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Cork Independent

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Strolling through medieval Cork

Wednesday, 5th December, 2018 4:55pm

In its day the walled town of Cork would have dominated the swampy estuary of the River Lee.

Imagine an eight to ten-metre high and two-metre-wide rubble wall of limestone and sandstone, creeking drawbridges, mud filled main streets and laneways, as well as timber and stone built dwellings complete with falling rood straw and a smokey atmosphere from lit house fires keeping out the damp.

Today the walls are long gone for the most part but one can still re-discover several of the old laneways and later incarnations of structures marking medieval churches, tower houses and entrances.

In the time that the Anglo Normans establishing a fortified walled settlement and a trading centre in Cork around 1200 AD, South Gate Drawbridge formed one of the three entrances – North Gate Bridge and Watergate being the others.

South Gate Drawbridge was a wooden structure and was annually subjected to severe winter flooding, being almost destroyed in each instance and rebuilt and strengthened.

In May 1711, agreement was reached by the council of the city with George Coltsman, a Cork city stone mason/architect that North Gate Bridge would be rebuilt in stone in 1712 while in 1713, South Gate Bridge would be replaced with a stone arched structure. South Gate Bridge still stands today in the same form as it did over 300 years ago.

The controversial site of Cork’s impending event centre site abounds in history. Revealed this year at lectures and an exhibition in Cork City Museum were discovered objects from twelfth century Cork and the medieval church of St Lawrence.

Built upon ancient structures was the world-renowned business of Beamish and Crawford. In the closing decade of the 1700s, the regulations on the export of Cork’s brewed porter were lifted and commercial brewers began to produce large tonnage of beer.

With lower prices, large-scale improvements in quality and more money in distribution, the brewing industry was able to expand.

Several large breweries were established in the city in the 1790s and early 1800s, one of which was Beamish and Crawford, which was set up in 1792. By 1815, Beamish and Crawford were exporting 100,000 barrels of beer.

In 1984/1985, Bishop Lucey Park was created to mark the 800th anniversary of the granting of the first charter by King Henry II to the citizens of the walled town of Cork. Ironically, whilst preparing the ground for the park, a section of the imposing town wall was revealed.

In general, much of the town wall survives beneath the modern street surface of the city and in some places has been incorporated into the foundations of existing buildings in particular buildings overlooking the Grand Parade.

In September 1690 a Jacobite army as well as a number of Irish rebel factions combined forces to take control of Cork to provide a stronghold position against King William.

The actual number of insurgents is not recorded, but it is likely that several hundred soldiers were involved in the takeover of the walled town. These forces were welcomed by the Catholics in the area.

They manned the drawbridges and the town wall-walks, readied numerous buildings and waited for the attack they knew must surely come.

In September 1690, King William despatched the Earl of Marlborough with over eighty ships and approximately five thousand men. On the corner of Grand Parade and Tuckey Street, embedded into the pavement, is a cannon that was reputedly used in the battle; it is thought that it was later used as a mooring post for a quayside in the 1700s.

Christ Church, now the Triskel Christ Church Arts Centre, is reputed to be the third on the site.

The first one was Danish and the second building was Anglo-Norman. In the twelfth century, the Anglo-Normans came and took possession of Cork in 1177 and in 1180, Christ Church was rebuilt as a stone structure on the same site as the first.

The second church comprised a tower, a steeple, a peal of bells and thick walls. Encompassing the church was a college, alms house, gardens and houses for the priests. A chapel in praise of the crusades was built in 1310.

An organ was given by Sir Francis Drake to the church, which he took from a Spanish galleon, around 1588. During the Siege of Cork in 1690, supporters of James II took over the walled city captured some Protestants inhabitants and shut them in the tower of Christ Church.

Christ Church was badly damaged by a cannon ball in the siege, which landed on the roof and destroyed it.

The third church was built and the first sermon preached from the pulpit in the centre of the new and present day building by Rev Philip Townsend on 20 November 1720.

Present day St Peter's Church is the second church to be built on its present site overlooking North Main Street. The first church was built sometime in the early fourteenth century.

In 1782, the church was taken down and in 1783, the present limestone walled church, was begun to be built. At a later stage, a new tower and spire were added to the basic rectangular plan. The new spire though had to be taken down due to the marshy ground that it was built on.

In recent years, St Peter’s Church has been extensively renovated and opened as an arts exhibition centre.

A corn market was constructed in 1719 overlooking a square that was located on filled-in portion of a channel of the River Lee (Coal Quay). Unfortunately, the name of this square is not recorded, but it was located on what is now Corn Market Street.

Over the centuries, the square grew to be the traditional central market area of the city. It would have been thronged with dealers and customers, purchasing anything from a needle to an anchor. Several stalls still operate here today.


Kieran’s new book, ‘Cork in Fifty Buildings’ (2018, Amberley Publishing) is now available in Cork bookshops.

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