About Cork

Cork – A Historical Note

Cork, or Corcaigh or 'The Great Marsh of Munster' had its historic beginning in the 7th century when St. Finbarr founded his monastic settlement on what is now Gillabbey Rock. Finbarr is recorded in the Irish calendars of Saints, while in modern times he is seen as Bishop, missionary and scholar. With his Saint's Day on 25th September, he has emerged out of the deep lore of Irish mythology to enter history as the first Abbot of Cork, succeeded in 630 by St. Nessan who was succeeded in turn by Roisseni in 685 AD. The monastery of Cork became a huge centre of learning, a learning tradition that continues in Cork to this day. This great monastic settlement was raided continuously by Vikings; the most devastating raids taking place in 822, 838, 845 and 863 AD. In the years 863, 900 and 952 AD the Abbots themselves were killed. According to the Annals of the Four Masters “Cork was burned with houses and churches” in 1081, and again in 1089. Yet fifty years later a second spring of Irish Monasticism began in Cork with the consecration of a new Abbey of St. Finbarr built by Cormac MacCarthy of Cashel. Thus a powerful era of learning and scholarship opened on Finbarr's rock, an era of Franciscans, Augustinians, Dominicans (whose first house was founded by Lord Philip Barry, ancestor of the Barrymores, in 1229) as well as Knights of St.John of Jerusalem who settled at Red Abbey Marsh, now George's Quay. This Norman and post-Norman era of great religious houses lasted in Cork until the Suppression of the Monasteries. The great Franciscan Friary on North Mall was the first religious house to be suppressed locally, passing into the hands of a Cork merchant, David Sheghan, in 1540. This same property was acquired by Andrew Skiddy in 1566 and subsequently purchased by the Earl of Cork.

The physical shape of Cork derives from its island beginnings. Water and tides, birds and boys fishing, bridges and Amsterdam-like house-fronts, all cajole the walker and casual visitor to the city. Up to the 1770s Cork was a city of waterways, many of which were filled in or culverted. St.Patrick Street was seriously damaged in the dying days of the War of Independence but much of the remaining fabric of the city remains as it was in the 19th Century. Cork has many physical qualities, steps, steeples and hidden squares and lanes. Over the years the medieval plot size and street pattern have been retained, despite much of the city being rebuilt in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The city has also retained much of its character and it is unusual to find a North European city of its size so little affected by 20th Century developments. Mercifully, the Celtic Tiger came late to Cork and developments are only now taking place in an era when much more careful planning, including a sense of scale and history, is brought to bear upon redevelopment. In the mid 1980s Cork was hit by a series of economic blows that would have seriously damaged a less resilient place. In the course of a few years nearly all the city's main industries closed down, leaving tens of thousands unemployed. But in the last fifteen years the city has drawn upon a huge resource of energy and optimism; it has effectively reinvented itself as a vibrant centre for information technology and information-based industries. Cork people are energetic and fun-loving by nature. A quality of life has been retained within Cork that is attractive to the visitor and citizen alike. Nowadays an optimistic populace live within a calm and protected medieval island-city, a city reborn through major programmes of renewal and regeneration.

Cork's life as a city, as a municipal entity, began in the 1180s when King John granted a charter giving the citizens “all the laws and franchises, and frank customs of Bristol.” This charter and the subsequent charter of Henry 111 gave Cork many powerful privileges, including powers to levy tolls and customs on all goods imported and exported as well as many powers in administrative and criminal law. The city operated like an autonomous Continental Republic until the accession of James 1 in 1603. In that year the Corporation committed the fatal political error of refusing to proclaim him king, hence the name 'Rebel Cork.' The city forfeited all of its rights and privileges. The new charter of James in 1608 deprived the city of its power to levy customs duties. After the Cromwellian period of the 1640s local government passed out of the hands of the older Irish and Anglo-Norman families into a new and hostile clique who ran the city until local government reforms in the 1840s. The Municipal Reform Act of 1840 and the Public Health and Local Government Acts of 1898 extended and defined the duties and powers of Local Authority in Cork. In 1813 The Butter Weighhouse Act appointed the Mayor, Sheriffs and twenty one merchants to a powerful new body, The Cork Harbour Commissioners, a body that has joined the destiny of the city to the destiny of the sea for nearly two centuries.

Strategically positioned by a deep harbour of the North Atlantic, Cork is essentially a city of trade. The city's motto ‘Statio Bene Fida Carinis’ – A Safe Harbour for Ships – reveals the essential nature of port and city. Great volumes of traffic from the sea, import and export, emigration and immigration, have been the characteristic strength of the city for over a thousand years. The sea has brought an historic richness to Cork and its hinterland, from Vikings with their crafts guilds and coinage, Dutch merchants with banking and commerce, Huguenots with their textile skills and silver-smithing, even the small nineteenth century Jewish community who have left a heritage of culture and literature. Cork is at one and the same time a city of commerce and poetry, a city of banks and colleges. Hollingshed in his Chronicles characterised Cork people as “...industrious and opulent. They travelled much, and many foreign merchants resided with them...” By 1665 the port of Cork was exporting cattle, pork, bacon and butter in huge quantities to France, Holland, Spain and Portugal. After the arrival of the Huguenots lace-making, woollen manufacture and silk manufacture developed with a huge momentum so that by the 1770s Cork and its hinterland was producing half of all Irish wool. After the establishment of Free Trade between Britain and Ireland in 1779 linen and glass were exported, so that Cork Glass became famous all over Europe as well as in the Americas and the British Colonies. Cork developed rapidly in gold and silver design so that by 1800 there were scores of silver and gold smiths at work, including the famous Carden Terry and Jane Nicholson. During the Napoleonic Era Cork also prospered as a provision centre as well as a port of assembly and embarkation.

The prosperity of the early 19th Century led to the founding of many cultural and educational organisations such as The Royal Cork Institution (1803) and the Cork Society of Arts(1815). This was an era of great monumental works, of the sculptors Hogan and Foley, as well as the sensational arrival from Rome of the Canova Casts. A School of Art and Design was established in 1849, while the Cork School of Music was founded in 1878. Out of this great circle of Cork cultural life came the history painter, James Barry, born in Spring Lane, Blackpool, Cork, and the great portrait painter, Daniel Maclise who was born on the Mardyke, the son of a Scottish shoemaker. Barry's greatest work can be seen at the Royal Society in London as well as The National Gallery of Ireland, while Maclise's great painting of 'The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife' hangs in the Shaw Room of the National Gallery, Dublin.

Cork has also been a great city of writing and publishing, with writers like Francis Sylvester Mahony 'Father Prout', Daniel Corkery, Frank O'Connor, Seán Ó Ríordáin, Mary Leland and Louis De Paor. Corkery was born in 1878 and published a novel, ‘The Threshold of Quiet’, in 1917 as well as the influential ‘Hidden Ireland’ in 1927. Writers like Seán Ó Faoláin and Frank O Connor, born in 1900 and 1903, are two short-story writers who changed the direction of Irish fiction after Joyce. Both men were outward looking, intellectual and multi-lingual, drawing their inspiration from the streets of Cork while finding their literary models in Turgenev and Flaubert. Cork has also produced arguably the most important Irish language poet of the last two centuries in Seán Ó Ríordáin who spent his entire working life as an employee of Cork City Council, working in City Hall and lecturing part-time in University College Cork. Among his students at UCC were the members of an energetic group of Irish language poets that included poets like Michael Davitt, Louis De Paor and Gabriel Rosenstock. Cork's English language literature is also rich with living writers like the poet, Patrick Galvin, the doyen of Cork writing, as well as the novelist Mary Leland and young poets like Theo Dorgan, Greg Delanty, Roz Cowman and Patrick Cotter. The literary creativity of Cork and its hinterland is rich and ongoing, and ambitious for the future.

These writers are helped, no doubt, by the vibrant and successful book trade and publishing enterprises that have always been part of the fabric of Cork. Cork is the only Irish city outside the capital, Dublin, that publishes two daily, nationally distributed, newspapers, The Irish Examiner and The Evening Echo. Two famous Irish journals, Irish Writing and Poetry Ireland, were first edited and published by David Marcus in Cork. At the present time magazines like The Cork Review and The Cork Literary Review as well as the annual Eurochild anthology are published locally. Mercier Press, The Collins Press and Cork University Press continue a publishing tradition that goes back over two hundred years.

The vibrant street life of Cork, its Festivals and meetings, its promenades and sporting facilities, give way regularly to more intimate gatherings from readings to recitals, Irish dancing and story-telling. Local composers like Seán Ó Riada, Seamus de Barra and John Gibson feed the Classical appetites of the city while singer-songwriters like Jimmy MacCarthy, Sinead Lohan, John Spillane and Jimmy Crowley have a huge local following as well as international reputations. Local theatre companies like Corcadorca, Meridien, Graffiti and Boomerang continue a tradition begun by the Smock Alley Company in 1713 when they converted a large room built over a yard off Main Street. The Cork Opera House, The Everyman Palace, The Cork Arts Theatre and the Granary all continue to host mainstream and experimental theatre to this day.

As well as music, theatre, literature and sport, food is also an essential element in the mix of Cork life. By the 1770s food exports out of Cork were larger than those of Dublin: beef, bacon, preserved and tinned veal, game, birds and fish were all exported in vast quantities. At the beginning of the 20th century Cork Corporation owned and supervised five Markets and nowadays the City Council supervises two markets, The English Market and The Coal Quay. In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in fine food, in wholesome and organic provisioning. This renewal of interest in fine food and the widespread enthusiasm to establish high standards for Food Markets marks the return to the pioneering seriousness and professionalism of the 18th Century Butter Merchants. The city and its hinterland has a necklace of the most incredible restaurants, and it would certainly take more than a fortnight to visit even a fraction of the very best of these establishments.

A port city of trade and commerce, a major regional cultural centre with a deeply embedded artistic community, Cork is a city primed for a thousand welcomes. Galleries and arts centres, concert halls and cinemas, pubs and restaurants, all are available and eager to host the stranger and the returning friend. Cork people are curious and open, inquisitive and welcoming. It is within the welcoming hearts of Cork people themselves, a people used to great floodings from the sea, that Europe discovered yet another safe harbour for art and culture.

Thomas McCarthy