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Youghal – A Journey in Time

The medieval town of Youghal remains fossilised in today’s streets and lanes…..

The medieval walled port town of Youghal can trace its origins to the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the late twelfth century; and perhaps earlier to the Vikings.  The medieval town remains fossilised in today’s streets and lanes, which have a rich stock of Medieval, Post-medieval, Georgian and Victorian buildings and shopfronts.

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.

Starting in the early decades of the eighteenth century, the size of the town was enlarged to almost twice that of the medieval town; when a great period of Georgian expansion of the waterfront began. Trade was prosperous; but was still moved mainly through the enclosed medieval harbour, which was accessed from the town at a single point through the Watergate that crosses the modern Quay Lane.

To support the increased trade there was a need for better ship berthing and warehousing facilities, beyond the restrictive defended harbour. The Town Corporation began to lease parts of the waterfront to local merchants, and as part of the lease arrangements, the merchants were required to build new quays, outside the line of the old harbour and town wall. On these new quays multi-storey warehouses were built for the storing and trading of goods. Other developments also occurred at this time, including the Clock Gate tower (completed in 1777), which stands on the site of the earlier Trinity Gate, part of the medieval Town Wall.

The expansion eastward into the Blackwater gave us the quayside waterfront that remains today, with the names of the many merchants who built them, such as Green’s Quay, Harvey’s Dock, and Nealon’s Quay. By 1750 the medieval harbour had been in-filled and is today beneath the Market Square.

Unfortunately, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards trade went into decline, ultimately caused by the silting-up of the harbour mouth, which enlarged the sandbar, thus preventing larger vessels from using the port. Ironically, it was at this time of decline that the Lighthouse at the harbour mouth was built.

The nineteenth century decline in maritime trade was countered by developments in the new trade of tourism.