Waters of Cork City – The Forgotten Quays

I’ve written before about Cork’s fabulously unique genesis as a riverine urban archipelago, and I’ve always felt it such a travesty that the river channels were culverted in the eighteenth century; the waterways shaped the city streets but they’re now largely forgotten. The waters once formed a huge part of Cork’s identity but are now obscured from view,  a sad acceptance of a type of urban homogeneity, copy paste town centres, at the expense of something far more unique and fascinating; a marine city, Ireland’s answer to the Venetian or Dutch forms of urbanity.




During the 1780s many of the streets that now form the city centre of Cork were formed by the spanning of the river channels between the islands of the Lee.

The excellent website Cork Past and Present has a trove of information on these old waterways which is definitely worth looking up if you’re  interested to know more about the maritime heritage of the city. Cork is a tightly organised medieval grain city of many narrow streets and pedestrianised lanes, divided into clear sections by broader, grander spaces. These broader streets – from east to west: Custom House Street; Clontarf Street; Parnell Place; Patrick Street; South Mall; Emmet Place; Grand Parade; Cornmarket Street; Henry Street – were once all active quays and thoroughfares for the ships and vessels of the Port of Cork. What a magical place Cork would be now if all those features survived today.


Key Plan of the Forgotten Quays, Cork City


Sample of tidal waterway under city-centre streets. Most of these waterways were culverted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This old waterway was exposed near the junction of St. Patrick’s Street and Grand Parade during pavement refurbishment in February 2005.

I admit a proposal to re-excavate these quays would likely throw the city as it currently operates into disarray, but I got to thinking of how the waterways could be remembered without compromising these present day vehicular routes through the city and one good option would be to reflect these historic lines through the streetscaping.

There’s been an excellent series of streetscape improvements in Cork since the turn of the millennium, Beginning in 1999 when Barcelona practice Beth Galí Arquitectes won a competition to renew the streetscape of St Patrick’s Street and Grand Parade, then followed up with wins in 2002 for Oliver Plunkett Street and 2006 for Cornmarket Street/the Coal Quay, and complimented by adjacent improvements to Emmet Place by Murray Ó’Laoire Architects, and other smaller spots such as Red Abbey in South Parish. for context – ‘before’ images here.


Grand Parade

Grand Parade Detail


Panna and Grand Parade

Paving improvements to St Patrick’s Street & Grand Parade, Beth Galí Arquitectes



Oliver P St

Paving improvements to Oliver Plunkett Street, Beth Galí Arquitectes

Beht Gali comp 03

Beth Gali comp 04

Coal Quay

Cornmarket Street Paving Improvements by Beth Galí Arquitectes


Aerial Photo from 1949 – Emmet Place in foreground



Emmet Place Paving Improvements by Murray Ó’Laoire Architects



Red Abbey Paving Improvements, South Parish

These improvements as I say have been very successful and have been a breath of life into the city centre. However, I do wonder if the really quite unique and very interesting history of these streets could have been given a nod through the introduction of water features throughout these spaces.

For my tuppence, I think Beth Galí need not have looked too far from home to the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies Van Der Rohe to take inspiration in this instance. I can imagine shallow pools of water designed into the street paving, tracing the lines of the former quaysides, as one way of remembering the curious past, and the Lee waters still streaming just below your feet in the culverts.


Barcelona Pavilion, Mies Van Der Rohe. Water pools such as that seen here may have been a good choice for Cork.

An approach incorporating water features might also have had big benefits regarding surface drainage. Cork is plagued by floods in the winter months, due to it’s formation on a set of marshy islands in the river Lee estuary. closing up the old quays must surely be partially responsible for these floods, as the water has nowhere to go but rise! Water features designed as spillways and means of surface water dispersal might have simultaneously given the nod to the quay’s past and also aided the successful functioning of the city into the future.


Oliver Plunkett Street in flood.

This is all after the fact of course, the paving has been done and is unlikely to be altered now. I’d still like to record my thoughts on this though, should the possibility ever arise to revisit our treatment of the forgotten quays.



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