15 Jan 2015

Kieran’s Our City, Our Town, 15 January 2015

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775a. Castlemore, Crookstown, County Cork

Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,

Cork Independent, 15 January 2015

Cork Harbour Memories (Part 6) – Making Cork Medieval


     The Watergate complex, comprising Cork’s medieval port, docks and custom house, would have been impressive. The gate allowed controlled access into a private world of merchants and citizens – the masts of ships, vessels filled with goods and people, creaking as their wooden hulls knocked against the stone quays. Built between two marshy islands, in the middle of a walled town, its entrance was between the two castles – King’s Castle and Queen’s Castle. But perhaps it is the places that Cork citizens began to connect with, which gave it a position in the history of the North Atlantic’s maritime history.

     A very old book but a very enlightening one by William O’Sullivan (1937) called the Economic History of Cork City studies (amongst other aspects) the archived custom returns on Irish ports in the late thirteenth century. Cork had seventeen per cent of all Irish trade and was the third most important port in Ireland after New Ross and Waterford. The long list of exported commodities comprised oats, wheat, beef, pork, oatmeal, fish, butter, cheese, tallow (a form of animal fat) and malt. Hides, skins and wool were also exported. The principle hides sold being from cattle, horse, deer and goat. The various skins came from small wild animals such as rabbit, fox, marten and squirrel. Exports from Cork during this period were sent to Bordeaux, Normandy and Dieppe in France and to Newport, Plymouth and Dartmouth in England. Trading was also conducted between Cork and Bristol, Chichester, Minehead, Southampton and Portsmouth.

    In Bristol City library, it is recorded that the hides from Cork and indeed from other Irish ports, were manufactured into cloth and exported. During the first half of the 1300s, 15 Bristolian ships are recorded as being involved the cloth trade. Trading figures show that 2,300 broadcloths were exported in 1348-50. This figure rose in the year 1400 to 4,000 broadcloths being exported; records show that 1,500 hands were involved in this cloth production. Much of these were exported to English colonies. So in truth, hides were sent out of Cork only to be sent back as cloth. Bristol custom accounts show the importation of luxury goods such as figs and raisin from the Mediterranean and Bordeaux wines and were sent onto Irish ports. Bristol’s other principal imports came from British sources. These included, grain and wool using the River Severn from Glouchestershire and surrounding areas, timber and iron from south Wales, and fish and tin from Devon and Cornwall.

    The role of the rolling and lush agricultural hinterland of the “Kingdom of Cork” was significant. Research, by scholars such as Ken Nicholls on Cork Medieval Lordships and his work in books, for example, such as Cork, History and Society (P. O’Flanagan & C. Buttimer 1993, editors) highlight that the successes of a power centre such as Cork were dependent on its surrounding region to send provisions in, so export could take place. Cork’s two principal Anglo-Norman knights, Robert Fitzstephen and Milo DeCogan, were involved in the initial invasion of Ireland. For their services King Henry II granted them the “Kingdom of Cork”. Both brought a radical new identity to Cork’s settlements and countryside. The South of Wales born Fitzstephen became landlord of lands extending from the east of Cork Harbour to Lismore. He established fortifications at Castlemartyr and at Rostellan. Having no living male heirs, Fitzstephen eventually ceded these territories to Philip de Barry, his half-nephew around 1180.

    Glanmorgan born Milo DeCogan became landlord of a significant acreage of land extending from the Limerick border to Cork Harbour. He was killed in 1182 in battle but his family heirs in time managed to dispossess, kill and remove Gaelic Irish families such as the McCarthys, O’Flynns and O’Leary’s pushing them back, into the western and more barren fringes of their territory. The nucleus of the DeCogan land was a parcel of land between the River Lee Valley and the Blackwater. These lands still possess much fertile soil and are well served by those rivers and their tributaries. The lands had been in the ownership of the O’Flynn family, who were pushed back to their family castle at Ardagh in Baltimore. James N Healy in his richly researched book Castles of County Cork records 19 castles with DeCogan associations in County Cork. A minority still exist as ruins. For example the crumbling remains of Castlemore in Crookstown stands as a prominent reminder of the DeCogan power, their rise, their fall and legacy.

     Anglo-Norman families such as the DeCogans, Fitzstephens and later the Barrys (Buttevant and environs) and Roches (Roches Point and environs, Glanworth, Castletownroche and surrounds) implanted administration units or feudal manor systems on the Irish rural landscape. Castles would have had overlords, family members, sheriffs, knights, and an array of servants and labourers (some waged and some not). Thousands of tons of agricultural produce are recorded as being exported from Cork. With every barrel of produce put on a ship for export, the process to get it there would have been immense and intense – from the working of fields, to animal and crop husbandry, to the defence of land won in battle, to the transport of produce to all the paperwork and fee negotiation.  

 To be continued…




775a. Castlemore, Crookstown, reputed to have been built initially by the Anglo-Norman family of the DeCogans (picture: Kieran McCarthy)

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