Cork: Merchant City

Cork: Merchant City

Workers & Manufacturing 

A wide range of goods has been manufactured in Cork over the centuries, although the city never developed an extensive industrial infrastructure.

The crafts of medieval Cork were generally controlled by a guild system which monitored apprenticeships, standards and other aspects of the different trades. This guild system was breaking down by the 17th century and by the early 19th century trade unions began to emerge. The type of unions varied over the years but were influenced by (and often amalgamated to) the trade unions in Britain.

Whether in trade unions or not, most workers were employed for long hours and had limited leisure time until the mid-20th century. Demand for well-paid pensionable jobs was high and many people spent all their lives in the same employment.

The industries in Cork in the 18th and 19th centuries were closely related to local natural resources. Brewing, distilling, textiles and food processing were all based primarily on products found in the region, including barley, water, flax, meat and other animal products. There were also some engineering and other manufacturing industries in the Cork area.

Initially, much of the power used to operate the larger scale industries came from water – mainly found to the north of the city on the rivers Bride and Glen, on the south side at Glasheen and, of course, the River Lee itself. As the 19th century progressed there was a move to steam and later to other forms of power. The lack of coal and other raw materials was a deterrent to the development of industries not only in Cork but in most parts of Ireland. Many of the industries in Cork relied on the port for both imports and exports, while others (such as brewing and distilling) mainly supplied the local market.

The prosperous years of the Napoleonic Wars came to an end in 1815 and some industries suffered in the resulting slump. Cork industries had mixed fortunes for the rest of the 19th century, particularly as the overall population was in decline following the devastating impact of the Great Famine of 1845-1850.

The 20th century brought continued problems for some local industries. The relatively prosperous years during World War I were followed by political and military unrest. The creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 did not bring prosperity and Cork suffered during the depression years of the 1930s. The arrival of the Ford tractor and (later) car plant in Cork in 1919 was a welcome boost to local employment and remained a vital industry until its closure in 1984. Similarly the Dunlop tyre factory provided much-needed employment from 1935 to 1983, while the Sunbeam textile company operated from 1928 until 1995.

Economic difficulties in the 1970s and 1980s led to the closure of many of the traditional industries in the city. However, the later 20th century saw the emergence of new forms of industry in the Cork area based on chemical, technological and service industries. These became part of the changing face of manufacturing in Cork.