A section of the Pacata Hibernia map circa 1600 showing the King's and Queen's Castles on either side of the Watergate.
For well over a hundred years the Queen's Old Castle department store was one of the best-known shops in Cork city. The site of the store — lately occupied by the Zavvi music store, which closed in March 2009, and the catalogue retailer Argos — is one of the most historic and interesting sites in the city centre. Confusingly, it was originally the site of the King's Castle, one of the two fortresses guarding the entrance to the medieval port of Cork. The original Queen's Castle was further to the north near present-day Castle Street and Cornmarket Street. Both castles are shown on the Pacata Hibernia map of Cork from the late sixteenth century. The King's Castle is on the south of the Watergate on the map, while the original Queen's Castle is clearly marked north of the Watergate. The King's Castle got its name from a charter of Prince John, later King of England, of around 1189 which ordered that a fortification be made for his use in the city.
The earliest documentary evidence that definitely identifies the location of the castle is from 1608 when a grant to a member of the Fitzgerald family mentions the "Kinges castle, on the south side of the Key [present-day Castle Street] neere and uppon the walls of the Cittie of Corck." Earlier references to the castle in the historical sources are confused and contradictory. Despite this, historians feel that the King's Castle was built in 1206, as the Annals of Inisfallen for that year refer to a castle in Cork that was built by the foreigners. The Annals of Inisfallen for 1230 record the destruction of a stone castle in Cork and this was almost certainly the King's Castle. It had been rebuilt by 1232 when it was in the custody of Peter de Rival. Despite the confusions in the historical record there is a consensus among historians that the castle functioned until the late fifteenth century. There is also evidence that it was used as a jail in medieval times. Later references indicate that the castle was in a ruinous condition after the late 1500s. Following an order from James I in 1609 all or part of the castle was demolished and the County Courthouse was built on part of the site.
A section of Rocque's 1759 map of Cork showing the Courthouse on the site of the King's Castle on Tuckey's Quay, as the north-west side of the Grand Parade was then called.
The historical references to the relationship between the courthouse and the castle are also confusing. Some of them state that the castle was completely demolished before the courthouse was built, while others claim that the courthouse was within the castle and still others state that the courthouse and castle were adjacent to one another. Gina Johnson, the archaeologist, sums up the situation neatly in her book The laneways of medieval Cork: "As yet, there is no archaeological evidence to untangle the confusion, but all records suggest that the site (or sites) of both the King's Castle and the County Courthouse lay beneath the present-day Virgin Megastore / Argos building, previously known as the Queen's Old Castle." The Virgin store was later renamed Zavvi and closed in 2009.
The County Courthouse was built during the years 1610-1612 and stood until 1680 when it collapsed during the trial of Bishop Peter Creagh. Tuckey's Cork Remembrancer describes the scene: "The county Court-house fell down the day that Doctor Creagh, titular bishop of Cork, was tried. Some persons were killed and several others had legs and arms broken: the judge and bishop received no hurt. The court-house was rebuilt the following year."
Iinterior view of the Queen's Old Castle department store in 1866
After the opening of the new City and County Courthouse on Great George's Street, now Washington Street, in 1835 the site of the old County Courthouse / King's Castle was developed as a department store owned by a man named William Fitzgibbon. It is around this time that the site became known as the 'Queen's Old Castle', perhaps in honour of Queen Victoria, and the older name King's Castle came to be forgotten until modern historians drew attention to the fact that the original Queen's Castle was to the north of the department store.
The Southern Reporter of 20 October 1846 describes the appearance of the interior of the department store in the following terms: " . . . the new and spacious establishment of the Messrs Fitzgibbon, on the site of the Queen's Old Castle, and old County Court House, on the Parade. The vast extent, admirable arrangement, and elegant decorations of this fine building cannot fail to strike a visitor with admiration of its design and execution, and render it worthy to be placed rather in the category of public buildings than of private trading houses. The length is 220 feet, by 78 feet wide, and on entering through a spacious portico, the 'pillared aisles' and splendid domes, from which a softened light is shed on the busy scene beneath, and again reflected in mirrors surmounted by gilt cornices and very rich drapery, the effect produced is particularly grand and imposing. The dome is supported by twenty-eight handsome Corinthian columns, twenty-six feet high, and by a peculiar construction the light is conveyed from the roof by immense squares of ground-plate glass. A spacious gallery, approached by a handsome staircase, encircles the building, and is fitted up, as is the place of business, on the basement floor, with the most rich and appropriate embellishments. The whole is lighted up by seventy gas lights, which are fixed in massive bronze pillars, and is heated by means of hot-water pipes conveyed from a stove-room and boilers through every part of the establishment. On the whole, we may observe, that it well may be regarded as an addition to the attractive edifices already existing in Cork, and is highly creditable to the taste and enterprise of the proprietors who expended so large a sum among the tradesmen of the City, as well as to the skill and ability of the eminent architect, Mr Wm Hill, from whose design it was constructed."
A photograph of the Queen's Old Castle Shopping Centre in the 1980s
From the 1840s to the 1970s, the Queen's Old Castle was one of the most popular department stores in Cork. During the burning of Cork in December 1920 it was one of the few major stores which escaped burning by the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans. Cork folklore attributes the Augustinian priests with saving the store as they asked the Tans not to set it alight in case the fire spread to St Augustine's church nearby.
The ownership of the store changed over the years. Brown Thomas Ltd and Primark, trading under the name Penneys, were among the last owners of the premises while it was still a department store. Power Securities Ltd bought the store and in the late 1970s decided to convert it to a shopping centre. The department store closed its doors on 3 August 1978 for refurbishment and Jack Lynch opened the Queen's Old Castle Shopping Centre on 7 May 1980. There were 37 individual shops and restaurants in the shopping centre which quickly became very popular. Joe McCarthy, the famous musician and member of the Dixies showband, had two cafés in the centre. Bookshops, jewellers, and fashion shops for men, women and children were among the shops in the centre.
Economic recession during the 1980s and early 1990s caused difficulties for many of the shops in the centre and Clarendon Properties bought the centre in 1996. It was closed for a complete revamp of the interior in 1997. When it reopened there were just two main tenants Argos, the catalogue retailer, and Virgin Music Megastore. Roy Keane, the famous footballer, opened the Virgin store on 4 December 1997. Virgin was bought by Zavvi in 2008 and the music store closed in March 2009 during the most recent economic recession. Director's Cut, a store selling DVDs, opened on the former Virgin site in August 2009. Argos opened on 19 February 1998 and is still in business.
From castle to jail to courthouse to department store to shopping centre, the site of the King's Castle has had a chequered history which few sites in Cork could rival.