The Emergence and Development of Markets in Cork City
The economic prosperity of Cork grew in the eighteenth century and was based mainly on the provisions trade. Salted beef, pork and butter were exported to the West Indies and were used to provision the British navy. The unrivalled ability of Cork Harbour to shelter the biggest fleets assembled during the American War of Independence and later during the Napoleonic Wars was a major factor in the expansion of the provisions trade in Cork. Cork Butter Market, with its strict and rigorously enforced system of quality control, was world famous and became the largest butter market in the world for its time.
Medieval town dwellers enclosed their settlements with defensive walls but also depended on the outside world for their supply of food and other necessities. In common with other cities and towns of the time, there was a wide variety of markets in many locations in Cork, trading in meat, fish, potatoes, milk, corn etc. Whilst a limited amount of animal husbandry and fruit and vegetable growing was carried on within the walls of medieval Cork, it was the rural hinterland that supplied most of its basic needs and also the export trade.
There were many informal and casual arrangements for the supply and sale of such goods in and around the city but a centrally located market, held regularly, best suited the needs of the townspeople – it could be more easily protected and used as a source of revenue for the body that controlled it. Beyond revenue generation, the building and maintenance of markets by the municipal authorities was motivated by the desire to regulate trade and also by issues of public health. It had been common practice for butchers to slaughter and butcher animals in the street or open market place and to offer the meat for sale at standings there. Meat markets were built in an effort to separate the slaughtering and retail aspects of the trade.
Expenditure on the building and improvement of markets by the Corporation was regarded primarily as an investment but also the provision of a service to its citizens. The Corporation wanted well-run and regulated markets. The meat markets had to be regulated also and this was achieved by the appointment of weigh-masters (or scalesmen), who were paid by the butchers for each weighing. The markets had to be kept clean and in good repair, and a Market Jury was empowered to enforce regulations and prevent blocking of streets etc.