Cork city began to expand from the 17th and 18th centuries onwards. Trade in the port increased, city buildings spread out from the former walled medieval core and there were greater opportunities to amass wealth. Merchant families energetically developed the city and over time many became prosperous and influential: they were known as ‘merchant princes’.
Wider political, religious and military events meant that most of the principal merchant families from the mid-17th century onwards were Protestant. However, by the later 18th century there was a growing Roman Catholic merchant class which became even more prominent in the following century.
The ‘merchant princes’ of Cork generally were active in local government and many of them served as mayors of the city. As members of the corporation they played a major role in determining the development of Cork and overseeing its expansion. In the 18th century many of the leading citizens were directly involved in the reclamation and building projects that saw the city extend into former marshland. Their names were recorded in the street and quay names, some of which have survived such as Penrose Quay, Lapp’s Quay and Lavitt’s Quay.
Many of the leading merchants of the city were generous supporters of religious, charitable and educational bodies, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. There was a long tradition of such support: in 1584 a London wine merchant from a prominent Cork family, Stephen Skiddy, signed his will which established a Cork charity (still in existence) to care for the elderly. John Nicholas Murphy, of the distilling family, was founding president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Cork in the mid-19th century. Later that century, the brewer William Crawford and the distiller Francis Wise each made large financial donations to ensure that the spires of William Burges’ magnificent St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral could be completed.
Similarly the names of prominent merchant families can be found amongst those involved with cultural organisations such as the Cork Institution, the Cork Society for Promoting the Fine Arts and myriad other such groups. An interest in art was particularly evident in the early 19th century when many merchants amassed sufficient funds to enhance their increasingly large houses. From the late 18th century the wealthier families began to move their residences from the city centre to the suburbs. Villas and substantial houses were built along the northern hills overlooking the city such as at St. Luke’s, Sunday’s Well and further east to Montenotte and Tivoli. Similarly, fine houses were built in the Blackrock and Douglas areas on the south side. These were often set in well-kept grounds and were far from the overcrowded and unhealthy city centre. New bridges allowed access to these areas, while in the later 19th century railways, such as the Cork, Blackrock and Passage Railway, improved communications.
Many of the ‘merchant princes’ of Cork were well-educated, philanthropic and possessed a pride and confidence in Cork. They built up businesses and industries that not only generated funds for themselves, but also provided employment and in turn encouraged other enterprises. They contributed much to the development of Cork.