In Ireland, you can find many old castles, ruins, walls, and forts. It is said that there are more than 30,000 castles in Ireland. They all have their unique story and history. One of those forts is Elizabeth Fort. It is located off Barrack Street near the centre of Cork City. The fort is categorised as a “star fort,” as its shape resembles the shape of a star. Fort Elizabeth dates to the 17th century, but the fort you see today isn’t the fort that was originally built back in the day. Through time, the shape and the purpose of the fort both changed drastically.
It was the year 1601, and the battle of Kinsale was about to end. That is why the former president of Munster, Sir George Carew, decided to build a fortress and name it after the then-reigning Queen Elizabeth the 1st. His plan was to build a fort that would be established as a symbol of English rule, supremacy, and authority over the Irish land. The original fortress was built outside of the city walls, however, due to the expansion of the city, it was soon surrounded by houses and streets. Construction began on the site of an already existing church, which dated back to the High Middle Ages. The original structure was made of timber logs and earth, and its shape was quite different to the one we know today. However, the fort did not last long. Shortly after the construction was completed, the Queen passed away. The people of Cork refused to acknowledge the newly crowned King James the 1st, and they feared that the fort would be used against them and their rebellion. So, in 1603 they tore the fort down and liberated all the weapons that were stored inside by the British. But their efforts were futile, as the city was soon seized by the military forces of a man named Baron Mountjoy. As a punishment for their wrongdoing, the people of Cork were forced to rebuild the fort at their own expense.
Reconstruction of the fort took place between 1624 and 1626. And with that reconstruction, the fort got its signature star-shaped form, and the layout has remained mostly the same since then. Additional work and changes have been made to the fort’s interior in 1649 by Oliver Cromwell. It is worth mentioning that during these renovations all the remains of the church were completely removed from the premise.
Cork Under Siege
But just before the end of the century, the fort had another test to withstand. In 1688 the Williamite-Jacobite war began in Ireland. The war was fought between the supporters of the deposed monarch King James II and the supporters of his successor William III. The supporters of king James were called Jacobites, and the supporters of William were called Williamites. At the time Elizabeth Fort was a Jacobite stronghold, and the people of Cork also sided with the Jacobites. The test presented itself on the 21st of September in 1690 when the Williamite siege of Cork began. Elizabeth Fort was an integral part of the city's defence, but it just wasn’t built to withstand the power of the Williamite siege. Elizabeth Fort’s walls were breached, and the city capitulated just 4 days after the siege had begun.
After the siege and the occupation of the city, the fort was disbanded. And so, it remained vacant for many years, until it was repurposed in 1719 when it was decided that it would be refurbished and turned into a military barracks. The inner ramparts of the fort were thinned so that there would be extra space available for the soldiers. It operated as a military barracks for quite a while, up until the year 1806. That is when a new and bigger military barracks was built in the northern part of the city and Elizabeth Fort once again lost its purpose.
New Purposes for the Fort
After that, Elizabeth Fort became vacant again and ready for a new historic role. In the following years, the fort was repurposed into a convict depot. Its doors were formally opened to prisoners in 1817. It was regarded as the primary correctional facility in Cork up until 1824 when the Cork City Gaol (jail) was constructed and opened. After that, it only remained as a “penal waiting station” for prisoners who were waiting for transportation to other British colonies, mostly New South Wales and Australia. During its final days of operation, it mostly housed only female prisoners, and the penal station was closed again in 1837.
When the Great famine hit Ireland, the fort was able to open its gate once again, but only for the period of the famine. The authorities used it as one of many food depots around the city to hand out and sell rations to the starving people of Cork.
The Fort in Time of War
At the turn of the century, after the famine, the fort was turned into a military station. It was used and operated by the Cork City artillery. The repurposing proved beneficial, most notably during the Irish War for Independence (1919-1921). The war was fought in the style of guerrilla warfare, so the strategic position of the fort was pivotal for such type of warfare. Elizabeth Fort was occupied and used by the “black and tans.” They were constables recruited by the Royal Irish Constabulary as a means of reinforcement to help suppress the fighting and the progress of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The majority of recruited “black and tans” were former British soldiers that served in the First World War. After the war for independence has ended, and the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed by both participants of the war, the British authorities surrendered the fort.
However, not everybody was happy with the signing of the previously mentioned treaty. So, in the late evening hours in August of 1922, the fort and its inner buildings were engulfed by fire. The perpetrators were the anti-treaty forces of Cork that were opposed to the result of the war and the signing of the treaty. The exterior walls of the fort remained mostly unharmed, but the wooden structures inside the walls were burned to ash. The buildings that remain in the fort today, date back to the rebuilding of the fort that was done after the fire.
Now some of you may already know this, but most of you probably don’t. Ireland remained neutral during the second World war. They never participated in any type of warfare, and they didn’t send any soldiers to any front. That is why Elizabeth Fort didn’t see much action during that time. The Irish referred to the situation as “The emergency” and not World War II as they were unaffected by it. The fort in Cork was prepared to be used as an emergency air raid shelter, however, it was never needed.
The Fort Today
After the emergency period ended the interior buildings were renewed and the fort operated as a Garda (police) station up until 2013. That year the Garda Station was disbanded, and the management of Elizabeth Fort was handed over to the Cork City Council. After the fort was handed over it was reworked into a tourist attraction. Since then, its purpose has not changed, and it probably won’t change in the foreseeable future. The walls of the fort are currently open to the public six days a week.
Elizabeth Fort has seen and experienced many changes since its first foundation stone… well log was placed. It was repurposed many times, it was ruined, reconstructed, burned, and reshaped. But it has withstood the test of time and it still stands tall as a popular tourist destination inside Cork. If you are ever in Cork, you should go and pay a visit to Elizabeth Fort as it is definitely worth your time and effort.