Architecturally, Cork is very much a city of the nineteenth century. The majority of the buildings on the principal streets and many of the churches and public buildings date from that period. A small number of the architects contributed enormously to the architecture of Cork during that century. The Pain brothers, James and George R., designed a number of public buildings in the first half of the century, as did the Deane brothers, Kearns and Sir Thomas. In the second half of the century Sir John Benson was very influential and notable contributions were made by William Burges, the designer of Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral, and E. W. Pugin who designed SS Peter and Paul's Church. The works of G. R. Pain include the interior of Saint Mary's and Saint Anne's Cathedral (extensively refurbished in recent times), St Patrick's Church, and the Holy Trinity Church. With J. Pain he also designed the old County Gaol (now part of University College Cork) and the County and City Courthouse (another building which has undergone major refurbishment recently). Sir Thomas Deane designed the Commercial Buildings (now the Imperial Hotel) and the Queen's College that later became U.C.C. Kearns Deane designed St Mary's Church on Pope's Quay and the Cork Savings Bank on Lapp's Quay. Sir John Benson left his mark on Cork with his designs for St Patrick's Bridge, the Athenaeum (later the old Opera House), the English Market, St Vincent's Church and others.
The Protestant gentry, aristocracy and professional classes had dominated Cork Corporation since the late seventeenth century. Although there were no divisions between the landed Protestant gentry from the country and their co-religionists from the city who were engaged in commerce and trading, the Protestant interest had controlled Cork Corporation since the mid-seventeenth century, excepting the brief period of Jacobite rule during the 1680s. In the early nineteenth century and until the first local elections after the reforming legislation of 1840, Cork Corporation was effectively controlled by members of 'the Friendly Club', a clique which consisted exclusively of members of wealthy Protestant families. 'The Friendly Club' itself was dominated by members of the Perrier, Besnard and Gibbings families. Ian d'Alton, a leading authority on nineteenth-century Protestant society in Cork described the pre-1841 Cork Corporation as 'a large and well-run patronage operation. Its principal function was to supply a small group of interconnected families with offices of profit and honour'. The wealthy Catholics chafed at being excluded from political power and campaigned against their exclusion at both national and local levels. The Municipal Corporations (Ireland) Act of 1840 marked the end of Protestant domination of Cork Corporation. The local elections held in October 1841 returned a Catholic majority which elected a Catholic mayor. For the first time in almost two centuries the Catholic merchant class was the dominant political class in Cork city. The change in the political power structure did little to help Catholics or Protestants among the working class who continued to endure poor housing, unemployment and poor wages. While the trade union movement put down strong roots in Cork during the century, much of the political energy of the working class went into the great national question of self-government in Ireland. Municipal government in Ireland was reformed again with the passing of the Local Government ( Ireland ) Act of 1898.