Cork’s “North Side” is defined by hills rising up from the river, toward the city’s more hidden charms. A warren of tiny streets, many still cobbled, surround some magnificent buildings, leading visitors to wonderful views as they explore the Shandon area.

Dominating the streetscape is St Anne’s Church, whose lime- and sandstone (two walls built of each) clock tower can be seen from all over the city. It is colloquially known as “The Four-faced Liar”, as each of its faces may tell a different time. One can climb the tower to ring the famous Shandon Bells and savour spectacular views from the top. 

At the foot of “the bells” is the Firkin Crane, next to the intriguing Butter Museumand its 19th century neighbour, site of the original Butter Market, from whence the product of the rich lands of Munster was sent all over the world.

The Firkin Crane building was opened in August 1855, designed by Sir John Benson to meet the needs of the Butter Exchange. “Firkin” is a Danish word meaning quarter barrel, which represented 9 gallons or 80Ibs of butter. In former times the tarred firkins or casks were weighed on a balance known as a “Crane”, hence the name.

In 1784 a Dominican chapel had been constructed on the remains of the 16th century Shandon Castle, which was, for a time, the seat of Tudor power in Munster. Local tradition has it that stone from this castle was used in building the nearby church of St Anne’s.

A contemporary account from the Cork Examiner explains the unusual shape:

“It is completely circular, and has a diameter of about a hundred feet. By a most ingenious arrangement the entire rafters of the immense roof converge upon one large center pillar, like the ribs of an umbrella upon the handle, and thus instead of having the space, the great object, interfered with by numerous pillars, the whole support does not occupy the room of more than three or four feet. The roof meets in a circular ridge, and the rain falling on the inside descends into the center pillar, which is hollowed, and conveys it to the reservoir. Around the outer edge of the roof a chute runs, which conveys the water by several pipes into the same receptacle, and so preserves for the purposes of cleaning firkins, and the many other uses for which it was required. Amongst the many advantages of this ingenious arrangement, one not the least important is the saving of the walls from damp. The entire cost of the building has been about £1,500.”

After the Butter Market closed in 1924, James Daly & Sons manufactured margarine in the building until the 1970’s, when they transferred to new premises.

The deserted building was put up for sale in 1979, at a time when the Irish National Ballet were seeking appropriate accommodation. The Company’s Director, Joan Denise Moriarty, successfully applied to the Arts Council to have the building bought and refurbished as a home for the Cork-based professional company. However, while the work was being carried out, the building was completely destroyed by fire on 6 July 1980. 

Thanks to the efforts of a group of businessmen under the Chairmanship of former Taoiseach Jack Lynch, a Trust Fund was set up to secure finance for the costly re-building. Cork City Council supported the undertaking, as did the Irish government, the European Union, Irish businesses, multinational corporations, and the Irish American Fund. In 1984, the plans to restore the Firkin Crane building received the European Economic Community Architectual Award for Ireland.

On 26 April 1992, this unique building was opened by the then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, preserving a building of architectural interest in what is probably the most historic part of Cork city. 

In I996, a Development Officer, Mary Brady, was appointed to the Firkin Crane Centre and for the first time the entire building became dedicated wholly to dance. In line with her brief of dance development, and to reduce costs in arranging longer-term residencies for dance artists, she set about negotiating for a former family home of Jack Lynch to be used as subsidised accommodation. The Artists House in Shandon, managed through the Firkin Crane and available to all artists visiting the city, was opened in 2005 by then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. Firkin Crane established itself as an organisation of local, regional and national significance with a focus on choreographic research and dance performance. To signify this dance developmental strategy a new name, the Institute for Choreography and Dance (ICD), was adopted. 

Engagement with local artists and the immediate neighbourhood continued. In a celebration of Shandon and the city, residents, community groups and local schools were brought together in Safe Harbour, a large-scale site-specific residency with New York-based artists, supported by Port of Cork. (ICD was winner of a Business to Arts sponsorship award in 2001). A longer-term residency during a 3-year, youth dance project, Youth Moves to Dance (YMTD), culminated in 70, mostly ‘north-side’ young people, performing on Cork Opera House’s main stage with professional dancers from Random Dance Company in Zero Hertz, especially commissioned from Wayne Mc Gregor. At Munster regional level, in a series of residencies, Fergus Early, Artistic Director of London-based GreenCandle Dance Company, developed the Older People in Dance (OPID) programme which offered an in-service, accredited training course, in a 3-year partnership between ICD and the Southern Health Board’s Health Promotion Department and GreenCandle Dance Company,

Residencies of different kinds were set up to offer space and the widest flexibility for choreographic research and dance practice. The first company-in-residence in the building was Cork city’s Crux Dance Theatre (Artistic Durector, Jane kellaghan); Diana Theodores was appointed as dance writer-in-residence exploring the notion of writer as choreographer. 

Research, also, included the commissioning and co-producing of new works. One of the earliest resulted in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Sunday Lunch, in 1997, when he founded his Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre in Firkin Crane.

Professional development through classes and workshops were a feature of the constant flow of visiting dance artists and practioners. Twice yearly performance seasons presented local and iternational work. Themes and occasions ranged widely from Solo Independents, female artists based in Ireland marking International Womens Day, to NDT3 with older dancers, to Maguy Marin’s Umwelt opening of Fête de la Danse – a short season celebrating cultural diversity with artists from France and from francophone regions of the world. Held annually for three years leading up to and including 2005, Fête de la Danse was acclaimed as one of the highlights of Cork City’s year as European Capital of Culture. Artists were presented from France, Quebec, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Belgium as well as Ireland.

The ICD saw the importance of documenting and archiving dance work. A generous donation of periodicals and books from Aruba Coughlan laid the foundation for the dance library and archive. Material gathered included ICD’s own publications (Writing Dance, Righting Dance; Choreographic Encounters) and documentation of ICD’s own programme: whether Liz Lerman’s contributions to the OPID’s Moving Age conference; or, Dance Into Work, a short film – later aired on RTE 1 – made for a YMTD international seminar; or the inauguaration of the European Dancehouse Network’s Modul-dance project in the Firkin Crane hosting members from Paris, Vienna, London, Barcelona, Stockholm, Oslo, and Düsseldorf. 

The Institute for Choreography and Dance, Ireland’s first dance house and a founding member of the European Dancehouse Network in 2004, continued as a centre dedicated to choreographic research until 2006. 
Firkin Crane today remains a centre dedicated to dance, serving Cork’s growing dance community.