The 18th Century Harbour – Cork Harbour Festival

Nano Nagle Place love taking part in Cork Harbour Festival every year, celebrating Cork’s unique maritime heritage. This year we had a range of events as part of the festival, from sea shanties in our Goldie Chapel to storytelling with themes of the River Lee & the sea in our Secret Courtyard.

Our museum in Nano Nagle Place, tells the story of 18th Century Cork touching on the importance of the harbour and the city’s merchant trade but to celebrate Cork Harbour Festival we wanted to write a short blog post elaborating on the history of the harbour and what it would have been like when Nano Nagle was living in Cork city.

Early Expansion of the Harbour

Cork’s advantage is our vast natural harbour, the largest in the world until 1750, when Sydney Harbour beat us to the top spot. The 18th Century saw expansion of the harbour for a multitude of reasons. First, the expansion was inextricably linked with the military activity during that time. England was in the process of establishing her empire in the Americas which opened up trans-Atlantic trade routes and made Cork & Kinsale convenient places for provisioning, repairing or sheltering British ships heading into, or out of the Atlantic. The convoys which assembled at the lower harbour were extensively supplied by the merchants of the locality, generating considerable wealth for all involved.

Another reason was strong Quaker and Huguenot families began to settle in Cork, going on to establish many successful business enterprises in Cork. These businesses needed to import and export goods and therefore the development of the harbour became a priority. So, by the early 1700’s the combination of the emerging trans-Atlantic trade and a growing mercantile elite was transforming Cork into an important commercial centre.

The first substantial attempts to improve the city’s harbour began in the early 18th Century, improvements continued throughout the years and by 1783 vessels of up to 350 tons were routinely docked in the city.  At this time ships were still sailing past Calwell’s Quay to Hoare’s Quay in the channel that today is our main street in Cork city; Patrick’s Street. Ships dropped off and collected goods in the Customs House, erected in 1724, which today is the Crawford Art Gallery. The improvements to the harbour stretched into the city centre itself, with surrounding marshes reclaimed, bridges built across the river and the myriad of intervening waterways were culverted to create new urban quarters. With this, Cork’s modern city centre had begun to take shape, built by the commercial success of the city’s merchants and traders.

Cork’s Merchant Class

The city’s newfound prosperity and expansion of the harbour took place, and the city began undergoing an incredible transformation, despite this, the ranks of the urban poor continued to swell with the population more than tripling by the end of the century to 57,000. It’s hard to believe now that Cork was bigger than Boston, Philadelphia, or New York! With the expanding population, Cork had become a city of contrasts. One visitor complained that Cork was the:

“…dullest and dirtiest town which can be imagined…one is stopped every minute by…hideous troops of beggars, or pigs which run the streets…and yet this town is one of the richest and most commercial in Europe”.

The city was bursting from the central islands of the medieval core, out onto the drained marshes to east and west, and the steep hills to north and south. In the medieval centre of the city on North and South Main St, lived Catholic families living in extreme poverty. These families lived under the Penal Laws, brought in in 1695 by the Protestant elite to suppress the Catholic population.

On the other side of the coin, Cork’s growing population included incredibly wealthy merchants who were making their fortunes exporting butter, pork and salted beef. By the close of the 18th Century, textiles, tanning, distilling, and brewing were all creating wealth, with the famous Beamish & Crawford brewery established in 1792 by William Beamish and William Crawford. The merchant class began building grand homes, many of which are still visible today on George’s Quay, Fenn’s Quay and Pope’s Quay. These homes were distinctive and had European characteristics with a French visitor noticing houses with:

” bay windows on the first and second floors, and some of those on the waterfront have high landing steps…like the landing places to be seen in Amsterdam.”

Through the autumn and early winter months there was a noticeable increase in the number of ships present in the lower harbour. However, in summer the merchant families retreated to the countryside, or newly built villa residences that had sprung up around Cork Harbour since the beginning of the 18th Century. The harbour was the great attraction, especially in the summertime. The foundation of the Cork Water Club in the 1720s (today the Royal Cork Yacht Club) revealed how the harbour was already seen by the wealthy merchant class as an extension of the city and its sheltered waters, a zone of elite recreation.

Nano’s Merchant City

Born in 1718, Nano Nagle was incredibly fortunate to be born into a wealthy Catholic family in Ballygriffin in Mallow. She left Ireland at a young age to be educated in Europe as it was illegal for her to do so in Ireland due to the Penal Laws. Her father, Garret Nagle, made frequent journeys to the continent for political business or trade and had links to merchants who smuggles her onto a ship which was bound for Flanders. When she returned to Cork years later, it was the prospering and lively city, but Nano was of course affected by the extreme poverty she saw within the city centre. She set up seven schools for Catholic girls and boys across the city, everyday she walked across South Gate Bridge, erected in 1713, through the medieval streets, and over North Gate Bridge. She would’ve seen the bustling market trade, passed cattle being herded into the city, walked by the Butter Exchange all on her way to her schools.

After her schools had been established, she needed help to ensure their survival, she often met with merchants and businesspeople to ask for funding. She traversed the city, heading to Shandon Street, where there were the shops of grocers, linen drapers, victuallers (suppliers of alcohol and provisions) and butter merchants. Nano came to beg for funds at one of these shops. An apprentice left her to sit and wait ‘on a pile of hides’ for two hours before she managed to speak to the merchant, who was deeply embarrassed at ‘Miss Nagle’ having to wait.

Nano was a pragmatic businesswoman and even made use of these links with merchants and traders, sending boys she had trained in her schools to instruct children of the merchant communities in the West Indies, making sure that her educational mission spread across the globe.


Cork remained a major port for transatlantic trade, even throughout the poverty-stricken 19th century, when living conditions in the city centre were so poor and lacking in basic sanitation that the wealthier merchants promptly relocated to the city’s outskirts. Today our harbour remains key international gateway for trade and is a huge tourist attraction for the city with cruise ship bringing international Cork through Cobh.

Many of Cork City’s attractions have lots of information about Cork Harbour, visit the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork Public Museum and The Butter Museum to learn more about our city’s connection to the harbour and merchant trade.

Our award-winning museum in Nano Nagle Place also talks about 18th Century Cork and the harbour trade. Book your tickets here!

To continue learning about Cork Harbour, we have a great range of titles in our Cork-focussed bookshop:

Cork Harbour Through Time:

Old World Colony Cork and South Munster 1630-1830 – David Dickson:

On The Banks Cork City in Poems and Songs – Edited by Alannah Hopkin:

The First Irish Cities : An Eighteenth-Century Transformation – David Dickson:

Skip to content