A Difficult First Century of Trading
The Market faced a variety of difficulties, natural and political from its earliest years.
On Saturday, 17th January 1789, the English Market had to be shut down as Cork was hit by serious flooding - a recurrent danger in the marsh-based city. The entire flat of the city was reportedly under water, which was at least five feet high in most places. The markets, normally closed on Sundays, were ordered to be opened following the flooding to allow inhabitants to purchase provisions.
A decade later, in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion, the high level of military deployment meant that soldiers of the Cork garrison seized goods from local suppliers entering the city. The head of the garrison, Major General Myers, was forced to station a guard of a sergeant and twelve soldiers at each of the city’s markets to maintain order.
The opening decades of nineteenth century saw a decline in the economic fortunes of Cork City. The ending of the Napoleonic Wars after 1815 was a major factor in the economic downturn. Cork Harbour no longer regularly hosted fleets of the Royal Navy and this caused a major decline in the provisions trade. Prices for agricultural produce declined by one-third to one-half of the wartime prices. After the removal of protections in 1824, Irish industry was exposed to competition from the far more developed British economy. The textile industry and the provisions trade suffered greatly and unemployment in Cork rose sharply.
Not all of the city's industries were equally affected by the economic decline of the first half of the 1800s. Shipbuilding, brewing, distilling, tanning and the butter trade still flourished and Cork Harbour remained a major port for trans-Atlantic trade. However, even the continued prosperity of these enterprises could not make a major impact on the high levels of unemployment that served to depress wages and contributed to the poor living conditions in the densely populated inner city.
In September 1845, potato blight appeared in the city’s market gardens. As the early new potatoes had already been harvested, the impact was limited to the second crop. As winter descended it became clear that more than half of that crop was unusable. Widespread hardship grew among Ireland’s rural and urban poor. Disastrously, in 1846 the entire crop was wiped out. With a wide-spread dependence on the potato as a staple food, the country-wide blight led to the Great Famine, resulting in the death of 1 million people over the next five years, and the emigration of 1 million more.
The winter of 1846/47 became known as 'Black 47' - the worst in living memory. The rural poor fleeing from starvation and evictions poured into Cork City. Special constables were organised to expel rural vagrants from the city. The workhouse and the city hospitals were full and people were literally dying on the streets. The cemeteries in the city couldn't cope with the numbers to be buried and a new cemetery was opened at Carr's Hill to the south of the city. By April 1847, a reported 20,000 people had descended on Cork from the rural hinterlands. At the height of the Famine up to 500 people a week were dying in the city.
It was not until the 1850’s that the effects of the famine began to ease in the city. Despite wide-scale poverty and a huge downturn in trade, the English Market had remained open throughout the famine years – goods had become expensive, but supplies were maintained.