The fortunes of Youghal, County Cork seem always to have been mixed. Writing of the town in 1748, the London bookseller and theatre manager William Rufus Chetwood commented, ‘Youghall, we are told, was formerly a place of good Trade; but I own, by the countenance it at present carries, it seems to be long in mourning for want of it. While our dinner was preparing, we took a walk through its long, wide, empty street without meeting ten people, even on the Quay itself…In short, my Lord, it seems a heartless, dejected place.’ On the other hand, by 1784 the Annals of Youghal could report that ‘In the summer months great numbers resort to Youghall, for the benefit of the salt-water…With respect to amusements, the town is not without its share. Such as wish to dip in the news and politicks, can at all times be furnished with the public papers, by resorting to the Mall House, while billards and bagammon afford ample entertainment to others…drums and assemblies are regularly held two or three times a week.’ When Henry David Inglis undertook his Journey Throughout Ireland in 1834 he found that in Youghal there were houses ‘seen in a ruined state, betokening, I fear, not antiquity only but decay,’ noting also the town’s ‘very considerable want of employment, and a large quantum of destitution.’ Yet just three years later, Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland observed ‘Most of the houses in the principal streets are either new or have been modernised; many of the ancient houses have been newly fronted, but may still be distinguished by their gable ends fronting the street, and their pointed doorways of stone. The town is much frequented during the summer for sea-bathing, for which it is well adapted…’
And so it goes on, sometimes the reports are encouraging, on other occasions the implication is given that Youghal is in terminal decline. But attributes on which all commentators agree are the town’s ancient history and its outstanding collection of historic monuments.
Wonderfully situated at the mouth of the river Blackwater, Youghal derives its name from the Irish Eochaill meaning ‘yew wood’ since these trees were once plentiful in the region. With the land rising steeply behind, the spot proved perfect for a Viking settlement in the middle of the ninth century but the town did not really grow until the arrival of the Normans some three hundred years later, after which it became an important port. Youghal received its charter of incorporation from King John in 1209, and immigrants from Bristol on the other side of the Irish Sea encouraged trade between the two countries. While some kind of defences existed already, it was in the thirteenth century that the town’s stone walls were built, of which large sections still remain. As an indication of its importance in the Middle Ages, when in 1301 Edward I required two boats from all English and Irish ports to support his fight against the Scots, he ordered that Youghal supply three vessels. Half a century later, the Freemen of Youghal were granted freedom to trade in different staples such as wool and leather throughout England and Wales. In 1462 it was created one of Ireland’s ‘cinque ports’ which ensured further trading privileges. In 1600 Youghal was elevated to the rank of ‘staple town’, receiving exclusive rights to carry on the wool trade with Bristol, Liverpool, Chester and Milford. By this time it had become one of Ireland’s greatest ports, more important than Cork Harbour which was described as ‘a port near Youghal.’
By then also, control of the area in which the town is located had changed several times, passing between the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond and the Butler Earls of Ormond. It was sacked by the fifteenth Earl of Desmond in 1579 and following the suppression of his rebellion, a grant of some 40,000 acres including the towns of Lismore and Youghal was made to the English buccaneer Sir Walter Raleigh; his own residence Myrtle Grove remains in the town. However in 1602 he sold his Irish estate to another Elizabethan adventurer, Richard Boyle, future first Earl of Cork whose descendants retained ownership of their property for much longer. Youghal suffered badly during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s, being under siege at one period and serving as Oliver Cromwell’s winter base at the end of the decade. However the town recovered in the 18th century, its trade expanding and population more than doubling. Although business in the port declined in the 19th century, Youghal’s fortunes improved with the arrival of the railway in the 1860s after which it became a major holiday resort.
Throughout the town centre it is hard to miss evidence of Youghal’s venerable past. Among the most significant monuments to its history is the Collegiate Church of St Mary, which claims to be the oldest site of unbroken Christian worship in Ireland. The church’s origins may go back to St Declan in the fifth century but roof timbers of the nave have been carbon-dated to around 1170. A rebuilding programme was undertaken in the early part of the following century, and then in 1464 under the auspices of the seventh Earl of Desmond it became a collegiate church, with the establishment of a neighbouring college accomommodating a warden overseeing clergy and singing clerks: since the Reformation, the church has been used for Anglican services while at the start of the 17th century the college became a private residence for Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork. His immense tomb, featuring not just the earl but his wives and children, dominates the south transept and is one of the most splendid 17th century funerary monuments in the country. Many more can be found in the surrounding graveyard which is bordered by sections of the old town walls and overlooks the grounds of both the college and Myrtle Grove, once residence to Sir Walter Raleigh. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is told that a household servant once threw water over him believing Raleigh to have caught fire: in fact, he was smoking tobacco which he is credited with introducing to these islands (as it was long thought he likewise did the potato). The abiding presence of Boyle can also be seen in a cluster of six almshouses he founded in 1601 on the corner of North Main and Church Streets. Nearby rises Tynte’s Castle, a 15th century tower house built by the Walsh family but subsequently owned by Sir Robert Tynte, an ally of the Earl of Cork and after 1612 married to his cousin Elizabeth (widow of the poet Edmund Spenser). Further south on Main Street one reaches the Red House, an early 18th century two-storey over basement seven-bay residence with pedimented three-bay breakfront, its design attributed to a Dutch architect named Claud Leuvethen. Built for the Uniackes, a local merchant family, the house’s name derives from the brick facade now covered by paint. Some distance down from this are remains of a mid-14th century Benedictine priory now incorporated into a house, and thence one reaches Youghal’s landmark Clock Gate, designed by local architect William Meade and completed in 1777.
For any visitor the delights of Youghal include not just the town’s architectural history but also the visible efforts made to preserve and present this to best advantage. Landmark buildings are well sign-posted and marked with informative plaques. Litter is kept down, and planting kept up. In many respects Youghal can serve as a role model for other heritage towns in Ireland.
Nevertheless, the place has problems, some of its own making, others outside its control. In 1834 Henry David Inglis wrote, ‘The suburbs of Youghal are large and bad: they extend in every direction up the hill, behind the old town wall, and contain many very miserable cabins.’ That description remains true today, albeit that the cabins have been replaced by poor quality housing. The approaches to Youghal and general development beyond the old town boundaries are equally incoherent, displaying this country’s customary lack of planning and foresight; the result is that anyone arriving on the outskirts would feel little incentive to venture into the town centre where so much deserves to be seen. Meanwhile, within that centre although significant monuments have been cherished the more general stock of building has just as often not; quite a lot of it today is in poor condition and/or suffering from cack-handed intervention, like the widespread replacement of old timber windows with uPVC frames. Buildings erected on vacant sites in recent decades are shockingly mediocre, and too much space is given up to tarmac, not enough to grass and trees.
All of these issues can, should and probably will be addressed by interested townspeople. But they face other challenges less easily overcome. Youghal is the victim of changing economic and social circumstances. It is no longer a port of any significance, its local industries have all gone, its role as a seaside resort of little import since the advent of cheap air travel, even its position as a market town undermined by the ability of consumers to travel to larger urban centres: hence too many premises in the centre now stand empty. Today Youghal’s greatest asset looks to be its history and how terrific so many citizens recognise this and are engaging in diverse ways to ensure it has a future as glorious as its past.