Cork: Merchant City

Cork: Merchant City

About Cork

This web site explores and celebrates the commercial and industrial heritage of Cork through its historical archives. Cork has a proud heritage as a city of enterprise and trade, as a maritime city… a city of merchants.

Over 800 years ago, the citizens of Cork were granted extensive liberties to trade. This long history of commercial endeavour is reflected in the surviving archives of the city, held at Cork City and County Archives. The items found here include the minute books of the Cork Committee of Merchants, the correspondence of the Cork Distilleries Company, the shipping ledgers of R&H Hall Corn Merchants and the City of Cork Steampacket Company, and the day to day records of the Cork Butter Market, as well as personal archives and old photographs of various people and places in Cork city and county.

Extract of a map of Cork

The city of Cork straddles the River Lee on the south coast of Ireland.  It has its origins in a 6th century monastic foundation attributed to St. Finbar and eventually grew into a walled settlement on islands in the estuary.  In fact, the name Cork comes from the Irish work Corcaigh meaning marsh.

The geographical location of Cork was vital to its expansion.  Located at the head of one of the finest natural harbours in the world, it was also at the crossroads of trade between northern Europe and the Americas and further afield.  This location was vital to the growth of the city, particularly from the 18th century when Cork moved ahead of rival local ports such as Kinsale and Youghal. 

In the 17th and 18th centuries the city expanded beyond its walls, developing a new commercial area centred on St. Patrick’s Street.  Industry and trade also increased, with the butter and provisions trade being particularly important.  In the late 18th century new brewing and distilling concerns were established, using the water power to be found on the River Lee as well as its tributaries the Glen, Bride and Glasheen rivers.  Other manufacturing industries also developed, particularly textiles such as woollen, cotton and linen production.  The nearby village of Douglas had a large sailcloth industry from the early 18th century.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw somewhat uneven commercial and industrial success as some companies struggled to cope with changing times.  The prosperity seen during the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 and the Great Famine of 1845-1850 dealt a further blow to the country.  After the famine, the population of Ireland declined for over a century, making an impact on economic development.  The population of Cork city showed an overall increase in the 19th century, rising from about 57,000 in 1800 to 76,000 in 1900.  During this time the main commercial centre developed to include a wide range of shops and other services.

By the mid-20th century many of the traditional industries and shops were struggling for survival in the face of changing economic circumstances. As the century came to a close, new chemical, technology and service industries were replacing the older firms.  At the same time, national and international retail companies were making an impact in the commercial world.  As the city expanded from the 1990s, it saw a new entrepreneurs and immigrants making their impact on the life of the area.

Throughout this period the role of merchants has been central not only to commercial development, but also to the civic, social, religious, educational and artistic life of Cork.  This project explores and celebrates this aspect of the history of Cork, using a selection of sources drawn from the rich and varied collection of the Cork City and County Archives.