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Architecture of Cork

Writing by Serena Gupta

Illustrations made by Martyna Wrona and Images from Unsplash and Adobe Stock

Setting the Scene: The Castles of Cork, Ireland

Cork in Ireland is the setting of the Georgian Ghost story conveyed in the Acteson Manuscript. Cork holds significance for hosting medieval architecture. The old, worn but beautiful ruins create an atmospheric location for a haunted mystery.

The oldest castle situated in Cork is Kilbrittain, probably built in 1035 by the O’Mahony clan. The castle is situated on a hill, allowing those within to spy on approaching armies from a distance. The castle’s architecture has features typical of Norman castles, including ‘murder holes’ in which boiling liquids could be poured on the attackers. Kilbrittain is not limited to one architectural genre. It is a detached medieval castle and by 1750, a gothicized tower house was added. The castle was also embellished with further Gothic architectural features that were popular during the eighteenth century, including pointed arches, decorative porches, dormers, and roof gables. Further additions were made in 1830: corner turrets, crenelations and perrons with inset arches, dovecote machicolations and hooded doorways. Further details include dressed stone voussoirs, stone mullions, transoms, and tooled stone surrounds. Kilbrittain is now used for hospitality purposes. 

Next chronologically is Blarney Castle, built in 1446 by the chieftain Dermot MacCarthy. The most prominent feature of the castle is the fifteen-foot lower walls and the angle tower. The myth goes, Cormac McCarthy, King of Munster supplied four thousand men for Robert the Bruce’s forces at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. As a symbol of gratitude, Robert the Bruce offered the stone that was later incorporated into the battlements, the Blarney stone, which is now traditionally ‘kissed’ by visitors. The castle was initially invested into by Cromwell’s General, Lord Broghill. In 1688 the castle was sold again to Sir James St. John Jefferies, Governor of Cork. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Governor of Cork built a Georgian gothic house up against the keep of the castle, as that was the tradition in Ireland. Characteristics of Georgian housing include stone or brick walls, cornices with dentils, symmetrical form, and fenestration, side-gabled or hipped roof and pedimented pilasters at the front entry. Further inclusions were made such as a landscape garden, Rock Close. In 1820, the house at Blarney Castle was destroyed by a fire. In 1874, the house was rebuilt in a Scottish baronial style. Characteristics of this style involve conical roofs embellished with tourelles, machicolations in battlements and asymmetry.

Blackrock Castle was rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century in Jacobean style. ‘Jacobean style’ refers to the second phase of Renaissance architecture in England, which involved detailed ornamentation in a formal design. Characteristics of Jacobean architecture include columns, pilasters, round-arch arcades, flat roofs and openwork parapets. Rustications of scrolls, straps and lozenges were also popular. Blackrock Castle is situated on the shore of the river Lee. It featured a circular watchtower for the purpose of watching for enemies. The myth goes that the enemies were the pirates and the Spanish who landed at Kinsale in 1601. However, the Blackrock castle had other myths tied to it. The 2.2-metre-thick walls of limestone and ashlar masonry were designed to withstand cannon fire. This stood as a protective shield for Lord Deputy Mountjoy against the citizens of Cork who were hesitant to acknowledge King James I in 1603. Later, the castle was used for an Admiralty Court exercising jurisdiction over maritime offences. Unfortunately, in 1827 the annual corporation banquet caused a fire at the castle, which necessitated rebuilding and redesigning by architect James Pain in 1829. The now, neo-Gothic revival castle, is acquired by the Cork City Council since 2001. It currently stands as a museum with an added observatory fitted in 2002.

Overall, each castle reveals Cork to be a highly historical location filled with architectural significance. The architectural genres exhibited by the castles include Georgian, Norman, and Gothic. The vague Acteson ghost story that needs to be unpicked is set in a location that has no specific architectural identity.

Mapping out the Acteson Manuscript

Details of Cork’s architecture helps readers picture the setting of the Acteson manuscript.

During the 1780s in Ireland the architectural genre of Georgian Houses was very popular. The Georgian era of architecture lasted from 1780 to 1820. Characteristics of Georgian housing were classical exteriors, elaborate interiors, and walls usually painted in a singular colour. Ceilings were divided into sections for ornamentation purposes. Georgian houses were often named after the family too. Georgian houses have the reputation of being large, in the style of manor houses. For example, the Kilshannig country house is a representation of Irish Georgian architecture. Kilshanning was built in 1765 for Abraham Devonsher, a wealthy Cork burgher and banker. The architect was a Sardinian, Davisco d’Arcort, who was known for his stucco work.

In Cork, Georgian streets and quays are diversified by grand neoclassical public buildings. All of the buildings are presided over by the Gothic Revival masterpiece of St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral. The church was designed by William Burges and consecrated in 1870. Medieval remnants still exist today; there are nine stone carved heads that date from the twelfth century embedded in the walls of the medieval tower, which was demolished in 1865. The cathedral is built of Cork limestone and the interior of Bath stone and the walls are lined with red Cork marble. The cathedral is French neo-Gothic style.

In terms of other architecture in Cork, such as the poorer backgrounds that are not mentioned in the manuscript, an idea of where a farmer would perhaps live would be the vernacular houses in Cork. Cork itself lies on a sandy foundation. Therefore, stone buildings do not fare well, because the weight of the stone sinks into the soft foundation leaving the stone to crack, walls to bend and towers to topple. 

Ultimately Cork differentiates in terms of architecture for individuals of different social classes. However, the history of the city is informed by its topography and reclamation from a marshy delta enclosed by hills. This secrecy of Cork creates the perfect imagery for the Acteson manuscript ghost story. 


  • Casey, C, “Art and Architecture in the Long Eighteenth Century”. In T. Bartlett (Author) & J. Kelly (Ed.), The Cambridge History of Ireland (Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 406-464  
  • Barnard, T.C, “Review: Delusions of Grandeur? 'Big' Houses in Eighteenth-Century Ireland”, Eighteenth-Century Ireland, Vol. 30, (Eighteenth-Century Ireland Society, 2015), pp. 140-165 
  • Heritage Unit of Cork County Council, Heritage Houses of County Cork, (2014), (last visited, 3/08/21) 
  • Keohane, F., Cork: City and County (Pevsner Architectural Guides: Buildings of Ireland), (Yale University Press, 2020) 
  • O’Byrne, R., The Irish Aesthete, (last visited 3.08.21)