The Viking Era

From the end of the 9th century, Ireland experienced Viking raids and Youghal was no exception. The “Annals of Youghal” record that a site was first inhabited in 853 when the Vikings entrenched themselves at “Eo-Chaille”. It is recorded that shortly after their arrival a violent storm changed the course of the Blackwater River and channelled out a new course forming Youghal Harbour. Here, the Vikings built a fortress and laid the foundations of a commercial sea-port – though it is likely that the Viking settlement itself was small and may not have been a permanent foundation. 

A stone slab in the Boyle Chapel of St Mary’s Collegiate Church bears the faint etched outline of a longboat – a nod to those Viking days. 

The Middle Ages

Medieval Youghal developed on a narrow strip of land on the west side of the estuary. This commanded the mouth of the Blackwater and was dominated by high ground to the west.  From the middle of the 13th century and as the town began to prosper, a wall was built around this increasingly important trading centre. The medieval main street remains as today’s North and South Main Streets.  

Also constructed in the 13th century and nestled within the town walls is the splendid St. Mary’s Collegiate Church, two monastic houses, the Franciscans at South Abbey and the Dominicans at North Abbey. The Franciscan monastery no longer stands above ground, but some fragments of the Dominican friary are still present. To this day, St. Mary’s Collegiate Church is used  for religious worship, discovery by visitors and as a unique musical venue for national and international performers.

Not far from the Church is the impressive walled garden of the former College of Youghal. With its foundation by Thomas, Eighth Earl of Desmond (c.1420–1468), the garden traces its origins to the mid-15th century.

Maritime trade was the powerhouse of the development and success of medieval Youghal.  The town traded goods back and forth to Bristol as well as with many ports across Europe.  Fish, timber and wool were exported, while glass, ironmongery, exotic spices and foodstuffs, clothes, wine and salt were imported here. However, as was the case with many centres, the arrival of the Black Death in 1348 and general political unrest at the close of the century had an adverse effect on Youghal. In time though, the town bounced back from its struggles and by the 15th century Youghal was flourishing. 

In 1462 the charter given to the town by King Edward IV made Youghal one of the ‘Cinque Ports’ of Ireland – a special customs status bestowed on only five ports. Youghal had truly emerged as a primary medieval economic player. 

In the late 16th century and following the unsuccessful rebellions of the Earl of Desmond which besieged Youghal in 1579, trade once again declined. In the 17th century Youghal became the major centre for the export of wool from Ireland, and the port trade was so successful that correspondence in the period described Cork City as a ‘port near Youghal’.  The Wool Staplers Guild in Youghal gave the large sum of £100 to the Town Corporation in 1637 to help build a new quay at the Watergate. 

In the early decades of the 1700s, a great period of Georgian expansion of the waterfront began and Youghal grew to almost twice the size of the original medieval town. Trade was prosperous but was still moved mainly through the enclosed medieval harbour. This was accessed from the town at a single point through the Watergate that crosses the modern-day Quay Lane. 


With increasing trade, there was a need for better ship berthing and warehousing facilities beyond the restrictive defended harbour. The Town Corporation began to lease parts of the waterfront to local merchants and as part of the lease arrangements, merchants were required to build new quays outside the line of the old harbour and town wall.  Multi-storey warehouses were built on these new quays for the storing and trading of goods. Other developments of the time included the Clock Gate Tower which was completed in 1777 and which stands on the site of the earlier Trinity Gate as part of the medieval Town Wall. 

The expansion eastward into the River Blackwater gave rise to the quayside waterfront that remains today – bearing the names of the many merchants who built them, including Green’s Quay, Harvey’s Dock, and Nealon’s Quay.  By 1750 the medieval harbour had been in-filled and lies today beneath the Market Square. Long established trading links gave Youghal a cosmopolitan air, while the military garrison contributed to the economic and social life of the town. Prosperous trade and manufacturing conditions prompted an increase in Youghal’s population, evidenced by the spread of the town beyond the old walls. 

Victorian Era

The successful years of the early 18th century were followed by more mixed fortunes during the Victorian era. The town’s trade began to falter in the face of altered markets and new legislation – while increased competition in grain exports affected trade, especially after the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws. After the removal of protection for woollen manufacturing, Youghal’s wool industry also went through difficult times, and a further significant economic loss was the transfer of the military garrison to Fermoy. 

Youghal needle-lace grew out of the need to generate employment during the potato famine of 1846. A piece of Italian-origin lace came into ownership of Mother Mary Ann Smith of the Presentation Convent in Youghal – who unravelled the piece of lace, studied its structure and then mastered the stitches. Children in the convent who had shown an aptitude for needlework were then taught how to stitch lace. This unique lace is made entirely by the needle, and the thread used is of very fine cotton. In 1852 a Convent Lace School was opened; the school flourished and went on to achieve many notable high points. In 1863 and upon her marriage to the future King Edward VII, a shawl of Youghal lace was presented to the Princess of Wales (later Queen Alexander). This was to be the first of many presentations to England’s Royal Family. Over the years, international exhibitions awarded Youghal Lace several medals including The Vatican Exhibition in 1888, The Chicago World’s Fair 1893 and The Exhibition of British Lace in London 1906.