THIRTY years ago, while carrying out work as an architect at a three-storey house I had bought off Dominick Street in Cork city, I made a startling discovery.
There, lying under the building, unknown to anybody connected to it at the time, was a cavernous space which I felt sure had served as an ice house.
This was a building that was used to store ice throughout the year, before the invention of refrigeration in the mid-18th century.
Ice houses were introduced to Britain and Ireland in the late 1600s and various designs were used. The most common was a brick-lined, domed structure, with most of it underground for insulation purposes. There is a classic example of one in the grounds of Blarney Castle for all to see.
Ice houses were usually conical or rounded at the bottom to hold melted ice, and incorporated a drain to take away the water. The ice was generally imported from colder climes, a commercial activity that lasted right up to the 1920s.
Packed also with insulating materials such as straw or sawdust, the ice would remain frozen for months, often until the following winter. It could be used during the hot summer months, but the main purpose was for the storage of food, particularly meat, all year around.
The residential property I had bought off Dominick Street is likely an old merchant’s house constructed in the 18th century.
In 1993, when I first happened upon it, it was in very poor condition indeed. It was unoccupied and it appeared that neither the former owner, the auctioneer, the solicitors nor even the planning authority knew that there was a fourth level underground!
The renovating builder had completed the roof and the top two floors and informed me that, as his team was next preparing to lay a new concrete ground floor, part of the old floor had fallen in and “disappeared down into a dark cellar”.
A space was then discovered a metre and a bit under both street and ground floor levels. When I viewed this previously unknown subterranean layer, it struck me as having all the possibilities of having served as an icehouse.
Over the next few days, the builders and myself, armed with ladder, torches, camera and a tape measure, went down into this dank, dingy cavern to inspect and record what was there.
We recorded its lay-out and cross-section, took dimensions, and photographed as much of it as possible before the new ground floor was laid, and the entire three-storey house renovation completed.
For the record, the ice house is 7.5 metres (24ft 8in) long and 4.92 metres (18ft 2in) wide. The floor-to-ceiling height is 2.14 metres (7ft. 1/4in). The ceiling is brick-vaulted and supported by four brick walls which encompass the interior space.
The thickness of the floor between the ceiling and street/ground floor level is slightly in excess of a metre (3ft 6in), a major dimension for any floor, most likely for insulating purposes, to keep the ice house cold all year round.
There were many stalactites hanging down from the brick ceiling, some almost as long as half a metre.
The location of the structure near to Shandon suggested a connection to Cork’s thriving 18th and 19th century butter trade.
Cork in those times was no less than the largest butter market in the world. The product was exported throughout the British Empire and the world at large, as far as South America.
Indeed, at the peak of the trade, the name ‘Cork’ was synonymous with the notion of quality and identified as such as much as with the place itself.
An ordinance decreed in 1722 that any butter passing though Cork city had to be brought to one of the weigh-houses at Church Street, near St Anne’s Church, and in North Main Street, Cork. In time, the Shandon area grew to be the epicentre of the trade and country people from farms small and large wended their way daily to it via the ‘butter roads’.
Some of these started over 100 miles from the city and the most famous is the Old Kerry Road which shoots out from Blarney Street to Tower, Rylane, past the Kerryman’s Table, onto Millstreet and into the Kingdom itself. Long sections were said to be “as straight as the barrel of a gun”.
During the reconstruction works at Dominick Street, I got to know a lovely elderly gentleman, William Dinan, who was, like myself, keeping an eye on the project. He lived three doors above the site and looked out for relations even more aged than himself next door to him.
I explained to Mr Dinan what was going on during the different phases of reconstruction and he came with me on walk-throughs of the site. He was always lovely company.
Near the completion of the works, I told him we had stumbled upon an old ice house below the level of the footpath. He immediately wanted to see where it was located, so I led him — with some torches — to the entrance. He was particularly curious, and as someone who had lived on the street all his life, had not known of any ice houses in the area.
But Mr Dinan did tell me that when the Black and Tans were on the rampage, Dominick Street was a safe place for Republicans on the run from crown forces.
He indicated that some of the men valued the ‘safe houses’ on Dominick Street and if an unrecognised knock came to the door, the men ‘staying over’ could open a trapdoor under the dining area table, and disappear within.
The householder would pull a piece of a rug over after closing the trap door, and those within would go completely undetected.
The front door could then be graciously opened for the Tans or soldiers, who could conduct their search to their hearts’ content of what appeared to be a three-storey house.
All the while, the lads on the run would be secure below, or even making good their escape by travelling through adjacent ice houses and exiting into a lane behind Dominick Street.
My friend lived a long life, dying several years ago now at the age of 101. At last, he believed he had the answer to something that had long puzzled him.
An 18th-century merchant’s concern for his merchandise led him to build a subterranean ice house that was later re-purposed and played its own unique, albeit minor, role in the struggle for an Irish Republic.
Since the renovation project was completed some time ago, and the house is private property, unfortunately no visitors or indeed tourists can access the building to view it.