Ode to Elizabeth Fort, Cork


Kieran’s RTE Radio Morning Ireland interview on Elizabeth Fort, 8 January 2014, http://soundcloud.com/morning-ireland/elizabeth-fort-in-cork-is

The star shaped fortification of Elizabeth Fort named after Queen Elizabeth I once protected an English garrison in Cork and became a distinct landmark in the immediate southern suburbs of seventeenth century Cork. Constructed in 1601, the fort protected the walled town of Cork from attack from Gaelic Irish natives and foreigners. It was a series of historic incidents that led to the building of such a structure. Firstly, the defeat of the Gaelic Irish Earl of Desmond in South Munster by English colonialists in 1583 and the subsequent forfeiture of his lands removed a primary keystone of the political system in Munster. Indeed, it is argued that it left Munster wide open to re-colonisation by Irish clans. Consequently, this led to the Queen Elizabeth I’s formulation of the plantation of Munster in 1585. ‘Planting’ Munster with English colonists provided a catalyst in increasing threats to security by Irish natives.

Plan of Elizabeth Fort, c.1603

By the late 1580s, there were calls throughout Munster for reinforcements to protect planters, which resulted in the arrival of several thousand English soldiers to the province itself. The plantation area comprised 600,000 acres, which were divided into plots of between 4,000 and 12,000 acres. In the late 1500s, several thousand English families arrived in Munster especially to avail of higher profits, which the plantations created. These families though were serving a higher landlord class. Among the most eminent landlords securing land in Munster at this time included Burlington, Cuffe, Boyle, Fenton, Perceval, and Orrey.


However, the security of the inner landscape was not the only problem, English colonialists had to deal with. A fear of a Spanish invasion gave priority of security to the coastal regions, particularly the southern coast. In the sixteenth century, a new type of improved fortification was developed to deal with changes in conducting warfare. Gunpowder had been in Europe since the fourteenth century but it was only in the mid 1500s that musket guns were developed. No longer was a large castle the safest place to be in warfare. Instead star-shaped fortresses were deemed the best defence. The distinctive star shaped plan was designed to provide flanking fire and to position artillery pieces. ‘Angle bastions’ were constructed at all of the enclosing walls of the fortress at the main corners. This enabled the fort’s garrison to concentrate its firepower on any attacking force in a thirty metre wide area immediately in front of the fort.  This art of fortification was rapidly developed in Italy in the first three decades of the sixteenth century and was based on initial designs by Giuliano Sangallo, an Italian military engineer in 1485.

In January 1590, the order was given by Queen Elizabeth I to construct star-shaped forts outside the town walls of each major Irish coastal walled town, in particular Waterford, Limerick, Galway and Cork.  In Cork, the harbour was deemed important to defend but the construction of any new forts was delayed by the continuous rebellions of native Irish against English conquest and colonisation in Ireland. In 1599, a new Lord President of Ireland, Sir George Carew was appointed to quell the native rebel Irish factions and he was well known for his ability to deal with such situations. After the Spanish attack on Kinsale in 1601, it was decided by Carew that Cork harbour would have to be immediately defended. A new star-shaped fort was constructed on Haubowline Island in the harbour and a new fort was constructed called James Fort (after James I) in Kinsale Harbour. In addition, in 1601, a star shaped fort was constructed at Cork, which was located just outside South Gate Drawbridge on a cliffside that overshadowed and protected the southern road leading into the walled town, now known as Barrack Street. The first fort was called Elizabeth Fort (after Elizabeth I), a name, which has remained to the present day. In 1601, the fort was an irregular work of stone, timber and earth. This fort was garrisoned by October 1602 even though it was unfinished.

Plan of Elizabeth Fort, c.1626

The fort was erected on top of a rock outcrop and early representations of the fort show that it was an irregular fortification in design with stone walls on three sides and an earthen bank facing the walled town. To enter into the interior, one had to cross a drawbridge through a portcullis gate and past a gate-house. Facing the walled town, a natural cliff provided protection whilst the other three sides, a dry moat cut into the rock and was crossed only by a drawbridge at the entrance. The entrance was further protected by a gate tower and portcullis and a gate tower. None of the original fort can be seen today.

In 1603 as a result of Cork’s refusal to honour the crowning of the Catholic King James I, the fort was attacked by an unnamed faction of rebel Irish figure, who considerably damaged the main structure, stole its guns and brought these arms into the town. Nevertheless due to the presence of the Lord Deputy of Cork, Lord Mountjoy and his forces, they seized the city and made the citizens unwillingly rebuild the fort. The new structure received the name “New Fort” and was more improved than the last edifice. The building began circa 1624 and the old drawbridge was substituted with a causeway, a mound of earth and a more elaborate gateway on the eastern side, most of which was replaced. None of the second fort can be seen today.

In 1649, the ramparts or the defensive walls were made higher to what can be seen today; a height of nearly eight metres above the ground level. The extra height was in order to deal with the rebellious factions of Irish. By 1690, about two hundred English soldiers were employed to run the garrison. Twenty-one cannons were located around the top of the fortification, which meant that at least eight men had to man one cannon.  In 1690, there were five distinct out-shots or bastions that could be seen associated with the high limestone walls. Four men had to operate the firing of the cannon while four men had to guard its artillery such as cannon balls.

In the seventeenth century, the English government classified Elizabeth Fort as a defence work of great strength. It was designed for all round defence, while each of the bastions was capable of acting independently as a “last ditch” strongpoint. The bastions on the southern side were considerably stronger and larger than those bastions on the northern side, indicating that the designer was well aware of the vulnerabilities of the fort. A strong effort had also been made to strengthen the entrance side. Here a double wall, double gateway and associated tower, fifteen metres in height could be seen. Today, the double walls and entrance can still be seen with the tower long gone. The foundation of the fortress, which was solid rock also ruled out undermining.

Reconstruction of Elizabeth Fort, c.1690

Reconstruction of Elizabeth Fort, c.1690

The Siege of Cork in September 1690 tested the strength of the fort immensely. In short, Irish rebels, supporters of James II, possessed Elizabeth Fort and the English had to dominate at least two tall adjacent buildings, Red abbey and St. FinBarre’s Cathedral to rain down shots on the Irish in the area in order to attain a surrender. It is unfortunate that much of the documentation describing the layout and rebuilding of the fort from 1719 to the present day has been lost. All that is known is that the encompassing star-shaped bastion remained unchanged. It is known that in 1719, Elizabeth Fort became a British military barracks and catered for seven hundred men. This caused the ramparts to be thinned, in order to make extra space for a new barracks to be built. In 1806, due to the construction of a new Barrack’s to the north east of the city (now Collin’s Barracks), the barracks within Elizabeth fort altered to that of a Female Convict Prison. Samuel Lewis, an Irish historian in the early half of the 1800s related in1837 that there were 250 inmates, brought from all parts of the country. Many of these were housed here until ships became available to convey them to other British colonial outposts, in particular New South Wales.

Eizabeth Fort and environs, 1759

In the late nineteenth century, Elizabeth Fort was used as a station for the Cork City Artillery Militia. In 1920-21, the fort was occupied by the Royal Irish Constabulary and handed over to the Irish government. A year later in 1922, it is known that the existing interior buildings of the fort were burned down by Anti-Treaty forces during the Irish Civil War. The walls and bastions of the fort were undamaged. A few years later, a Garda Station was set up in the interior of the fort and today is still in operation. Elizabeth Fort remains one of Cork’s most historic gems. Never been excavated, Elizabeth Fort has a wealth of stories waiting to be discovered and to be told.


Plan of Elizabeth Fort, 1869