Cork Trade

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  • Food and Farming



The rich grassland in the countryside around Cork city was always very suitable for grazing cattle. Therefore, throughout history, the beef and dairy industries played major parts in the economic development of the city and county. Cork city was ruled mainly by prosperous merchant families, who filled the civic offices of the city and were very wealthy compared to the ordinary population.

By the thirteenth century, Cork merchants were exporting oats, wheat, beef, pork, fish, hides and malt. The main imports to Cork were wine, cloth and spices. By this time, Cork was regarded as the principal port in the south-west of Ireland.

Despite this prosperity, Cork also suffered a series of setbacks, including the arrival of the Black Death in 1349. Cork was also very damaged by a fire in around 1354. The decline in prosperity continued into the fifteenth century.

Cork's economic decline was not halted until the first half of the seventeenth century. Improvements in transport, the felling of woods, and the building of fortified houses helped to improve the city's fortunes. Once again, Cork became a major centre for trade. Goods exported included hides, pipestaves, rugs and tallow. Goods imported included wine and salt. Trade with Bristol and with European ports like Bordeaux began to flourish.

Some historians trace the beginnings of Cork's trade in butter to the seventeenth century. This was an enormously important step in Cork's later development.

In general, trade to and from Cork really began to flourish and grow in the eighteenth century. At this time, salted beef, pork and butter were exported to the West Indies to supply the British Navy. The textile, tanning, brewing and distilling industries also began to prosper in Cork at this time.

Cork Butter Market

In the late 18th century, Cork Butter Market was the largest market of its kind in the world. Set up in 1769 by Cork's highly organised butter merchants, it was world famous because of its strict standards of quality control. Salted butter was exported in barrels all around the world, especially to the West Indies. This is a photo of the market from around 1900.

A photograph of Cork Butter Market c. 1900
National Library of Ireland

The increasing popularity of margerine and the development of refrigeration caused a decline in the use of salted butter, and Cork Butter Market eventually closed.

The Butter Market was used as a cap and hat-making factory from 1940 until 1976, when it was destroyed by fire. The building was restored and turned into a cultural centre, the Firkin Crane Centre.

You can learn more about the history of Cork's butter trade by visiting the Cork Butter Museum, which displays many interesting artifacts, including traditional butter-making equipment. The museum also provides much information about the history of the dairy industry in Ireland, from its earliest existence to the present day.