Corkbeg Island near the mouth of Cork Harbour is today an industrial location with Ireland’s only oil refinery whose silver cylinders dominate the low-lying island like giant mugs, writes Dan McCarthy.
The refinery mostly occupies the mainland a few hundred metres away at Whitegate with Corkbeg Island holding seven of the giant storage tanks. A long jetty, like the proboscis of a foraging animal, extends to a landing, where huge tankers berth.
However, there was a time when the island bathed in a pastoral setting with a Victorian-era hotel and the industrialisation of the harbour, including the chemical plants, was a futuristic concept.
Like other of Cork Harbour’s islands such as Fota or Hop island, Corkbeg had a fine mansion where visitors once arrived in carriages to stay in rustic surroundings. An ad in The Cork Examiner in 1938 invited guests to “recuperate at Corkbeg Island Hotel, bracing sea-bound golf links, semi-tropical gardens, fires in bedrooms, no extra charge, all-electric, first-class cuisine”.
Another ad proclaimed it as located in “Ireland’s Riviera, all-in holiday resort boating, bathing, tennis, riding, fishing, dances every Wednesday and Sunday”.
The mansion was constructed on the island in the 1820s and replaced a previous mansion owned by Robert Uniacke Fitzgerald. It was later occupied by his son, the MP Robert Penrose FitzGerald and his wife.
Their arrival was once deemed so noteworthy as to merit an appearance in the social and personal column of The Irish Independent in 1905: “Sir R Penrose FitzGerald and Lady FitzGerald have arrived at Kingstown [Dun Laoghaire] from England and left for Corkbeg Island.”
After Penrose Fitzgerald died in 1919 the mansion was converted to a hotel and was latterly run by a Major Colan and his wife Molly who died in a plane crash in the Isle of Wight in November 1957. In Corkbeg this couple were ”very popular in the locality” reported the Evening Echo.
Colan sold the hotel and island in 1955 and construction on the refinery began soon afterwards when the old house was demolished. Adjacent to the house were the remains of a castle built by the Cauntons or Condons in 1396.
The Cork Examiner reported of the refinery construction: “In the process they gave a new silhouette to Cork Harbour completely changing the landscape between Whitegate and White Bay, cut up grassy banks, secluded woods and quiet pastures with monster machinery and won new admiration for Irish brains and Irish skill. In an operation that gripped the public imagination five great towers were towed across the Irish Sea, hauled ashore on balloon-tyred floats by straining bulldozers and hoisted into the sky by giant bulldozers.”
The newspaper later recorded the transformation from rural idyll to an industrial powerhouse. “From a pleasant wooded island with an old-world hotel. it became what is now known as a tank farm, industry’s adoption of familiar terms to describe something downright ugly but functional and efficient.”
The paper’s editorial enjoined the reader to embrace progress: “There is no going back to the good old days, but a continuing going forward, a train from which we cannot alight unless we risk being left behind.”
Corkbeg, though called an island, is connected with the mainland by a natural dry shingle bar. Over the years it was reinforced but prior to human interference was but a slight link and vulnerable to high seas rendering Corkbeg an island in the truest sense. It is one of 13 islands in the harbour but all bar one are connected by bridge or causeway.
Today, the refinery is owned by Canadian operator Irving Oil and employs around 200 people. It has a crude oil capacity of 75,000 barrels. It processes “light, low-sulphur crude oil, sourced from the North Sea and West Africa”. The facility produces transportation and heating fuels such as petrol, diesel and kerosene. It supplies around 40% of Ireland’s fuel needs.
All that remains of the Uniacke Penrose- Fitzgeralds today are two notebooks, one ledger, one file of material, and family tree information in the archives of UCC. Robert desired all his diaries burnt after his death.
How to get there: Take the R630 south from Midleton
The Little Book of Cork Harbour, Kieran McCarthy, The History Press