Cork city began to expand from the 17th and 18th centuries onwards. Trade in the port increased, city buildings spread out from the former walled medieval core and there were greater opportunities to amass wealth. The merchant families that developed the city subsequently became known as the ‘merchant princes’.
Resulting from the political, religious and military changes most of the principal merchant families from the mid-17th century onwards were Protestant. However, by the later 18th century there was a growing Roman Catholic merchant class which became even more prominent in the following century.
The ‘merchant princes’ of Cork generally were active in local government and as members of the corporation they played a major role in determining the development of Cork overseeing its expansion and were directly involved in the reclamation and building projects that saw the city extend into former marshland. Their names were recorded in the street and quay names, some of which have survived such as Penrose Quay, Lapp’s Quay and Lavitt’s Quay.
Many of the leading merchants of the city were generous supporters of religious, charitable and educational bodies, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. There was a long tradition of such support: in 1584 a London wine merchant from a prominent Cork family, Stephen Skiddy, signed his will which established a Cork charity (still in existence) to care for the elderly. John Nicholas Murphy, of the distilling family, was founding president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Cork in the mid-19th century. Later that century, the brewer William Crawford and the distiller Francis Wise each made large financial donations to ensure that the spires of William Burges’ magnificent St. Fin barre’s Cathedral could be completed.
For further information on Cork’s ‘Merchant Princes’, you can read www.corkarchives.ie/merchantcity/home/merchantprinces/