About Cork » History of Cork

Medieval City of Cork

The medieval walled city of Cork was bisected along a North-South axis by the Main Street, corresponding to the present-day North and South Main Streets. The houses fronted on to the Main Street and lanes led from the Main Street to the city walls. The lanes ran at right angles to the Main Street and the pattern of lanes is thought by archaeologists to reflect the pattern of the strips of properties known as burgage plots. The central axis with the lanes running off it at right angles gave mediaeval Cork a grid-type sructure. The lanes gave access to other properties, the backyards of houses on the Main Street and also to the mural towers on the walls of the city. Gina Johnson in her classic study ‘The Laneways of Medieval Cork’ has written ‘By at least the post-medieval period, the lanes themselves served as mini-streets with residential and commercial buildings either side.’ The north island of Dungarvan was linked to the south island by a bridge which was built circa 1190. The North and South Gate bridges were defended by gatehouses.

The houses would originally have been built of timber and roofed with thatch or timber shingles. The materials used for the floors would have been brushwood, wickerwork matting or gravel. Later, stone houses replaced the timber buildings.

Sanitation was primitive by modern standards. There is evidence that the lanes had open timber-lined drains that carried rainwater, domestic waste and sewage. The presence of such waste and sewage led to outbreaks of infectious diseases. The primitive sanitation with its accompanying health risks would have been common to most European towns in the medieval period.

Pottery excavated in Cork indicates that there was extensive trading with Bristol and with the Saintonge region north of Bordeaux. No building from the medieval walled city has survived. The Red Abbey, an Augustinian foundation, is the only surviving building from medieval Cork and it stood outside the walled city. 

The lanes were usually named after the more prominent citizens of the city and in recent years Cork City Council has marked the locations of many of the lanes with plaques bearing the names of the lanes set into the ground.