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Lifetime Lab @ Old Cork Waterworks

It is curious to reflect that Cork, a merchant city surrounded by water, might have thirsted for fresh water to drink. And that the solution came from a “little republic”, to be found just a short walk out of the city centre.

For this is a lesser told story, a behind-the-scenes secret:  yet an essential ingredient to the prosperity of Cork City’s rapidly growing population in Victorian times.

Arriving at the Old Cork Waterworks on the banks of the River Lee, you find handsome red sandstone and limestone buildings and a towering chimney: monuments to that same Victorian civic pride that left architectural legacies elsewhere in the city.

Inside, exploring interactive exhibits and touring the Steam Centre, Boiler and Engine Rooms where giant restored machinery gleams, you discover three centuries of industrial heritage: in particular, the Victorian steam-powered scheme masterminded by architect/engineer Sir John Benson, much needed to update the city’s antiquated water supply.  

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In Steam Centre films, gruff Mr Riordan tells you how it took five mechanics and 15 labourers to keep machinery pumping 2.5 million gallons of water from the river every day. And in Boiler Room and Engine Room films, Tommy chats about long hours shovelling seven tons of coal daily to feed the boilers, with workers’ pockets checked each evening in case they tried to sneak a few pieces home.

Despite the hard toil, it was a “grand job”, Tommy says, and they called the Victorian waterworks a “little republic”:  so little bothered were they by officials from the City Hall.

And so the liquid history of Cork City kept flowing, as does the Visitor Centre @ Lifetime Lab with exhibits looking to the future. A city built on water in more ways than one.

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