Richard Wine was elected the first Mayor of Cork in 1273; the first Magistrate on record was John Spencer who was ‘Provost of Cork’ in 1199. The day of the mayor’s induction was usually celebrated in boisterous spirits. He first attended a divine service in Christ Church, South Main St, now Triskel Arts Centre, in full regalia, with Sheriffs and Corporation. On leaving the church he was pelted with bran by cheerful onlookers “in the hope of an abundant year.”
Struggling between opponents was a regular occurrence and private racketeering was allowed to develop and go unchecked. These corrupt practices became so excessive that it was necessary to form the Liberal Party in the Corporation in 1718. Their chief objectives were to control the public funds which had been grossly abused and to ensure that the civic powers of the members were properly utilised.
During their time in office, many mayors indulged in racketeering. This behaviour was so prevalent that in 1721 a court was held for the specific purpose of checking for abuse and corruption within the public services, from the mayor right down to the office-boy. The court record tells us: “And whereas the mayors of the city, for some times heretofore, have collected several petty duties from the freeman at large, contrary to their rights and franchise, which duties are to be abolished by which means the maintenance usually allowed the mayor will be very much lessened; it is enacted, ordained and agreed that the present Mayor, William Hawkins Esq. shall have a salary of 365 pounds yearly, for the support and honour of the quarterly.”
These decrees however did not succeed in removing all of the existing abuse, for we read that: “John Swete Mayor of Cork in 1758, was fined 600 pounds for committing to gaol a number of Tradesmen who refused to pay exorbitant quarterage to their masters.”
We are also told that the said John Swete: “paid up like a man.”
The Mayors of Old Cork played many different roles. For example, a record tells us: “The Mayor seized as many pigs this morning and filled the Conservator’s Pig Traps, whose owners, under the security of a wet day, had turned into the streets to provide for themselves.”
In 1786, another mayor adopted an original method of dealing with public nuisances. He placed an ‘Anonymous Letter Box’ near the Exchange in Castle St into which the citizens were invited to post complaints. Here is an example of the type of letter he received: “Several of the inhabitants, who live near the Exchange, present their complaints to the Mayor and Sheriffs and request them to remove a most flagrant nuisance from their doors, that of a Breeches Market, held there every Wednesday and Saturday, to the great annoyance of the passers-by and highly indiscreet and over-grown fellows are frequently fitted with small clothes in view of the females who pass by.”
The old Corporation, from time to time, disposed of their lands at ridiculously low rents, and many of these purchases became very valuable property. Thus, in 1686, a lease at the North Strand comprising of today’s McCurtain St and Patrick’s Quay was granted by the city fathers to Alderman Noblett Dunscombe for 399 years at a yearly rent of 2 pounds 10 shillings. And the same lucky gentleman received the south-east marsh, comprising of the present Oliver Plunkett St area forever at 26 pounds a year.
However, after the Siege of Cork in 1690, the latter lease, ‘being too dear’, was surrendered by Alderman Dunscombe; the very obliging Corporation granted him a new lease forever at a rent of 10 pounds and curiously enough a fine of 100 pounds. These are only a few examples of the frittering away of public property by the Old Corporation. With reference to this a writer said: ‘‘If our civic fathers of bygone days had conserved the freehold of lands granted them at different times by the crown, Cork today would be in the unique position of not only being practically a non-rated city but, in addition, we would very likely possess a free supply of gas, electricity and water.’’ But generation after generation of civic representatives of old Cork disposed, bit by bit, of their rights and properties, until today only an infinitesimal part of ancient charter lands remains in the possession of the citizens. In addition, Gibson writes: ‘‘The Corporation of Old Cork let, sold, mortgaged, gave and fobbed away their lands and strands, fisheries, markets, presage tolls and everything. No young spendthrift heir ever ran through a handsome estate with more recklessness than the old mayors and councillors of Cork.’’
It is interesting to note that in 1900 Sir Daniel Hegarty had the distinction of being the first ‘Lord’ Mayor of Cork when Queen Victoria conferred the title of ‘Lord Mayor’ on the mayor and his successors in office; his cloak is in Cork Museum.
- Conor MacHale, Librarian, Cork City Library Files
- CJF MacCarthy Files
- Cork Corporation Handbook 1983
- Cork City & County Archives Files
- Council Book of the Corporation of the City of Cork, from 1609 to 1643 / 1690 to 1800
- Dr Sean Petitt Files
- Cork Historical & Archaeological Society Journals
- John Windale, Notes on the City of Cork. 1848
- Rev., C. B., Gibson, History of Cork & Co.1861