2b. The Medieval Town of Cork

 Medieval plan of town, North Main Street

A Tale of Two Islands –Creating a Medieval Town:


The redevelopment of the town walls created one single walled settlement instead of a walled island with an unfortified island settlement and Dungarvan outside it. Within the town a channel of water was left between the old walled settlement and the newly encompassed area of Dungarvan, with access between the two provided by an arched stone bridge called Middle Bridge. A millrace dominated the western half of this channel, while the remaining eastern was the town’s central dock.

 Map of Walled Town of Cork, unknown cartographer, 1545 A.D.

On the wall at regular intervals were mural towers, which projected out and were used as lookout towers by the town’s garrison of soldiers. The walled town extended from South Gate Bridge to North Gate Bridge and was bisected by long spinal main streets, North and South Main Streets. These were the primary routeways and although narrower than the current streets, would have followed an identical plan. They would also have been the main market areas.


The town was now well defended and all those seeking to gain entry had to use one of the three designated entrances: one of the two well-fortified drawbridges with associated towers or the eastern portcullis gate. The first drawbridge, allowing access from the southern valleyside, was South Gate Drawbridge, while entry from the northern valleyside was via North Gate Drawbridge. From 1300 to 1690 these were the only two bridges spanning the River Lee. There are still bridges on their sites today and they still possess the names North and South Gate Bridge. The present South Gate Bridge dates to 1713 while the present North Gate Bridge dates to 1961.


Various depictions of the walled town in the late sixteenth century show menacing symbols of power at the top of the drawbridge towers, where the heads of executed criminals were placed as a warning to other citizens. The heads was placed on spikes, which were slotted into a rectangular slab of stone. Legend has it that one of the stone blocks still exists today at the top of the steps of the Counting House in Beamish and Crawford Brewery on South Main Street.

 Walled Town of Cork, North Gate Bridge, c.1575

The third entrance overlooked the eastern marshes and was located at the present-day intersection of Castle Street and Grand Parade. Known as Watergate, it comprised a large portcullis gate that opened to allow ships into an small, unnamed quay located within the town. On either side of this gate, two large mural towers, known as King’s Castle and Queen’s Castle, controlled its mechanics. Little evidence remains of the gate, but on the basis that it had to allow access by ships with full masts, Watergate possibly divided in two and opened like a door, rather than being wound up and down by means of a stout chain on a pulley system. In 1996, when new sewage pipes were being laid on Castle Street, archaeologists found two portions of rubble that indicated the site of the rectangular foundations of Queen’s Castle. A further section was discovered in 1997. During these excavations, sections of the medieval quay wall were also recovered on Castle Street.



In the last two decades, archaeological excavations have uncovered much important evidence within the area of the walled town. In particular, several sections of the lower courses of the town walls have been discovered along with parts of streets, laneways, houses and even the remains of citizens. Much of the town wall survives beneath the modern street surface, and in some places has been incorporated into modern buildings. The wall was composed of two types of stone, limestone and sandstone – both  have been used regularly in Cork’s buildings down through the ages. Sandstone deposits are common on the northern hills overlooking Cork, while limestone deposits are found beneath the southern hills. Sandstone is primarily red in colour while limestone is primarily white-grey in colour, giving the city its colours: red and white.

Walled Town of Cork, c.1575, image from Pacata Hibernia


 Links – Other Walled Towns:









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