Karl Grabe was the backbone behind our ‘Changing Face of Cork City’ photography exhibition. We are delighted he could write this blog for us all about how his love of photography began, and some stories behind his photographs of Cork in the 1980’s.

My Photographic Background

My father was a keen photographer when I was growing up. He also took colour cine films from 1964 and thankfully all these films have survived, there are some clips of Cork at CorkCam.com. He is probably the reason I became so interested in photography while I was still going to school.

I’ve been taking pictures since I was 12 when I bought my First Camera. It was a “Diana” plastic toy camera, even the lens was made of plastic! It didn’t take great photos but it was great fun in a time when very few people had cameras.

It cost 10 Shillings in Lehan’s grocery shop on Rossa Ave (now Centra) in Bishopstown. It used 120 roll films which I got in the chemist shop on Uam Var Avenue. The kind man in his white coat showed my how to insert the film and wind it on after taking a photo. The camera could take 16 black & white photos and I remember, when I brought the film back to the chemist, the cost of processing the film cost more than the camera itself! Straight out of the chemist I took my first photo in 1969 of Uam Var Avenue. The sheds in the photo probably belonged to the builders as the houses in the estate were still being built.

My Other Cameras

I also used a 1950’s Lordox 24×36 camera during the ‘70s, a camera my father passed onto me. Two of the photos in the exhibition, of the slide in Fitzgerald’s Park, were taken by Wolfgang using this camera. It was a proper camera and you had to use a separate light meter to set the exposure and shutter speed. Then in the early 1980’s I bought an Olympus OM10 SLR camera and most of my photos in the exhibition are taken with my OM10 with its standard 50mm lens or a Tamron 80-210mm zoom lens.

I mostly used colour negative film but also colour slide film. Slide film had the advantage that it cost less, as no prints were produced. However a slide projector and screen were needed to view them properly. It was also possible to develop slide film at home using a development tank and I did this for a number of films. This reduced the cost further combined with purchasing the slide film in bulk rolls. The rolls were cut into 36 exposure lengths and I inserted them into film cartridges.

The photos I took during the ‘80s were forgotten about in drawers and it was only around 2010 that I bought a film scanner in order to preserve them and view them on a computer.

However I also had many film negatives & prints from my father dating from the 1950s and so I started scanning these first. As I mentioned, two of Wolgang’s photos are in the exhibition – the two of the slide in Fitzgerald’s park with my younger brother.

I then continued scanning my own photos. Some of the slide film photos had never been put in slide mounts so I was seeing them enlarged for the first time! To date I’ve scanned about 25,000 photos, most of which are family pictures but many of Cork also.

My Photos in the Exhibition

Zoom lenses were particularly useful for taking candid photos of the characters on the Coal Quay. However it involved standing in the middle of the street and I would be quickly spotted by the sellers. So instead I would go along with a friend and pretend to be taking a picture of them and at the last minute, point the camera towards the people I was trying to photograph.

The Coal Quay was one of my favourite photo spots as it was part of the old Cork and I wanted to record it. I also liked taking old buildings especially those that I thought might be demolished. In particular Merchants Quay got my attention as the buildings there had been derelict for some time. In the middle of Merchants Quay was a hairdresser and we can just imagine the conversations with the customers while it was still in business.

Patrick’s Hill was another one of my favourite places for taking photos and using a telephoto lens allowed me to capture a good section of Patrick’s street in one photo. I was using a Tamron 500mm mirror lens on Patrick’s hill when I spotted the 3 girls whose photo is in the exhibition. It wasn’t a zoom lens so it wasn’t going to be possible to recompose the picture as they approached. So I only had one shot at it.

Patrick’s hill is at such a steep angle that the street itself formed part of the background helping the coloured clothing stand out even more.

Apple Computer Photos

I was working in Apple Computer Cork in Hollyhill from 1983.The facility then had a workforce of about 230. The plant was manufacturing the Apple IIe computer at the time. It was a home computer but at nearly IR£2000 with a screen and disks it wasn’t affordable by most cork families. However, Apple had a ‘loan to own’ scheme so all employees were given an Apple //e to take home. I’m sure many a Cork family became competent using computers because of this and perhaps helped Cork get started on the road to becoming Ireland’s Silicon Valley. These early computers weren’t very powerful of course, by comparison today’s smartphones are thousands of times more powerful and at a fraction of the cost.

The photo in the exhibition is from 1984 when the then new, all white, Apple //c was first manufactured in Hollyhill. It was similar to the IIe, in the foreground, but was designed to be portable. The lady is testing a //c, checking things such as the keyboard keys, the built in diskette drive, correct colours on the monitor etc.

My Photography Today

Photography has moved on considerably since my first 1969 plastic camera and now everyone, from primary school children upwards, has a digital camera in their smartphone. Smartphones take great detailed photos but there’s one thing missing – a zoom lens. Even though I have a digital SLR, I mostly use a pocket Canon SX720HS which has a 40x zoom lens.

Cork city is changing fast and I’ll still take pictures of Cork but also scenery and wildlife. Looking back at my ‘80s photos of the demolished Merchants Quay buildings I wonder if things have improved much when I see neglected buildings like the ones on North Main Street recently in the news. There are also flood relief plans that would see major disturbance to the historic quay walls. Hopefully we will see Cork modernise but keep as much of the old city as we can.

In April 2018 in Cork city women from all over the world gathered to celebrate the birth of a woman who inspired each one of them to become a Presentation Sister. This is their founding story …

Presentation Sisters on Nano Nagle Bridge
Presentation Sisters on Nano Nagle Bridge

Three hundred years ago in 1718 a valiant woman was born in north Cork. She was born to a wealthy Catholic landowning family at a time when to be wealthy and Catholic was a difficult position. The Penal Laws, which had been introduced at the end of the 17th century, had the express intention of dismantling the Irish Catholic power base. Under these laws Catholics would become too poor and too ignorant to present any challenge to the status quo in an Ireland now ruled by the Protestant ascendancy.

Nano’s family sent her away to school on the continent (an act that at the time was itself illegal). When Nano returned home to Ireland after twenty years abroad she was horrified by the ignorance and poverty of the Catholic underclass. She made up her mind to make a difference and secretly opened a Catholic school near her home on Douglas Street, in the South Parish of Cork City. Thanks to her determination and the backing of her family she was soon running seven schools across Cork City, unusually for the time, five of these schools were for girls. Nano was empowering the women of Cork through education to practice their religion with pride and better their lives through skilled work.

In 1775 Nano founded a new and quite radical religious order to continue her work, the Sisters of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart, later the Presentation Sisters. Their first convent was on Douglas Street, where a Presentation Convent still stands today. This religious order was tasked with educating poor children across the city of Cork and tending the needs of the poor, just as Nano ‘the Lady with the Lantern’ had done for many years. Nano’s sisters were not ‘enclosed’, they could leave the convent to perform their works of education and charity. Nano’s order at first struggled, but in the years after Nano’s death her congregation went on to found convents and schools across Ireland and across the world.

Students from Presentation School Middleton lead the procession with the spectacular lantern they made in art class
Students from Presentation School Middleton lead the procession with the spectacular lantern they made in art class

Last week, sisters from New Zealand to Zambia, India, Rhode Island and Manchester among many other places made their way to Cork. In a sense they came home, to where the story of the Presentation Sisters began. They visited the newly regenerated buildings of the South Presentation Convent and schools, now called Nano Nagle Place, a beautiful heritage, education and spiritual oasis in the heart of Cork City. They visited the many charitable projects that the Presentation Sisters are still engaged in across the city.

On Wednesday 25th April Cork’s North Cathedral was brought alive with the story of Nano by children from Presentation Schools. The sisters then set out across the city led by a beautiful lantern. They walked in the footsteps of Nano as she made her daily journey across the city to visit her schools. The sisters stopped along the way to reflect on Nano, at Nano Nagle Bridge, at St. Finbarre’s South, Nano’s parish church. The walk culminated in the beautiful Goldie Chapel at Nano Nagle Place were more Presentation students celebrated the work of the order throughout the world

Nano's story brought alive by Presentation students in Cork's North Cathedral
Nano’s story brought alive by Presentation students in Cork’s North Cathedral

A celebration of Presentation communities all over the world in the beautiful Goldie Chapel at Nano Nagle Place
A celebration of Presentation communities all over the world in the beautiful Goldie Chapel at Nano Nagle Place

It was a week of emotion, devotion, reflection and remembrance. It will live on in the memories of all those who were a part of this special celebration.

At Nano Nagle Place we are celebrating the tercentenary of Nano Nagle’s Birth this year. The year, 2018, marks another important centenary that will be remembered across Europe, the end of The Great War. While peace came to reign in much of Europe after the armistice, Ireland entered a period of violent conflict now known as The War of Independence or Anglo-Irish War.

The first shots of this war might be said to have been fired in Easter 1916 when a combined force of Irish Volunteers and The Irish Citizen Army mobilized an armed revolt which lasted just one week. This revolt was immediately labelled ‘The Sinn Féin Rebellion’ (although, ironically, Sinn Féin had had very little to do with it). In the wake of the Easter Rising and the subsequent execution of the leaders, along with the internment of many combatants, Sinn Féin became a rallying point for nationalist politics. Sinn Féin began contesting elections in 1917 and in December 1918 they contested in the general election where they secured a landslide victory. Had there been a ‘swing-o-meter’ then, they might have broken it, winning 46.7% of the vote. The newly elected Sinn Fein MPs refused to take up their seats in parliament in Westminster, instead they formed their own Dáil Éireann.

A Dáil sitting in the Round Room of the Mansion House in 1921
A Dáil sitting in the Round Room of the Mansion House in 1921

The new Dáil met on 21 January 1919 in the Mansion House, Dublin where they declared independence and ratified the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. On the very same day, two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were killed in the Soloheadbeg Ambush by members of the Irish Volunteers acting on their own initiative. Although the ambush had not been ordered by the Dáil, the assembly soon came to recognise the Irish Volunteers as the army of the Irish Republic and the Soloheadbeg Ambush as an act of war against Great Britain. The Irish Volunteers changed their name to the Irish Republican Army. With this escalation of events the Irish War of Independence or Anglo-Irish War began. It was a guerrilla war, which in the beginning took the form of the IRA capturing weapons and freeing republican prisoners. When the British Government outlawed both the Dáil and the IRA in September 1919 the conflict intensified.

Cork City and County were one of the epicentres of the conflict. The RIC and British Troops were bolstered by new armed forces, the Black and Tans (so called for the colour of their uniforms) and the Auxiliaries. The IRA waged a violent guerrilla campaign that focussed on ambushing of the various British forces and attacking RIC barracks, causing many isolated barracks to be abandoned. For many of these IRA attacks there was a reprisal by the Black and Tans or Auxiliaries, who were not bound by strict army discipline. Attacks and reprisals became so chronic in late 1920 that Martial Law was declared, designed to subdue and control the civilian population with strict curfews and military checks.

A photograph of the Barry family from the turn of the centry
The Barry family who lived at 33 Nicholas Hill. From left to right Daniel (Christopher), Ursula, Edward, Thomas, Agnes, John and Baby Edward. Thomas (centre) was in the IRA during the War of Independence and he and his brother John (right) found themselves on the wrong side of the Black and Tans.

This was the state Cork City found itself in when Finbarr Barry’s grandfather John and great uncle Tommy lived on one of lanes bounding Nano Nagle Place, Nicholas Street. Here Finbarr takes up the story:

“Tommy was in the “Old” IRA and back then a curfew was put in place and no one was to be on the streets after a certain time at night. But one night Tommy and my grandfather John were out on the South Mall in Cork when the Black and Tans spotted them and gave chase. Tommy and John ran up the South Mall, turned into Parliament Street went over Parliament Bridge, along Georges Quay, and turned up Dunbar Street, all the time being pursued by the Black and Tans. The lads ran and ran, turned down Douglas Street, up Nicholas Street and ran in home at 33 Nicholas Street.

Tommy had a revolver and some ammunition with him, in order to hide it from the Black and Tans he put the gun and the bullets up the chimney in the front room and they ran out into the back garden, climbed up over the high wall at the end of the garden and dropped down into the gardens of the Presentation Sisters which was at the back of the house. Here they hid behind the sisters’ grave stones from the Black and Tans. ‘The Tans’ kicked in the front door of the house looking for the lads but never got them.

Later that night their mother Agnes lit the fire in the front room not knowing about the gun and bullets and there were a number of small explosions but thankfully no one was injured except the two boys … when their mother got her hands on them!”

John and Tommy were very lucky indeed to get away, perhaps Nano had something to do with it!

The front of 33 Nicholas Street
The Barry family home at 33 Nicholas Street today.


The Back of 33 Nicholas Street
The back of 33 Nicholas Street today. This is the wall the boys jumped over to hide by Nano’s tomb. It now backs onto our Contemplative Garden.


Thanks to Finbarr Barry for sharing a great story that brings history alive.

Read here about the first sitting of the Dáil and the Soloheadbeg Ambush

John Borgonovo here describes how Cork earned an international reputation for armed resistance against the British Empire

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