History of MacCurtain St
The history of MacCurtain St is long and interesting, and is closely linked to the development of Cork City itself. The development of MacCurtain St was completely dependent on the expanding development of Cork City and on an easy crossing from the City centre.
Until the late 1600’s, the focus of the city was inside the old walled city along North Main and South Main St. Outside the walls, what was to become part of the city was a collection of river channels and swampy marshland islands.
In the 1690 Williamite war, King James II of England was supported by most of the native Irish, while William Of Orange was supported by the British parliament to occupy the throne of England, and reduce the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in English (and Irish) affairs. To this end, William invaded Ireland, and in a series of bloody and decisive battles, culminating with the Battle of the Boyne, vanquished James, who retired less than gracefully to France, never to return.
One such battle involved the taking of Cork City. The city walls were severely damaged, and rather than repair them, the citizens of Cork sought and received parliamentary approval for the abandonment of the City walls as a means of defence. This, combined with increasing population pressures, and the arrival with the Williamite armies of a number of adventurers led to the development of marshes outside the walls, the filling in of the river channels, and the increased building of bridges. John Rocques beautifully detailed map of 1759 shows the extent of the development outside the city walls.
While normal development continued in the Blackpool valley north of the city, considerable development occurred further East along the river, in the area which was to become MacCurtain St. In the detail to the right (circled in red) , you can see a number of buildings (called Lavit’s Buildings, no doubt the same LaVitte family of French origin, after whom the current Lavitt’s Quay is named). This road was the beginning of what was to become MacCurtain St. However, access to the area was severely limited by the lack of a bridge. The new St Patrick’s Bridge would ultimately be built in the area circled in blue. A number of ferries plied their trade at a number of points along the river, and were naturally reluctant to lose their business.
However, by 1780, Cork Corporation took the decision to build a bridge, and construction commenced, but not without its own drama.
The rate of development of the area after the opening of the bridge was enormous, and directly led to the development of numerous large houses, new suburbs, and of course, the creation of the Victoria (now Michael Collins) Barracks on the northern hill overlooking the city in 1801.
By the 1820’s the bridge had been existence 30 years, and considerable development had occurred on the North side of the bridge. However, the quays were still largely tidal mud slides on the north bank, and in 1824, the north banks were rebuilt as quays, and the bridge modified to use the newly created streetscape and quays.
Around this time, what was previously know as the Strand (and later to be known as MacCurtain St) became known as King St, which led from Patricks Bridge to the Brickfields Quarry, and on to several large country houses which had been built in the area called Tivoli . However, the fabric of the area is largely unchanged since 1820’s.
In the 1870’s a number of innovations appeared on the streets of Cork, as they did throughout the world. The Trams first appeared in 1872, and were horsedrawn affairs. The trams failed, for whatever reason (opinions vary), and it was 23 years before Trams reappeared in 1898, as Electric Trams on this occasion. This Tram ran from 7:30am until 11:00pm, and was enormously popular, carrying hundreds of thousands passengers each year. This particular route ran from Tivoli around the city to Blackrock village, which was further East on the southern bank on the river. The Trams ceased in 1931, due to competition from the motor car, and the newly formed Bus Companies.
A earlier development was the steam locomotive. The Dublin-Cork rail line was begun 1845, and arrived in Blackpool in 1849, where a temporary terminus was established at Kilnap. However, the vision had been to have a terminus on the river, so tunneling began, taking 6 years to complete the final mile of track. The original terminus on Penrose Quay was abandoned in the 1809 when the GW&SR acquired the Cork-Queenstown line. A new terminus building was constructed , which is largely unchanged today, and has a distinctive curved track-bed, to enable through trains from Kingstown (present day Dun Laoghaire) to Queenstown (Cobh).
One notable (if distinctly vague) such journey reputedly involved an important American personage, who had missed his London to Southampton connection to embark on a US bound liner. He apparently had some vital communiques between the British and US governments regarding the seemingly inevitable European conflict that was about to ensue. In an attempt to catch the liner at Cobh in Ireland, he hired a special express train from London Euston to Holyhead, caught the main boat across to Dun Laoghaire, and hired another special train from there to Cobh. What is extraordinary about this leg of the journey is that it was completed in 3 and a half hours – a feat which seems impossible today!!
Yet another distinctive and historic building on MacCurtain St is the nearby Metropole Hotel. It was built in 1897 for the Musgrave family, by local architect Arthur Hill (their various initials can be seen carved into the decorative fronts of windows). The same Musgrave’s have a long
association with Cork, and the old family home is now the 5* Hayfield Manor Hotel.
The Coliseum Theatre was opened as a movie Theatre in 1911, when the East end of King St was redeveloped.
It became one of a long list of movie theatres in Cork. Debate still rages as to the exact number of theatres in Cork in the 1950’s, but
there is broad agreement that here was at least 9, another of which was the Everyman Palace Theatre, which is only a few doors from the Cork Arms. The Everyman was opened in 1875 and is a 650 seater auditorium. It has been a vaudeville theatre, a movie cinema, and is now a vibrant and beautifully restored theatre, staging a full dramatic programme.
In 1911, while the Coliseum was built, old warehouses were demolished, to make a new street, called Brian Boru St, with a lifting bridge across the river. The bridge design is called a Scherzer Rolling Lift Bascule Bridge, and a number of them were also built in Dublin at the same time. The bridge was designed to carry trains across the rivers (the bridge has a twin over the southern branch of the river), to another train station on the south side of the city.
A common (if unusual) sight over the years was a train, or stranger still, cattle, pigs or sheep being driven across the bridge. Occasionally, if bridge was “up” to allow shipping to pass, people would be late
for work or school.
Some other buildings which dominate the MacCurtain St skyline are Victoria Buildings across from the Cork Arms, built in 1898 (by Arthur Hill..again!), with the adjacent Methodist Church opened in 1892, and the old Dobbins & Ogilvie warehouse, known as Hibernian Buildings, rebuilt in 1883. They produced jams, tobaccos, snuff, whiskey, sweets and a whole range of goods from the exotic to the mundane. It now houses two award winning fine dining restaurants : Greene’s and Isaacs along with the über-trendy cocktail bar and tapas style bistro, Cask.
A final note is how MacCurtain St acquired its name. It dates back to 1920 when Ireland gained it’s independence from the United Kingdom. Tomás MacCurtain had been a Lord Mayor of Cork in 1920 when he was assassinated in front of his wife and children by members of the RIC, the British paramilitary police force in Ireland. A massive crowd attended his funeral. At the coroner’s inquest into the killing the jury passed a verdict of willful murder against British Prime Minister, Lloyd George and certain inspectors of the RIC.
When Ireland gained its independence an extensive programme of street re-naming was undertaken thoughout Ireland, and King St was renamed MacCurtain St in his honour.