In the opening decades of the 20th century Cork was profoundly effected by events of international and national importance. Among these were World War One, the War of Independence and the Civil War. Ironically the century began very auspiciously for Cork with the Cork International Exhibition of 1902 – 1903.
In 1901 the then Lord Mayor of Cork, Edward Fitzgerald, proposed that Cork should stage an international industrial exhibition in 1902. The proposal was enthusiastically received by all sections of Cork society and planning for the exhibition soon began. The site chosen was an area of parkland between the Cork County Cricket Grounds and Wellington Bridge, now renamed Thomas Davis Bridge. The plans for the exhibition were extraordinarily imaginative and ambitious. It promised to be by far the most spectacular exhibition ever hosted in Cork.
The grounds were laid out meticulously with pavilions, kiosks, ornamental walks, tea houses, an enormous water chute and a switchback railway featuring among the attractions. Exhibition halls were built and a house on the grounds named ‘The Shrubberies’ was renamed the Mansion House for the duration of the exhibition. The exhibition attracted exhibitors from across the globe, displaying their industrial, agricultural and artistic wares. It opened on 1 May 1902 amid scenes of celebration and enthusiasm. Its success surpassed all expectations, attracting visitors from all over Ireland, Europe and beyond. After it officially closed on 1 November 1902, it was decided to stage a similar exhibition in 1903. The 1903 exhibition repeated the success of its predecessor and was graced by a visit from Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.
The Cork International Exhibition of 1902 – 1903 finally closed on 31 October 1903. Edward Fitzgerald was created a baronet by Edward VII. The grounds were donated to Cork Corporation as a recreational park for the citizens of Cork. The park was named, appropriately Fitzgerald’s Park. The Mansion House now houses part of Cork Public Museum. Films including scenes from the exhibition were discovered in Blackburn some years ago and were recently shown at the 2004 Cork Film Festival. The films form part of the Mitchell Kenyon collection and will be available commercially in 2005.
In the years preceding the outbreak of World War One political life in Ireland centred on the struggle to achieve Home Rule. On 28 September 1918 Asquiths Home Rule became law with the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party led by John Redmond . Its provisions were immediately suspended for the duration of the war. World War One, as it came to be known was expected to be over in a matter of months. Redmond, William O'Brien and other nationalist leaders called for support for the war. The more radical wing of the nationalist movement opposed the war. This difference in attitude towards the war led to a split in the Irish Volunteer movement in Cork as in the rest of the country. Support for the war was widespread in Cork. Many men volunteered for the army and organisations were set up to support the troops, the wounded and the families of those in the armed forces. For a time divisions between nationalists and unionists appeared to be forgotten. The German invasion of Catholic Belgium outraged Irish Catholic opinion and anti-German sentiment was common among the population, fuelled by reports of German atrocities. As the war dragged on and casualties assumed horrific proportions enthusiasm waned. Cork got a taste of the horrors of the war when The Lusitania was sunk off the Old Head of Kinsale on 8 May 1915. The treatment of the leaders of the 1916 Rising and the attempt to introduce conscription to Ireland in 1918 caused widespread outrage. Members of the Cork City Corps of the Irish Volunteers occupied Saint Francis Hall on Sheares Street during the 1916 Rising but no actual violence occurred in Cork, thanks partly to the efforts of Bishop Daniel Cohalan and Lord Mayor Thomas C. Butterfield. The feeling that Britain would renege on the promise of Home Rule and the withdrawal of the Irish Parliamentary Party from Westminster were among the factors that led to the victory of Sinn Féin in the general election of 1918. The divisions between nationalists and unionists were to the fore again as Ireland slid seemingly inexorably towards the War of Independence. During World War One over two thousand Corkmen were killed, some eleven hundred of them from Cork City alone. Many of them lie buried with hundreds of thousands of other British soldiers in the cemeteries of northern France and Flanders.