For people from Cork, there is simply no better place to be in. When it was recently ranked by Lonely Planet as one of the ten best destinations in the world, the local reaction was one of validation rather than surprise. Within Ireland, the city is seen by both locals and outsiders alike as a place apart. Built on marshy islands at the end of an estuary, its dynamic character is inextricably linked to its history.
Although not much remains of its medieval or early modern past, the streetscape is a testament to the waves of Irish, Vikings, Anglo-Normans, Huguenots, Quakers, and New English that made the city their home. The origins of Cork lie in a large 7th century monastic settlement. It was this that attracted the Vikings, first as a somewhere to plunder, and then in the 11th century as a place to settle beside. Later, in the 12th century the now town of Cork was taken over by the Anglo-Normans and greatly expanded. It was at this time that the city wall was constructed. And although almost all surface traces were destroyed after the Willamite Wars, the full circuit still exists underground to depths of up to four meters.
A brief history of Cork
Cork City is one of the oldest cities in Ireland and has a rich archaeological record. Its unique character derives from the combination of its plan, topography, built fabric and its location on the River Lee at a point where it formed a number of waterways. Cork was built on estuarine islands in the marshy valley and gradually developed up the steep hills rising to the north and south. Even the name Cork is derived from the word marsh (Corcaigh in Irish).
The earliest recorded settlement was the 7th century monastery founded by St Finbar probably on the site of the present day St Fin Barre’s Cathedral. The monastery was one of great importance and it was likely that an extensive secular settlement developed around the monastery. From historic sources it is evident that by the 9th century the Vikings were raiding Cork. Gradually the Vikings would have changed from raiders to traders and settled in Cork by the late 11th century.
Recent archaeological excavations have revealed evidence of the earliest reclamation and settlement in the city dating to the late 11th century. This phase in Cork’s development is known as the Hiberno-Norse period – by this time the Vikings would have intermarried with the Irish inhabitants. The excavations have reinforced the idea that the late 11th/early 12th century settlement in the city consisted of a series of raised clay platforms, surrounded by wooden fences or revetments. Houses were subsequently built on these clay platforms.
The Hiberno-Norse settlement was captured by the Anglo-Normans in the late 12th century and the city was subsequently fortified with stone walls. A central bridge linking the southern and northern islands spanned a channel flanked by quays. Boats entered the city by way of a watergate defended by two castles- the Kings Castle and the Queen’s Castle. These castles are depicted on the Cork City Coat of Arms. The medieval city was entered at the North and South Gate Bridges. Under the Anglo-Normans Cork was consolidated as a cathedral city and important trading centre.
The city continued to develop throughout the 13th and 14th centuries as an important port. Several new religious orders arrived with the Anglo-Normans such as the Franciscans and the Dominicans. By the fifteenth century the city was dominated by wealthy merchants such as Galweys, the Tirrys and the Skiddys who also held civic positions. The fortunes of the city did decline however in the late 15th century when the gaelisiced nobility took on a stronger role. The sixteenth century was in general a turbulent time in Ireland and in 1690 the medieval walls were damaged by siege and later demolished to what was then ground level.
The 18th century was a time of great prosperity and change in Cork City. The city walls were no longer needed and were allowed to fall into disrepair and were demolished. The river channels which formed a circle around the medieval city were drained in the 18th and 19th centuries and now form a pattern of streets around much of the former walled city. Today the River Lee flows through Cork City in two main channels. A visitor to the city will find themselves crossing many fine bridges as a result. Cork City’s main thoroughfare St. Patrick’s Street was once a river channel which was culverted and filled in during the 18th century.
Above ground there are surviving ancient structures such as Red Abbey Tower (15th century) and Elizabeth Fort (early 17th century). However, the buried archaeology of Cork embraces every era of Cork’s development.
For further information on the city’s history contact:
Cork City Library
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