Daily Archives: June 6, 2024

Kieran’s Our City Our Town 6 June 2024

1256a. South Gate Bridge by Nathaniel Grogan, c.1790 (source: Crawford Art Gallery).
1256a. South Gate Bridge by Nathaniel Grogan, c.1790 (source: Crawford Art Gallery).

Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,

Cork Independent, 6 June 2024

Cork: A Potted History Selection

Cork: A Potted History is the title of my new local history book published by Amberely Press. The book is a walking trail, which can be physically pursued or you can simply follow it from your armchair. It takes a line from the city’s famous natural lake known just as The Lough across the former medieval core, ending in the historic north suburbs of Blackpool. This week is another section from the book.

What’s in a Painting? Nathaniel Grogan’s South Gate Bridge:

Archived in the collections of the Crawford Art Gallery is an evocative painting of South Gate Bridge in the closing decade of the eighteenth century by artist Nathaniel Grogan (c. 1740–1807). He discovered his talent as an artist as a young man, receiving some instruction from the artist John Butts. Grogan enlisted in the British army and went to America for a time. He returned to Cork and became known for his composition skills of drawings of the city and its environs.

  One of Grogan’s popular works is that of South and North Gate Bridges. The image presented is that of South Gate Bridge, which reveals quite a lot of the life and times in this corner of the city, especially in its focus on the bridge, the debtor’s prison and the fishing community.

It is said that the first South Gate Bridge was built sometime in the twelfth century AD as a timber-planked structure, giving access to a Hiberno Norse settlement or access to a well-settled marshland with inhabitants of Viking descendancy. When the Anglo-Normans established a fortified walled settlement and a trading centre in Cork around AD 1200, South Gate drawbridge formed one of the three entrances – North Gate drawbridge and Watergate portcullis being the others.

In May 1711, agreement was reached by the Corporation of Cork that North Gate Bridge would be rebuilt in stone, while in 1713 South Gate Bridge would be replaced with an arched stone structure. South Gate Bridge still stands today in the same form it did over 300 years ago, with the exception of a small bit of restructuring and re-strengthening in early 1994.

  In the painting, the Debtor’s Prison at South Gate Prison is very prominent, with its peaked roof and chimney piece at the left-hand side of the bridge. It is known the prison was built concurrent to the bridge in the 1710s. However, many of its records have been lost to time. What is known is that there were stern penalties if you owed money and could not pay the debt in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland. The debtor was imprisoned until the money was paid. If they did not have enough money to pay the debt, then it was not unusual for the person to remain in the prison until they died there.

Debtors were not entitled to medical attention. Those who could not get their families to arrange payments of rent at the prison had to take the dampest and darkest cells. If payment was not made for food, they were given bread that was boiled in water three times a day. The practice of imprisoning debtors caused many calls for the reform of laws around debt. It was only in 1872 when the imprisonment aspect was removed by the Debtors Act (Ireland).

In the foreground of the painting there is a focus on fishermen. Records reveal that such fishermen lived around the Frenches Quay, Crosses Green and South Main Street areas. Several resided in the stepped lane known as Keyser’s Hill that runs from Frenches Quay to Barrack Street via Elizabeth Fort. Twentieth-century oral history records that the South Parish fishermen used sturdy open rowing boats, usually around 18 feet in length. The boats were heavy and required considerable strength to row.

Washington Street and the Wide Street Commissioners:

As the late eighteenth century progressed, the population increased and the Corporation of Cork came under pressure to improve the lot of the citizens. The medieval fabric of the city simply could not cope with the demands of the population. Fines were placed on illegal dumping and scavengers, and wheelbarrow men and street sweepers were appointed to keep the streets clean. Many of the buildings in the city were in need of much repair and certain lanes in the old medieval core needed to be reconstructed.

  In 1765 a commission was established to deal with the problems facing the expanding city, especially in relation to the various health risks posed by inadequate facilities. Known as the Wide Street Commission, it was first set up in Dublin. In Cork, its primary job was to widen the medieval lanes and thereby eradicate some of the health problems stemming from them. They also planned to lay out new, wider streets for the benefit of the citizens.

Sixteen commissioners were appointed in 1765, but due to financial restrictions it was the early nineteenth century before they made an impact. At that time, streets such as South Terrace, Dunbar Street and Washington Street (then known as Great George’s Section of Holt’s Map of Cork (1832), showing Great George Street; opened in November 1824) were laid out, and streets such as Shandon Street were widened.

Samuel Lewis, in his section on Cork in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), describes the work of the commissioners: ‘The streets were created and repaired under the directions of the commissioners and nearly £6000 is annually expended in paving, cleansing, and improving them.’ The privilege of licensing vehicles of every description plying for hire within the city was also vested in these commissioners.

Lewis describes that the general appearance of the city, particularly since its extensive improvements, is ‘picturesque and cheerful’. He further outlines that “the principal streets are spacious and well paved; most of the houses are large and well built, chiefly of clay-slate fronted with roofing slate, which gives them a clean though sombre appearance; others are built of the beautiful grey limestone of the neighbourhood, and some are faced with cement; those in the new streets are principally of red brick”.

John Windele, in his Historical and Descriptive Notices of Cork (1849), describes a dense habitation prior to Great George’s Street: “The sight of this beautiful street a few years ago was occupied by some of the narrowest and filthiest lanes and alleys of the town and most densely inhabited by a squalid and impoverished population”.


1256a. South Gate Bridge by Nathaniel Grogan, c.1790 (source: Crawford Art Gallery).