At one time, the walled town of Cork extended from South Gate Bridge to North Gate Bridge and was bisected by long spinal main streets, North and South Main Streets. These were the primary routeways and although narrower than the current streets, would have followed an identical plan. They would also have been the main market areas. The town was well defended and all those seeking to gain entry had to use one of the three designated entrances: one of the two well-fortified drawbridges with associated towers or the eastern portcullis gate.
The first drawbridge, allowing access from Cork’s southern hinterland, was South Gate drawbridge, while entry from the northern hinterland was via North Gate drawbridge. From 1300 to 1690 these were the only two bridges spanning the River Lee. There are still bridges on their sites today and they still possess the names North and South Gate Bridge.
The present South Gate Bridge dates to 1713 while the present North Gate Bridge dates to 1961.
Various depictions of the walled town in the late sixteenth century show menacing symbols of power at the top of the drawbridge towers, where the heads of executed criminals were placed as a warning to other citizens. The heads was placed on spikes, which were slotted into a rectangular slab of stone. Legend has it that one of the stone blocks still exists today at the top of the steps of the Counting House in Beamish and Crawford Brewery on South Main Street.
The families involved in the government of the town included the Roches, Skiddys, Galways, Coppingers, Meades, Goulds, Tirrys, Sarfields, and the Morroghs. These surnames comprised the mayoral list from the early thirteenth century until the seventeenth century: forty mayoral titles in the Galway name are recorded between 1430 and 1632; thirty-six Skiddys between 1364 and 1624; and twenty-nine Goulds.
These families also controlled large portions of Cork’s trade and owned land which they rented out to less fortunate merchants. From the fourteenth century to the sixteenth century, the majority of the houses overlooked the main streets.
Extending perpendicular to North and South Main Streets were numerous narrow laneways, which provided access to the burgage plots of the dwellings. Comprised of individual and equal units of property, burgage plots extended from the main street to the town wall and their size was carefully regulated by owners and tenants.