A History of Cork, Ireland

By Tim Lambert

According to tradition Cork was founded by St Finbarr in the 7th century. He built an abbey there. Its name comes from the Gaelic Corcaigh, which means marshy place. For centuries the abbey at Cork flourished and it was famous for learning.

However, in 820, the Vikings raided the abbey and the settlement nearby. The Vikings then created their own town on an island in the River Lee. n In 1172, after the Norman invasion of Ireland, Cork was surrendered to the English king. Following the English conquest, stonewalls were built around Cork. In 1185 Cork was given its first charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights).

During the Middle Ages Cork was a busy port and an important town (although it would seem no more than a village to us with a population of probably not more than 2,000). Animal hides and woolen cloth were exported from Cork and wine (the drink of the upper class) was imported.

In Cork, there were also the same craftsmen you would find in any Medieval town such as blacksmiths, potters, and shoemakers.

In the 14th century, an Augustinian Abbey was built in Cork. Today all that remains of it is Red Abbey Tower.

In the 13th century, the friars came to Cork. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach and help the poor. In Cork, there were Dominican friars (known as black friars because of their black costumes) and Franciscan or grey friars.

In 1349 the Black Death came to Cork and it may have killed half the population of the town. However, Cork recovered from the disaster.

In 1491 a man named Perkin Warbeck arrived in Cork. He claimed to be the rightful king of England and in 1492 tried to overthrow Henry VII. The mayor of Cork and several important citizens went with Warbeck to England but when the rebellion collapsed they were all captured and executed. After the attempted rebellion Cork became known as ‘rebel Cork’.

At the end of the 16th century, the English built a fort to overawe the population of Cork. It was destroyed in 1603 but it was rebuilt. The Elizabethan fort was burned by the anti-treaty forces in 1922 during the civil war. In 1649 Cork was captured by Cromwell.

By the mid-17th century, Cork was a flourishing town with a population of about 5,000 (most of them living outside the Medieval walls). By the standards of the time, Cork was a large and important town.

However, in the 1660s Cattle Acts forbade the Irish to export cattle to England. After that Cork began to export vast amounts of butter and beef instead.

In 1690 Cork underwent a 5-day siege by the army of William of Orange. Cork was captured by John Churchill, William’s general, and afterward, the walls were destroyed.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, French Protestants (Huguenots) arrived in Cork fleeing from religious persecution in France. The Huguenot Quarter and French Church Street get its name from them.

Many new buildings were erected in Cork in the 18th century. Christ Church was built in 1720-26. St Annes Shandon was built in 1722-26. The famous Shandon bells were installed in 1752. South Chapel was built in 1766. South Presentation Convent was founded in 1776 by Nano Nangle.

During the 18th century, Cork was a busy port. A Custom House was built in 1724. In the 18th century, Cork exported large amounts of butter to Britain, the rest of Europe, and North America. Large quantities of beef were also exported. A Corn Market was built in 1740. The Butter Market was built in 1750.

During the early 19th century the population of Cork exploded. By the middle of the 19th century, Cork had a population of about 80,000. Some of the increase was due to immigration from the countryside as people fled from poverty. There was a great deal of poverty and overcrowding in Cork during this century. However, in the late 19th century, the population of Cork declined slightly. (At that time the population of the whole of Ireland fell substantially).

From the time of the potato famine (1845-1849), onward Cork was the main port for emigrants from Ireland to the USA and other countries. It remained the main port for emigrants well into the 20th century as vast numbers of people fled extreme poverty.

During the 19th century, important industries in Cork included brewing, distilling, wool, and shipbuilding. Cork was also, of course, an important port. During the 19th century, large numbers of Irish people emigrated from Cork. In 1852 an Irish Industrial Exhibition was held in Cork.

Parliament Bridge was built in 1806. A new Custom House was built in Cork in 1818. Cork County Jail was built in 1825. The Court House was built in 1835. Cork Workhouse was built in 1840. Cork City Goal was designed in 1867.

There were several improvements in Cork during the 19th century. In 1825 Cork gained gaslight. The Cork Examiner was first published in 1841. The railway reached Cork in 1849. Also in 1849 University College Cork opened. The first fire brigade in Cork was formed in 1877. The first public library in Cork opened in 1892.

Mercy Hospital was founded in 1857. A Statue of Father Matthew was erected in 1864. n St Mary’s and St Anne’s Cathedral was built in 1808 but it burned down in 1820 and had to be rebuilt. St Patrick’s Church was built in 1836. St Fin Barre’s Cathedral was consecrated in 1870.

St Fin Barre’s

In the late 19th century some of the worst slums in Cork were demolished by the Corporation. However, the inhabitants were not rehoused by the corporation. They were forced to find new housing where they could in the city. The sites of slums were sold to the Improved Dwellings Company. The built ‘model’ dwellings with street names such as Prosperity Square and Industry Place. The new houses were too expensive for the poor and most went to skilled workers.

During the 20th century, Cork continued to grow. The National Monument was erected in 1906 and Honan Chapel was built in 1915. n In March 1920 the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) murdered the Lord Mayor of Cork, a man named Tomas Mac Curtain. In October 1920 the next Lord Mayor, a man named Terence MacSwiney, died while on hunger strike in a British prison.

In 1920 the British government formed a paramilitary organization called the Black and Tans (named after the color of their uniforms). They were sent to Ireland to reinforce the RIC.

Cork suffered severely at the hands of the Black and Tans. In December 1920 the Black and Tans burned large parts of the city center including the City Hall. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1936.

Furthermore, during the Irish Civil War, Cork was held temporarily by the anti-treaty forces.

Dalys Bridge was built in 1926. Christ the King Church was built in 1937.

During the 20th century slum clearance continued in Cork and did not end until the 1960s. New estates of public housing were built to replace the old slums.

In 1917 Henry Ford opened a car factory in Cork. However, the Buttermarket in Cork closed in 1924.

Furthermore, in the late 20th century, the old manufacturing industries in Cork declined. The Ford factory closed in 1980. So did the Dunlop tyre factory. Shipbuilding in Cork also came to an end in the 1980s. As a result of these closures, unemployment was high in Cork in the 1980s.

However, in the 1990s new industries came to Cork. Marina Commercial Park was built on the site of the old Dunlop and Ford plants. Loughmahon Technology was also created at that time. Cork Airport Business Park first opened in 1999. Today other industries in Cork include chemicals, brewing, distilling, and food processing. Cork is also a busy and important port. Tourism is also an important industry.

Meanwhile, Cork Public Museum opened in 1945, and Cork Airport opened in 1961. In 1963 President John Kennedy visited Cork and Cork Opera House was built in 1965.

Parnell Bridge was built in 1971. Trinity Bridge was built in 1977. Michael Collins Bridge was built in 1984.

The first Cork Jazz Festival was held in 1978. Triskel Arts Centre was founded in 1979.

Bishop Lucey Park or City Park opened in 1985. Furthermore, the Butter Museum in Cork opened in 1985. Cork’s Neptune Stadium was also built in 1985.

The National Sculpture Factory opened in 1989. Also in 1989 Merchants Quay Shopping Centre opened. Jack Lynch Tunnel opened in 1999.

In the 21st century, Cork is still flourishing. Cork was the European City of Culture in 2005. In 2024 the population of Cork was 225,000.