Cork in the 1800s

Living Conditions in Cork

In the early part of the nineteenth century living conditions for the majority of inhabitants of the city were quite poor. Sanitation was of a low standard, there was no sewerage system or supply of clean water, and all types of waste were either thrown onto the street and or into the River Lee.

Large dunghills of waste lingered in many of the lanes in the city where people lived.  As a result of these unhygienic conditions, infectious disease was common. A Fever House of Recovery was established by the Society for Bettering the Conditions of the Poor in the early 1800s, located on the Old Youghal Road.

By the time of the 1841 census, the population of Ireland was estimated to be close to 8 million, with 80,720 of these living in Cork City. A high percentage of people lived almost exclusively on potatoes.  As people flocked to the cities during the famine years, in search of food and work, this figure would actually increase to stand at over 85,000 by the time of the next census in 1851.


Cork Union Workhouse

Cork Union Workhouse building, present day

In the first few decades of the nineteenth century unemployment had become commonplace. Relief schemes, such as those initiated by the Cork Relief Committee provided much-needed employment for many people.  

Following the passing of the 1838 Poor Law Act, Ireland was divided into 130 poor law unions and a number of workhouses were established. The Cork Union Workhouse was initially established in the Cork House of Industry.  The House of Industry (close to the present-day South Infirmary Hospital)  accommodated over 1800 residents by the early 1830s, but conditions were severely cramped. It was clear that additional resources would be needed to provide relief to the city’s destitute.

A purpose-built workhouse was completed in  December 1841, designed by Poor Law Commissioner’s Architect George Wilkinson, at a site on the Douglas Road (later redeveloped as St Finbarr’s Hospital). The new building was designed to accommodate 2,600 paupers. During the famine years it would accommodate a great many more.



Public notice during 1832 cholera epidemic (Cork Archives)

In late 1816  a typhus outbreak began to spread through the city. There was a shortage of both food and employment during this period. Bodylice helped to spread the disease. Approximately 5,000 cases were admitted to fever hospitals during 1817, and about 160 of these died.

At the time of the cholera epidemic in 1832 it was estimated Cork city housed up to 60,000 paupers living ‘in a state of misery, suffering and destitution’ (O Mahony, 1997). The disease claimed 225 lives in the first there weeks since its first appearance in the city. The number of deaths  would surpass 1600 within a year, before the disease gradually disappeared. It would return in 1849.


Appearance of potato blight

Potato blight is caused by a fungus, Phytophthora infestans, which manifests as brown, dry and sunken patches on the potato tuber. Originating in North America, blight was initially reported on the east coast of the country in 1845, and by September of that year the disease was visible in potato crops in and around Cork city.

Diseased potato tuber



By the mid 1700s the potato had become part of the standard diet at all levels of Irish society. Poor people became particularly dependent on it and by the early 1800s it had become their staple food, replacing milk and oatmeal. The diet within the workhouse, in the first years, could at times be superior to that of the working poor, with meat twice a week, as well as bread, oatmeal porridge, milk and potatoes. This didn’t sit well with the Poor Law Guardians, and their subsequent decision to ‘reduce the food of the paupers to the very minimum quantity that will sustain life’ was criticised at the time by the Southern Reporter newspaper.


The Potato Market by Nathaniel Grogan, ca. 1800






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