The Oldest Plan of Cork

Plan of Cork (Pacata Hibernia), 1585-1600.
Plan of Cork (Pacata Hibernia 1585-1600).

On the Pacata Hibernia plan, the medieval city of Cork is seen from a bird’s eye view.  It is as much artisitic as accurate and some historians consider that, rather than the ‘Tower of London’ plan, it represents the earliest record of Cork’s urban fabric (Kenneth Nicholls in the Atlas of Cork City, 2005). The following discussion presents other evidence that supports this opinion.

The view is from the east.  All the main channels are clearly shown on the plan. These comprise three waterways that flow around the walled city and towards the observer. The old settlement is markedly oval in shape. The three bridges, which carry the spinal Main Street over the channels, are drawn in such detail that their style of construction is easy to make out.  Upstream of the city, the North Channel is shown as the widest channel. The perpendicular nature of the Western and Eastern Canals relative to the natural grain of the valley is obvious as is their position close to the city walls. The intramural harbour on the Middle Channel can also be seen, protected by a water gate at its eastern end.  The marsh islands, which lie outside Cork, are not named, each being simply labelled ‘a marshe’.

A second anonymous plan, shown below, which was probably also commissioned for military purposes, has an earlier date marked on it, and therefore, is often assumed to be the oldest survey of Cork. This is the ‘Tower of London’ plan, so called because it was in the Tower that the original plan was stored, probably until the nineteenth century, when it appears to have been lost (Kenneth Nicholls, personal communication).

The history of the plan itself is worthy of attention.  The current version was made from a lithograph by Peter Joseph Klasen, a civil engineer from Germany, who was employed as District Engineer by the Board of Public Works.  The plan was first published in Tuckey’s Cork Remembrancer  in 1837 and is based on an earlier copy.  It appears that Klasen imported the skill of lithography, where a mirror image is created by etching detail from an image onto a limestone block.

A plan of Cork 1545. (Tower of London)
A plan of Cork, dated 1545  (Tower of London)

The more sophisticated style of the Tower of London plan is immediately apparent, although there is only minimal representation of the city’s buildings. It is more of a map and appears to have been based on a careful survey.  A large area of the floodplain both to the west and east of the walled city is covered, extending from where the North and South Channels divide, to where they rejoin.  As many as nine marshy islands are recognized to the west of the walled city and four more are drawn to the east. The form of the  islands is fairly accurate and the plan illustrates the geomorphology of the estuary well because both the anastamosing nature of the channels upstream and the gradual widening of the tidal channels downstream are obvious. Indeed, the area to the east of the medieval city and nearest to the Cork Harbour appears to have comprised as much water as land.

The crosscutting canals on the west and east sides of the city are obvious too, and as might be expected because of its seaward location, the Eastern Canal is somewhat wider than the Western Canal. Surprisingly however, the plan indicates that a substantial piece of marshland (later Fenn’s Marsh) lies between the Western Canal and the diverted South Channel suggesting that a section of the Western Canal had already been infilled. A similarly located tongue of land is shown much on later maps such as that by Phillips (1685).

Thus, there is topographical evidence to support historian’s suspicions about the early date of 1545. In summary, the Tower of London map may be later than the Pacata Hibernia plan and the anonymous manuscript plan preserved in the Hardiman Collection of Trinity College, Dublin, which has been provisionally dated as c. 1601.  Unfortunately, there is only symbolic representation of houses, castles and churches on the Tower of London map preventing any proper assessment of age. However, the apparent absence of structures on the ‘northeast’ marsh, immediately outside the city walls, does indicate that that the survey was completed in the first part of the seventeenth century and perhaps at about the same time as the Hardiman manuscript, which shows a perimeter wall and solitary building on the northeast marsh.


  1. Some of the information included in this article was kindly provided by Kenneth Nicholls, formerly of the History Department, UCC.
  2. The reader should refer to reviews by Eugene Carberry (Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1943) and Gina Johnson  (The Laneways of medieval Cork, 2002). Images of many of the old maps are available at as well as in the Atlas of Cork City (Crowley et al. 2005, Cork University Press).
  3. It should be noted that several new formal names are introduced in this report in order to simplify discussion. These names are the Middle Channel for the centrally located, natural waterway situated between the North and South Channels, and the Western and Eastern Canals for the artificial waterways on each side of the walled city.