The story of the South Parish is integral to the founding of Cork City, and for centuries before it became formally known as the South Parish, the area south of the River Lee had a rich and varied history. Probably its most important inhabitant was the patron saint of Cork, St Finbarr, who founded his monastery here in the 7th century. That monastery would have drawn people to the area and a settlement would have grown up on its outskirts, occupying the higher ground to the south of “Corcach Mór na Mumhan”, the Great Marsh of Munster. In the 9th century Viking raiders sailed up the river and attacked this monastery on a number of occasions, but by the following century, they had begun to establish their own settlement here. These foreign invaders are believed to have occupied the marshy ground on either side of the south channel of the river in today’s lower Barrack Street area and they constructed a bridge over the river at the point where the present day South Gate Bridge now stands. By the 12th century their settlement had expanded and was made up of two islands, situated between both branches of the River Lee with a central spine that became the present day North and South Main Streets. The southern island, known as the City of Cork, occupied the area on either side of the present day South Main Street and a central bridge connected it with the northern island in the area around today’s North Main Street, which was a suburb of Cork known as Dungarvan. Later, in the 12th century, the Normans took the city and over the following decades they constructed a large solid stone wall around the earlier settlement, which became the medieval City of Cork. The years following the Norman invasion saw the arrival to the city of many of the religious orders that are still here today, three of them built their monasteries on the southside of the river, the Augustinians, the Dominicans and the Benedictines. All of these orders were driven underground in the 16th century during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII but they survived by living among the people of the city and were later able to re-establish themselves in new locations. Apart from the religious orders, although there was some settlement outside the South Gate of the city before the 17th century, the growing population throughout the 1600s and the expulsion of Catholics from inside the walled city during the 1640s brought many more people to the area. The last fifty years of that century saw the area immediately south of the River Lee, to the east and west of the South Gate Bridge, begin to take the shape in terms of the street layout that can still be seen today.
In 1635, Bishop William Tirry proposed that two new parishes be set up, one based around a church on Coppinger’s Lane, now St Rita’s Place, on the northern suburb, the second was based around a church on Cat Lane, now Tower Street, on the southern suburb. This post-Reformation parish of St Finbarr’s South was created from the union of the pre-Reformation parishes of St Finbarr, Holy Trinity [Christ Church], St Mary de Nard and Ringmahon, covering an area of around 9,000 acres and stretching from Ringmahon in the east to Carrigrohane in the west. The present day South Parish is still a large parish, but it’s only a fraction of the size of the original parish of the Penal Times. The later formation of other parishes, including Ss Peter and Paul’s, St Finbarr’s West [The Lough], Sacred Heart [Western Road], St Michael’s [Blackrock], Ballinlough, Turner’s Cross and Ballyphehane, meant the South Parish was reduced to its present boundary. Today’s South Chapel, which is the oldest Catholic church in the city, is believed to be the fourth parish church. Following Cat Lane, by 1695 there was a “mass house” on Douglas Street, almost opposite Dunbar Street, but it was destroyed by fire in 1727 and re-built on the same site the following year. In around 1760 part of that church collapsed, which led to the construction of the present church in 1766 on a new site on what was then called Red Abbey Marsh. The original South Chapel was L-shaped, but the addition of the south transept in 1809 and the extending of the sanctuary in 1866 gave it its present dimensions. Apart from the religious orders mentioned earlier, there were others under the broad umbrella of Catholicism, Protestantism or Non-Conformist, as well as other distinct communities who had, or still have their places of worship in the parish today. The Capuchins, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Unitarians, Quakers, Jews, Anabaptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses have all been connected to the parish down through the centuries.
The South Parish was the centre of military activity in Cork during the 17th and 18th centuries, with two major military establishments situated on Barrack Street, initially known as Bridge Street. Both Elizabeth Fort and the Old Barracks, the latter which occupied the site of today’s Prosperity Square, were in full time use until the early 19th century, when the new barracks, today’s Collins Barracks, was built on the northside of the city. The Royal Irish Constabulary Headquarters was also based on Union Quay. Education played a vital role in the history of the parish, from the hedge schools of old to the present day. Some of those who established centres of education in the South Parish included the Presentation Order and Ursuline Order of Sisters at Douglas Street, the Presentation Brothers at Douglas Street and Greenmount, the Christian Brothers at Sullivan’s Quay and Deerpark, and the Mercy Sisters first at Rutland Street and later, Sharman Crawford Street. There was also the Blue Coat School on St Stephen’s Street, St Nicholas’ National and Industrial Schools on Cove Street, and the Cork Model National School on Anglesea Street. As well as the few remaining schools on that list who continue to educate the youth of the city into the present day, the South Parish is also the home of St John’s Central College, the College of Commerce and the Cork School of Music, plus a number of other smaller private schools and colleges.
Among the main industries in the parish during the 18th and 19th centuries were the brewing, malting and glass making industries. No fewer than six breweries and two malthouses were operating in a concentrated area between today’s Sharman Crawford Street and Drinan Street, with two other malthouses situated on Rutland Street and Morrison’s Island. There was also a distillery on Crosse’s Green. Two of the city’s three glassworks, with their distinctive conical chimneys, were in the parish, on Wandesford Quay and the South Terrace. The city’s main financial and legal concerns converged on the South Mall as it was developed from a waterway into one of the city’s principal thoroughfares in the early 19th century and to this day the streetscape is dominated by businesses such as banks, stockbrokers, insurance companies, auctioneers and solicitors. Early public transport was well represented in the parish from the mid 19th century, with four of the city’s railway companies plus the tram company being located here, all concentrated in the Monerea area, in the eastern corner of the South Parish. The city’s early gas and electricity needs were also supplied from the same area.
The growing population of the 18th century parish was mainly confined to the area around Barrack Street and between Sullivan’s Quay and Tower Street. The land to the south and east of this was taken up by gardens and orchards, or in the case of Monerea, was still marshland awaiting reclamation. Early 19th century figures tell us that there were over 23,500 people living in the parish, with over 18,500 being Catholic. The populated area mirrored the layout of the old medieval city with many narrow lanes leading off the main thoroughfares and this brought with it all the problems of over-crowded, un-sanitary conditions for the families who lived in the little cottages and tenements there. These problems grew as the 19th century progressed and although the vast majority of the families living in the area never caused trouble, pockets of the parish became a haven for lawlessness and drunken behaviour. Even the police were wary of entering the lanes around Barrack Street, where shebeens and brothels were very prevalent. In the first half of the 19th century, a combination of the education given to the poor of the parish by the Sisters and Brothers of the various orders, as well as the work being done by Fr Mathew’s Temperance Movement, was helping to make a difference in people’s lives but the main problems of poverty and sickness, caused by over-crowded conditions, continued and they were multiplied greatly with the onset of the Great Famine, which struck the country with a vengeance in the middle of that century. The subsequent mortality rate in the lanes from starvation, as well as diseases such as typhus and dysentery was very high. A reporter from the Cork Examiner visited houses in the area around Evergreen Street at the time and described some of the horrendous conditions he encountered. One house on the street had six families “living within its wretched walls”,another was home to seven families. There was hardly a stick of furniture in both houses and the only food mentioned was “a little boiled seaweed”. Nearby, two families consisting of ten people lived in a single room measuring 9 ft x 9 ft. In a number of the houses the dead lay alongside the living, who were too weak to bring them out for burial.
The squalor that was prevalent in the lanes continued at a worse level after the famine, added to by the growing problem of prostitution, which was caused in many cases by the desperation felt by those women through sheer economic necessity. So desperate was their plight that some of them saw suicide as the only way out of their situation. From the 1860s, the Corporation had set in motion plans to clear many of the lanes and improve housing conditions in the city. They, along with a private company known as the Cork Model Dwellings Association Ltd, later to become the Cork Improved Dwellings Company Ltd [CIDC] began to demolish the old buildings and construct better houses for families in the parish. To give an idea of the over-crowded housing conditions in the parish around that time, in 1878 seventy-seven houses were demolished in a very small area just south of Evergreen Street to be replaced with better homes. It was stated that there were 235 families, or 898 individuals, living in those seventy-seven houses. One result of this work was the construction of a new street, today’s Friar Street, which was completed in 1882. The CIDC houses were built mainly for people in so-called “respectable” trades, such as clerks, dressmakers, coopers, carpenters, etc. It was the CIDC who also built the houses in Prosperity Square, and at Hibernian Buildings on Albert Road. Those houses at Hibernian Buildings and the area around it became home to Cork’s Jewish community when they arrived in the city from Lithuania in 1881, and the area is still known locally today as Jewtown. In complete contrast to the tenements in the lanes, the parish also had its more affluent area in the form of the South Terrace. Many of these beautiful Georgian houses with their stone steps leading up to magnificent doorways and their large windows and basements were built in the late 1700s for wealthy families wishing to escape the confines of the old city centre.
Slowly, living conditions began to improve, but the early years of the 20th century still saw many families living in very poor housing. The new developments at Capwell in the 1920s, Turner’s Cross and Greenmount in the 30s and 40s, and later at Ballyphehane in the 50s were a great benefit to the people of the parish. The open spaces, only one family per house instead of the three or more of times past, indoor toilets, improved sewerage, all these things led to far healthier conditions for the families involved. Throughout the 20th century, many families with their children continued to live in the parish, however, the period from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s saw the population of the parish fall by over 30%. The majority of those who left tended to be young married couples, or the grown-up children of long-time residents that opted to move to the new estates outside the parish and the satellite towns further out from the city. This led not only to a depopulation of the area by the younger generations, but to a greater use of the car by people who now had to travel longer distances to come and work in the city, and cars began to fill the streets of the old parish centre making it very difficult for children to play their games outside. This was a complete change from the time of even my own youth, when the streets were our football and hurling pitches, our handball alleys and our playgrounds. What was once one of the great benefits of its location, being on the doorstep of the city centre, has also led to one of the major problems it has faced in recent decades. Being so close to the city has meant that a lot of the new apartments and houses built in the parish during the boom years were bought by investors for rental purposes, as has been the case with many of the older houses that have come on the market. Some schemes were built in an attempt to keep younger families in the area, particularly on Douglas Street and White Street, and a new development also currently under construction in the old White Street car park should add to those numbers. However, these came too late to halt the closure of two of the parish’s main schools, indeed two of the city’s great educational institutions. Both South Presentation Primary School and Sullivan’s Quay CBS, which once catered for many hundreds of pupils, were forced to close through falling numbers in 2006.
For those of us who have spent most or all of our lives in the parish though, there is a real sense of belonging to an area that has been at the centre of the evolution of our great city. Some of us may not have moved too far from the area, others may have gone to the other side of the world, but to be able to say “I was born in the South Parish” continues to be one of our proudest boasts.