Medieval Cork


Little seems to be left of the City of Cork in the middle ages; only one of the buildings in the city, the Red Abbey, is dated to that period, and this was outside the medieval city walls. But clues to the medieval past do remain in the modern city. This is a brief outline of the medieval city of Cork; it includes suggestions of where to look for traces of the past age in the city today.


Our earliest historical records of settlement at Cork indicate that there was a monastery there from the Early Christian Period, possibly from the early part of the seventh century.

Legend attributes the foundation of the monastic settlement to St. Fin Barre, who is said to have begun a monastic school in Cork in 606. Because of the lack of contemporary historical sources for this early period, it is not possible to know if the actual monastic settlement was established as early as this date. However, contemporary records mention the death of the abbot Suibne in 862 and it can be concluded that the monastery must have been well established by this time.

This became known as the monastic school of St. Fin Barre (also known as Barrfhinn, Bairre, and various other versions of the name).

Some of our knowledge concerning this early ecclesiastical centre comes from hagiographical sources (i.e. a life story written about a saint). These were often written many centuries after the saint was supposed to have lived. Because of this they do not necessarily provide reliable historical facts.

The monastery at Cork was a very successful school; it is listed in old Irish sources as one of the most important in the country. The importance of the school at Cork meant that the fame of the settlement, and its patron saint, spread. The site became an important centre for pilgrimage. But although it was ranked among the best in terms of its learning, it never rivalled the other important Irish monasteries of the period - Clonmacnoise, Armagh, Bangor and Kildare - in terms of its size. Throughout its history the settlement seems to have continued on a small scale.


No above ground indicators of the existence of this early and prosperous monastic centre remain. There is evidence for the previous existence of a round tower, (the construction of these monuments is generally thought to date to between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries). They would have been built as indications of the prestige of the monasteries they belonged to. Their height meant that they were clearly visible, and dominated the surrounding landscape. There is an illustration of the Cork round tower on the seventeenth century monstrance now held by the Cork Dominicans. This indicates that the tower had about seven stones, as was reasonably common. The tower was still in existence during the 1690 siege of Cork, but in the course of the eighteenth century it fell into disrepair, and no trace of it now remains.

Red Abbey Tower (late Medieval)

Another common feature of early monasteries is the existence of a curved or circular surrounding walls. These marked the extent of the monastic boundary. This feature is not always traceable above ground today. The size of the enclosure could vary depending on the wealth, size and prestige of the religious foundation it surrounded. In some cases, where towns have grown up around the early monastic sites, a trace of the enclosure is still visible in the layout of the streets. For example, the outline of the monastic enclosure at Armagh is evident in the present day street plan. It is possible that this is also the case in Cork. The curvilinear line of Barracks Street, and the line of Bishop's Street, suggest that the enclosure around the Cork monastery may have been a D-shape.


The disruption of this period of Irish monasticism is traditionally attributed to the arrival of Scandinavian raiders in the ninth century. However, the evidence we have from Cork does not support this view. The monastery at Cork, as recorded in the annals, first came under Viking attack in 820. However, in the three and a half centuries following this period there were only three recorded attacks on the monastery. The existence of the reasonably large monastery by the banks of the Lee was probably an important factor in the establishment of a Scandinavian settlement nearby, it seems that the Vikings did not plunder the Cork monastery, but they are more likely to have established mutually beneficial trading arrangements, and the two settlements probably lived peacefully side-by-side. Any problems the Cork monastery had with raiders was as likely to have come from Irish parties as from Viking ones. Irish government was broken up into small tribal lordships and consisted of several warring parties.

In 848, Olchobar, the king of Cashel, is recorded as having launched an offensive on the Viking dun of Corcaigh. By this date there seems to have been a well established Scandinavian settlement around the Lee.


The overwhelming archaeological evidence for the existence of a Viking town in Dublin is unfortunately not available for Cork. The few Viking finds from Cork include two coins, a silver Viking armring and a gaming piece. So far, we have no evidence for an actual Viking town. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the archaeological excavations which have been carried out to date have concentrated in the area of the later medieval town, and have missed the areas of Scandinavian settlement. After extensive study of hazy documentary records, it is now thought that the Viking settlement was not in the area that later became the centre of the city, and is more likely to have begun on the South island and spread to the Sullivan's Quay/Barracks Street area. But in order to verify these theories archaeological excavations will have to be undertaken.


The Normans had arrived in Cork by 1171. But we have very little historical information for the years 1171-1177. By 1177 however, the Anglo-Normans had begun to colonise and expand the city. They were responsible for its growth into a prosperous medieval town. It is this period in Cork's history that we have good evidence for in the existing archaeological record.


It is not known if the Norse settlement had surrounding fortifications If the Scandinavians did have an enclosure for their settlement, it was probably of post and wattle construction, rather than anything very substantial. Most of the archaeological evidence concerning the city of Cork dates to the twelfth/thirteenth centuries onwards, beginning in the time of the Anglo-Normans. Early on in this settlement phase, the development of the surrounding walls began. They were constructed in stone. This proved fortuitous as in 1171 the town of Cork was attacked by the hostile rural natives.

Archaeological and historical research has revealed that the old city walls were in constant need of repair and rebuilding. The picture we have of the continuous wall around the city is possibly false; the wall was built, and rebuilt, in various phases and at various times. There is even some documentary evidence relating to around 1317 which suggests that the walls were extensively rebuilt at this period.


Excavations of the city walls have been carried out on a number of occasions over the past two decades, and at several locations around the centre of the modern city. Some of the excavated walls are now actually on show for the public. A section is visible at the entrance to Bishop Lucey Park on Grand Parade. As the section is below present day ground level, it demonstrates how continuous settlement in an area can lead to a rise in the occupation level. The old city walls were, in several places, built directly on the marsh of Cork. Excavations at the junction of Tuckey St. and Grand Parade have revealed that, in order for these walls to have gained a stable foundation, they were built on top of layers of moss and brushwood.


The settlement inside the walls consisted generally of a series of houses built along the main street. (North and South Main Streets; Grand Parade and Patrick's Street are both former waterways.) Behind these houses were strips of land which extended for about 7.5m or so, back to the walls. These were known as "burgage plots". In some excavations, remains of the post and wattle fences which separated these allotments have been found, as have the pathways/alleyways between them and the lean-tos and sheds built in them. The land may have been used for gardening, but these areas were also probably used as rubbish dumps, as archaeological evidence indicates. From at least the early fourteenth century it seems that the timber built houses of the town began to be gradually replaced by stone structures. An example of a stone house was found on the excavations at St. Peter's Market, on Cornmarket Street, and roofing slates found during city excavations also indicate that at least some houses had slate roofs.

Cork City, by chance, has the unique opportunity of being able, to some extent, demonstrate the layout of its medieval town. The urban structure of the very early period has been fossilised in the structure of the modern town. Later development of the city has focused on areas such as the Grand Parade and Patrick Street, moving the emphasis away from the medieval town. Therefore the pattern of medieval settlement around North and South Main Streets has been fossilised in the structure of the city today. The laneways and alleyways leading from the street have probably been pathways since the medieval period, and in some cases the spatial proportions of the modern buildings repeat the layout of the houses and gardens of the middle ages.

Doorway from St. Fin Barre's Medieval Cathedral (Romanesque)


Of the many churches and religious houses established in Cork during the middle ages, all that survives are possible fragments of three of them.

St. Fin Barre's Cathedral; the nineteenth century building houses Romanesque architectural fragments in its Chapter House and a late medieval font in the main church. These were found during the construction of the present Cathedral. In the walls surrounding the Cathedral grounds there are several doorways. One of these, known as the Dean's Gate, is a Romanesque doorway, probably dating to the thirteenth century. It may have been taken from the original medieval St. Finbarre's church building, but there is also a strong tradition that it was originally from the nearby Dominican abbey of St. Mary's of the Isle.

At Christ Church, the current building is seventeenth century, but there is a possibility that the present church crypt dates to the thirteenth century.

The Red Abbey tower is the only medieval building in Cork. The earliest documentary references to the Abbey are early fourteenth century. The tower dates to the later medieval period and was originally the tower part of an Augustinian church, built over the division between the knave and chancel.

Of these three churches, only Christ Church stands within the area of the medieval city walls. The foundations outside the walls appear to have been primarily monastic.


We do not have very much information concerning the trade of medieval Cork, but some documents do indicate the existence of a significant number of mills. For example, Droops Mill is mentioned with a great deal of frequency up to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was apparently situated on the north side of present day Liberty Street, and beside the river channel which separated the north and south islands of the city. In addition to this, almost every religious house had at least one mill associated with it.

Evidence from documentary sources seems to suggest that the wool trade was important, and it is known that hides of cattle, horse, stag and goat also feature among the city's main exports. Up until the fourteenth century the evidence indicates that supplies of many agricultural goods, including wheat, oatmeal, beef and pork, were being exported from Cork to feed the English army in France who were fighting the Hundred Years War.

Archaeological excavations have revealed that there is a sizeable amount of imported pottery to be found in Cork in the medieval period. Imported goods may have been brought into the city in these containers in return for the products exported from Cork. Very little of the pottery found on medieval sites in Ireland seems to be of Irish manufacture, but there is some. The Irish made ware found at Cork differs sufficiently from the native wares found in Dublin for us to suggest that there may have been a local, if small, pottery industry. However, a medieval pottery kiln has yet to be found in Ireland.

Also among the crafts and industries of the town, excavations have uncovered a large amount of iron slag, indicating that iron working was carried out, and there is a comprehensive range of medieval iron artefacts found from the excavations of the city. Products made from other metals, such as bronze, have also been found.

There is also extensive evidence for leather working in medieval Cork. Sheaths for a knife and a sword were found, as well as a substantial amount of shoes. Less than three percent of all the shoes found showed any evidence of repair, indicating that leather, and shoes, were an easily obtainable commodity in the medieval town.

Archaeological finds, such as shoes, pottery, and metalwork can be seen on display in the Cork Public Museum. There is also one item on display which was undoubtedly a luxury item; this is an amber paternoster, (an early form of rosary beads) which is of a very early date, and is extremely rare.


Extensive trade and contact with the continent meant that the city of Cork was very vulnerable to the spread of the Black Death, when it became rampant in the fourteenth century. The trade in wool was especially relevant to the harbouring of the black rats and the fleas carrying the disease. The Plague hit Cork in 1349, and the consequent fall in population was devastating. It was cited for many years as the reason for the decline of the city of Cork. The decline was on its way anyway, but the plague accentuated it. The city's prosperous period was over from this time on, and for several centuries, Cork was in depression and was heavily dependant on the crown for protection and finances.


O'Flanagan, P. and Buttimer, C.G. 1993. Cork History and Society. Interdisciplinary Essays on the History of an Irish County. Geography Publications. Dublin.

Rynne, C. 1993. The Archaeology of Cork City and Harbour from the Earliest Times to Industrialisation. The Collins Press. Cork.

Articles in Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. For example:


Articles in the Cork Examiner 1985. For example:

This information leaflet is based on material supplied by Penny Johnston of Cork Civic Trust, 50 Popes Quay, Cork. Illustrations were provided by Debbie Godsell.