Kanturk is located in north-west County Cork, in the barony of Duhallow and at the confluence of the rivers Allow and Dalua which together flow into the upper reaches of the Munster Blackwater.
First mentioned under 1510 A. D. in the Annals of the Four Masters (Annála Rioghachta Éireann), the name is derived from the Gaelic placename Ceann Tuirc. This literally means ‘the boar’s head’ and numerous theories have been proposed to explain its derivation, encompassing the religious, the topographical and the mythological.
The owners of Kanturk from early modern times was a sept of the McCarthy clan, known locally as the MacDonogh. These occupied the original Kanturk Castle which was nearer to the town than its still-standing successor, and most likely stood near the strategically-sited river crossing. The early settlement probably evolved around this site.
The developing settlement of Kanturk acquired legal standing in 1615 in a Royal re-grant to MacDonogh. This was associated with the decline of the ancient Gaelic order following the battle of Kinsale in 1601 and the introduction of English administration into Gaelic Ireland. The MacDonogh gained the title of ‘Lord of Duhallow’ from this re-grant and Kanturk was granted the privilege of a weekly market.
In the first half of the seventeenth century the McDonogh mortgaged his land to Philip Percival, an English Protestant. This was largely to finance the building of the present Kanturk Castle which was probably intended as a manor house appropriate to his status as Lord of Duhallow. However, when the MacDonogh went into rebellion in 1641 he lost the right to redeem the mortgage and ownership then passed to Percival’s descendants.
In 1677, Sir Philip Percival II instructed his agent to lay out the town in ‘copyholds’ – a form of medieval English tenure – and this marked the first direct intervention in the planned development of Kanturk. However, the fledgling town was destroyed in 1690 when it was burned by Jacobite forces following the Battle of the Boyne. Redevelopment was slow, partly due to a disturbed period following the Treaty of Limerick and exacerbated by serious flooding – there are historic references to a danger of the town being swept away.
A period of redevelopment began in 1712 with the building of the first stone bridge and the beginning of construction of quay walls to stabilise the river channels. This programme was completed in 1760 with the finishing of the current Dalua bridge. These were defining works in the subsequent layout of the town and confirm the Percivals’ influence on Kanturk’s development. One of the family, Sir John Percival, was a noted parliamentarian and was created first ‘Earl of Egmont’ by King George II in 1733.
In line with national trends, the town’s population grew steadily in the half-century up to the famine of 1845, peaking at 4,388 in the 1841 census. During this period the next significant milestone in the development of the town occurred with the appointment of Edward Tierney as land agent for the Earl of Egmont in 1823.
Tierney displayed vision and initiative in modernising the town and district which, up to then, comprised mainly of small, thatched and poorly constructed buildings. Under his influence, for example, the town acquired a courthouse, hotel, market house, and the new street of Egmont Place. He paid for some features, such as the ‘Metal Bridge’, from his own resources.
Ambition was another of Edward Tierney’s traits and he eventually gained ownership of the Egmont Estate from the Percival family in 1841. This passed to his son-in-law, a Welsh clergyman named Sir Lionel Darell, in 1858. However, in 1863 the Percivals regained control of their former estates following a highly-publicised law suit in which they successfully contested the original will by which Tierney had acquired them.
As a result of the land agitation in the 1880s, the Egmont Estate was sold to the tenants in 1892, thus marking the turning of the wheel of colonisation. Much of the current ownership of Kanturk dates from this event.
The population of the town went into continuous decline following the economic and demographic changes after the famine. It had sunk to less than 2000 by the end of the century, a figure it did not regain until the 1960s. Thereafter, it stabilised and Kanturk remained a strong retail and services centre for its largely agricultural hinterland.
The information in this historic overview of Kanturk was provided by Mr. Patrick O’Sullivan.