History Trail, Cork Docks

Start at Kennedy Park, Victoria Road

Introduction:

Through the docks, Cork was connected to the outside world – the international and small town ambitious in its ventures linked to a world of adventure and exploration. The timber quays kept back the world of the tide, for reclamation in the city was still taking place as Cork people sought to bring the city centre to a new place of being.

Cork City though has always strived to be a new place. It has always been ambitious in its endeavours. In the last hundred years, the city has come so far but it is also that past that anchors the Corkonian identity in the present day.

The Docks:

Ever since Viking age time over 1,000 years ago, boats of all different shapes and sizes have been coming in and out of Cork’s riverine and harbour region continuing a very long legacy of trade. Port trade was the engine in Cork’s development. One hundred years ago, considerable tonnage could navigate the North Channel, as far as St. Patrick’s Bridge, and on the South Channel as far as Parliament Bridge. St. Patrick’s Bridge and Merchants’ Quay were the busiest areas, being almost lined daily with shipping. Near the extremity of the former on Penrose Quay was situated the splendid building of the Cork Steamship Company, whose boats loaded and discharged their alongside the quay.

In the late 1800s, the port of Cork was the leading commercial port of Ireland. The export of pickled pork, bacon, butter, corn, porter, and spirits was considerable. The manufactures of the city were brewing, distilling and coach-building, which were all carried on extensively. There were many large establishments in the timber trade, also many in which salt provisions were cured, and several tanneries, which produced leather of the choicest quality. There were also some salt, lime and chemical works.

The imports in the late nineteenth century consisted of maize and wheat from various ports of Europe and America; timber, from Canada and the Baltic; fish, from Newfoundland and Labrador regions. Bark, valonia, shumac, brimstone, sweet oil, raisins, currants, lemons, oranges and other fruit, wine, salt, marble were imported from the Mediterranean; tallow, hemp, flaxseed from St. Petersburg, Rig and Archangel; sugar from the West Indies; tea from China and coal and slate from Wales. Of the latter, corn and timber were imported in large numbers. Exports were principally pewter, whiskey, butter provisions, cattle, fowl, and eggs. Butter was the staple trade.

Cork Quays and Docks, c.1900 (source: Cork City Library)
Cork Quays and Docks, c.1900 (source: Cork City Library)

The Marina, Cork:

Cork’s Marina, originally called the Navigation Wall, was completed in 1761. In 1820, Cork Harbour Commissioners formed and purchased a locally built dredger. The dredger deposited the silt from the river into wooden barges, which were then towed ashore. The silt was re-deposited behind the Navigation Wall. During the Great Famine, deepening of the river created jobs for 1,000 men who worked on creating the Navigation Wall’s road – The Marina. The environs is also home to three rowing clubs – the Lee Rowing Club founded in 1850, which is the second oldest club in the country; Shandon Boat Club, founded in 1875, and Cork Boat Club founded in 1899 by members of Dolphin Swimming Club – all of which ply the waters of the river regularly and who have annual regattas.

The Marina, present day (picture: Kieran McCarthy)
The Marina, present day (picture: Kieran McCarthy)

Cork-Blackrock & Passage Railway:

As new residence areas emerged in the developing city of the nineteenth century, new modes of suburban transport were created. County and national rail links were developed. By the late 1800s, there were five county railway lines and one national line, all of which operated in and out of Cork City. Among the first of the suburban railway projects to be completed in Cork was the Cork Blackrock and Passage Railway.

The year 1836 marked the opening of Ireland’s first railway, between Dublin and Kingstown. A year earlier in 1835, the plan for a Cork to Passage railway was first proposed by Cork based merchant, William Parker and Cork solicitor, J.C. Besnard. In that year, Cork Harbour town Passage West had its own dockyard and had become an important port for large deep-sea sailing ships whose cargoes were then transhipped into smaller vessels for the journey up-river to the city. The transhipment would be faster by train. In the summer of 1835 a committee was set up to plan the railway. The Cork Harbour Board, the British Treasury and other bodies were approached for financial support.

Charles Vignoles was appointed engineer of the venture. The proposed line would run close to the south of the Navigation Wall (now the site of the Marina) on reclaimed land and remain close to the river to Passage. Work began in June 1847.  Due to the fact that the construction was taking place during the Great Famine, there was no shortage of labour. The entire length of track between Cork and Passage was in place by April 1850 and within two months, the line was opened for passenger traffic.

The terminus, designed by Sir John Benson was based on Victoria Road but due to poor press was moved in 1873 to Hibernian Road. In the late 1800s, the Cork Blackrock and Passage Railway also operated a fleet of river steamers in competition with River Steamer Company (R.S.C). The Railway Company expanded its fleet in 1881 but it was only when the service was extended to Aghada that profits grew. By 1932, the increase in the use of motor cars caused a decrease in the use of the line by passenger. Consequently, the railway was forced to close. Much of the traces of the Cork-Blackrock line have been destroyed while the Blackrock-Passage section is now a pedestrian walkway with several platforms and the steel viaduct that crossed the Douglas viaduct still in public view. The site of the second Cork terminus lies opposite the National Sculpture Factory.

Train at Cork Blackrock and Passage Railway Station, Albert Road (source: Cllr Kieran McCarthy)
Train at Cork Blackrock and Passage Railway Station, Albert Road (source: Cllr Kieran McCarthy)

Former Cork Bandon Railway Terminus:

Providing access between West Cork and Cork City for the general public including visitors and farmers was the Cork Bandon and South Coast Railway line. The Cork-Bandon line opened to the public on 6 December 1851. The Cork terminus was on Albert Quay, which had three passenger platforms, a carriage storage area, and sidings into the Cork Corporation’s stone yard and into the corn market. Feeder lines were also added in the early twentieth century to the roller-milling complex on Victoria Quay and to the Ford tractor works on Cork’s Marina.

Today Ireland’s tallest building the Elysian tower occupies the railway yards. The Cork-Bandon Railway Project was an enormous undertaking. The main parts included; the longest railway tunnel in Ireland at Goggins Hill; the Chetwynd Viaduct; a short tunnel bridge under old Blackrock Road near the Albert Quay Terminus; 21 cuttings, 19 embankments and 15 road bridges.

Cork-Bandon Railway Terminus from Clayton Hotel Penthouse, Cork, 2006 (picture: Kieran McCarthy)
Cork-Bandon Railway Terminus from Clayton Hotel Penthouse, Cork, 2006 (picture: Kieran McCarthy)

Cork Park Racecourse & Fords:

Centre Park Road crosses the new and proposed South Docklands area adjacent the National Sculpture Factory. However at one time racecourse activities and a Ford Factory were in operation here. In March 1869, Cork Corporation leased to Sir John Arnott and others slobland for a term of five years and for the purpose of establishing a race course. There were no systematic attempts at drainage. So races were held in mud and slush on many an occasion. The first races were held on 17 May and 18 May 1869. A total of 30,000 people attended. In 1892, the City and County of Cork Agricultural Society leased a space from Cork Corporation in the eastern section of the Cork Park. That later became the Cork Showgrounds.

In November 1916, Fords made an offer to purchase the freehold of the Cork Park Grounds and considerable land adjoining the river near the Marina. Fords, Cork Corporation and the Harbour Commissioners entered into formal negotiations. The Company acquired approximately 130 acres of land, which also had a river frontage. The factory gave employment to at least 2,000 adult males paid the minimum wage of one shilling per hour.

The plant being laid down by the company was specially designed for the manufacture of an Agricultural Motor Tractor, well known as the ‘fordson’, a 22 horse power, four cylinder tractor, working with kerosene or paraffin, adaptable either for ploughing or as a portable engine arranged for driving machinery by belt drive. The tractor was articulated, i.e. it had no frame giving accessibility to all parts for making adjustments, the motor, transmission and rear axle being assembled in one rigid unit. The casing was of special design and the pistons and gearing were of Vanadium steel. All moving parts were enclosed. The demand for such tractors was universal and great. Large areas could be brought under food production with the minimum of expense and labour. The Cork factory was to provide ‘Fordsons’ to local, regional and national farmers and further afield on the European Continent.

City Park Races, 1870 from Illustrated London News (source: Cork City Library)
City Park Races, 1870 from Illustrated London News (source: Cork City Library)
Ford Works, Cork, c.19230 (source: Kieran McCarthy collection)
Ford Works, Cork, c.19230 (source: Kieran McCarthy collection)

Victorian Architecture:

Contrasting against the residences of the working class were the highly embellished Victorian residences which can be seen on Victoria Road named after Queen Victoria.  Mid nineteenth century society was highly status-conscious and nothing displayed your status like your house. House fashions literally started at the dinner table. Most wealthy Victorians spent what would seem to us to be an incredible amount of time socializing: it was not uncommon for them to either attend or host a dinner party 2 to 5 times a week.

In short, your social circle saw your house a lot, so it was important that the house be impressive — that is, designed in the latest fashion. The house of a successful Victorian family was more than merely a home; it was a statement of their taste, wealth, and education. The Victorians drew deeply from history, nature, geometry, theory, and personal inspiration to create their designs. At the top end of the market, builders employed a reputable architect. 

The mid to late nineteenth century Victorian buildings were varied and colourful. Architectural embellishment was ever present.  Designs sprang from the relationship between social forces, ideals, techniques and individual preference. As the mid to late 1800s ensued, there was increasing interest in foreign styles such as French, Italian Gothic and French Renaissance. In most cases, mixes of medieval styles were reinvented. In the late 1800s, the favoured architectural style in housing was High Victorian Gothic, which provided aristocracy and landed gentry with houses, which were spectacular and richly ornamented.  This style harked back to medieval castles and cathedrals. Its growth in popularity came simultaneously with romantic movements in all the arts, that is, simultaneously with the infamous Victorian taste for melodramatic music, plays and novels. The Gothic Revival house is characterized by steeply pitched roofs, pointed-arch windows, elaborate vergeboard trim along roof edges and other Gothic details. The style appears in Cork in the 1870s and 1880s and appears on Victoria Road.

Victoria Road, Cork, present day (source: Kieran McCarthy)
Victoria Road, Cork, present day (source: Kieran McCarthy)

Jewtown on Albert Road:

Immortalised by the name Jewtown, Albert Road and the area of the Hibernian Buildings have been imbued by the story of the Jewish community. The Cork Jewish Congregation was founded about the year 1725 with Shocket and cemetery. It comprised Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews engaged in import and export. By 1871, there were nine Jews in Munster. During the Russian oppression which preceded the May Lass of 1881, several Jews of Vilna, Kovno and Ackmeyan, a Lithuanian village, came to live in Cork. A congregation was formed at the close of 1881 and Meyer Elyan of Zagger, Lithuania was appointed Shocket, Reader and Mothel. The community had close links with those of Dublin and Limerick.

Several of the earliest arrivals from a cluster of shtetls in north-western Lithuania settled in a group of recently constructed dwellings called Hibernian Buildings, Monarea Terrace and Eastville off the Albert Road, c. 1880. Much of the streetscape is as it was more than a century ago when the first Litvaks arrived. Hibernian Buildings was a triangular development of a hundred or so compact and yellow brick on street dwellings. Each unit consisted of four rooms, including a bedroom up in the roof. Seventy Jews prayed in a room in Eastville. About the year 1884, a room was rented in Marlborough Street from the Cork Branch of the National League. A synagogue was fitted up in the offices there. Premises were finally acquired at 24 South Terrace. The number of Jews in the city and county combined rose from twenty-six in the year 1881 to 217 in the year 1891.

The O’Flynn Brothers, based in Blackpool, were responsible for the construction of the Hibernian Buildings as well as the Rathmore Buildings, St. Patrick’s Hospital, The Good Shepherd Convent, Magdalen Asylum, additions to Our Lady’s Hospital, a new presbytery at the North Cathedral, and the Diocesan College at Farranferris.

Albert Road, present day (picture: Kieran McCarthy)
Albert Road, present day (picture: Kieran McCarthy)

Albert Road, present day (picture: Kieran McCarthy)

Evening Echo Lighting Installation:

    Evening Echo is sited on old gasometer land gifted by Cork Gas Company to Cork City Council in the late 1980s, and subsequently dedicated as Shalom Park in 1989. The park sits in the centre of an old Cork neighbourhood known locally as ‘Jewtown.’ This neighbourhood is also home to the National Sculpture Factory. Not a specific commission, nor working to a curatorial brief, Evening Echo is a project generated as an artist’s response to the particularities of a place and has quietly gathered support from Cork Hebrew Congregation, Cork City Council, Bord Gáis and a local Cork newspaper, the Evening Echo.

    References to the slow subsidence of the Jewish community in Cork have been present for years, but there is now a palpable sense of disappearance. Within the Cork Hebrew Congregation there are practical preparations underway for this, as yet unknown, future moment of cessation. Evening Echo moves through a series of thoughts and questions about what it might mean to be at this kind of cusp, both for the Jewish community and for other communities in Cork.

   Evening Echo is manifested in a sequence of custom-built lamps, remote timing systems operated from Paris, a highly controlled sense of duration, a list of future dates, an annual announcement in Cork’s Evening Echo newspaper and a promissory agreement. Fleetingly activated on an annual cycle, and intended to exist in perpetuity, the project maintains a delicate position between optimism for its future existence and the possibility of its own discontinuance.

    Maddie Leach’s work is largely project-based, site responsive and conceptually driven and addresses new thinking on art, sociality and place-based practices.  She seeks viable ways of making artworks in order to interpret and respond to unique place-determined content and she is recognised for innovatively investigating ideas of audience spectatorship, expectation and participation in relation to art works. Leach’s projects include commissions for Iteration: Again (Tasmania, 2011), Close Encounters (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago, 2010), One Day Sculpture (2008), the New Zealand publication Speculation for the Venice Biennale 2007 and Trans Versa (The South Project, Chile, 2006).

Evening Echo, Shalom Park, December 2019 (picture: Kieran McCarthy)
Evening Echo, Shalom Park, December 2019 (picture: Kieran McCarthy)

Evening Echo, Shalom Park, December 2019 (picture: Kieran McCarthy)

Cork Gas Works:

By 1823, numerous towns and cities throughout Britain were lit by gas. Gaslight cost up to 75% less than oil lamps or candles, which helped to accelerate its development and deployment. By 1859, gas lighting was to be found all over Britain and about a thousand gas works had sprung up to meet the demand for the new fuel. The brighter lighting which gas provided allowed people to read more easily and for longer. In 1825 the Cork Wide Street Commissioners, a municipal planning agency of sorts, entered into an arrangement with the United Gas Company of London to provide Cork City with gas lighting between the hours of sunset and sunrise, with each gas lamp to provide light equivalent to that of twelve mould tallow candles. The United Gas Company’s network served the city between 1826 and 1859.

By the mid-1850s local interest groups began to mount a strong and ultimately successful challenge to the monopoly exercised by the United General Gas Co. of London. John Francis Maguire (1815-72), proprietor of the Cork Examiner and a staunch advocate of economic nationalism curbed the influence and monopoly and incorporated a rival gas company – the Cork Gas Consumers’ Company, acquired a three-acre site for its own proposed gasworks adjacent to the London one. Work began in January 1857. 36 miles of service pipes laid and 43 miles of mains.  The site today is now occupied by the national offices of Bord Gais.

Cork Gas Works, 1900 (source: Cork City Library)
Cork Gas Works, 1900 (source: Cork City Library)
Bord Gais, Cork, present day from Elysian Tower (picture: Kieran McCarthy)
Bord Gais, Cork & Shalom Park, present day from Elysian Tower (picture: Kieran McCarthy)

Cork’s Electric Trams:

In the closing years of the nineteenth century, the Corporation of Cork planned to establish a large electricity generating plant. The plant would provide public lighting and operate an electric tramcar extending from the city centre to all of the popular suburbs. The site of the new plant was on Monarea Marshes (now the National Sculpture Factory) near the Hibernian Buildings. The Electric Tramways and Lighting Company Ltd. was registered in Cannon Street, London and had a close working relationship with eminent electrical contractors, the British Thomson-Houston Company. This latter English company were appointed the principal contractors. The street track was completed by William Martin Murphy, who was a Berehaven man, but with a company in Dublin. William was the first chairman of the Cork Company. Leading Cork housing contractor, Edward Fitzgerald, soon to become Lord Mayor of Cork, completed the building of the plant. To provide proper foundations for the large plant, extensive quantities of pitch pine were sunk under the concrete.

Mr. Charles H. Merz, one of British Thomson-Houston’s up and coming engineers, supervised the electric tramcar system. He became the secretary and head engineer for the Cork operation. Charles was a native of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and arrived in Cork during the laying of track and near completion of the plant. Eighteen tramcars arrived in 1898 for the opening, which occurred on 22 December. Cork was to become the eleventh city in Britain and Ireland to have operating electric trams. Four of the six suburban routes were complete for the line’s commencement. The eventual termini included Sunday’s Well, Blackpool, St. Luke’s Cross, Tivoli, Blackrock and Douglas.

By 1900, 35 electric tram cars operated throughout the city and suburbs. They were manufactured in Loughborough, U.K. and all were double deck in nature, open upstairs with a single-truck design. Most tram cars could hold at least 25 people upstairs and 20 downstairs. However, a key rule on the tram was that nobody could sit or stand on the driver’s front platform!

Tram on Albert Road, Cork from Tram Tracks Through Cork by Walter MacGrath (source: Cork City Library).
Tram on Albert Road, Cork from Tram Tracks Through Cork by Walter MacGrath (source: Cork City Library).

Municipal Electricity Supply:

The supply of electricity to the City was in the hands of the Cork Electric Tramways and Lighting Company, Ltd, who started operations in 1898. The Power House was situated near the River Lee at Albert Road, and also housed the trams at night. A maintenance crew were present if repairs needed to be carried out.

The business of providing electric power grew significantly from 1.8 million units in the year 1900 to 4.9 million units in the year 1916. The connections to the company’s mains for lighting purposes at the end of 1916 were equivalent to 102,000 eight candle power lamps. There was a considerable demand for current for heating and cooking. The electricity supply was ‘direct’ in nature and generated 500 volts to operate the trams that ran through the city’s streets.

In about 1925, the name of the company was changed to The Cork Electric Supply Co. Ltd.  The closure of the tramways in 1931 and the coming of the E.S.B. had a huge impact on the Albert Road depot.  The company made great strides to replace the city’s gas lamps, all of which did not completely disappear until 1936. However, advancing the tramway network or saving it were not key agendas for the early twentieth century proprietors. On 30 September 1931, the final abandonment of the trams occurred.  Fireworks, cheering and souvenir collecting were all aspects of general public’s final goodbye. Many of the ex-tram staff were taken and employed by the Irish Omnibus Company whilst others went to work in the E.S.B.

As an electricity generating station and tram-house, the building has an important connection with the industrial history of the city. It is of continuing cultural significance through its present use as the National Sculpture Factory. The Factory was set up in 1989 by four local artists as a response to a need from artists for a large scale well equipped studio space where they could work.  The National Sculpture Factory is a national organization, dedicated to artists, which advances the creation and understanding of contemporary art.

National Sculpture Factory, present day (picture: Kieran McCarthy)
National Sculpture Factory, present day (picture: Kieran McCarthy)