Throwback Thursday: A stroll down North Main Street in times past

This week in Throwback Thursday, JO KERRIGAN has more on the old Wilton hospital site, plus we take a stroll down North Main Street in bygone times
Throwback Thursday: A stroll down North Main Street in times past

A view of North Main Street in Cork city when horses and carts vied for space with motor cars, in December, 1955.

WE have had a splendid crop of responses to last week’s Throwback Thursday article, and every one of them has contributed another shining little piece to the wonderful jigsaw that is the Cork of yesteryear.

Mary O’Leary, a long-time reader of this feature, writes: “What a jumble of memories your column today has brought to the surface. First of all, I remember very vaguely the motor cycle races in Wilton. 

"There are two photographs in our family album, one of me in a pram, and one taken probably a year later of my sister Anne in the pram and me beside her, taken at the races. There must have been a professional photographer wandering around touting for business.”

Yes, confirms Mary, the races did briefly move to the ‘hospital field’.

“Our home on Wilton Road backed on to this field. The top-soil was cleared off the site and raised into huge mounds and then the field remained that way for most of our childhood.

“One winter, when it snowed, we tried sliding down these mounds on trays and plastic bags, with limited success.

“My sister, Margaret, remembers finding tadpoles in one of the ‘ponds’ that were another feature of the site, while I can now admit to having tried to ‘boat’ across one of the ponds in a tea chest using a tree branch for an oar!

“Not a success - the tea chest sank and I had to hide wet shoes and muddy socks when I got home.

“Yes there were floods caused on the roadway between the field and the SMA fields across the road during prolonged rain.

“Margaret won a prize in a Fancy Dress in Wilton dressed in her raincoat and sou’wester and carrying a bucket. Her sign said ‘Wilton Floods’.”

The hospital field, explains Mary, had been purchased by the health authority before World War II.

“One of my father’s sisters, Mai, was married to Paul O’Neill, a car mechanic, and they lived in York in England. When war broke out, my grandfather was very anxious that Mai, Paul and their baby son Michael would come back to Ireland for safety. He wrote to them to say that he had seen an advertisement for the position of ambulance driver at St Finbarr’s Hospital and that if Paul applied and got that job, he could transfer to the new hospital when it was built.

“Mai, Paul and Michael did come home to Cork and Paul got a job in Pope’s Garage at Victoria Cross.

“Paul O’Neill became the foreman in Popes and worked there until he retired at 65 years of age. The hospital still had not been built in Wilton by then!”

Before the health board started their earth- moving on that field, Mary remembers, they let it out as allotments.

“As I said, our house backed on to the field. My father got very friendly with two of the men who had allotments. They were gardaí whose surnames were Carroll and Rice. I would love it if anyone was able to tell me more about them.

“There was no water supply for the allotments, and of course water was needed for things like spraying the potatoes. The men placed a big old barrel outside our garden wall and Dad would run a hose from our outside tap to the barrel and keep it filled up.

“In return, we often came out to find a bag of newly dug potatoes or some carrots or rhubarb dropped over the wall as a thank-you. Happy days.” 

And, would you believe it, Mary O’Leary even discovered a link to one of the Munster Motor Cycle & Car Club members, featured last week.

“Liney Cohen, whom you mentioned, married May Daly, who was a first cousin of my late husband Sean’s mother, Madge Horgan!”

For heaven’s sake, Mary, is everyone in Cork related in one way or another to everybody else?

We made a plea last week for the location of Desmond’s Hotel, where that same Club used to meet in the early days, and the responses weren’t long in coming.

Joe Burns wrote to say how much he enjoyed the feature, and to tell us that Desmond’s was at No.2, Pembroke Street, opposite the Post Office. He was also familiar with Moore’s Hotel on Morrison’s Island.

Frank Roche sent a most courteous missive, thanking us for the ongoing Thursday column, which he finds most enjoyable. Thanks for that, Frank, it’s always nice to know that people read it and like it. He then continued to give fuller detail on Desmond’s Hotel.

“Desmond’s Hotel - aka Desmond’s Commercial Hotel - traded at 2, Pembroke Street from about 1910 to the early 1960s. It was a popular venue for meetings of sporting and trade associations.

“The building on the site now - known as Pembroke House - is a branch of Lee Travel (formerly Heffernan’s Travel). The proprietors were William Desmond and his wife Bridget Mary (nee Murnane). William was a TD for Cork between 1932 and 1937 and served as Lord Mayor in 1940, but died in 1941. The property was bought by the Guinness group in 1963. Mrs B M Desmond died in 1966. “

“Previously, William’s father, Timothy Desmond, had been proprietor of Stephen’s Hotel on the corner of Pembroke Street and George’s (Oliver Plunkett) Street.”

Well, what a marvellous amount of information, Frank. What else do you know that we don’t?

My brother, Tom, reminded me that the other hotel often used by the motorcycle club for dinner dances and special events was the Munster in Coburg Street. It later changed its name to the Ashley.

So many small hotels we had around Cork back then, most of them offering good value and a friendly service to both families and commercial travellers – the Queen’s on Parnell Place was very handy for late night arrivals by bus, while the Victoria, right on Patrick Street, was always considered upmarket.

Does anyone have an idea of where the Eagle Hotel was situated?

Michael Nolan is one Corkonian who always keeps an eye out for scraps of local history hidden in our streets and buildings. He has sent us a nice description of a walk through town on a sunny Sunday morning recently.

A group of children in Broad Lane, seen from North Main Street, Cork city, in 1929.
A group of children in Broad Lane, seen from North Main Street, Cork city, in 1929.

“I arranged to meet two good friends of mine, Liam Ó Huigín, and Declan Donnellan, for a stroll along the North Main Street. Liam was born and raised in the middle parish and has a vast historical knowledge of the area.

“We met outside McCarty‘s bakery shop, or where it used to be, at the corner of North Main Street and Castle Street, opposite the entrance to the Catholic Young Men’s Society’s, or the ‘CCYMS’ as Corkonians still call it.”

Michael says he always knew Castle Street marked the end of North Main Street, but hadn’t known that South Main Street was separated at the junction by Paradise Place. He wonders how many readers knew that?

“Our second lesson was the markings on the footpath in front of all the lanes of the western side of the street, and Liam had a little story for each one, including Broad Lane. I knew that was the name of the Franciscan Church before the present building. However, I never knew that the church got its name from the lane.

“Further along, we came to an odd-shaped gate that looks like a piece of modern art. Liam explained that it represented the 17th century map of the city in those days with all the water channels and canals.

“The next stop was St Peter’s Church. Liam recalled how, as a kid, they played in the building and the graveyard behind.

“His next question baffled us, ‘Where was St. Pauls Church?’ Neither of us could answer him. The church, he told us, was behind TK Maxx and fronted onto Paul Street with a high wall and railings around it.

Some of the old faithful, like Roman House, Leaders, Bradleys, and of course the pet shop, still carry on their business, observes Michael.

“A good few of the old names have disappeared over the years, though. Crofts footwear, Munster Furniture, McCarty‘s bakery shop with its beautiful cakes, Bennetts, Cork Iron & Hardware, Curran’s bakery, and of course, the second Dunne’s Stores they opened in Cork and finishing with Murphy’s garage on the corner.”

And Michael makes special mention of the post office, one of the busiest shops in town on the first Tuesday of every month for the children’s allowance.

An old laneway off North Main Street, facing the Beamish Brewery, in November, 1936.
An old laneway off North Main Street, facing the Beamish Brewery, in November, 1936.

“This was the only banking facility most people had in Cork in the 1950s and ’60s and perhaps even into the ’70s, until credit unions came into their own.”

Sadly, over the years, all the lanes had to be closed off due to anti-social behaviour that took place in these passages, he recalls ruefully.

“The last lane to be removed was Coleman’s Lane, when Munster Furniture was demolished.

“Thankfully, they are all remembered by the name-plates and stone tiles built into the footpath by the City Council.”

Walking towards St Vincent’s Bridge, Liam gave his companions the history of the various houses along the quay including Wyse’s, and the old distillery complex across the river.

“As we stood by the bridge, we admired the house where George Boole lived. He was the first professor of mathematics at the then Queens College, now UCC.”

In strong contrast was the building on Henry Street which once, as a tenement, housed ten families with just one toilet and one tap in the yard outside to serve between 50 and 70 people.

Liam also recounted a Christmas story of long ago.

“Way back, Farm Products had two buildings on the street. At Christmas they would transfer large quantities of live chickens from one store to the other along the street.

“Immediately, unexpected loud noises would be heard on all sides, and the chickens would scatter everywhere. Front doors would be opened and Christmas came early for the lucky ones!”

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