Medieval Youghal developed on a narrow strip of land on the west side of the estuary, which commanded the mouth of the Blackwater, and was dominated by high ground to the west. As the town began to prosper, a wall was built around this increasingly important trading centre from the middle of the thirteenth century. The medieval main street remains as today’s North and South Main Streets. As well as an enclosing Town Wall, the town supported one of the largest medieval parish churches in Ireland, the splendid St. Mary’s Collegiate Church; and two monastic houses, the Franciscans at South Abbey and the Dominicans at North Abbey. The Franciscan monastery no longer remains above ground; but some fragments of the Dominican friary still stand.
St. Mary’s Collegiate Church remains in use, for religious worship, discovery by visitors and as a unique musical venue for national and international performers. Not far from the Church is the impressive walled garden of the former College of Youghal, which can trace its origins to the mid-fifteenth century and its foundation by Thomas, Eight Earl of Desmond.
Maritime trade was the powerhouse of the development and success of medieval Youghal. The town traded goods back and forth to Bristol and many ports across Europe. Fish, timber and wool were exported; while glass, ironmongery, exotic spices and foodstuffs, clothes, wine and salt were imported. However, the arrival of the Black Death in 1348, and general political unrest at the close of the century, had a terrible effect on Youghal. The town bounced back from these struggles and was revived in the fifteenth century. Trade increased again and in 1462 the charter given to the town by King Edward IV made Youghal one of the Cinque Ports of Ireland, a special customs status bestowed on only five ports. Youghal had emerged as a medieval economic powerhouse on the south coast. In the late sixteenth century trade again declined, following the unsuccessful rebellions of the Earl of Desmond; who besieged Youghal in 1579.
Youghal became the major centre for the export of wool from Ireland in the seventeenth century. So successful was the port trade in Youghal at that time that contemporary correspondence described Cork City as a ‘port near Youghal’. The Wool Staplers Guild in Youghal gave the large sum of £100 to the Town Corporation in 1637 to help build a new quay at the Watergate.