Visitor Information

History of Cork

Founding of Cork

According to tradition, the city of Cork was founded in the 7th century when St Finbarr set up a monastery around the area of present day Gilabbey Street. For centuries the abbey became famous as a school of learning. This however all came to an end when in 820 Cork was invaded by the Vikings.

The Vikings held possession of Cork under the rule of Diarmuid MacCarthy until the arrival of the Anglo Normans. In 1172 Diarmuid surrendered the city to King Henry 11 and following the English conquest, stonewalls were installed all around the city. Cork was given its first charter in 1185 thus granting the townspeople certain rights.

13th and 14th Century

The population of Cork in 1300 was estimated to be about 800 people. Despite the wealth of the town, daily life in medieval Cork was difficult; overcrowding was common and water supply was often contaminated by sewage.

Cork developed into a prosperous port in the 13th and 14th century. The main imports to Cork are believed to have been wine, cloth and spices while the principal exports were wool, grain and beef. The prosperity of the city received a devastating blow in 1349 following the arrival of the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) where 25-35% of the population died.

16th Century

In 1588 Queen Elizabeth became Queen of England. Elizabeth 1 re-enacted the Act of Supremacy and initiated the Plantation. In 1690 Cork fell in the famous battle of the Siege of Cork as English forces comprehensively defeated the Irish as the walls of Cork failed to protect its citizens. Following the Siege of Cork large portions of the city wall were dismantled. After the siege, trading began to flourish and the city centre increased in population. As a result the city authorities began to develop the city.

17th and 18th Century

Trade in Cork

In the late seventeen century Cork begin to develop a reputation as a centre of trade and provisions. Large quantities of butter, beef, fish and pork were exported to England and the Colonies. Throughout the 18th century trade continued to flourish. By the end of the century barrels of butter were being exported to places such as New Zealand and Jamaica. The butter trade is particularly associated with Cork and at its heyday during the 1880’s the Butter market was exporting nearly 500,000 tonnes of butter a year.

The textile industries also flourished in Cork during this period. The demand for linen for sailcloth helped the growth of the Douglas sailcloth factory which was the biggest such factory in Europe by 1726. The woolen and cotton industries were very important with O’Mahony’s Woolen Mills in Blarney and Sadleir’s cotton mills in Glasheen being particularly prominent. The late 1700s saw the tanning, brewing, and distilling industries flourish. The Beamish and Crawford brewery established in 1792 became the biggest of its kind in Ireland.

Life in Cork

Despite the economic progress of the city, life for the lower classes was not easy. In 1773 the population was 56,000. By 1790 it had increased to 73,000. This population explosion created many social problems. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 exposed many difficulties within Cork’s economy. A general recession ensued and there was little demand for Irish products. Unemployment rose especially for those working in the provisions trade and life was difficult for the working class.

19th Century

The second half of the nineteenth century saw little change in the state of the local economy. Between the years 1845-1850 Ireland was hit by The Great Famine which arose following the failure of the potato, a crop which was a core component of the Irish diet. During this period people in Cork suffered greatly and faced unimaginable pain and death.

Many of the public institutions and the public utilities in Cork city date from the nineteenth century. The railways, which transformed Europe and America during the industrial revolution of that century, arrived in Cork in the 1850s. Gas was first used for public lighting in the city in 1826 and electricity was first used in Cork in 1881.

Several steamship companies flourished in Cork during the nineteenth century. The Sirius, the first steamship to make a transatlantic crossing by steam power alone left from Cork in 1838.  University College Cork, then known as Queen’s College, was opened in 1849 and the Crawford School of Art and Gallery opened in the 1880s.

20th Century

In the opening decades of the 20th century Cork was profoundly affected by events of national importance. Among these were the War of Independence and the Civil War.

Two men played a pivotal role in the drive for Irish Independence; Eamon De Valera and Cork born Michael Collins. Together they helped Sinn Fein become a potent force in Anglo Irish Politics. In 1919 they set up their own parliament in Dublin which was opposed by the British Authorities.  

War of Independence

During the War of Independence, Cork was one of the major centre’s of the conflict. The three most significant episodes from the War of Independence in Cork City are the deaths of Lord Mayor Tomás MacCurtain, Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney and the burning of Cork City.

In 1921 delegates from Dail Eireann led by Michael Collins went to Britain to negotiate a peace treaty. The treaty was passed in the Dail despite significant objections from politicians including Eamon De Valera. A Civil War ensured. In August 1922, Michael Collins was killed in an ambush in Beal na Blath in County Cork and his death marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War.

Post Civil War 1930-1980

Following the Civil War, Cork endured decades of comparative economic stability. While Cork enjoyed a period of economic prosperity in the 1960s and early 1970s, the city was economically devastated during the late 1970s and 1980s as local industries were unable to compete with foreign enterprises which had freer access to the Irish market since Ireland had joined the EU. The closure of Dunlop’s and Fords in the early 80’s was a major economic blow to the city as thousands of people were forced to emigrate.

1990- Present Day

Ireland’s economy, and that of Cork city, began to recover in the late 1980s and record-breaking rates of economic growth were achieved in the 1990s, a time which is known as the Celtic Tiger. The transformation of the city from its run-down condition in the 1980s has been remarkable. The main industries in Cork today include pharmaceutical, chemical, brewing, distilling and food processing. Tourism continues to play an import role and Cork has become a busy and important port which exudes a cosmopolitan feel to it reflected by virtue of it being chosen as European Capital of Culture in 2005.