Written by Orla Egan
The Cork Quay Co-op opened on Sullivan’s Quay in May 1982. It was founded “as a radical/alternative community project by a collective effort of feminist, lesbian & gay, environmental and other alternative groups and individuals. Throughout the 1980’s it provided a local base for the politics of the new social movements of the period – at a time when Irish society, and its economy, seemed to be going backwards rather than forwards.” Quay Co-op
In the early 1980s the Quay Co-op became an important centre for alternative political and social activity in Cork. The idea of a co-operatively run, shared building, meeting the needs of those involved, was first proposed in 1980 by a small group of people, some of whom had experience of similar projects in England. They approached various groups and individuals in the city to discuss the idea further and an organising committee was formed. (“The Quay Co-op” in Workers Co-operatives: Potential and Problems Linehan and Tucker 1983)
A suitable building was identified on Merchant’s Quay and negotiations began with the owners and estate agents. However, after a number of meetings, the building was withdrawn from the market. Those involved believed “that this action was due to the prejudices of the agents and owners who regarded the group as less than ‘respectable.'” (“The Quay Co-op” in Linehan and Tucker 1983)
The Cork Gay Collective (CGC) was one of the key organisations involved in efforts to establish the Quay Co-op. Kieran Rose notes that the establishment of a resource centre was an original objective of the Collective and that they were centrally involved in setting up the Co-op. (Kieran Rose Diverse Communities)
One of the interviewees in Jacqui O Riordan’s study on the Cork Womensplace notes how two members of the Cork Gay Collective came to one of the meetings of the Cork Women’s Collective (CWC) : they were interested in looking for a building in Cork to start a centre for gay men and they were interested in women coming in to broaden the idea and make it into a resource centre for alternative living in Cork. The CWC decided to become involved as it was felt that more could be achieved if regular meeting rooms were available. (Jacqui O Riordan The Womensplace B.A. Thesis, Sociology, Arts III, UCC, 1992.)
The idea of the Co-op was particularly important for both the Cork Gay Collective and the Cork Women’s Collective, “both of whom had an acute problem in getting even basic facilities, such as an office or meeting place.” (Jacqui O Riordan, 1992)
Efforts to locate a suitable building continued and eventually, in March 1982, a lease was signed for a dilapidated building on Sullivan’s Quay. It was a former pawnbrokers which had been closed for many years. (“The Quay Co-op” in Linehan and Tucker 1983) A lot of renovation work had to be done on the building before the Co-op could open. A six week rent-free period was negotiated during which people from the Cork Women’s Collective, the Cork Gay Collective and many other alternative groups worked on a voluntary basis repairing and painting the building. I was 15 at the time, and I remember being drafted in to help paint the basement of the co-op, along with other members of Youth CND!
Those with building skills taught others what to do. “The building was thus renovated and parts of it rebuilt in a short time by a loose-knit group of people, many of whom were just getting to know each other. All the work was done on a shoestring budget and was often hindered because there was no money to buy materials.” The Quay Co-op opened on 2 May 1982 “with a day of mime, dance, children’s activities, art shows, workshops, music, theatre and food.” (“The Quay Co-op” in Linehan and Tucker 1983)
The Quay Co-op was established as a Workers’ Co-operative which brought together gay men and lesbians, women’s groups, left-wing organisations, environmental and anti-nuclear groups. The building housed a cafe, bookshop, food co-op, women’s place and meeting rooms which were used by various ‘ alternative’ groups in the city.
On 1 May 2015 the Quay Co-op celebrated its 33rd Birthday!
CO-OP POLICY DOCUMENT:
“The Co-op was formed on the recognition that there are many oppressed groups of people who are excluded from a full-participation in society because they are denied access to information, skills, resources and decision-making. A central aim of the Co-op therefore is to ensure that space is provided for minority groupings working for change, who would otherwise have difficulty in organising in the city because of isolation and lack of the necessary support structures. The Co-op provides a focal point where people actively involved at different levels of social change can meet and share ideas and support each other.”
Similarly the Co-op Broadsheet stated that the “Quay Co-op is a project, organised co-operatively, for people who wish to develop alternative ways of living, working and sharing our resources. Our ideal is SELF HELP, not waiting for the Government or other statutory agencies to take the initiative….The Co-op will provide a centre for the many groups and individuals in the city who up to now have been isolated, and lacking the necessary support structure.” (Quoted in article on Quay Co-op in NGF Newsletter 28 July 1982)
Returning to Cork in the early 1980s, Deirdre Walsh described the Quay Co-op as “a happening place in Cork at the time, having been set up by the efforts of many women and men with alternative ideas and lifestyles.” (Deirdre Walsh “My Personal Lesbian History of Cork in Linc Cork’s Lesbian Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 1, November 2000)
The Quay Co-op provided an important space for social and political activity for lesbians and gay men in Cork.
Chris Robson wrote about the Quay Co-op in NGF Newsletter in 1982: “It is not a predominantly ‘gay place’ but there is a strong gay presence and needless to say, an atmosphere of support and acceptance. The Co-op seems to offer one way out of the gay world and into an alternative, more open grouping that gays are helping to form.” (NGF Newsletter 28 July 1982)
Kieran Rose comments that the “facilities made available and the paid jobs in the Co-op allowed Cork to become a powerhouse of initiatives and a confident example for the rest of the country….The Cork experience shows that with resources and expertise, it is possible to build a supportive community that can dramatically improve the quality of people’s lives and which can, in turn, achieve progressive change in the wider community.” (Kieran Rose Diverse Communities)
See the posts on The Cork Women’s Place and on Lesbian Activism 1980s for more details about women’s and lesbian activism in the Quay Co-op.