer whales entered Cork Harbour and swam upstream in the Summer of 2001). Kieran remembers them being spoken of. Tom says that the Summer before the killer whale river the river Lee was black with mullet. He says that there were so may you could have walked from one side of the river to the next on them. He says there were shoals of hundreds silvery grey fish. After the killer whales there were virtually none. He says they “hoovered them up” ie they ate a great many of the mullet. He says since then its taken years for the population to slowly grow back. Tom says he thinks it was the year 2000 that the whales came. He says they hung around City Hall for a week. He says they demolished the mullet. He says he thinks there were four or five killer whales. He says that after they left one of the older females was found dead. There was a theory that the female had become ill and the pod decided to come into the Harbour to let the female recuperate and to feed. He says there are photographs of the killer whales outside the City Hall which is something you don’t see everyday. Tom says he missed the whales as he thinks he might have been in America at the time. He was doing a lot of work in the States at the time he says.

Tom speaks about the Shakey Bridge. He says the name is well known as it shakes. He says he has written elsewhere that he thought that someone had tried to stiffen it to take the shake out of it fifteen to twenty years ago but he has looked at it again and they didn’t. What they did was they installed lighting on the bridge around the time of the Millennium as part of a project to put lighting on all the bridges. He states that if you have a copy of Tom’s book Corks Twentieth Century Architecture the bit about Daly’s Bridge aka the Shakey Bridge is not true. He says it has become a tourist thing to come and make the bridge shake by jumping on it. He says that he was young the bridge would automatically shake itself when you walked across it. He sees Americans on the bridge saying they must shake the bridge and likens it to kissing the Blarney Stone. He says he doesn’t mind the bouncing up and down on it so much but he says sometimes kids swing from side to side on it. He says when they do that his feeling isn’t so pleasant and you do hear it banging away. He says there is quite a lot of corrosion on the bridge at present so he adds that this is something the Council should look into. He says the building of the bridge was paid for by a man called Daly who lived in Sundays Well (James Daly). Tom says his family were in the soft drinks business and manufactured Tanora. (Note: the company was John Daly & Co and they manufactured Tanora). Tom says it took a while to sort out the building of the bridge because there was a ferry house on the site. He says the ruins of the ferry house can still be seen just beside the north buttress of the bridge. Tom says the ferryman and his family relied upon the ferry that ran across to the Southside for their income which they had legal right to. The legal rights had to be bought before the bridge could be built. That was in 1926. Tom says the bridge was designed by City Manager Stephen Farrington. It was built in Westminster London and then brought to Cork where it was assembled like a big mechano set and he says it’s been shaking ever since.

0.33.1 0 - 0.36.25

Kieran asks Tom if there were many similar ferry points on the river Lee before bridges were built. Tom says there were ferry points up to quite recently. He mentions a pub on the corner of the Lower Glanmire Road called the Ferryboat Inn just before you get to Water Street there was a quay and a ferryman would row people across the river from there to the other side so they could get to Pairc Ui Caoimh on the occasions of GAA matches. Tom says the man running this was operating it right up to the 1980s and possibly the early 90’s. He says it was not an official ferry and there were question marks over how safe the small boat was but he adds no one ever came to any harm. He would have been the last of the ferrymen. Tom speaks about another ferry that went across the river where the Shandon pedestrian bridge is located now on Popes Quay, he says that this stopped in the 19’th century. He says maybe after they built the new Patricks Bridge in the 1850’s. To illustrate this point he says in 1861 there was a ferry crossing on the Northside of the river at the North Gate and there was a crossing at the site of Patricks Bridge and there was nothing in between. There was no Christy Ring Bridge, no pedestrian bridge. He says between the two it was about the third of a mile so it necessitated the ferry service especially for people going to mass in St Marys Church on Popes Quay or if someone was living in Shandon and wanted to go to town there was the little ferry that would take them there. He says he is not aware of any ferries on the south branch of the Lee but he is in doubt that there were ones operating. He doesn’t know if there was a ferry between Blackrock and Tivoli but he says there must have been one.

Kieran returns the talk to the more recent ferry boat operator on the Lower Glanmire Road. Tom says he would have gone as far as the electricity power station and he would not have gone as far as Blackrock. Tom has a feeling from his memory that this boat was a fourteen or sixteen foot rowing boat punt. That is the image he has in his head of it. He wasn’t in the boat itself. He remembers hearing about it and seeing it from the Lower Glanmire Road when he thinks they were driving into town on a Sunday and the name of the pub the Ferryboat Inn made him put two and two together.  

0.36.26 - 0.43.23

When asked did he ever swim in the river Tom says he didn’t swim in the City but he did swim up by the Anglers Rest pub in Carrigohane when he was young. He describes a track which is across the road from the Anglers Rest and runs along the river Lee and there’s a very sharp bend of the river about a quarter of a mile on and there is a broad pool with a pebbly beach. He says this was safe as the water was slow enough and warm enough but he says he’s not quite prepared to swim in the City Centre. He does say that the water is a lot cleaner now than it was when he was young. He says that every Summer when he was young the river would turn the colour of green snot. It would be an opaque colour and you wouldn’t be able to see the bottom of the river. Every year the City Council would say it was not the sewage but it was the fault of the IFA and the farmers (through farm effluent and silage) and the farmers in turn would say it’s nothing to do with them but the fault of the sewage. He says this argument went on for twenty years and the river stank. He talks about the song The Boys Of Fairhill and the line that goes “how does Fr Matthew Stick it?” and he says this was true to life regarding the smell. He says in the late 1990s Cork Corporation implemented the EU’s Water Directive to clean up the river and began the Cork Main Drainage scheme to pump the waste material out to Little Island. He says it’s a lot better than it used to be.

In answer to the question of did the pool where they swam by the Anglers Rest have a name he says he didn’t have a name for it. He is sure there was a name for it but he can’t think of the name off the top of his head. He says he would go there with the children of a family who were friends of his parents from Ballincollig and he says they might know its local name.

Talk returns to the anglers on the Lee whom Tom would speak to. When asked would they catch much Tom says they would always be very cagy about what they caught. If it was a trout or something similar they might tell you but if they caught a salmon they wouldn’t as the salmon are protected and you are supposed to have tags and you get a certain amount of tags every year which you are supposed to display. (Note: this refers to the license for Salmon fishing). He jokes that usually they say they caught noting even though there might be a bag that obviously has a fish in it. He says as well if they’re fishing they don’t want everyone to know there’s salmon there as that would be their spot.

Tom says that the relationship between the City and the river is poor. He says we ignore it and till the late 90’s it was treated as an open sewer. He says it is still like a sewer in places and if you go down the river at low tide you can see raw sewage coming into the river in places though he says it is nothing like what it used to be. He says as an example on the Western Road there are a series of semi detached houses called St Finbar’s Place just before you get to the gates of UCC on the Southside of the road. (Note: St Finbar’s Place is on the opposite side of the road). He says those houses back onto the Lee and nearby what he describes as “big ugly apartments” nearby where the petrol station used to be. Tom says if you look at an old ordinance survey map of this area you can see there was an old outdoor swimming area on that part of the river. He says it was segregated and there was a men’s and a women’s area. That was south facing and a natural place for swimming he says and it is all gone now he says. He goes on to say that if you go to the other side of the river on O Donovan’s Road the houses along there have put big fences up so they don’t see the river or engage with it. In different countries people would have different attitudes to the river he says. He speaks about the town of Bamberg in Bavaria where they have rows of houses backing out onto the river and people would have a jetty or flowerbeds or a willow tree planted and people will have appropriated the river for their garden. He says it is the same along the Surrey reaches of the Thames it is considered prestigious to have a riverside home but here in Cork it is the opposite, we box it up and try to pretend it isn’t there and throw rubbish into it from behind the hedge. Tom say several of the houses which he was speaking about seem to have been bought by the same person and they have covered about a quarter of an acre in tarmac covering the gardens and built concrete walls facing the river. He says this is a dysfunctional relationship with the river. He says this is turning your back on the river. He says all these houses face the main road, he asks what is so great about the Western Road and says he would have it facing the river. He says we see the river as a threat and a source of problems, we don’t see it as a source of income or recreation. He says more power to the fellows who go fishing and those who go kayaking on the river as they are a tiny minority.

0.43.24 - 0.50.24

Continuing on this theme he says many people in Cork would be glad to see the river filled in. When asked by Kieran why this is he says he doesn’t know. He says attitudes are learnt. He says we need to educate ourselves to see it in a different way. He says it is hard to get that discussion going. He goes on to speak further about the long term relationship of the river with Cork. He compares it with that of Dublin which is often said to not have a great relationship with the river but he says in comparison most of the major buildings do face out onto the river and they seem to engage with it more. He speaks of the major buildings in Cork that do face the river such as City Hall and the Savings Bank on Lapps Quay and a few more. Quite a lot of Corks buildings turn their back on the river. He says a lot of buildings in Cork turn their back on the river and as an example he speaks of the quayside that runs from Lavitt’s Quay and takes in the Coal Quay and Bachelors Quay and Kyrl’s Quay.  He speaks of “the monstrosity” Dunne’s Stores car park and he describes its designer Bertie Pope as “the world’s worst architect”. He says none of this is capitalising on the river and he says he speaks about the fact that Cork City Council built a four lane dual carriageway running from Merchants Quay to Bachelors Quay and how this has messed yup any chance to make further use of the river along there. He ponders on why this decision was made and if anyone in the Council voiced the opinion that better use could have been made of the river.

Kieran asks as to whether there is a tension between transport infrastructure and the river. Tom says there is always going to be this tension as in Cork you have two main branches of the river and the island in the middle getting ion and out of the City is a problem and building more bridges is sometimes necessary. He says sometimes these can be beautiful and add to the City but they can also totally “banjax” areas of the City. He says as an example the De Valera and Collins bridges which run from Penrose Quay across to Lapps Quay and on to Albert Quay which were built in the mid to late 1980’s and carry the main Cork to Dublin Road. He says this lane of traffic has cut off and killed the Customs House and its surroundings. He talks about the fact that this building has changed hands and the plans to build a skyscraper at the end of the island it is on. A lot of people would like to see a cultural centre of some sort similar to Covent Garden in London which developed a former industrial centre. Tom says the Customs House area would be ideal and the light is fantastic and the views are great. However he says as it is cut off from the rest of the City by a national road he says it is hard to see how this could be made to work unless you build underpasses and overpasses etc. He speaks about the decision to build the two bridges thirty years ago and says in retrospect it would have been better to go down river and built a large bridge perhaps with a lifting mechanism. He says this would have been a bit more expensive in the short term. He says this could have gone across from Railway Street To Kennedy Quay and left the island as it was. He says then it would have been much easier to include the Customs House area in the City centre. He uses this analogy to illustrate how these bridges are needed but if they are ill thought out or badly located they screw up an area forever as he says no one is going to agree to demolishing these two bridges and starting again. He speaks about a proposed pedestrian bridge going across from Parnell Place to Patricks Quay but he says this has been talked about for ten years and it is something that developers dangle every now and again and is then forgotten. He say there is even talk of a second pedestrian bridge linking the bottom of Grand Parade with Sullivan’s Quay which he says is a stupid idea considering Nano Nagle Bridge is nearby. He says the proposed Parnell Place to Patricks Quay bridge would be a very good idea as it would really help McCurtain St. He says McCurtain St should be a main shopping St but is all taken up with taxi cabs and burger joints. He says this bridge would balance things around.

0.50.25 - 1.00.40

Kieran asks the Tom the hypothetical question of what he would do if he had the power to pull all the levers such as what he would change about the Lee if he had the power to do so. Tom says peoples attitudes are the hardest thing to change. He says it’s not just a Cork City thing and if you go canoeing down any river in Ireland you will see farmers throwing old gates, cars etc into the river. He says outside town’s people throw plastic bags of rubbish into the river and these attitudes are hard to change. He goes on to speak more on peoples attitudes to the river and convince them they are not dangerous and smelly. He jokes if he was a benevolent dictator that would be easy. On asked what are the threats that people see from the river he says the biggest threat are the plans to build walls high walls along stretches of the river in the city. (Note: this refers to The Lower Lee (Cork City) Flood Relief Scheme). This refers to the “St Finbars Place mentality” of not wanting to see the river. Once the river disappears behind the walls our poor relationship with it will be even worse. He goes on to speak about the negative effects of the proposed plan. He describes the way its been handled a s a total mess as its being treated as a drainage plan and not treated as  piece of urban design. He says it’s being designed by civil engineers who know about flooding and drainage. He says there what he calls a couple of nasty things about it that have only become apparent to him recently. One would be trying to prevent upstream flooding. He says they describe the River Lee as flashy” as in it’s prone to flash flooding from water running off farmland etc. Tom says it would be possible to speak to landowners etc and try to get them to prevent the flashing. However he says they are a powerful lobby group and the OPW do not want to take them on and have put it up to the citizens of Cork. He says it is easier to go head to head with citizens who have a poor relationship with the river and no leadership than against powerful lobbies. He describes this as a quasi Stalinist system. The second thing is the idea of walling in the river some of which will be six foot high and he says some children will not be able to see the river. He compares it to Donald Trumps wall proposal to “keep out the baddies”. He says we are being sold the wall as a simple solution. He says what the OPW is not telling people is that no city in the world has done this before and it is not tried and tested. He says it is experimental and costly and there is no guarantee that it will work. He says for this wall to work every sluice and culvert and sewer would have to be found and sealed and the chances of this happening will be slim and the wall itself may fail. If the wall collapses it would lead to lack of life he says. He speaks of the Dutch and their methods of flood control and he says that they try to minimise the height of flood walls. He speaks of the government’s unwillingness to engage with the farming lobby. The other issue he raises is that of heritage and aesthetics. He speaks about the appreciation of heritage and craft but he says this is not a measurable argument to be put in place against the wall. He says we have to find other ways of fighting it.

1.00.43 - 1.09.24

Kieran asks if under an alternative plan we would have to accept limited folding in Cork. Tom says that most of the flooding in Cork is the regular flooding of the Oliver Plunkett St area and this is caused by high tides and easterly winds plus heavy rainfall. He says the proposed alternative plan by Save Cork City (the lobby group opposed to the OPW’s plan) would be for a tidal barrier in Lough Mahon. Save Cork City propose building this barrier across the mouth of Lough Mahon which Tom says would prevent high tides coming in and also provide capacity behind the barrier for flood waters coming down the barrier. He says it would be a case of closing the barrier when ever there is a flood warning and releasing the water as soon as possible afterwards. He thinks would stop nine tenths of the type of flooding we see in Cork, he said you would still get floods during once in a lifetime Hurricane Harvey type madness”. He goes on to say that a flood barrier is a tried and tested technology. When asked by Kieran where in Lough Mahon would the barrier Tom says he hadn’t been involved in the design but went to a presentation. He says the proposed tidal barrier would be located on the neck of Lough Mahon where it is narrowest from Fota Island across to Passage. He goes on to speak more about the possibility of flooding in Little Island and Hop Island and that needs to be addressed. He adds that the type of flooding that we see on Oliver Plunkett St and South Mall would be gone. Kieran asks if the barrier would disrupt shipping and Tom says the plan is to make a moving part of it that is almost always open. He speaks about the permission of Cork Port Authority to extend in Ringaskiddy so all the big deep water ships will be directed there instead of into the City apart from the Tivoli Container Port. He says this is also likely to close and everything to be moved down to Ringaskiddy.

Kieran asks Tom the question of where he thinks the Lee ends. Tom says he supposes it ends at the Customs House, the character of it is very different after that where it is quite broad and tidal and sluggish but this he says is quite an arbitrary. A general discussion on this topic follows and Tom talks about the top of the tide which is the limit of where the tide will reach on the riverside. Tom speaks about the tides on the Thames and how the tide comes in as far from Teddington which is ten miles from London Bride and twenty miles from the mouth of the river.  Comparisons with the Thames and the Lee are discussed. The tidal part of the Lee is quite short he says.

Kieran asks Tom if he got his way what would the buildings along the Lee look like or what kind of activities would he envisage. Tom says some architects are starting to take the river into consideration. He speaks of the River Lee Hotel on the Western Road as having a balcony that is well used though it is not directly facing onto the river. He also mentions the Glucksman Gallery on the grounds of UCC as a building that takes into account its surroundings. He say regarding the City Centre there aren’t many large sites available on the river so it’s hard to answer that question. He mentions the former Dunne’s Stores site on North Main St and says it is disused for the last year or two. He talks about the Dunne’s Stores multi storey car park as being used. He says there is a delivery apron 100 feet wide outside the multi storey car park and he says he would like to se this redeveloped as a plaza/ accommodation / retail mixed use site. He says this stretch of the road isn’t the busiest so there might be a chance to do something here. He says the other site along the river with potential is the site at the top of the Coal Quay near the pedestrian bridge that’s had planning on it for the last twelve years and it’s a natural place to integrate into the river. Along with the Customs House these are the obvious spots he says are right.

1.09.25 - 1.13.25

Kieran asks Tom about leisure and use of the river. Tom says you see canoe groups and Meitheal Mara (a community boat building group) using the river for a long time. He mentions the little marina that Port Of Cork built on Customs House Quay as a getting a lot of use which he says is brilliant. He speaks of the excitement when the Tall Ships come to Cork. He believes water based events like this as engaging people with the water. He says he would like to see someone do water based tours around the city, the tides mitigate against it but he says it might be possible for some enterprising person to take people on water tours.

Kieran asks Tom about the group Meitheal Mara and Tom say’s he is not involved in them, but he has friends who are. Meitheal Mara are involved he says in traditional boats and boat making and they run a workshop where they rebuild Curraghs and Ballaugh traditional Irish boats. He says they would get involved in things like the Ocean To City race and you would often see them training on the river. He says they would go up the river as far as Pres (Presentation Brothers College) he says there is a weir at Pres and it is harder to get up any further. Tom says that ironically there is no history of the kind of boats Meitheal Mara use being used on the river Lee so he describes it as an invented tradition.

The subject moves to the subject of raw sewage visible at low tide. Tom says it’s milky and has lumps in it, he says it is small amounts but it is constant. He says the Cork Main Drainage takes away about 99% of the poo but engineers always have to make a call and sometimes you will get a sewer shared between five houses leaking sewage.  He says to make the scheme work all of these drains will have to be blocked up and re diverted.

1.13.27 - 1.25.15

Kieran asks again about Hartys Quay in Rochestown and Tom says it is now a gated community. Tom thinks Harty were a local family. He says he remembers buildings on the quay like sawmills. He can’t quite recall if they were steel frame or wooden but he recalls them as big dark lumbering warehouse buildings there in the 1970s and 80’s. Kieran asks Tom does he remember any folklore or stories related to the river to which Tom says he doesn’t. Tom does add when they moved here that for ten to fifteen years heading into the early 1990’s there would always be a pair of wooden punts tied up in the river between Parnell Bridge and the Trinity Footbridge. He says they would always be tied up in the middle of the river and he never saw anyone getting into them. He says there would be another two boats upside down on the lean to on Georges Quay and Tom says he was always curious why these boats were always on the river. Tom says that someone told him that these boats were owned by a family called the O Flynn’s who had a license for salmon fishing between the City Centre and Blackrock Castle. He doesn’t know actual salmon fishing they did but they were keen to keep the license and one of the conditions was that they had to keep the boats on the river while they had their license. Tom says as time went on the boats on the river disappeared and the ones on the quayside became more and more rotten. Tom says he doesn’t know if that is all gone or if the O Flynns are all passed away. He believes this family also had a pub on Barrack St called the Clannad which he says was No 111 Barrack St. He says it was a different branch of the family that had this. Tom say those fishing rights probably go right back to the 17’th century and possibly further back and he says its interesting to see those rights still being exercised as recently as the 1980’s and 90’s. He adds that if you take a historical view of the river it’s a more pleasant condition and environment than at any time five or six hundred years. He says in terms of cleanliness and in terms of wildlife it’s in far better condition than it was in the 18’th century. He adds that in the 18’th century not only was the sewage going into it but waste from the Blackpool tanneries and food waste etc. He says there was an ongoing problem of dead babies being found drowned in the river. He says a lot of this was linked to unwanted pregnancies and prostitution. He says if you view it in these historical situations the river despite us turning our backs on it has improved.

Kieran asks if there was anything that we did with the river in the past which was positive and which has now been lost and that we could revive again. To this Tom replies that we used to use the river as a source of energy and power. He says as an example the Lee Mills which is now the Lee Maltings and home to the Tyndall Institute of UCC maybe there is the potential for micro power generation.  He says in the past the river infrastructure was maintained better and there are a number of weirs in the city that provided ways of pooling the water and slowing it down as well as creating fisheries. Tom says most of these weirs are in poor condition and not maintained. He says there used to be a crew with a small rowing boat employed by the City Council and they would go around and inspect quay walls and every bridge and repoint stones, remove vegetation. He says it was done from Pres, down the river up to the Beamish Brewery and this was their permanent job. He says they were abolished in living memory and a woman in her 70’s told him she remembers them as a child. He says since they were abolished there has been no probably preventative maintenance on the river. He says now the bridges on the river have been taken over by the National Road Network but there is no one looking after the quay walls etc and he says this is something that will return to “bite us in the ass”. Tom speaks about a word that came up called campshire. He describes it as a projecting part of a quayside with columns and a deck that overhangs and are a section of river infrastructure and used for loading. He says there is one on Georges Quay, one on Albert Quay and another on Albert Quay East. He goes on to say how a lot of this river infrastructure is in poor condition and. Tom say the campshire on Albert Quay East was in use till quite recently but not the others. He says they are falling down at the moment. He says they should be assessed for historical interest and kept if possible. He says if they were safe to use they could be used for a riverside amenity. He says on Albert Quay there is a modern wooden deck with a café and a few hundred feet away is the campshire which nobody uses. He adds that the boardwalk running along Lapps Quay and the one by the Electric Bar at the bottom of Grand Parade has also been a success and they have managed to avoid the problems of the Liffey Boardwalk in Dublin which include anti social behaviour, drunkenness and people taking drugs and stealing. He says he’s never seen any of that on the Cork boardwalks, there are homeless people there he says he’s never seen any hassle there. He says he can happily sit there with his kids unlike he says the Dublin Boardwalk which he says he wouldn’t dream of doing. He describes the Dublin Boardwalk as a disaster. He describes them as quite small and discrete though the bars and cafes are close to each other so they are monitored in a passive way. He also says Dublin has a much bigger anti social behaviour problem though Cork is not immune from this.

1.25.17 - 1.29.48

Kieran asks Tom about his experience of the river outside the City and its source. Tom says he used to canoe a lot on the Lee about twenty odd years ago. He and a friend from work would go after work and canoe a part of the river they would pick. They would canoe from the weir above the Inniscarra bridge near Ballincollig Regional Park and canoe from Ballincollig down to the City and canoed on the lake on Inniscarra Reservoir. Once he canoed from Bandon to Kinsale on the Bandon Road. He says it gives you a totally different view and he says some stretches are quite near the road and you can see and hear the traffic and then you might turn a corner and it’ll be peaceful and you might see Kingfishers. He says if you canoe down the Lee from the Anglers Rest bar into town all you can see of the City is the County Hall skyscraper which you can see sticking out of the trees. You can’t see any other buildings he says. He says it is staggering to see it shimmering in the sunshine.  He says you then start seeing the old mental hospital (Our Lady’s Hospital on the Lee Road) and the Cork City Waterworks. He says it is the nicest way to enter the city by river from the west. He says the problems regarding canoeing are that the water is quite shallow there so you spend a lot of time walking carrying the canoe especially in the Summer. He says he has capsized a lot of times as well. Once you are down the river by the Straight Road the water is deeper.  He goes on to speak about the riverside bird the Kingfisher. He says they are amazing to see and they seem much bigger than they really are. He says they are about the size of a robin but because they are electric blue and because they move so fast they appear the size of a crow. He says you see a blue/orange dart when they move which he says is like a bullet of iridescent blue. He says they might be sitting for ages and you might never see them till they move. He says that would be his experience of the river outside the City, swimming by the Anglers Rest as a child and canoeing. He adds that the river outside Ballincollig is “pretty stinky”. He doesn’t know if Ballincollig has anything other than primary sewage treatment which takes the lumps out with a big net but everything else goes into the river. He says when you go through Ballincollig the water is quite cloudy and there is a smell.

Kieran asks Tom if he would feel any sense of danger swimming or canoeing in the river. Tom says no, he feels quite confident in the river and they always wear life jackets. He says if you capsize often enough in a canoe you know what’s coming next, he says the golden rule is don’t let go of the paddle.

1.29.50 - 1.38.27

Kieran asks Tom what are his hopes fro the river in the future. Tom says he hopes that they continue working on the water treatment plants on upstream towns. He says we are lucky in that there apart from Cork City there are really only two large conurbations on the Lee and those are Ballincollig and Macroom and if they would be up to high standards for sewage the river would be more or less pristine and the better the water quality the faster people will start using the river again. He mentions that there is now a canoe club on the Lee Road just at the back of UCC’s ERI building. He goes on to speak about the need to use the river and full, use of it while there is time.

Kieran mentions that Tom wrote a book about the 1902/03 Cork Exhibition along with Dan Breen of the Cork Public Museum. Kieran asks if there was anything about how the river was used in relation to that. Tom says that when the Cork Exhibition in Fitzgerald’s Park was held in 1902 and 1903 it was a very interesting period worldwide for sport. For example he says that the GAA was twenty years old and was on an upward trajectory. Also the Great Exhibition in Cork had in terms of sport, hurling, football, lacrosse, tennis , hockey etc. He says the biggest crowd pulling events they held there was in relation to the water. Tom says that Kenneth Grahame’s the Wind In The Willows was published in 1907 and the background to that and the character of the water rat etc was a huge upsurge in interest in rowing and river based leisure activities in Edwardian times. He says it wasn’t just in Ireland but also Britain where they had the Henley Regatta, similar regattas on the Thames and the Cambridge boat race. He mentions the regatta on the Charles River in Boston and the Admirals Cup as all coming from that period. He says that the Cork Exhibition took place right on the river and you could rent a gondola a sailing boat, kayak or canoe or punt by the hour. People could paddle around Sundays Well between Pres and the Weir. This was the centre of a lot of people’s activities. He says a lot of film footage of people’s activities from this period revolves around water based activities. He says there were also two electric powered barges which were elegant timber boats with beautifully carved figureheads on the prow and these boats had DC motors and batteries. When they had important visitors they would bring them up and down the river on these barges. He says they had a rowing regatta at the Exhibition and they invited teams from across Europe and Ireland and Britain and eventually the final day came in July 1902 and it is estimated that between eighty and one hundred thousand people came to see this final. He says there were no sports ground in Ireland that would accommodate this event. This was bigger than an All Ireland Final, this was bigger than a rugby international. He says it was perhaps the biggest sporting single event seen in Ireland up to that point.  There were crowds of people on the Tivoli side and on the Marina and the Tram companies got all the trams and lined them up to use as grandstands so people could pay to go up on them and see the race. He says they had a deep sea yacht race and a race with electric boats where they had electric launches racing each other up and down the Lee. He speaks of the famous water slide and mentions the photos of it. He says of this that they built a 250 foot wooden slide beside the site of the exhibition and the slide was in the river, they piled the river to put the legs of the slide into the river. He says you would climb up the top of the slide and then slid down the slide in a flat bottom punt which would hold about eight people, this would go 70 foot down the slide and would go About 50 miles an hour. He says this was faster than a steam train and the punt would skim along the water and bounce off it and land again. The boat was ran down wooden rails which were greased with fat to make it slide down faster. It was sixpence to go on it which made it the most expensive amusement. There were other amusements such as a rollercoaster but the waterslide was the big thing and if you could afford the sixpence you would spend it so it was a big money spinner for them. If you go to the park today he says some of the piles from 1902 are still visible in the river on low tide. These kind of rides were quite common he says up to the 1950s’, he says his father in law remembers going to Southend On Sea when he was living in London and they had one like it. He says it was a big excitement in 1902.

Kieran asks Tom if there is any thing else he wants to cover and Tom says he has covered everything he thought he wanted to say. Kieran then thanks Tom and the interview ends.

Interview ends 1.38.27

Interview Format



Cork Folklore Project, “Tom Spalding: River Lee,” accessed December 1, 2023,