Streets, Bridges and Public Buildings of Cork

J. Stirling Coyne & N. P. Willis
c. 1841
Volume I, Chapter I-4 | Start of chapter

In the earlier days of Cork, while it was yet a fortified place, the inhabitants were glad to compromise comfort for security; and we accordingly find that the ancient city was an assemblage of houses huddled together on the smallest possible area, with little regard to regularity or convenience. The limits of the city were formed by the river Lee, which here separated into two principal channels, besides other minor branches which intersected the city in various directions, and gave it the appearance of a Dutch town. With the exception of the main street, there was not another street in the ancient town in which two carts could pass each other: some idea may be conveyed of the state of these wretched thoroughfares by observing that a miserable alley, not more than ten feet in width, was at one time considered so spacious as to be entitled to the name of "Broad Lane." "In the dark and narrow lanes off the main streets, ere yet the city had outstept its walls, many of the public establishments were held." In Old Bridewell Lane, a passage not more than four feet in breadth, stood the corn-market. In similar narrow lanes were to be found the fish-market, post-office, and assembly-rooms. In Dingle Lane stood the old theatre, upon whose boards Barry and Mossop delighted their audiences about the middle of last century. The advance of trade and civilisation have, however, wrought important changes in this city; the old lanes and dirty passages have nearly all disappeared, and broad and regular streets have sprung up on their sites, filled with handsome modern shops and private dwellings.

The principal streets which, at present, attract the attention of strangers visiting Cork, are, the Grand Parade, a spacious but irregularly built street; the South Mall, a comparatively new and respectable one, opening at the eastern extremity on the river near the Custom-house; St. Patrick's Street, a wide thoroughfare, principally occupied by shops; and Great George Street, by far the most regular and newest in the city; but which is not yet entirely completed. The Mardyke is an exceedingly agreeable walk, about a mile in length, shaded on either side by lofty elm-trees, which impart to it a pleasing coolness in the hottest days, and for many years rendered it a favourite resort of the citizens. Latterly, however, the Mardyke has been pronounced "vulgar" by the leaders of ton in Cork, and it is now frequented only by shopkeepers, tradespeople, and those persons who have too much good sense to be debarred the enjoyment of a delightful walk by the absurd decrees of fashion.

The bridges connecting the island in the centre of the river with the shores on both sides are six in number, four on the south branch and two on the north. Parliament Bridge on the south, and St. Patrick's Bridge on the north, are both handsome structures, particularly the latter, which far exceeds all the others in magnitude and architectural beauty: it consists of three spacious arches, and formerly had a drawbridge at the north end, which was found so inconvenient as to require its being removed in 1823.

The public buildings of Cork are numerous, and worthy of the acknowledged taste and wealth of the citizens. Amongst the literary and scientific institutions, the Royal Cork Institution, in Nelson's Place, takes a conspicuous position: it was founded, in 1803, for the diffusion of knowledge and the improvement of the arts and sciences, and is a highly interesting establishment. It possesses an excellent library, which contains, amongst many valuable books, some rare volumes on Irish history; and in the museum attached to it are several curious works of art, and three ancient monumental stones, inscribed with the Ogham character, peculiar to Ireland, and used by the Druids previous to the introduction of Christianity, when these simple letters were gradually discarded, and the Roman substituted. The Cork Library, the Cuverian Society, the Horticultural Society, the Society of Arts, the Mechanics' Institute, and a Society for the Discussion of Literary and Scientific Subjects, are pleasing evidences of the intellectual character of the Cork people, and of the rapid strides which knowledge has made here within the last fifty years. If we turn from the graceful walks of literature to the path of Christian charity, we find, in the various hospitals and charitable institutions which this city boasts, ample proofs of the active benevolence of the inhabitants. It will be sufficient to enumerate the North and South Infirmaries, the Fever Hospital, the Dispensary and Humane Society, the Lying-in Hospital, the Foundling Hospital, the House of Industry, the Lunatic Asylum, the Refuge and Penitentiary, the Magdalen Asylum, three Orphan Asylums, the Blue-coat Hospital, the Green-coat Hospital, Deane's Charity, and numerous other valuable establishments supported principally by voluntary contributions and charitable bequests.

To a church Cork owes its origin, and by a sort of hereditary tendency, she has ever since been remarkably prolific in ecclesiastical buildings. In the reign of Edward IV. there were eleven churches and parishes in and adjoining the city: some of these have long ceased to exist, but their loss has been amply compensated by the number of churches, chapels, and dissenting houses of worship which have grown up in modern times. The principal and parent edifice, is the Cathedral of St. Finn Barr, founded, as I have already mentioned, by that saint, in the seventh century. It is a small inelegant structure, situated on a slight eminence on the margin of the south branch of the river, with a dull, heavy, stone spire, surmounting a plain tower, without buttress or ornament of any description. No particulars are preserved of the character of the original building; but we learn, that, having fallen into a state of "decay and ruin," it was taken down in 1725, and rebuilt in the year 1735 in its present form. The interior is equally plain as the exterior, the throne and stalls being the only adornments characteristic of ecclesiastical dignity.

One of the ancient Touragans, or Round Towers, stood in a corner of the churchyard until about the middle of the last century, when it was taken down. M. de Boullaye le Gouz, in 1644, describes it as ten or twelve feet in circumference at the base, and upwards of one hundred feet in height. It appears to have been built without cement; and the entrance to have been several feet from the ground. In the burying-ground attached to the cathedral the bones of St. Finn Barr the founder, St. Nessan, and many other pious and learned men who flourished in the early days of the church, are said to repose; but there remains no tomb or memorial to confirm the tradition. Hanmer repeats an ancient legend respecting the extraordinary sanctity of the place, to the effect that the ground was so privileged that no man dying penitent and buried therein should feel the torments of hell. The church of St. Anne Shandon stands on an eminence on the north side of the city; and, with its singularly constructed and disproportionately lofty steeple,[2] forms a conspicuous object amongst the less aspiring buildings by which it is surrounded. It contains a ring of very sweetly-toned bells, which the pen of the inimitable Father Prout has celebrated in an exquisite ballad, where he pays a natural tribute of fond recollection to his native city, and the "magic spells" of his childhood:—

"On this I ponder

Where'er I wander,

And thus grow fonder,

Sweet Cork, on thee.

With thy bells of Shandon,

That sound so grand on

The pleasant waters

Of the river Lee."

Numerous monastic establishments existed here previous to the reign of Henry VIII., but the Reformation with ruthless hand swept away all the conventual edifices, and scarcely a vestige of one of them remains at the present day to direct the antiquarian in his curious researches.


[2] The tower which supports the steeple has, curiously enough, two of its sides built with limestone, and the two others with brown stone.