Cork is unique among Irish cities. It is the only one which has experienced all phases of Irish urban development. Some towns were founded by the Vikings, others by planters, and others by landlords and industrialists. Cork alone has experienced them all. It originated as a monastic centre; it was transformed into a Scandinavian port; it was expanded by the Anglo-Normans; it was enlarged by English colonists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; it was remodelled in Georgian and Victorian times when spacious streets and elegant town houses were constructed; its docks, warehouses and rows of artisan dwellings attest the impact of the industrial revolution; and in our own time, it has experience both the growth of substantial suburbs and the beginnings of inner-city renewal. For well over a thousand years Cork has attracted Gael and Gall alike and the modern city reflects the fusion of many diverse cultural traditions.
- John Bradley and Andrew Halpin, 'The Topographical Development of Scandinavian and Anglo-Norman Cork', Cork : History and Society ed. P.D. Flanagan and C.G. Buttimer (Geography Publications, 1993), p.15.
Significant historical developments seldom take place within convenient packages of time such as a century or a millennium. Various interests - civic, commercial, ecclesiastical - demand that we commemorate 2000 AD, despite its dubious validity as an exact anniversary of the birth of Christ, and its hasty anticipation of the real millennium date in a year's time. The historian may be interested in the millenarian hysteria of 1000 AD, but he is otherwise unlikely to find that precise date significant. The same holds true for the smaller calendar segment of the century: 1914, for example, is a more meaningful date for the commencement of twentieth-century Europe than the rather arbitrary year of 1900. Similarly, for the historian of twentieth-century Ireland, 1922 is more significant than 1900.
Applying these general observations to the political, civic and municipal history of Cork, we find we have to add nearly two centuries to the first millennium to come up with firm and significant dates in our city's historical perspective, namely, when Cork became an Anglo-Norman conquest, was declared a royal borough (1177) and received its first charter (1185). This point of departure was well and truly commemorated in 1985, when one of the highlights of 'Cork 800' was a weekly series in the Cork Examiner dealing comprehensively with the history of the city. However, the new millennium again offers the opportunity for reviewing the most salient developments, over a thousand years or so, that have made Cork what it is today. We should first mention the two basic legacies from the first millennium, one spiritual and traditional, the other physical and topographical - the tradition of St. Finbarr; and the location of the pre-Norman settlement.
Though modern scholarship asserts that St. Finbarr was an Ulsterman and never set foot in Cork, he retains an unshakeable place in the popular tradition and he has closer links with Cork than any other Irish town has with its patron. The legend of his journey from his Gougane Barra hermitage down the Lee to his new foundation at Cork, symbolises the unity of county and city through the storied river, as well as transcending the Catholic - Protestant divide, since both denominations are eager to claim him. The seventh-century monastic school was the seminal urban settlement from which developed the Viking town and the medieval trading city and port. The Finbarrian tradition is so central to Cork local pietas that Sir Robert Kane, first president of Queens College Cork, paid due homage to powerful local emotions in his speech on opening day, 7 November 1849. 'Fin Barra, the patron saint of Cork Ö left to his followers the charge of founding a seat of learning in this place: here, after nearly a thousand years, we open now the portals of this edifice and accept the task of training the youth of Munster'.
While the monastic settlement was located in the Gilabbey - Saint Fin Barre's region, the area of what is now South Main Street was the nucleus of the tenth century Scandinavian town in Corcach Mór na Mumhan, ' the great marsh of Munster'. Gael as well as Gall, native Irish as well as foreigner, figured in this early pre-Norman development. With the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the later twelfth century, the physical layout of the city was established in a form which lasted essentially down to the late eighteenth century when the building-over of waterways and the development of new bridges shifted the centre of commercial gravity eastwards. But during the intervening centuries the street pattern of Cork was linear, ' two islands - one street' running from south-gate to north-gate, with a separating strip of water along what later became Castle Street - Liberty Street. Lanes ran at right angles with property strips running back from the street to the town wall. Stone fortifications (and from the early fourteenth century, stone houses) religious foundations as well as the 'suburb' of Shandon in the north, with a corresponding suburb in the south, all marked the development of early medieval Cork.
Pre-Norman Cork was a rudimentary kind of town, where the early townspeople lived in a confused context of primitive trading and, paradoxically, of prayer and plunder. The achievement of the Normans was to establish royal boroughs in Cork, Youghal, Waterford and Limerick. A settlement truly becomes a city only when it takes on legal and administrative dimensions. Self-government under the crown enabled such boroughs as Cork to exercise the kind of legal, commercial and economic autonomy that encouraged growth and prosperity. The strategic importance of Cork as a port city greatly facilitated its development. Trade was its life blood from the beginning and the city was dependent in the first place on agricultural products from the hinterland and therefore on commercial relations with the Gaelic Irish who stood in uneasy relationship with the burgesses. That became particularly so during the Gaelic resurgence from the late fourteenth century when towns like Cork played a vital role in defending the English colony.
Though Gaelic Ireland was never strong enough to overthrow the colony, the sense of being under siege is very evident in representations made by the citizens to the crown for greater security. In 1381, the mayor and bailiffs of Cork claimed that 'the city from its situation was liable to be conquered by enemies unless it were defended by a force of armed men'. In 1384, a chimney tax was levied to pay watchmen 'who were posted on the borders of the enemy'. In 1406, the city 'was so encumbered with evil neighbours, the Irish outlaws, that the inhabitants were forced to watch their gates continually, to keep them shut from sun set to sun arising, nor suffer any stranger to enter them with his weapon'. Also around this time, in the summer of 1349, the small population (1500 - 2000) was ravaged by the Black Death or bubonic plague, then sweeping Europe.
In the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses, Yorkist pretenders to the English crown (worn victoriously by the Lancastrian Henry Tudor, Henry VII since 1485) won support in various parts of Ireland, with one interesting and curious consequence for Cork. Waterford resisted both Lambert Simnel (1488) and Perkin Warbeck (1491) and for its loyalty was dubbed the urbs intacta, the untouched city. Cork however took a different line and earned a quite different, and eventually a more famous, sobriquet. Warbeck was supported by Mayor John Water and the citizens. A price was paid in the temporary forfeiture of its charter and the execution of Water, along with Warbeck himself, in London in 1499. And so the famous description, 'rebel Cork', was originally applied by the crown as a derogatory designation but seems to have been adopted by the citizens as a badge of pride. It was in popular use long before it took on connotations of republican resistance to British rule early in the twentieth century. The term was further strengthened by Cork's rearguard resistance to the new Irish Free State in 1922. Today, the slogan 'up the Rebels' is most commonly and loudly vociferated by Cork's GAA followers : most of them are blissfully unaware of its fifteenth-century English royalist origins!
The great political, religious and plantation upheavals from the mid-sixteenth century eventually brought profound changes to Cork. The Munster plantation from the 1580s stimulated a new trading phase which greatly benefited the city. The entrenched Old English class, loyal in politics but Catholic in religion, maintained their dominance for a period but the Confederate War (1642 - 49) was a critical turning point. In August 1644, in a radical measure of ethnic cleansing 'all the Irish inhabitants within the city of Cork' were ordered to be expelled. Many of these politico-religious refugees who fled westwards never again took possession of their households. Tradition suggests that the 1644 expulsion originated the legendary Macroom custom of lifting up the newly born and facing them in the direction of Cork as towards their rightful inheritance!
Municipal government continued in crisis until the mid-1650s by which time the Cromwellian conquest was completed and a New English/Protestant elite had emerged in Cork. This Protestant domination was finally secured when Marlborough recaptured Cork for William of Orange in September 1690 after a destructive siege, a traumatic episode in the city's history. Henceforward, for a century and a half, Cork was dominated by a Protestant merchant oligarchy, though gradually they came to be challenged by prosperous Catholic merchants. Gaelic culture also continued to express itself in various forms on the fringes and in the hinterland of the city.
Meanwhile, the descendants of those who had been prominent in trade and society before 1641 did not entirely vanish and it took a long time for the ancient families of the Goulds, the Terrys, the Coppingers and the Meades to be eclipsed by the new merchant princes in the butter, meat, textiles, tanning, brewing and distilling industries - the Murphys, the Beamishes, the Lyonses and the Hacketts.
The eighteenth century, particularly its second half, and the years to the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, were the golden age of Cork's economy and the period when it became firmly established as Ireland's second city. At that time, Cork thrived while Galway and Limerick declined. Population was an important factor in Cork's social and economic development both as a cause and a consequence. According as the city expanded physically with the reclamation of slob and marsh, and as a thriving economy grew on the back of a prosperous agricultural export trade, the population increased rapidly - first in a dramatic jump from 10,000 - 12,000 in the 1670s to an estimated 17,600 in 1706, 41,000 in 1750, 57,000 in 1796 and a remarkable 80,000 by 1821. It remained reasonably stable around that figure during the nineteenth century, falling by only 6 per cent from 1841 to 1891, a period when the national population declined by 40 per cent. But the Cork statistic is less impressive when we realise that it includes substantial immigration from depressed rural areas whose inhabitants were attracted by urban prosperity. Cork remained Ireland's second city until 1841; thereafter industrial Belfast pulled ahead, trebling its population by the end of the century.
In the eighteenth century, Cork became the most important centre for butter production in the Atlantic world. A committee of merchants ran the Cork Butter Market which handled nearly half of all Irish butter exports by 1789. Beef and pork exports were similarly impressive - provisioning British navy and army supply ships was a thriving business - while prosperous textile and tanning industries provided substantial employment for a growing population and catered for the export as well as the home market.
Cork's dominance as a trading and export centre was due to a good pastoral hinterland favourable to the maintenance of thriving dairy herds in the Lee and Bandon valleys; to high-quality entrepreneurs; to a productive and skilled population; and to its strategically situated harbour. Indeed, the harbour is of the essence, and the city has always identified itself with the harbour. The motto on the city's crest is statio bene fida carinis, 'a trustworthy anchorage for ships' which is a benign adaptation of a phrase from Virgil's Aeneid. The harbour was of vital importance for British naval supremacy. Even more important was its commercial function. It channelled the valuable provisioning trade, and the regular trade with Bristol and other British ports, as well as with continental centres.
Commercial and industrial decline set in at the close of the Napoleonic wars. A severe price fall in agricultural produce, the falling-off in the provisioning trade, the adverse impact of Anglo-Irish market integration following the Act of Union - these were some of the factors that caused a widespread depression leading to unemployment particularly in the textiles industry and to deterioration of living conditions, especially in the post-famine era when the city was unable to absorb the flow of destitutes from the rural areas. However, butter exports still went on, while brewing and distilling continued to give employment, though these trades were hit by the success of Fr. Matthew's temperance campaign from the late 1830s.
Meanwhile the city was greatly expanding to provide for its population explosion, though a phenomenon remarked on at various stages was people's reluctance to relocate from the central areas. Street commissioners were responsible from 1765 for the layout of the South Terrace and afterwards for the construction of the fine Great George's Street (later renamed Washington Street), characterised by the Courthouse built in 1836. Also in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries came the filling-in of channels and the construction of numerous bridges, including St. Patrick's Bridge. Throughout the nineteenth century suburban residence became the norm for Cork's middle classes, with Sunday's Well, Tivoli and Blackrock being variously fashionable. The tramline system from 1898 offered the citizens a reliable and economic means of enjoying residence in the suburbs while shopping and working in the city centre.
'Ionad Bhairre, Scoil na Mumhan'. 'Where Finbarr taught let Munster learn'. If Cork is outstandingly a port and harbour city, it is no less a university town. On various approach roads today, signs proudly proclaim that Cork has been a university city since 1845. That was the year of the legislation setting up the Queens Colleges, though the building of Queens College Cork was not completed until 1849, when 115 young men (no women until 1885 - 86) comprised the first student body.
A powerful and influential Munster Provincial College Committee had long agitated for the establishment of a centre of higher education in the province, and Cork rather than Limerick was finally chosen as the location. There was already a well-established tradition of medical training in the city, as well as a lively interest in 'useful knowledge' - the great cry of the day - expressed in such thriving bodies as the Royal Cork Institution. A lecturer at that Institution observed that in no other city was there 'a greater anxiety for really useful knowledge than in Cork. I attribute it very much to the domestic habits of the people of Cork who are fond of staying at home in the evening and reading'
When the College opened its doors on 7 November 1849, the attendance at the inaugural ceremony was richly representative of Cork civic and commercial life. In a letter to city councillors, the mayor, Sir William Lyons, had stressed the importance of accepting the College's invitation to the opening - 'of so much local and general interest' - and of a full attendance in official robes. Yet for a long period the College seemed a privileged and alien enclave to most of the citizens, with an ethos hostile to the majority's religious and nationalist aspirations. This situation eventually changed when the Queens College was transformed into University College in 1908, with a more democratic governance and a more representative student intake.
By and large, town and gown have co-existed in mutually profitable harmony in this century, though there have been occasional tensions. As a Cork ballad puts it, 'in the Courthouse and the College, there are different sorts of knowledge'. Townspeople have been sometimes prickly about what they see as academic elitism and pretensions, and the citizens have not taken kindly at times to student high spirits on rag days!
But these minor and occasional hiccups do not at all detract from the great significance of Cork as a university city. As a bustling academic centre and in terms of the local economy, UCC continues to generate considerable spending power. It has vigorously stimulated scholarship and the arts in the city and the region, and in areas such as adult education and music it has provided a vital community service. In terms of its primary function of supplying higher education and professional training (to a student body the largest proportion of which has always come from the city itself) it remains the premier third-level educator in Cork and Munster, despite challenges presented by the arrival of new institutions, such as the thriving Cork Institute of Technology. Finally, in terms of nineteenth-century suburban growth, the College was the catalyst for the development of the striking western approaches to the city. The handsome buildings and riverside grounds have lent a distinctive and elegant appearance to a large neighbourhood over a hundred and fifty years.
Nineteenth and early twentieth century Cork was sharply polarised along class lines. There were, as always, numerous and subtle gradations of class but broadly speaking, a privileged minority was indifferent to the plight of the masses - over 70% of all families were living in slums during the second half of the nineteenth century. Leaders of the working classes were conservatives, socially speaking. They were concerned to preserve the aristocracy of the artisans against the unskilled. They were encouraged to accept their station in life by the Churches and the press, and diverted from socialist objectives by the lure of nationalist aspirations - in turn, Repeal, Home Rule and, for Fenians, the will-o-the-wisp and supposed panacea of an Irish Republic. Meanwhile, the professional and merchant classes were divided along sectarian lines, with Catholics envious of Protestant ascendancy in municipal politics (the Cork Examiner denounced 'the rotten Orange Corporation of Cork') until a level playing field was eventually created with such measures as the Municipal Reform Act (1840) and the Local Government Act of 1898, so that Cork Corporation became gradually democratised and representative.
Cork nationalist politics were exciting and turbulent in the faction-ridden years following the death of Charles Stewart Parnell who was MP for the city, 1880 - 91. The most colourful and volatile figure at the turn of the century was William O'Brien who was commemorated in a corporation name change in Blackpool - from Great Britain Street to Great William O'Brien Street! The radical nationalist tradition in Cork politics found strong expression in the resurgence of Sinn Féin after 1916. The dramatic and tragic highlights of this period were the burning of the city centre by crown forces in December 1920, and before that, the murder of Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain in March and the death from hunger strike in the following October of his successor Terence MacSwiney. The public demonstration of sympathy at their obsequies was not to be seen again until the State funeral in October 1999, as the century drew to a close, of Jack Lynch, statesman and sportsman, and favourite Cork son of all time.
One notable development in twentieth-century Cork municipal history has been the great prestige of the office of Lord Mayor. Because of the city's particular size and intimate atmosphere, the mayoralty would always have a particular role irrespective of other circumstances. But this role was raised to a very special relationship in 1920 because of the ultimate sacrifice in office of Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney. The title of Lord Mayor, though a royal designation, was cherished, paradoxically, by the two martyred republicans.
'I would die rather than part with it' said Terence MacSwiney when they tried to take his chain of office from him after his arrest in the City Hall on 12 August, 1920. At his courtmartial, he castigated his judges for their violation of his office as Lord Mayor and Chief Magistrate. The murder of Tomás MacCurtain was a similar violation of his honourable office. Both Lord Mayors had a remarkably exalted sense of their 'great' city, as they termed it, and therefore of its highest position.
Although they sensed their time was pitifully short, they both aspired to creating the ideal municipality in Cork and making it a model of reform and social justice. Their memory will be cherished as long as municipal government lasts in Cork. Both Lord Mayors put the city not alone before self-interest but above party and faction. For them, truly, authority was service. Their ultimate sacrifice was as much civic as nationalist. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that they died for their city no less than for their country. That is why they transformed Cork and its Lord Mayoralty and put the citizens lastingly in their debt. And successive Lord Mayors ever since have been keenly conscious of their special heritage.
The city has experienced a phenomenal housing and suburban expansion in the twentieth century but there is an immemorial charm about old Cork which the writer Frank O'Connor once described (doubtless with the genteel grandeur of Sunday's Well and Montenotte in mind) as 'a city of tattered grace'. The winding channels of the Lee and the numerous and beautiful bridges make for an infinite variety of Italianate vistas, glimpsed from mid-stream bridges or through narrow lanes. These views often feature Cork's symbolic and most famous landmark, the clock tower of St. Anne's, Shandon with its nostalgic bells 'that sound so grand on the pleasant waters of the river Lee' in Fr. Prout's celebrated lines.
The decades after independence saw a phase of industrialisation with early multinational investment in the shape of Fords and Dunlops which afforded steady employment for years to Cork workers who also continued Cork's native textile tradition in such plants as Sunbeam. Native government also witnessed great advances in public housing, and in Cork vast local authority estates took shape on the south side and on the hilly slopes above the North Cathedral, siphoning the population away from the decayed 'marsh' area in the city centre. Meanwhile, the outer suburbs continued to proliferate.
When the staple employment industries of car assembly and textiles collapsed later in the century under common market pressure, they were replaced in time by chemical plants, electronic businesses and high-tech industries, with a new wave of inward investment from multi-nationals. Cork shared in the remarkable 'celtic tiger' prosperity of the late 1990s. Enlightened municipal management policies arrested and reversed inner city dereliction in the last decades of the millennium. Mean alleys have been transformed into delightful continental-style retreats of restaurants and boutiques. The opening of Bishop Lucey Park in 1985 gave the city centre its first open space. Meanwhile, a land use and transportation study (LUTS) was gradually implemented to deal with ever-growing traffic problems. By the last year of the millennium, harassed motorists and truckers were experiencing considerable relief through the provision of ring roads and, in particular, through the magnificent municipal achievement of the Jack Lynch tunnel under the Lee, from Mahon to Glanmire.
The harbour, so crucial to the Cork economy for centuries, and also sadly associated with emigration since the Famine, has continued to play a central role in greatly charged circumstances. Earlier on, grain, coal, fruit and timber imports developed storage and warehouse facilities in the dock area. Various harbour activities, as well as the vital business of dredging, came under the auspices of the Harbour Commissioners whose splendid office, interior and façade, is one of the city's most notable architectural features. The political significance of the harbour was pointed up in 1938 when the British return of naval bases, in Cork harbour as elsewhere, completed the process of sovereignty - transfer begun in 1922. Today, large cross-channel and continental ferries constitute another dimension of harbour business, as do the numerous industrial and chemical sites from Little Island to the lower harbour in the Ringaskiddy area. Beyond the harbour mouth is the rich fishing ground of the Celtic Sea and the flowing resource of natural gas.
Meanwhile international travel in and out of the city was transformed and intensified by the development of the thriving Cork Airport (opened 1961) which combines efficiency with a warm and distinctive local flavour.
The vibrancy of Cork at the turn of the millennium is also evident in cultural areas, education and the arts. Cork Institute of Technology is a relatively new arrival on the third - level educational field long dominated by UCC. The City of Cork Vocational Educational Committee administers a varied educational network of colleges of art and design, commerce, music and community and adult education. In the performing arts, dramatic and musical presentations thrive in a number of centres. In this respect, as in other areas, a self-confident Cork does not suffer at all from an insecure second-city syndrome.
Finally, the City Fathers and Mothers do not restrict themselves to the mundane tasks of providing essential municipal services to the citizens. Through their subventions to scholarly and cultural societies, their employment of a city archaeologist and their direct management of a library service, archives institute, and a municipal museum, they have demonstrated their commitment to the cultural dimension as an integral part of civic life, and not merely an optional frill. This commitment is symbolised at the start of the new millennium by a splendid new wing of the municipal museum in Fitzgerald Park and by the refurbishment and extension of the concert area of the City Hall, the premier location of great musical performances in Cork.
Cork : History and Society, ed. Patrick O'Flanagan and Cornelius G. Buttimer (Geography Publications 1993);
'Cork 800' weekly (Wednesdays) articles in the Cork Examiner January - November, 1985.
John A. Murphy is Emeritus Professor of Irish History at UCC.