History of Cork

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Pre AD.820

It is possible that Ptolemy, the Alexandrian geographer, makes the first recorded reference to the district now occupied by Cork City. In AD.150, he mentions a town 'Ivuernis', and would have got the information from Mediterranean ship masters; some believe this to be the first reference to the modern city. In the seventh century the famous monastic settlement associated with St. Finbarr was established. This was in some ways a golden age in Cork City's history and for 250 years the Abbey thrived. Dignitaries and scholars from all over Europe came here to learn in what was a setting of overwhelming peace. But as in the Garden of Eden, paradise would not last long. The site of the settlement stretched from the present St.Fin Barre's Cathedral to the present site of University College Cork. It is thought, however, that the modern city developed not from here but from the putative Viking settlement built on the low ground between the present South Gate and Griffith (North Gate) bridges.


This second phase begins with the invasion of the Vikings in about 820. These newcomers are also referred to as Danes and Norsemen. It is believed they traded in cloth, corn, honey, furs, hides, fish and slaves, mainly with their home countries in Scandinavia and with other settlements established by them in England, the Hebrides, the Orkney Islands, Normandy, Iceland and Russia. After their defeat at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 the Norse survivors continued to live in the separate communities they had established in Cork, Dublin, Limerick, Waterford and Wexford. They and their descendants became known as Ostmen from this time on.


1776 marks the beginning of the Anglo-Norman occupation. Henry II divided most of Munster among two of his men. He retained the 'City of Cork' and the 'Cantred of the Ostmen' for himself, exempting them from the control of his feudal lords. Between 1185 and 1189, Prince John as Lord of Ireland, made Cork City a corporate town endowed with powers of self-government. These powers have been maintained to the present day. A wall was built up around the perimeter of the city, it remained for 500 years after the Norman occupation. It is possible by investigating a list of levies dating from 1284 to deduce what commodities were being traded at this time. They included wine, honey, timber, hides, skins, wool, silk cloth ,wax, live ox, cow, horse, mare and pig as well as many vegetables. Coins were minted in Cork in 1295 and 1304 under royal authority and the city built a thriving trade with many English ports including Bristol, Fowey, Padstow, Ilfracombe, Exeter and Weymouth and other unspecified towns on the southern British coastline. There is little information on trade between Cork and Europe though there are some references to trade with France, the import being wine.

Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser were two notable denizens of Cork City during the 16th century. Raleigh lived in the suburb now known as Tivoli, where cedars said to have been planted by him still stand. It was from here that he wrote some of his most memorable love letters to Queen Elizabeth I. A somewhat remarkable state of affairs, since he was a youthful twenty five and she was presumed to be a maiden and had just reached seventy. Cork was his headquarters in a long series of military services against the MacCarthys, the Desmonds, the Roches and the Barrys. The poet Spenser was sheriff of Cork in 1597 and it is said that he wrote part of the 'Faerie Queen', in a lane off North Main Street.

As the 16th century came to an end Cork's citizens incurred the wrath of their rulers for trading in munitions and firearms with the French. These weapons were then being bartered with the Irish 'rebels' in return for cattle and hides. One significant commercial development from this time was the export trade in beef preserved by salting and packed in barrels. Cork was to achieve pre-eminence on an international scale during the next two centuries in this branch of commerce.

At the start of the 17th century living conditions in Cork amounted almost to destitution. The defeat of the Irish at Kinsale in 1601 meant that the Crown's authority in Ireland was absolute and colonial outposts such as Cork were no longer needed. The insurrection of 1641 had further disastrous consequences for Cork's inhabitants. In 1664, many were expelled and forced to surrender their possessions and property. Some were allowed return in 1648 but another general expulsion took place in 1649 under Cromwell.

To get an idea of the appearance of the city at around this time: it was described by Camden in 1586 as 'of oval shape, surrounded by walls and encompassed and intersected by the river, and accessible only by rivers'. It had only one straight street (now known as North Main and South Main Streets), about 690 yards long. The city was, on average, about 240 yards wide. East and West of the walls were waterways and marches. As such, most of the modern city is built on reclaimed land. Up to the 1700s, Cork was a series of waterways. Patrick Street, currently Cork's busiest shopping street, follows the course of a once navigable channel with quays on either side along which ships sailed to the city.

The population in 1659 of the city proper was recorded as being 1,089, and of these 409 were classified as Irish. By this time erection of houses had begun outside the city, and the population of the 'Liberties' was 4,826, of which 3,219 were Irish. These 'Liberties' were added to the City following a charter of James I naming the entire area the 'County of the City of Cork'.


Cromwell's reign of terror came to an end in 1660 with the restoration of the Stuarts to the English throne. Throughout the country, recovery from the depredations of the Cromwellian regime was quite swift. By 1960 over 183,000 cattle had been exported to England. Following an outcry from British breeders, Parliament passed the Cattle Acts of 1663 and 1666. The first prohibited the import of cattle from Ireland into England from 1 July to 20 December each year and the second prohibited absolutely the import of cattle, sheep, swine, bacon and pork into England from Ireland. Ironically, as a result of the embargo Irish trade began to flourish, firstly with mainland Europe and then with North America and the West Indies. This export trade developed in Kinsale but grew to such proportions that the harbour could not adequately accommodate the calling ships. The trade shifted to Cork with its safe sheltered harbour. In 1688 10,000 cattle were slaughtered in Cork, and the city had become a recognised port-of-call for transatlantic shipping going westward and supplies of butter, beef, pork, could be loaded on vessels as provisions for their crews.

This increase in business saw the city's first bank, Hoares, open in 1680. Huguenots, escaping religious persecution in France, settled in Cork shortly after 1685. These refugees set up woollen mills and they were also expert goldsmiths and silversmiths. Their contribution to the development of Cork City has been acknowledged with part of the modern city named the Huguenot Quarter. Despite the Williamite siege of 1690 resulting in the destruction of the city's wall, economically Cork continued to flourish. By 1750 the number of cattle being slaughtered annually exceeded 100,000. Another important event at this time was the establishment of the Cork Butter Market. In 1769, finding that the butter trade was in decline, merchants appointed officials to inspect and brand the butter, thus guaranteeing its quality. The Market and the Committee of Merchants had a great deal of influence on the commercial life of the city for the next century and a half. The building in which the business was conducted was situated near the Church of St. Anne, Shandon, and is still open for visitors today.

The Sirius, the first ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean westwards under steam power left Cork for New York on April 3, 1838. This momentous event was celebrated on both sides of the ocean, and signalled the beginning of a new era. The Atlantic could now be crossed in a much shorter time, and the duration of the voyage was a lot easier to estimate. This event also initiated a decline in the Cork beef trade that had flourished for so long. This new technology meant that the demand for salted meat was greatly diminished; there was no need for food to last for the months, maybe years that it took a sailing ship to complete long voyages. Other factors, such as advances in mechanical refrigeration also contributed to the decline. Cork did not really develop or share to any great extent in the industrial revolution of the late 1700s and early 1800s when industrial towns developed all over England and Europe. It's character hasn't altered considerably in the 20th century either, in that it remains commercial and residential rather than industrial.

Cork Library was founded in 1792 and in 1803 Rev. Thomas Dix Hincks was instrumental in setting up the Royal Cork Institution. A keen educationalist, he published many pamphlets on educational and religious subjects. In 1816 the Cork Philosophical and literary Society came into being, the precursor of the still-thriving Cork literary and Scientific Society. There were also many small literary clubs in the city, perhaps the most notable being 'The Anchorites'. Among the members or 'Anchorites' were J.J.Callanan who was one of the first to give adequate translations of Gaelic poems, and Wm. Maginn who founded 'Frasers Magazine' in London in 1830. This, the forerunner of 'Punch', became the leading English monthly. Maginn had many Cork men in his circle, included was Thomas Croker whose 'The Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland' ran into several editions and was translated into German by the brothers Grimm. This literary tradition has been maintained into the 20th and 21st centuries by writers like Sean O'Faolain, Frank O'Connor, and Patrick Galvin.

In the ten years after the Famine the city's population rose by 6% as destitute peasants streamed into the Marsh and Main Street areas. Slums sprouted in these places as the poor replaced the middle classes who moved out to the new suburbs of Montenotte and Tivoli. Between 1851 and 1891 the county's population fell by over 200,000 - a figure higher than the city's current population. This depletion of people contributed to the region's industrial decline. The last city slum was only cleared in 1968, as the corporation gradually erected housing for the poor beginning with Madden's Buildings in Blackpool. Public transport in the shape of railways and electric trams helped to extend the city's boundaries in all directions, particularly towards Glanmire, Blackrock and Douglas. The 1880s was a period of great rural instability with impoverished families being evicted in their thousands and the agitators committing vicious reprisals on extortionist Landlords and their agents. Eventually a leader emerged who inspired all of the Nationalist movements to work together in a peaceful pragmatic way -- his name was Charles Stewart Parnell.

Parnell was elected MP for Cork in 1880. There was a growing awareness amongst the urban, English-speaking populace of their cultural distinction from Britain. Parnell's Nationalist Party made significant progress towards achieving its goal of Home Rule for Ireland, but Parnell's own career was cut short by the famous Kitty O'Shea crisis and the fragmentation of the Nationalist movement began again.

When it appeared that Home Rule would be achieved, Unionists in Ulster formed a militia called the Ulster Volunteers to fight anyone who might try and coerce them into a democratic self-governed Ireland dominated by a Catholic majority. Arthur Griffith founded Sinn Fein as a monarchist party which envisaged a future for Ireland whereby an Irish parliament would have more power than mere Home Rule but would retain the British monarch as head of state.

The policies of Sinn Fein changed radically when men like Padraig Pearse joined, young members who wanted nothing less than an independent self-sufficient Gaelic state. It remained a fringe movement until after the 1916 rising when many of its members were executed by the British authorities. After the executions the dead leaders became National martyrs compared to the likes of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet. In the general election of 1918, of 45,000 votes cast in Cork over 40,000 were for the two Sinn Fein candidates James Joseph Walsh and Liam de Roiste. The Sinn Fein MPs resolved to abstain from Westminster and instead form an Irish Parliament with its own government in Dublin. Violence ensued, and two murders in 1920 were a foreboding of even worse atrocities. In Cork the Lord Mayor Tomas MacCurtain was shot dead at home in Blackpool in front of his wife by a party of armed men, their faces blackened. Later, policemen arrived and tore the house apart in search of arms.

Tomas MacCurtain had been elected Lord Mayor the previous January when Sinn Fein won control of the city council in the municipal and urban elections. As well as being Lord Mayor, MacCurtain was also Commandant of the Mid-Cork Brigade of the IRA. The official police story was that MacCurtain had been killed by his own side, but the coroner's jury gave a different verdict. They found that he had been murdered by the Royal Irish Constabulary, officially directed by the British Government. MacCurtain's deputy Terence MacSwiney was made Mayor -- also a Commandant in the IRA he was arrested on August 20th 1920 by the crown forces for being in possession of a police cipher and two documents 'likely to cause offence to his Majesty'. He went on hunger strike in protest at the continuing arrest of democratically elected public representatives. MacSwiney was then transported to Brixton Gaol, where his hunger strike attracted world-wide attention. 300,000 Brazilian Catholics petitioned the Pope to intervene on his behalf. British newspapers and King George V pleaded for his release, but the Prime Minister Lloyd George refused.

MacSwiney's death was preceded by that of Michael Fitzgerald, one of the Cork Prison Ten. A few hours after MacSwiney a second of the Cork ten died, at which time the hunger strike was ended at the request of Arthur Griffith. MacSwiney had died after 74 days, and the day of his funeral was declared a national day of mourning by the Dail.

Less than two months after his death Cork was destroyed by the Black and Tans. The Black and Tans were a special force made up of young unemployed soldiers, who were stationed in Ireland to reinforce the police. On December 11th 1920, following an ambush by the IRA that resulted in the death of an English officer, the Black and Tans began burning the city. It began with two houses at Dillon's Cross being set alight and soon spread to the centre of town. Firemen had their horses slashed by the Auxiliaries, who refused to let the flames be fought. The Black and Tans got drunk and began to loot the city, some burnt down the City Hall and city library. Patrick Street was a wasteland, 21 shops were completely destroyed and another 44 were burned to the ground. The total damage was estimated to be £3,000,000. In Westminster, Cabinet Minister Sir Hammond Greenwood denied the fire was started by the police or their affiliates and suggested it was the people of Cork that had burned and looted. Soon later a British Labour Party Commision sent to the city to investigate the burning were arrested by Auxiliaries and threatened with shooting. The war soon ended as pressure mounted on Lloyd George; he eventually agreed to meet a Sinn Fein delegation and a Treaty was signed. Since independence, Cork has been a city renowned for the tolerance of its citizens, a city where people live in peace and mutual respect.