Dublin housed some majestic banking halls on Dame St. Mayo had a thriving textile industry. Cork was the world’s most important transatlantic shipping port and was riding the crest of a huge economic boom during the Napoleonic wars. Its beef processing was renowned. Cork butter turned up on dining tables in places as far flung as New York, and modern-day Delhi and Istanbul.
The warren of streets around Shandon on the north side of Cork city was home to the largest shambles in Ireland, and the way in which its narrow, slopping streets careered down towards the River Lee provided a natural draining system for animal blood and effluent.
“There is an article in the British Medical Journal from the end of the 19th century which talks about the death rate in Cork being very high due to influenza and typhus confined to the shambles around Shandon St because of its gut yards and slaughterhouses,” says Dr Susan Hegarty, one of the presenters of Building Ireland.
“You had an awful lot of people coming in from the countryside into the Shandon area because there was work in the slaughterhouses and butter market. They were living in these cramped conditions, above, below and next-door to slaughterhouses, which created a huge hygiene problem.”
Dickensian working conditions were a fact of life at the time. The construction of the Cork to Bandon Railway, for example, involved hacking a curved tunnel more than a kilometre long — the longest tunnel in Ireland — through Goggins Hill. Shifts of 300 men, one shift who toiled during the day, and one at night, carved a yard of tunnel a week until it was complete.
“You can imagine yourself stuck down there in the dark in one of these shafts, swinging away with a pick, and all you had was candlelight, and it was smoky. It was damp. They were wet, worried about cave-ins. The only way to keep warm was to work very hard,” says Tim Joyce, one of the show’s presenters.
“The Box Hill tunnel that was built about 15 years earlier by Brunel, going from London to Bristol, was only slightly longer. About 300 men were killed building that one. Only one man died building the Cork to Bandon railway.”
The workers would have gone through about a ton of gunpowder a week to blast their way through the Goggins Tunnel. The Royal Gunpowder Mills were based by the River Lee in Ballincollig. An elaborate canal system fed into the gunpowder mills to power its 60 buildings, including press houses and drying houses, which were spread over 430 acres like a giant, outdoor assembly line.
The mills’ old blast walls are still standing, many crumbling. They were constructed with one function: the mill houses were built in pairs, with a high blast wall separating each pair so that in the event of an explosion, a chain reaction would be avoided, and only one pair of mill houses would be destroyed. Even a bit of grit rubbing against some gunpowder could spark an explosion.
“It was such a high-risk production facility,” says Joyce. “The workers couldn’t even have collars in case a tiny piece of gunpowder nestled underneath. They had to have their hair covered. There was constant risk that something was going to blow up. It was run like a science facility, and it ran for decades with very few accidents.
“For example, Carol Fabritius, the Dutch student of Rembrandt, who painted The Goldfinch, died very young because in Delft where he lived the gunpowder works blew up and killed him and [destroyed a quarter of the city]. So you’re looking at other gunpowder facilities around Europe that had major catastrophes. The one in Ballincollig was one of the biggest in the world yet it avoided a major accident, which was a major achievement.”
The mills’ 500 workers were searched entering and leaving every day. The Cork Mercantile Chronicle of November 5, 1810 describes the scene unleashed by one of its rogue workers who lived in the St Finbarr’s area of Cork City: “A worker had found a ready market for gunpowder in the quarries near the city. Each evening he brought small quantities back to his home in Brandy Lane. Carelessness while drying the powder with candles was supposed to be the cause of the explosion.”
He blew up three houses, killing 22 people.