Cork: Merchant City

Cork: Merchant City

Retail Heritage

Cork has always been an important centre for shops: from the small craft outlets of the medieval city to the modern multinational stores of today.

Initially shops were centred on the North and South Main Street area of the walled city, but from the 18th century Cork greatly expanded.  Its population grew from about 17,000 in 1700 to around 57,000 a century later.  Much of this expansion was to the east over former marshes where new streets were laid out.  By 1900 the city’s population was just over 76,000 and people were living in greater numbers in suburban areas.  This trend increased in the 20th century when the population of the city itself rose to over 120,000 in 2000, with thousands more living in adjoining suburbs.

Until the late 20th century, the main focus of retail activity was in the city centre.  In particular the St. Patrick’s Street area attracted many of the higher quality shops.  Smaller retail units continued to be important in the older city area of North and South Main Street and along the streets to the north (Shandon area) and south (Barrack Street area).  There also were important on-street and off-street markets in the city selling meat, fish and vegetables and other articles.  Over time, these became concentrated in the markets on Cornmarket Street and the ‘English Market’ between Grand Parade and Princes Street. (See Sources for a list of street traders from 1928).

There was a huge range of shops available to the people of Cork: everything from small grocers, vintners and pawn brokers to linen drapers, wine merchants and perfumers.  In earlier times many of the owners of these businesses lived over the shop, but by the late-20th century most resided elsewhere in the city.  The vast majority of the shops were locally owned and often were operated by several generations of the one family.

Such retail outlets catered not only for the residents of the city, but also for the seasonal workers.  In particular, large numbers of workers were present in the autumn and winter during the height of the meat processing season.  Similarly, those associated with the thriving butter industry regularly came into the city, especially in the summer.  Then, of course, there were the many people connected with port activities who made frequent visits to the city.  A comprehensive range of shops and services was available in the city which had a busy commercial centre.

Amongst the most important consumers in the city were the ‘merchant prince’ families.  Much of the wealth generated by the merchants of Cork was put back into the local economy through patronage of the city’s shops.  Certainly by the early 20th century there were a significant number of department and other large shops catering for the wealthier consumers.  These included Dowden’s drapery establishment and department stores such as the Munster Arcade, Grant’s, Cash’s, Roche’s Stores and the Queen’s Old Castle.

During the War of Independence, on 11 December 1920, retail trade in the city centre suffered a setback when large tracts of the city were destroyed by fire,  apparently through the actions of Crown Forces, and many businesses were looted.

In the late 20th century many of the traditional shops came under pressure due to economic recession from the 1970s and changing international retail trends.  Many of the major local shops closed down or passed into new ownership, while the smaller retail units were under equal pressure.  National and international retailers increasingly moved into the city, one of which, Dunnes Stores, actually began in St. Patrick’s Street in 1944.  By the early 21st century the retail focus in Cork was shared between the traditional city centre and many suburban shopping centres.

For further information including online trade directories and a list of street traders from 1928, see the Sources page.