Oliver Plunkett Street is one of the main commercial arteries in Cork city. It is the longest street in the city centre and its intimate surrounds create a relaxing atmosphere for shoppers. Today, Oliver Plunkett Street is home to a variety of food and clothes shops, pubs, cafes, restaurants, and it caters for everyone from book lovers to DIY and camera enthusiasts. This section explores the historical development of the street from its beginnings in the early eighteenth century, the challenges posed the street's marshland origins throughout its history, a number of buildings of significance on the street, and charts the history of some of the long-standing retailers synonymous with Oliver Plunkett Street. These can be explored by selecting the bullet points below.
Like most of the principal shopping streets in the city centre, the present location of Oliver Plunkett Street was outside the medieval walls of Cork city. The major expansion of Cork as a settlement started from approximately 1177 onwards, following the Anglo-Norman invasion. By the seventeenth century, Cork city was confined to two islands on the the River Lee (Hurley, 2005, p. 64-5). Medieval Cork was a settlement built around a street that ran the length of modern-day North Main Street and South Main Street. What we now know as Oliver Plunkett Street and its surrounds lay to the east of the walled settlement, in an area known as East Marsh or King’s marsh.
The 1545 Plan of Cork City on the right shows the location of the old walled city and East Marsh. The shape of modern-day St Patrick's Street is visible in the curved channel cutting through the marsh, while modern-day Oliver Plunkett Street is now on former marshland.
The development of the area is linked to the upturn in the economic fortunes of Cork during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The period during and following religious wars was one of turmoil: Between 1644 and 1656 Catholics were expelled from the city and replaced by new English Protestant settlers. It was in the aftermath of this period that Cork’s economic fortunes began to change. The city’s was beginning to establish itself as a major trading port. New partnerships were established with the Caribbean and North America. Between 1664 and 1683 Cork’s customs returns doubled and the city’s quays were extended. The city’s status as a significant Atlantic port was growing.
This economic growth was accompanied by a dramatic increase in the population of Cork. This population growth stretched suburban boundaries outside the walled city, evident in an estimate from Richard Cox in 1685: ‘The suburbs are grown twice as big as the city, and altogether do contain 20,000 souls' (McCarthy, 2005, p. 124). The growth was sustained despite the siege of Cork during the Williamite Wars. From a population of 7,547 in 1659, Cork’s population grew to 24,275 by 1700, representing a 5.3% annual growth rate, a rate higher than that of Dublin and London at that time.
It was this economic and demographic growth that spurred Cork Corporation to look to the east of the city as an area for further expansion — as described by Diarmuid and Donal Ó Drisceoil: "By 1700 the city was beginning to outgrow its wall. For Cork’s suburbs had been growing on the higher ground to the north and south of the walled city, but now marshes were being reclaimed to the west and more especially to the east. It was on this new ground that the merchants, businessmen and wealthy professionals of the eighteenth century lived and pursued their commercial and professional activities" (Ó Drisceoil and Ó Drisceoil, 2005, p. 17).
In the seventeenth century, Cork Corporation leased the east marsh to Noblett Dunscombe and the area became known as ‘Dunscombe Marsh.’ The 1690 City of Cork Map on the left illustrates the expansion of the city’s northern suburbs onto Dunscombe Marsh with the development surrounding what we now know as Paul Street. This map also shows a bowling green, marking the first evidence of development in the vicinity of modern-day Oliver Plunkett Street.
Mark McCarthy points to a number of factors that reflect the upturn in Cork’s fortune. These included "the cosmopolitan nature of society, the establishment of trading connections with British America, the formation of new guilds, the demolition of the town’s walls, the shift in the core area of shipping activity downstream ... improvements in Cork’s infrastructure and the construction of market places to meet the demands of an early modern capitalist world system" (McCarthy, 2005, p. 126).
City Expansion 1700-1800
The Siege of Cork in 1690 resulted in major damage to the city, after which the walls fell into disrepair. The city’s expansion continued with the building in 1699 of Tuckey’s Bridge leading to Dunscombe Marsh. Cork’s economic expansion continued into the eighteenth century. Cork was one of the Atlantic’s prime trading ports, and from the 1770s onwards it was the most important location for provisioning the British army and navy on their way to North America (D'Alton, 2005, p. 161). As the city flourished economically, its population increased from 78,498 in 1706 to 138,267 by 1796 (O'Flanagan, 2005, p. 150).
Population growth in turn led to the physical transformation of the city. Oliver Plunkett Street was the first of today’s principal streets to be built on East Marsh. Its original name was George's Street, after King George I who reigned from 1698 to 1727. Richard Cooke points out that by 1720 "a long stretch of thoroughfare was constructed along its entire length [East Marsh]. It ran from east to west connecting Cold Harbour, now Parnell Place, with Tuckey’s Bridge ... many other small passageways soon appeared and these connected newly constructed quays. Thus, the area became known as 'De Flat Of De City' "(Cooke, 1999, p. 112).
The dramatic development and expansion of Cork, facilitated by the economic upturn, is reflected above in John Roque’s 1773 Map of Cork City, which clearly outlines George’s Street. Among the buildings visiblew is the first purpose-built theatre house in Cork, on the corner of Playhouse Lane, the modern-day Princes Street. This was the Theatre Royal, first opened in 1736. Also visible, on the western side of the street, is the Assembly House, a popular concert and dance venue. On the west of George's Street is the Mall. This was a tree lined walk which before ran next to a waterway, before Grand Parade was covered over as we know it today. The surrounding modern-day streets of St Patrick’s Street and South Mall are visible and were still waterways at that stage. While to the east, the remnants of Dunscombe's Marsh are visible which would later become today's Parnell Place.
In the 1700s, George’s Street and its surrounds were ‘a vital spine’ in the new area of Cork. This new area increasingly became the centre of Cork's commercial life. It "was where the bulk of Cork’s affluent and professional elite lived, worked and shopped" (Ó Drisceoil and Ó Drisceoil, 2005, p. 51). The street’s increasing prominence is evident in Richard Lucas’s Cork Directory of 1787. George’s Street was home to practical traders such as coopers, coach-makers, a glass-seller, a shoe-maker, and a haberdasher. Businesses with a clientele in the upper echelons of society were resident in the street, including perfumers and silk dyers. Further notable presences were a number of attornies, a merchant, and a physician and a surgeon named Robert Ferguson.
With Catholics prohibited from guild membership at this time, the majority of people residing and working in this area would have been Protestant. George’s Street would have had a strong presence of higher-order shops for the professional classes.
Stagnation and a New Street Name
The construction of modern Cork as we know it was largely complete by 1800. The river channels surrounding the old marsh, on which George’s Street was built, were no more, as these were filled in with new streets: St Patrick's Street, Grand Parade, and South Mall. The nineteenth century, however, was one of struggle for Cork with the decline of the provisions trade, the adverse affects of trade restrictions linked to the new Act of Union, and the horrors inflicted by the Great Famine of the 1840s.
‘Cork city began the twentieth century as a cramped and stagnant port whose best days had long since passed’ (Hourihan, 2005, p. 265). The streetscape of Cork as we know it today is outlined in Bartholomew’s 1903 map of Cork. The [General] Post Office — George’s Street’s standout building — is identified on this map. The 1900s also saw the city suffer the consequences of the independence struggle in Ireland. On the night of 11-12 December 1920, large parts of George’s Street and St Patrick’s Street were burned by rampaging British troops, causing widespread destruction in the city centre.
Irish independence brought a name change for George’s Street. In the in the early 1920s the street adapted the name Oliver Plunkett Street, after the seventeenth-century Archbishop of Armagh and Catholic martyr. Reference to this name change appears in Guy's City and County Cork Almanac and Directory for 1921. Before the name change, 'Old George's Street' was frequently used to identify the street. This name appeared in Aldwell's Directory from 1844 and was used primarily to distinguish the street from modern-day Washington Street, then known as Great George's Street. However, adaption of the name Oliver Plunkett Street was a gradual process. Oliver Plunkett Street appears in the 1925 directory, put refers the reader to George’s Street. By the 1945 edition of the directory, the Oliver Plunkett Street section is still accompanied by a reference to ‘Late George’s Street’, while colloquially the term ‘Old George’s Street’ remained in use.
Modern-Day Oliver Plunkett Street
With the approach of Cork’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2005, a major city redevelopment plan was brought forward, and a €3.6-million project was initiated that included the commissioning of Catalan architect Beth Gali, to make Oliver Plunkett Street far more pedestrian friendly. Construction work began in March 2004. What followed was a year of severe disruption for the street traders. However, a large amount of the work was complete by Christmas of that year and construction was finished by May 2005. The street was resurfaced, with the southern side paved with red clay bricks, protected by a number of bollards, and the northern footpath paved with white granite. The final step in the project was put into place in November 2005 when cars were prevented from accessing the street daily between 11am and 5pm, allowing Oliver Plunkett Street to become pedestrianised.
The redevelopment has made Oliver Plunkett Street one of the most relaxing and pedestrian-friendly streets in Cork. The street is home to some of the longest established retailers in the city. However, since 2005, Oliver Plunkett Street has suffered some difficult times due to the frequency of flooding in the city centre. These facets of Oliver Plunkett Streets history can be explored further by selecting from the options on the left-hand menu.
Lord Mayor Councillor Mary Shields formally launched these Oliver Plunkett Street webpages on 31 October 2014. The Lord Mayor said that this new section of the website supports Cork City Council’s promotion of city-centre trading.
At the time of the launch of these Webpages, Clodagh Daly (photo on left) of John Daly Opticians, Valerie Finnegan Cahill of Ikon Hair Design, and other traders in the Oliver Plunkett Street area were at the early stages of creating and branding what they termed the 'Plunkett Quarter'. The Plunkett Quarter initiative is intended to promote what is unique to the city-centre location comprising Oliver Plunkett Street and the spur streets adjoining it. Information on the Plunkett Quarter project is available at email@example.com where suggestions for that project can also be submitted.
Facets of Oliver Plunkett Street’s story can be explored through the menu options on the left of this page.
Cooke, Richard. T., My home by the Lee (Cork, 1999).
D'Alton, Ian, 'Cork city's Protestant culture', in John Crowley, Robert Devoy, Denis Lenihan and Patrick O'Flanagan (eds), Atlas of Cork city (Cork, 2005), p. 160-7.
Hourihan, Kevin, 'Cork City in the twentieth century', in John Crowley, Robert Devoy, Denis Lenihan and Patrick O'Flanagan (eds), Atlas of Cork city (Cork, 2005), p. 265-77.
Hurley, Maurice, 'Medieval Cork', in John Crowley, Robert Devoy, Denis Lenihan and Patrick O'Flanagan (eds), Atlas of Cork city (Cork, 2005), p. 64-78.
McCarthy, Mark, 'The evolution of Cork's built environment, 1600-1700', in John Crowley, Robert Devoy, Denis Lenihan and Patrick O'Flanagan (eds), Atlas of Cork city (Cork, 2005), p. 119-26.
Ó Drisceoil, Diarmuid and Dónal Ó Drisceoil, Serving a city: the story of Cork's English Market (Dublin, 2005).
O'Flanagan, Patrick, 'Beef, butter, provisions and prosperity in a golden eighteenth century', in John Crowley, Robert Devoy, Denis Lenihan and Patrick O'Flanagan (eds), Atlas of Cork city (Cork, 2005), p. 149-59.
Pettit, Seán. F., The streets of Cork (Cork, 1982).
These pages on Oliver Plunkett Street were first published on the Cork Past and Present website in July 2014. The pages were written and researched, and new photographs taken, by a JobBridge intern.