Cork in the 19th Century

Economic Developments: 1700-1800

The opening decades of the nineteenth century saw a marked decline in the economic fortunes of Cork city. The ending of the Napoleonic Wars after 1815 was a major factor in the economic slump that affected the city. Prices for agricultural produce declined by one-third to one-half of the wartime prices. Cork Harbour no longer regularly hosted fleets of the Royal Navy and this caused a major decline in the provisions trade. The return of the currency to the gold standard led to a contraction of credit and the susequent collapse of many banks. After 1824, Irish industry was exposed to competition from the far more developed British economy. It had been protected from the full force of this competition since the Act of Union in 1800.

The combined impact of these developments was catastrophic for the textile industry and the provisions trade. Unemployment in Cork rose to very high levels. Remarkably, the population of the city did not decline. This was mainly due to the massive influx to the city of migrants from the economically depressed rural areas. A major outbreak of cholera in the city in 1832 exacerbated the already difficult economic situation. The cholera outbreak was part of a European-wide pandemic of cholera in that year.

Not all of the city's industries were equally affected by the economic decline of the first half of the 1800s. Shipbuilding, brewing, distilling, tanning and the butter trade still flourished. Cork harbour remained a major port for trans-Atlantic trade. However, even the continued prosperity of these enterprises could not make a major impact on the high levels of unemployment that served to depress wages and contributed to the poor living conditions in the densely populated inner city.

Famine and Disease 1845-1850

Between the years 1845 and 1850, Ireland was being subjected to one of the greatest catastrophes in its history -The Great Famine. As one of the seminal events in Irish history, the Famine influenced the political, social and economic history of the country for generations. During this period, Cork city witnessed scenes of horror and destruction which are barely imaginable to modern residents of the city.

Famine 1845-1850

In 1841, Ireland supported a population of 8,175,124. Approximately 3 million of the population depended almost entirely on potatoes, supplemented with milk, for their subsistence. A general failure of the potato harvest would obviously spell disaster for huge numbers of people. Reports of an outbreak of potato blight began to circulate in the autumn of 1845. By the winter of  1845/46 it was clear that more than half of the crop was unusable and widespread hardship was felt among the rural and urban poor. The Cork Relief Committee was set up in March 1846 and with government support organised the distribution of maize, known as Indian meal, to the poor and started schemes of public works to enable those employed to earn enough to buy food from the food depots. The maize was not given to the poor; it had to be paid for. The wages on the public works schemes were very low. The laissez-faire economic doctrine, dominant at the time, viewed government interference in the economy as an inherently bad thing. This outlook hampered government relief measures throughout the period of the Famine.

By the summer of 1846, the Cork Relief Committee was preparing to wind itself up and discontinue the food depots and works schemes. The hope was that the forthcoming potato harvest would be good. When the potato harvest failed again, there was widespread fear and despondancy. The Cork Relief Committee again set up food depots and more schemes of public works. When these measures proved inadequate, soup kitchens were set up by religious organisations, notably the Baptists and the Quakers, and by philanthropic individuals, including Father Mathew. By the end of 1846 there were soup kitchens at Shandon, Blackpool, Adelaide Street, Harpur's Lane and Barrack Street. In 1847 the Baptists opened a soup kitchen in Pine Street. Even the government agreed to set up soup kitchens from March to September 1847 in spite of its adherence to the principles of laissez-faire.

The enormous scale of the problem overwhelmed all efforts at amelioration. The winter of 1846/47, 'Black 47' in folklore, was the worst in a generation. The rural poor fleeing from starvation and evictions poured into Cork city. Special constables were organised to expel vagrants from the city. The workhouse and the city hospitals were full. Starving beggars died on the streets. The cemeteries in the city couldn't cope with the numbers to be buried and a new cemetery was opened at Carr's Hill outside the city. Often, the mass graves contained so many coffins that those interred near the tops of the graves were insufficiently covered with earth allowing the foetid odour of decaying corpses to escape. Even the carts transporting the coffins to Carr's Hill gave off such an odour that it was proposed to carry the corpses to the cemetery using large balloons.

The potato harvest of 1847 was good but only a small crop of potatoes had been sown. In desperation, many of the poor had eaten the seed potatoes. In 1848 the crop failed again. By 1849 the very worst of the Famine was over and deaths from starvation began to decrease. However, famines seldom occur without the attendant scourge of disease.


Infectious and contagious diseases were endemic in nineteenth century Cork. In the inner city and in the warren of lanes off Barrack Street and Shandon Street, the housing conditions were abysmal and overcrowded. Sanitation was primitive. Access to clean drinking water was limited. The streets and lanes were filthy, with human waste found along the gutters. In the houses of the very poor it was not uncommon to find manure which was collected for sale to farmers. In such conditions disease-causing micro-organisms flourished. During the Famine, the increase in overcrowding and the compromised immune systems of the poor led to a staggering increase in the incidence of disease. Typhus, relapsing fever (called yellow fever), dysentry, bacillary dysentery (known at the time as 'the bloody flux') and other diseases claimed the lives of thousands in Cork city.

By January 1847, the fever hospital on the Old Youghal Road was full. In February the North Infirmary was converted to an auxiliary fever hospital. Part of the barracks in Barrack Street was accomodating fever patients, as was Cat Fort. Still the hospitals could not cope with the number of victims. Fever-stricken men and women were turned away from the crowded hospitals to wander the streets of Cork, inevitably spreading more disease. The mortality rate was staggering. In March 1847, 183 people died of fever in the workhouse in the course of a week.

In 1848, with the city still reeling from the effects of the Famine and the 'Famine fevers', there came news of a cholera epidemic which was sweeping through Europe. In desperation, thousands of houses were whitewashed and attempts were made to clean up the worst of the lanes to minimise the impact of the cholera when it arrived. As long as the water supply to the poor was unsafe such measures were futile. It took the efforts of  Dr John Snow in London during the 1854 cholera outbreak to finally establish the link between contaminated water and cholera. When cholera reached Cork in 1849 it added to the already unimaginable burden on the poor and homeless, and to the task of those seeking to help them.

By 1850, the worst of the Famine was over. Its effects would be felt for generations and one of its worst legacies was the poisoning of the atmosphere between Ireland and England. The emigrants who fled to the USA would carry with them the memory of ships laden with food leaving the country while thousands died of starvation and disease. The reality was more complex but the myth of 'perfidious Albion' among the Irish-Americans ensured a ready audience for those Irish political leaders who sought to 'break the connection with England' by whatever means. Between 1845 and 1851 the population of Ireland decreased by approximately 2 million. Historians and demographers estimate that a million died during the period and another million emigrated. Paradoxically, the population of Cork increased during the harrowing years of the Famine due to the influx of the rural poor fleeing from the devastated countryside.

Economic Developments 1800-1900

The second half of the nineteenth century saw little change in the state of the local economy. Individual sectors and enterprises may have flourished or declined but the overall economic situation of the city remained depressed with widespread unemployment, poverty and appalling housing conditions in the tenements of the inner city. As late as the 1880s, unemployed casual labourers marched through the streets of Cork carrying banners calling for 'Bread or Work'. The manufacturing sector of the economy, which had always played second fiddle to the commercial sector, struggled to cope with increasing mechanisation and foreign competition which dumped cheap goods, especially cheap textiles, on local markets. Various attempts were made to revive local trades and industries. The industrial exhibitions of 1852 and 1883 came about partly as a result of these revival efforts.

All the efforts proved to be unsuccessful. They were hampered by fundamental clashes of interests between the artisans and the employers and by religious differences between the employers themselves. Census figures from the period reveal the extent of the decline in manufacturing industries and local trades. The 1841 census records over 700 coopers working in Cork; by 1901 the number had fallen to less than 300. In 1841 the percentage of males employed in manufacturing was over 40%; by 1901 the percentage had fallen to just over 19%.

As the wealthier merchants and members of the prosperous middle classes left the inner city for Montenotte, Tivoli, Blackrock and other suburbs, their vacated houses became tenement homes for the working classes and the unemployed. Living conditions in many of these tenements were dreadful. Attempts by Cork Corporation and the Improved Dwellings Company to clear these slums and to provide alternative housing for the occupants were only partially successful. While some slums were demolished, not enough houses were built to accommodate the former slum dwellers. The rents charged for the new houses were often out of reach for the poorest. Also, both Cork Corporation and the Improved Dwellings Company tended to favour tenants with prudent and temperate habits. This was reflected in the names chosen for some of the new housing developments; Industry Street, and Prosperity Square, which are situated near Barrack Street, are two good examples. The net result was that even more desperately poor people were crowded into the remaining tenements. Frank O'Connor's novel 'The Saint and Mary Kate' is set in one of these tenements in the Middle Parish.

Public Institutions and Utilities in the Nineteenth Century

Many of the public institutions and the public utilities essential to the infrastructure of Cork city date from the nineteenth century. The railways, which transformed Europe and America during the industrial revolution of that century, arrived in Cork in the 1850s. The Cork, Blackrock and Passage Railway, the Cork South Coast and Bandon Railway and the Cork-Dublin line were all established during the early years of that decade. Gas was first used for public lighting in the city in 1826. Electricity was first used in Cork in 1881 when a portable generator was used to power electric lights during the construction of Parnell Bridge. It was not used for public lighting until 1898 when it was supplied by the Cork Electric Tramways and Lighting Company Ltd. The trams of the same company provided public transport. An earlier horse-drawn tram system had operated in the city from 1872 to 1876. Cork Corporation took control of the water supply to the city in the 1850s. In 1813 the board of the Cork Harbour Commissioners, now the Port of Cork Company, was founded. Several steamship companies flourished in Cork during the nineteenth century. One ship belonging to these, The Sirius, which left from Cork in 1838, was the first steamship to make a transatlantic crossing by steam power alone.

University College Cork, then known as Queen's College, was opened in 1849. The Crawford School of Art and Gallery dates from the 1880s. Both the university and the school of art owed much to the activities of the Royal Cork Institution which was founded in the early 1800s. The Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1884 and the games it promoted became and continue to be immensely popular in Cork. The Gaelic League was also established in Cork in 1894.

Cork City Libraries, Grand Parade, Cork, Ireland.
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