Cork City’s unique character derives from the combination of its plan, topography, built fabric and its location at a point where the River Lee divides to form a number of waterways. Medieval Cork developed on islands in the River Lee and its original layout survives in the historic core of the city. Medieval Cork was a walled city and the shadow of the wall remains today, influencing the streetscape and street pattern.
The medieval street layout is largely retained in the modern street plan of the central core. The walled enclosure of medieval Cork extending from South Gate Bridge to North Gate Bridge was bisected by the long spine of the main street - today's South and North Main Streets. Many laneways and alleys led off the street at right angles. A large number of laneways still exist. Others are incorporated into the layout of later buildings, e.g. giving access to backyards usually at either side of a pair of houses. The size of property units is generally retained as in medieval times.
Historically Cork extended from the medieval walled city in a number of directions. The roads from the south and north were developed contemporaneously with the walled town (indeed the area around St. Fin Barre's Cathedral predates it). From the later 17th century, the city gradually reclaimed the river marshes to the west and east. The newly reclaimed areas were separated by river channels which were used by the expanding shipping trade. As trade grew, and as ships grew larger, the port activities moved downriver to the east and many of the river channels were covered over, becoming the wider streets and urban spaces like St. Patrick's Street, Grand Parade, South Mall, Cornmarket Street and Emmet Place. In the early 19th century Washington Street was created, cutting through the densely built up former medieval city, to connect the newly developed City Centre with the western suburbs. At the same time, the villas and country houses on the hills to the north and south were giving way to the blocks of terraced Georgian-style houses, many associated with the military barracks and navy.
The mills, warehouses, distilleries, breweries and other industrial buildings which survive in many parts of Cork bear witness to the great economic expansion of the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of these buildings, as well as being of industrial archaeological importance, are also of significant architectural and social interest, and contribute greatly to the city's character. The lanes of small single and two-storey houses provided homes for the industrial workers.
The early twentieth century (between 1900 and 1920) saw the city break out of its historical confines with the development of a large housing stock to meet the needs of the city and the start of the new industrial development areas in areas such as the large racecourse estate, now described as Docklands. From 1920 the city expanded dramatically based upon private transport provided by the car, with the development of large housing and industrial areas with new spacious and leafy layouts. The city’s architectural styles in the twentieth century reflected the international movements but with a distinctive Cork twist.
Further information on the history of Cork can be found in a variety of locations, including:
History of Cork http://www.corkcity.ie/aboutcork/historyofcork/
Local Studies Section of the Library, which includes historic maps http://www.corkpastandpresent.ie/