2d. Developing a Port Town

Cork Coat of Arms, mosaic in Cork City Hall

In the view of the English Crown, the walled town of Cork was an important strategic point to hold. The settlement lay adjacent to a large, deep and sheltered harbour with easy access to a rich agricultural hinterland, which meant that a substantial profit could be made through the export of produce.





After the extension of the wall c.1300, several taxes are listed in subsequent Royal charters granted to the town, which refer to a variety of traded goods. Various cloths of English and French origin, foreign spices and vegetables were imported. A wide range of British ports handled these good, including Bristol, Carlisle, Southampton and Pembroke. They would have been brought to Cork along with pepper and onions from Italy. There are numerous references to the importation of wine from France, the main ports being Gascony, Bayonne and Bordeaux. A large amount of the wine imported was re-exported to Scotland and Wales. This extensive wine trade is reflected in the vast amount of French pottery turning up on medieval archaeological sites in the city. Commonly known as Saintonge pottery, it comprised five types, the most being glazed jugs of a mottled green colour.


Saintonge Pottery (slide: Cork City Museum) 

View of Watergate, c.1600Exports:


The tax list also reveals which items were exported from Cork, primarily to English cities, such as Bristol, and to England’s new trading contacts in France and Northern Italy. The principle exports were oats, wheat, beef, pork, oatmeal, fish, butter, cheese, tallow (a form of animal fat) and malt. Hides from cattle, horse, deer and goat, and wool were exported along with skins from small wild animals such as rabbit, fox, marten and squirrel. There is also the possibility that some live animals were exported, such as horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and goats. These were sent to English, Scottish and French ports.


In order to keep pace with the burgeoning econony, the first Royal mint was established in Cork in 1295. Little is known of this early coinage save that it was inscribed with the words, Civitas Corciae.





Archaeological evidence indicates the presence of several crafts within the city. The largest of these was the craft of metal-working, and large quantities of iron slag have been found along with iron-smelting furnaces. The most significant of these was revealed during the placing of foundations for the Gate Cinema on Bachelor’s Quay in 1994, where a blacksmith’s forge was discovered dating to the early half of the fourteenth century.


A large amount of iron objects have also been found, including knives, spearheads, nails, horse tack, tools, such as drill bits, shears, gouges and punches, barrel padlocks and keys. Bronze objects such as stick-pins (dress fasteners), buckles needles and keys have been found, and Lead objects, such as lead weights. Bone manufacture was common in the town, too. The underlining marshy soil in the city provides perfect conditions for the preservation for bone artifacts, such as bone combs from antlers of deers; antler gaming pieces such as chessmen and dice, bone needles, spindle whorls, bone harp pegs and toggles.


Numerous wooden artefacts have been found and represent the use of several species of native tree. Each was utilised in a different way according to which type of object was being produced. For example, oak was favoured for the frameworks of building and for furniture. Ash was used in the making of bowls as it was easy to carve. Yew was favoured in carving and stave-making. Leather artifacts, especially footwear, belts, straps and sheaths, also form a large portion of the archaeological record. The importance of the leather industry is reflected in the fact that grants were given by Queen Elizabeth I in the late 1500s to the guilds of shoemaking, glove-making and tanning. Textiles mainly took the form of woven or spun silk, wool or animal hairs.


 Archaeological artefacts, Cork City Museum

Bone gaming pieces, Cork City Museum

Guilds and Income:


As the town developed and became au fait with European business practices, a system of quality control was initiated through the establishment of guilds. Each craft within the walled town, ranging from iron-workers to shoemakers, had its own guild, which regulated wages, maintained standards and looked after sick members. Most guilds became quite wealthy and owned their own halls where they held regular meetings. However, the locations of the guild houses within the town is not known, and we do not find clues in streetnames, as is the case in cities such as Dublin. Guilds were also widespread in English towns and thus provided a common base for trading links.


Everyday there was a hive of activity at the quays of the town, especially with the arrival of ships from abroad. All ships docking at the quay inside the town had to report their goods to the custom house, which was adjacent to the quays. No remains of this custom house exist today, but the site is now marked by the Catholic Young Men’s Society at the intersection of South Main Street and Castle Street or Exchange, which would have overlooked the interior dock. Here, taxes were paid on all goods being imported and exported. The revenue raised was a small proportion of the total profit and was sent to the king. A merchant’s hall was also present in this area, now occupied by the site of Beamish and Crawford Brewery on South Main Street. It provided a place where traders could meet, bargain, set prices and discuss local and European trading news.


 North Main Street, c.1600

Port Expansion:


The fourteenth century saw further advances in the development of the walled town as an inner Atlantic port. In 1326, Cork became a staple town, in other words became an official market place (a ‘staple’) of hides, wools and woolfells. Dublin and Drogheda were also made staple towns. The regulations of a staple town were few, but aimed to concentrate the accumulation of revenue in one area deter tax avoidance by native or foreign merchants. For example, citizens were only to wear cloth made in England, Ireland and Wales. The regulations primarily affected foreign merchants who could only trade in hides in a staple town. Native merchants too could only transact business in hides in a staple town. However, the regulations also benefited new merchants to the town as, upon arrival, they were afforded the King’s protection and if they were injured in any way, the inhabitants of the towns were held responsible.


Exports from Cork during the sixteenth century increased and included hides, wool and woodfells (skins with wool on them) to Bordeaux, Normandy and Dieppe in France and to Newport, Plymouth and Dartmouth in England. These raw materials were used to manufacture garments. Trading was also conducted between Cork and Bristol, Chichester, Minehead, Southampton and Portsmouth. The return cargo from Bordeaux was wine, gold and silver. Other commodities exported were linen, mantles, wooden oak boards (for construction purposes), beef, mutton, fat, cloth, wheat, barley, herrings, salmon and wool. In addition, the export of preserved beef to Bristol in salted and packed barrels began in this era.

Imports during the sixteenth century covered a wide range of household items, including metals such as iron, brass, lead, pewter and tin. Other imported commodities included tar, glue, salt, hops, malt, cloth, soap, lard, starch, paper, cotton, earthenware and wooden boxes. Bristol and Plymouth were still the primary cities exporting to Cork, but new cities and towns, such as Exeter, began to export to Cork at this time. The wine trade with France remained intact, but Cork also began to import wine from Hamburg and Ferrol in North Germany.