The book trade in eighteenth-century Munster

Hibernian-Atlas-MunsterIn the last quarter of the eighteenth century Cork was Ireland’s second city, with a population estimated at about 70,000.[1] Travellers to the city described how busy it was, the streets thronged with people.[2] As early as 1732 Edward Lloyd of London considered Cork the second city of Ireland but the first sea-port for trade.[3] Two decades later Charles Smith encountered the outlines of the medieval city still much in evidence, but he noticed new houses beginning to replace the decayed ones; he described the Spanish-style mansion houses with balcony windows being built along the North and South Main Streets.[4] From the middle of the century the city began to expand beyond its medieval core, channels of the river were culverted, marshy areas were drained and new streets formed.[5]

The city was at the centre of a wealthy and populous hinterland.[6] Agricultural produce from much of the Munster region was brought to the port of Cork for export and to supply the lucrative provisioning trade for transatlantic shipping, including the vessels of the English navy. Wool was brought from as far afield as Galway and Roscommon for export.[7] Thomas Campbell, in his tour of 1777, echoing the observations of other travellers before him, was impressed with Cork Harbour: ‘The harbour called the Cove is one of the best in the world; the entrance is safe; and the whole navy of England may ride in it secure from every wind that blows.’[8] The size and security of the deep-water harbour, in addition to the prime situation of Cork for trade with the West Indies and the Americas, ensured its prosperity throughout the century. Cork merchants became wealthy thanks to the export trade, and many built fine villas on the salubrious hillsides overlooking the harbour, from Blackrock, Glanmire and Tivoli, to Passage and Monkstown.

By the 1760s the city was only beginning to find its place as a cultural centre although the book trade was active from the early years of the century and visiting troupes of actors had been bringing theatrical entertainment in the summer season from the late 1730s.[9] The first newspapers published in the city were short-lived: The Idler and The Cork Intelligence were published in 1715, the Cork News-Letter and a reprint of the Free-Holder were issued about 1717, but it was not until the 1750s that regular newspapers could be sustained.[10] In 1750 there were two coffee houses, the Exchange and English coffee houses, situated near the Exchange in Castle Street. Here the English and Dublin newspapers could be read, Smith tells us that: ‘The better sort are fond of news and politics, and are well versed in public affairs.’[11] Later in the century two new coffee houses were established, the Merchant’s coffee house, and the Tontine coffee house which opened in 1793.[12] In the coffee houses newspapers and pamphlets could be read and book subscriptions were taken.

By the last quarter of the century the Irish language was still spoken by many of the inhabitants of the city and surrounding areas.[13] The business of the city and port, however, was carried out in English, and virtually all printing work was in English. Many booksellers and stationers worked in the city from the early years of the century catering for the civil administration and Cork’s intellectual elite. Books were distributed from Dublin or imported directly from London. Because of Cork’s prime position for trade the road networks were extensive. Local booksellers distributed their printed works to the main towns in Munster using the Post Office network and private couriers to circulate newspapers, periodicals and books.

Image courtesy of Dublin City Library & Archive ( )

[1] K.H. Connell, The Population of Ireland, 1750-1845 (Oxford, 1950). Thomas Campbell, A Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland, in a series of letters to John Watkinson, M.D. (London, 1777), p.4. ESTCT84447. Campbell estimates the population of Dublin to be above 160,000. Samuel Derrick, Letters Written from Leverpoole, Chester, Corke, the lakes of Killarney, Dublin, Tunbridge-Wells, and Bath, 2 vols (Dublin, 1767), i, p.34. ESTCT135402. Arthur Young, A Tour Through Ireland, 2 vols (Dublin, 1780), ii, p.66. ESTCT78931. Derrick estimates the population of Cork at 80,000 in 1760, while Young puts it about 67,000, based on hearth money returns, in 1780. Young’s figure is considered the more accurate.

[2] Arthur Young, A Tour Through Ireland, ii, p.65.

[3] Edward Lloyd, A Description of the Flourishing City of Corke (Corke, 1732). ESTCT164728

[4] Charles Smith, The Antient and Present State of the County and City of Cork (Dublin, 1750), pp.407-8. ESTCT97653

[5] Maurice Hurley, ‘Below sea-level in the city of Cork’, Howard B. Clarke (ed.), Irish Cities (Cork, 1995), p.47.

[6] For a detailed discussion of Cork’s importance as an agricultural centre see David Dickson, Old World Colony: Cork and South Munster 1630-1830 (Cork, 2005), and for a more succinct account David Dickson, ‘The South Munster Region in the 1790s’, in John A. Murphy (ed.), The French are in the Bay: the expedition to Bantry Bay, 1796 (Cork, 1997).

[7] Young, A Tour Through Ireland, ii, p.68.

[8] Campbell, A Philosophical Survey, p.191. Edward Lloyd, Description of Corke, p.8.

[9] William Smith Clark, The Irish Stage in the County Towns 1720-1800 (Oxford, 1965).

[10] James O’Toole (ed.), Newsplan, revised edition (London and Dublin, 1998). Robert Munter, The History of the Irish Newspaper 1685-1760 (Cambridge, 1967).

[11] Charles Smith, The Antient and Present State of Cork, ii, p.407.

[12] Copy of the Deed or Charter entered into by the Associated Society to Raise a Fund for Erecting a Coffee-House … in the City of Cork (Cork, 1794).

[13] Seán Beecher, An Gaeilge in Cork City: an historical perspective to 1894 (Cork, 1993).


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