Evolving Cork – The Great Exhibitions

Here’s a fine view over the city of Cork, taken early one morning from the grounds of the Montenotte Hotel, on Middle Glanmire Rd. It reminded me that way back in 2016 I mentioned in Roaringwater Journal the fact that Cork City has over the years hosted a number of world-class fairs. The first was in the mid nineteenth century:

This engraving from the Illustrated London News shows the ‘Fine Arts Hall’ which was part of the Cork National Industrial Exhibition held in 1852:

. . . The site of the Cork Exhibition was the Corn Market, where ships carrying visitors and goods could dock and unload at the entrance gates. The old Corn Exchange building, lent for the occasion, formed one end of the structure, while a new mart served as a principal show room. This ran across the southern part of the old building, parallel to the quay, for 300 feet in length and 30 feet in breadth, giving the impression of a contemporary railway station, even to the strip of glass along the roof to admit daylight. By the opening day ad hoc extensions had been added which converted the original elongated T – shape into a cross, with covered galleries and passageways running from the central structure to an adjacent building used as a hall for banquets, balls and public lectures . . .

A C Davies – Irish Economic and Social History, Vol 2, 1975

. . . The exhibition remained open for three months, until 10 September. The opening ceremony had been performed by the Lord Lieutenant after a procession watched by the townspeople, ‘in all the pomp and circumstance of majesty, with waving banners, prancing horses, peals of artillery, and multitudinous shouts’. At first attendance was sparse. It rained steadily for the whole of the first week, but then the weather improved and the number of visitors increased. It amounted to about 140,000. Ten thousand free admissions were granted to children from over seventy schools in the area . . .

A C Davies – Irish Economic and Social History, Vol 2, 1975

When the 1852 exhibition closed, the people of Cork decided their city should have a venue suitable for the holding of public lectures, meetings and concerts. Within a few years the building above was constructed. Known as the The Athenaeum, it was designed by Sir john Benson, who had been responsible for the Great Hall of the Cork Exhibition. It is said that many of the materials which had been used in Benson’s exhibition hall were salvaged and re-used in The Athenaeum. The new building was renamed The Munster Hall in 1875 and then became the Cork Opera House in 1877. It survived until 1955, when it was destroyed by fire. The present Opera House, on the same site, was opened by President Eamon de Valera in 1965. It was extensively remodelled, with the glazed facade added, in 2000.

Half a century later Cork city embarked on another major ‘world fair’ class event. In 1902 the Lord Mayor of Cork, Edward Fitzgerald, presided over creating Cork International Exhibition, which ran from May to October. Reclaimed marshland beside the river at Mardyke was used for the site, which occupied an area of about 44 acres. Here are the ‘leading lights’ of the exhibition organisers, with Fitzgerald on the right:

This exhibition was considered such a success that it was repeated the following year – 1903 – and the site plan above bears this date. The artist’s aerial view of the site, below, gives a good impression of the extent of the grounds. Note the ‘switchback railway’ to the left: this was a precursor to roller-coaster fairground rides and was immensely popular…

…As was the ‘Water Chute’ from which it was unlikely that you would emerge dry!

Such attractions were very popular with the general public, but the exhibition had a more serious commercial side:

Several large exhibition halls and pavilions housed a range of industrial and agricultural exhibits from many countries including Canada, Turkey and China. There were displays of industrial and agricultural machinery as well as horticulture, fisheries, art, craft and ceramics . . . The Irish Department of Agricultural and Technical Instruction had a strong presence at The Exhibition with exhibits on dairying, cheese-making, cottage gardening, forestry, bee-keeping, poultry, fruit and vegetable drying and preserving . . .

National Museum of Ireland Collections & Research

Hadji Bey is a name that will be familiar to any Cork person with a sweet tooth! The true story goes that Armenian immigrants Harutun Batmazian and his wife Esther chose Cork as their new home during the early years of the 20th century, after escaping the persecution and violence against Armenian Christians taking place in the Ottoman Empire at the time. In 1902, the Batmazians participated in the Cork International Exhibition and introduced their Turkish Delight – a skill Harutun learned while studying in Istanbul – to the market. Although they spoke no English at the time, the city was to became their home and the popularity of their sweets – still made in Ireland today – is legendary. After their success at the Exhibition they opened a shop on MacCurtain Street: this survived for many decades.

Turkish Delight is just one success story from Cork’s International Exhibitions. The 1902 event attracted nearly two million visitors. Surely, it’s time for another one?

After all the clamour and excitement had died down the Exhibition buildings (below) were dismantled and auctioned off. In 1906 the park and Shrubberies House were taken over by Cork Corporation with the proviso that the Corporation would levy a rate of half penny in the pound for annual upkeep and maintenance.  A further proviso stipulated that the Shrubberies House would be used by the Corporation as a municipal museum. Today we can all enjoy enjoy Fitzgerald’s Park and the Cork Public Museum, where Finola and I put on an exhibition about Rock Art back in 2015.

If you want to know more, I thoroughly recommend this book, written by Daniel Breen (now Curator of the Cork Public Museum) and Tom Spalding, published by the Irish Academic Press.

3 thoughts

  1. Hadji Bey’s was always our first stop when we arrived for our summer holidays (back in the days when the old “Innisfallen” used to dock right up the river). We would have an empty bottle handy which they would fill with ginger syrup – delicious poured over vanilla ice cream….

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  2. Oh my gosh, I think that I will print out this blog post for myself Robert, so interesting. Not overly familiar with Cork, though I learnt my English there originally, I do not recognise any of the buildings. I know most of them would be gone by now, burned down etc. Never realised that the current opera house is a reconstruction of the original. I must find out more about these buildings. A very interesting blog post, thanks so much.

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