Youghal is one half medieval walled town and one half Victorian beach resort. It is the place where Walter Raleigh first introduced the potato into Ireland, where Cromwell left the country from and where much of Ireland’s medieval trade was done through. The result is a legacy that is both impressive and obvious to see. The town walls are tall, strong and still exist over most of its original line. Within the walls, a medieval church, almshouses, a tower house, and the home of Raleigh himself all remain standing. Just to the immediate south of the walled town a different town exists. It is the Youghal which was a Victorian pleasure ground. For decades day trippers came on the train from Cork to enjoy the magnificent beaches. The train doesn’t run anymore but the beaches haven’t gone anywhere!
A brief history of Youghal
From the end of the 8th century Ireland was subject to Viking raids. Because of its location on the estuary of the River Blackwater, the area around Youghal was not immune to Norse incursions. By the 9th century the Vikings had established a small settlement. The relationship between the local Irish and new arrivals was complicated. The Annals document continuous skirmishing between the two, but presumably there was also trade and contact. In 864, the Irish defeated the Vikings and their “fortress was destroyed.” However, this did not drive the Norse out. They continued to live and trade at Youghal and even fought to defend the settlement when fellow Norsemen attacked in 945.
In 1173, a combined Irish and Hiberno-Norse fleet was defeated in a sea battle by the invading Anglo-Normans at the mouth of the Blackwater. The Normans then divided up the newly won territory which they had brought under their control. Because of the pre-existing settlement and its strategic location, Youghal was developed as a major urban centre. In the early years of the 13th century the town was granted a charter of incorporation and soon attracted settlers from Britain. By 1350 Youghal was a fine walled town, trading with ports all over Europe. The town walls, with at least twelve towers, surrounded the settlement. For most of the next four centuries the town was dominated by the Earls of Desmond.
By the late 1580s the adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh was a favourite at the court of Queen Elizabeth. Raleigh had taken part in the suppression of the Desmond rebellion in 1579 and benefited from the subsequent distribution of land. He received 40,000 acres which included the important towns of Youghal and Lismore. This allowed him to become one of the principal landowners in Munster. Youghal was the home of Raleigh for short periods during the seventeen years in which he held land in Ireland. He is said to have planted the first potatoes in Ireland at Youghal. In 1602, Raleigh sold his Irish estates, thus ending his involvement with the plantation of Munster.
Raleigh’s Irish estates were purchased by Richard Boyle. In recognition of his efforts to bring over English settlers to Cork and Waterford he was given the title Earl of Cork. Boyle was influential in the granting of a new charter to Youghal in 1609 which was important in the future development of the town. Exports from the area included pipe staves, wool and cattle, while goods such as wine, cloth, tobacco and luxury items for the English settlers were imported. Richard Boyle played an important role in defending Youghal during the risings of 1641, and ensured that it remained loyal to the English cause. He died in 1643 and was buried in St. Mary’s Collegiate Church in Youghal. One of Richard’s sons was Robert Boyle. Born in nearby Lismore, Robert was to become the Father of Modern Chemistry.
The English Civil War of the early 1640s presented an opportunity for rebellion in Ireland. Youghal however, stayed on the side of the English Parliament. By the end of the decade it had become an important base for the English as they attempted the retake rebel lands. In July 1649 Oliver Cromwell landed in Ireland with the aim of crushing the rebellion. He arrived that December in Youghal and made the town his winter quarters until departing in January 1650 to continue the war. In May 1650, after a successful campaign, he departed from Youghal to board the frigate President bound for Bristol.
Youghal emerged into a period of growth during the 18th century. By 1821 the population had grown to over 10,000. Most of the people were members of the Roman Catholic or established churches. However, Quakers, Huguenots, Presbyterians and Methodists also played an important role in the town’s development. Long established trading links gave Youghal a cosmopolitan air, while the military garrison contributed to the economic and social life of the town.
The town’s trade began to falter in the face of altered markets and new legislation during the Victorian era. After the removal of protection for woollen manufacture, Youghal’s wool industry went through a difficult period. The transfer of the military garrison to Fermoy was also a significant economic loss to the town. Emigration increased in the 19th century, particularly during and after the famine of 1845-1850. By 1900 the population of Youghal was about 6,000. Despite the fall in population, Youghal did see some significant developments in this period. Fishing, brick making and lace making assumed importance and provided much employment. Tourism also became an important industry with the seasonal influx of visitors arriving on the Cork train from 1860 onwards.
For further information on the town’s history contact:
Kieran Groeger, Youghal Celebrates History
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