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Cork –A Medieval Walled City

Cartographic sources from the late sixteenth century show the medieval walled city of Cork as an impressive elliptical area characterized by towers, battlements and crenellations. There were fortified gates at the present North and South Gate Bridges and a marine gate and central channel which would have allowed access to ships and boats.

The wall was largely demolished in the 18th century to make way for the rapidly expanding town and as a result there are no above ground standing remains of the walls present today. A section of the below ground remains of the wall are visible in Bishop Lucy Park, Grand Parade. However as evidenced by over 20 archaeological excavations, the below ground level preservation of the city wall is phenomenal and this stems from Cork ’s location in an estuarine marsh. The difficulties of building and maintaining a wall in a tidal estuary would have been immense. The habitation levels would have been constantly raised to protect against the tidal floodwaters.

The line of the medieval city wall was largely derived from the line of the existing river channels. The southern island was the first section of the city to be walled and this occurred in the early 13th century. The wall was predominately built of limestone. The northern island was not fully enclosed until the late 13th/early 14th century and was built of sandstone.

The layout of the medieval city is still evident in the street plan of the historic core of Cork . The medieval main street would have been narrower, but nonetheless followed an identical course. Many laneways and alleys lead off the main street at right angles. Some of these laneways exist to this day. Others are fossilised in the layout of houses, with doorways to yards and other properties marking the location of old routes. The size of property units is, in general, as it was in medieval times.

With the advent of artillery Cork was no longer impregnable and was particularly vulnerable to attack from the hills to the north and south of the city. The Anglo-Norman walls would have become redundant as defensive structures. Elizabeth Fort, situated outside and to the south of the walled city is a fine example of a 17th century star-shaped fort. The fort was originally constructed in 1601, following orders from Sir George Carew. The exceptional view of the city which Elizabeth Fort commands explains why it was such a strategic site. This fort, along with an earthwork to the southwest, known as Cat Fort, and Shandon Castle to the north, became integral to the defensive plans of the Jacobites in 1690. However during the Siege of 1690 the city succumbed to bombardment and the city walls were badly damaged particularly in the southeast corner. A decision was taken to demolish the wall in the early 18th century when the urban area began to extend beyond the old medieval core. The city was now defended by a series of artillery fortifictions in the lower harbour designed to guard against sea-borne attack.