Shipping and maritime trade have always been a vital part of the life of Cork. The city grew up where the River Lee starts to broaden out as it travels to the lower harbour and ultimately to the sea at Roches Point. As the city developed, it created areas where ships could dock safely. Indeed the Cork coat of arms shows a ship between two castles.
Trade by sea was essential in the expansion of Cork and by the 18th century regular links had been established with many overseas ports. As well as the long established routes to Britain there were close trading connections with the continent. French ports such as Bordeaux built up profitable associations with Cork, trading wine, brandy and luxury goods for agricultural products. There was also a strong trade with the Baltic from where timber was imported. Some Cork merchants had relations in ports overseas, enabling them to keep a close eye on business matters. For example, members of the Coppinger, Galwey and Lawton families were based in Bordeaux on the west coast of France.
The geographical location of Cork enabled it to profit from routes between Britain and North America. The provisions trade was particularly important to the city in the 18th and early 19th centuries, supplying products to ships en route to the West Indies and North America. The outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1775 and the subsequent entry of France into that war on the side of the Americans, meant that shipping on the routes across the Atlantic was vulnerable to enemy attack. One solution was to group large numbers of vessels together in a convoy and escort them to their destination with warships. The large sheltered harbour at Cork was ideal for gathering ships for this purpose during an age when sailing ships often had to wait days or even weeks for a fair wind. The value of the harbour was not forgotten when war broke out in the 1790s against France and again Cork became a busy gathering place for shipping.
During this time, much of the main shipping activity took place in the lower harbour as navigation to the city itself was difficult for larger vessels. This was an increasing problem as the size of ships grew during the 19th and 20th centuries. As late as the 1870s, some ships still had to unload their cargo onto lighters (smaller vessels) at Passage West in the harbour to be brought up to the city.
The authorities recognised this problem and set about a series of improvements. A new Navigation Wall (now the Marina) was constructed from the mid-18th century to improve the access for shipping as it approached the city. Similarly, over time, the quaysides in the city itself were improved so that ships could more easily discharge directly onto the city docks. The result was greatly expanded shipping operations close to the city centre and near the various industries and trades there from the 19th century. Ironically, by the late 20th century large scale shipping activities again moved to the lower harbour where specially built deep water facilities were developed at Ringaskiddy.
Citizens of Cork saw gradual changes in the type of ships using their port over the centuries. Wooden hulled sailing vessels were the usual form of transport for people and cargo until the advent of steamships in the early 19th century. As early as the 1820s there were paddlesteamers regularly using the port, acting as ferries within the harbour itself, to other ports in Ireland and on routes to Britain. Steam and then diesel gradually overtook sail, although wooden cargo sailing ships still called to the port as late as the 1930s. From the mid-19th century iron and steel began to be used instead of wood in the construction of ships and, again, over time fewer and fewer wooden vessels were seen. During the 19th century Cork had successful shipbuilding enterprises constructing wooden and later iron vessels. They also built yachts and boats to cater for the popular recreation of pleasure boating in the harbour area.