Nostalgia: Cork’s tea gardens have a rich history

Nostalgia: Cork’s tea gardens have a rich history
St. Vincent’s Place, off Blarney Street, Cork. Courtesy: Cooke’s Cork Collection.

Where the grounds of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart are situated today was once the site of Cork’s first tea garden.

This picturesque 11 acre spot was gracefully dressed with a kaleidoscope array of vibrant shrubs, choice flowers, rare trees and fragrant fruit gardens.

Nestled amid all this glorious colour was the elegant red-brick teahouse which was built in 1722. For the convenience of the public, stone seats were placed at intervals along the gravelly walkways that weaved their way through the lush tea garden like a red ribbon.

Webbers Dream 

The brainchild of Edward Webber, a town clerk and descendent of a Dutch merchant, he had been granted permission in 1719 by the Boyles, Earls of Cork to construct a passage through their isolated marshlands westward from today’s Sheares Street where the River Lee divides.

The grounds of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart from Western Road where Webber’s tea gardens thrived. In the background is the Parish Centre where Webber’s teahouse stood. Courtesy: Cooke’s Cork Collection.
The grounds of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart from Western Road where Webber’s tea gardens thrived. In the background is the Parish Centre where Webber’s teahouse stood. Courtesy: Cooke’s Cork Collection.

This little passage-way, which was completed in 1720, was destined to become one of Cork’s most lovely promenades – the Mardyke Walk.

Days of Fashion 

When the ‘passage’ was first constructed it was called ‘Red House Walk’ after Webber’s teahouse and garden. Opening in 1722 the tea garden soon became a fashionable rendezvous for the well-to-do of the city.

On warm, sunny summer days, refined gentleman sporting dyed-powdered wigs and clad in rich velvet, could be seen accompanying ladies, elegantly dressed in colourful crinolines and gently shaded by their dainty parasols, leisurely browsing around the prized sweetly perfumed scented gardens.

Others sat on the stone seats, sipping tea while they gazed at the tranquil waters of the incoming River Lee or or rested their eyes on the valley’s magnificent natural beauty.

Until his death in 1735, Webber’s romantic tea garden continued to be a big attraction, however, by the mid 1740s, it had closed.

A book on the history of the Mardyke Walk and its surroundings will be published soon to celebrate its 300th anniversary.

Sunday’s Well Tea Gardens 

Since the 1740s, beautiful tea gardens have occupied the site between today’s Slip and Ferry Lane, where Alma cottage (No. 69) and No. 70 Sunday’s Well Road are now situated.

In the 1830s, we see that the proprietor of the Sunday’s Well tea garden was a Mrs Travers who was ably assisted by a delightful young woman named Kate who hailed from Blarney.

The photograph shows the walkway leading to Dooly’s limestone step slip situated underneath the shadow of today’s Daly’s ‘Shakey’ Bridge where patrons would take the ferry across the River Lee and land on the north bank slip of the Sunday’s Well Tea Garden. Courtesy: Cooke’s Cork Collection.
The photograph shows the walkway leading to Dooly’s limestone step slip situated underneath the shadow of today’s Daly’s ‘Shakey’ Bridge where patrons would take the ferry across the River Lee and land on the north bank slip of the Sunday’s Well Tea Garden. Courtesy: Cooke’s Cork Collection.

The well-to-do of the city flocked to this pretty tea garden which was graced with a multi-coloured variety of blos­soming shrubs, trees and flow­ers.

Delicious Menu 

From the writings and lectures of the eminent Scholar and Historian C.J.F. MacCarthy concerning the tea garden area, we can almost taste the delectable hot cakes, fresh strawberries and cream as well as the gooseberries that were on offer during the warm summer evenings and Sunday afternoons, all prepared to the utmost perfection and accompanied with a reassuring cup of tea.

Blarney Street Tea Garden - A Seat with a View

About a mile east from the Sunday’s Well Tea Garden, near the junction of Blarney Street and Shandon Street, an 18th century tea garden flourished.

Its entrance could be found through Tea House Lane where St. Vincent’s Place, off Blarney (Lane) Street, is situated today.

This cosy terrace of red-brick houses, which rests on a red-sandstone ridge, occupies one of the city’s early tea gardens and what a romantic view its clientele must have enjoyed, sipping tea on glorious lazy summer days overlooking the flourishing thriving young city of Cork.

Cork painter, Nathaniel Grogan captured a busy scene of the North Gate Bridge and Gaol in the 18th century. Courtesy: Cork City Library.
Cork painter, Nathaniel Grogan captured a busy scene of the North Gate Bridge and Gaol in the 18th century. Courtesy: Cork City Library.

The Growing City of Cork 

The year is 1775, the population of the city and suburbs is approximately 80,000 and a small portion of the old ruinous city wall can still be seen, after the siege of 1690, standing quietly like a ghostly monument. The very distinctive feature of Main Street, now North and South Main Street, with its maze-like network of lanes and alleys, spreads forth east and west to where the grand city wall stood.

Towering over the bustling town are the spires of St. Peter’s and Christ Church and the ‘Exchange’ on the corner of Castle Street while on the southern hill you have St. Finbarr’s Church and just east, the Red Abbey Tower.

Such are the sights that one would have greeted the patrons of the Blarney Street tea garden.

Tower Gardens

One of the most popular gardens in the 19th century was ‘Tower Gardens’ located on the southside of the city on today’s Tower Street, named after the Tower and formerly known as Cat Lane.

Although it’s pretty gardens have since given way to an apartment complex, housing estates and business houses, its dignified tower is still with us and is well preserved, reminding us of the days when gardens and pleasure grounds graced the Greenmount area.

Tower Gardens. Courtesy: Cork City Library.
Tower Gardens. Courtesy: Cork City Library.

This eye-catching structure was erected by Michael Callanan as the centre piece of an amusement and tea garden for the sole benefit of the sick and poor of the city in 1865.

Greenmount Racecourse

Callahan had his gardens elegantly dressed with a colourful assortment of trees, shrubs and flowers and laid out with pleasurable walks from which patrons could admire the statutory, grottos and fountains dotted throughout or relax on one of the numerous rustic seats and enjoy the scenic surroundings while sipping tea or indulging in stronger liquids.

By the end of the 1870s however, Tower Gardens had closed.

Today, we see that a stretch of boundary wall on Friars Walk as well as a wall on Tower Street with a large elegant gothic doorway is all that is left to remind us of days of Callanan’s romantic gardens.

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