Book Review: The Cork International Exhibition 1902 1903 – A Snapshot of Edwardian Cork

Breen-Spalding-Cover-Final-300x450By Daniel Breen & Tom Spalding,

Irish Academic Press, 2014.

Reviewer: Patricia Curtin-Kelly

I suspect that there are few people in Ireland, let alone Cork, who are aware of the two international exhibitions that were held in Cork in 1902 and 1903.   Surprisingly, too, these were not the first large exhibitions to be held in Cork as two others predated them.   Daniel Breen and Tom Spalding, therefore, have done us a service by producing a well-researched and well-illustrated book on the topic.

In 1797, Paris was the first city to host a national exhibition and, in 1850, London was the first to host an international exhibition.   The latter led to the building of the famous Crystal Palace, the subject of much discussion as leading architects of the day, such as Ruskin and Pugin, hated the building.   Paris held a World Fair in 1889 which produced the Eiffel Tower, which was again a contentious building in its day.   It was the tallest building in the world until the 1930s when the Chrysler Building was constructed in New York.

Cork held two international exhibitions in 1902 and 1903, intended to promote international trade in the ‘first age of globalisation’.

The Paris exhibition also introduced the idea of pavilions where countries such as Tunisia and India exhibited as, up until then, exhibitions were held in one big building.   In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exhibition which featured illuminated buildings and a Ferris wheel.   These international exhibitions were models for globalisation and an introduction to the modern world.   They brought products, inventions and innovation and inspired growth in a newly developing consumer-driven economy.

Cork in 1902

Cork city, from the 1830s onwards, saw the construction of its well-known landmark buildings, including hospitals, churches and commercial buildings.   By 1900, Cork would have been readily recognisable to modern eyes, as its streets, river channels, most of its bridges, virtually all of the city centre churches and other public buildings were in place. In addition, it had a tram system and five main railway stations.

By 1900, Cork would have been readily recognisable to modern eyes.

It was also a time when Home Rule was being pursued by nationalists against a background of loyalty to the Crown by other citizens. Sir Edward Fitzgerald, the first elected Lord Mayor of Cork, initiated the Cork International Exhibition on the basis that it would benefit the city through tourism and education.   In addition, as it was the fiftieth anniversary of the first exhibition held in Cork, it was an opportunity to take stock on improvements to the city.   It was also a chance for Cork to communicate with the world on its own terms and by its own efforts instead of through Dublin or Belfast.

The Cork exhibition came at the tail end of the golden age of exhibitions.   While Cork could not compete in size and scope with its international neighbours, it shared their causes, hopes and aspirations. The mayor, Fitzgerald had to thread a wary path between the different factions as Ireland had a multi-faceted and contradictory relationship with Britain.   At the time, there was also a contentious debate about Irish identity as well as its status in the world.   It was important how Ireland was perceived abroad and how it presented itself.

At exhibitions in the United States of America, Ireland had had a semi-official pavilion, or Irish Village, which emphasised Irish culture, heritage, industry and architecture which were very well received.   The British press had praised earlier Irish exhibitions as “an example of how Ireland could be an invaluable colonial asset.”   The Daily News said that it was time that “English people discarded their poor-relation view of Ireland.”   It also emphasised the difference between the Irish agitators and Irish people.

‘A mammoth task’

The Cornmarket, beside Anglesea Street, was the original preferred site as it was also the location of the previous two exhibitions in Cork.   However, in this case, it was considered to be too small.   The Marino was suggested but this was considered to be too far out of the city.   The Mardyke was chosen instead as it had sufficient space, accessibility, agreeable surroundings and convenient approaches.

The Cork exhibition came towards the tail end of the golden age of international exhibitions.

Hosting an Irish exhibition was a mammoth task as well as a costly one.   It was estimated that it would cost £10m (today’s prices).   Subscriptions were raised privately from wealthy and influential individuals and companies.   The Department of Agriculture & Technical Instruction (DATI) was a main sponsor of the exhibition and highlighted, as its main theme, the importance of technical education for Irish agriculture and industry.

The aim of the 1902 exhibition was education and technical instruction as well as fun and exotic diversion.   The earlier Glasgow exhibition had a major influence on the Cork organisers who borrowed their ideas of a water chute and other amusements, as well as new building materials.   These were seemingly solid walls which were actually made of pre-cast plaster panels, reinforced with hemp and surrounded by wooden frames.

In Cork, however, rather than using plaster panels the walls, for the exhibition buildings, were made predominantly from canvas stretched over the frame and painted white.   White had become the preferred colour for exhibition buildings since the Chicago exhibition in 1893.   In addition, a large iron and wood structored hotel was specially built for the exhibition, near the current Erinville Hospital.   This could accommodate 800 people and was called Gordon’s Exhibition Hotel.

Cork introduced the idea of pavilions, as seen at the Paris exhibition in 1889, which was a first for Ireland.   They were for Fr. Mathew (a nineteenth century temperance leader), Irish Forestry Industries and Canada (primarily to impress people thinking of emigrating there).   In addition, the President of the exhibition and the Lord Mayor sponsored an English vernacular building which a visitor from Sydney described as “a little gem of a building.”

The latter is the only purpose-built building surviving and is located at the entrance to Fitzgerald’s Park, called after the Lord Mayor who instigated the exhibition.   Another feature was an “ideal home” in the form of an Irish labourer’s cottage, with a kitchen/lining room and three bed-rooms.   This was shown as an example of how “the humblest home may be made comfortable and clean in an inexpensive manner.”   This was hosted by a seventy-two year old Irish speaking Kerry woman and a number of dances and concerts were held at the cottage.   This also gave people an opportunity to practice speaking Irish.

The Gaelic League proposed an Irish Village to show visitors that the Irish have a language, music, manners and customs of their own.   This was not accepted.

The Gaelic League proposed an Irish Village to show visitors that the Irish have a language, music, manners and customs of their own.   This was not accepted as it was considered more suitable for foreign consumption at, for example, American World Fairs.   Nevertheless, there was a Celtic Revival influence at the exhibition.

The DATI stand, in the Industrial Hall, was modelled on the Hiberno-Romanesque Cormac’s Chapel in Cashel and the décor and frieze were designed in a complimentary Celtic style.   The stand also included a collection of old Irish furnishings, plate, cut glass and reproductions of the antique Celtic world.   In addition, many exhibitors included Celtic motifs in their displays, such as the round tower, Celtic cross, Irish harp and Irish wolf-hound etc.

The Industrial Hall had a number of retailers and branded goods on display which are still familiar today. It is interesting to note that visitors could only view but could not purchase any goods.   The objective was also to encourage import substitution and to provide pride in Irish made goods.   For example, Pearse & Sons, makers of marble sculptors and altars in Dublin, asserted that all of their goods were “executed in our own premises and by Irish artists.”   This company had been inherited by Patrick and Willie Pearse, the future 1916 revolutionaries.

There was also a major focus on agriculture at the Cork exhibition with an entire mixed farm on show, including fish hatcheries, sheep dips, sheds for stall feeding cattle and rearing calves, indoor rearing facility, chicken incubator, a master bee-hive, a lecture hall and a forestry exhibition.   There was an active women’s committee which brought together hand-crafts from France, Hungary, Sweden, Russia, the United States of America and Great Britain, as well as a display of work from the Glasgow School of Art.

Examples of Irish lace were also on display with the aim of improving scope for profitable employment.   Cinematography was introduced at the exhibition and George Green filmed the entire proceedings and showed them to the public who were enchanted to see themselves on screen.   These films have also left an extraordinary archival legacy of Cork at that time.   Sport featured in the form of an international tennis tournament and an international rowing race.

The site had six restaurants and three bars, including an American Bar serving “exotic cock-tails.”   One of the restaurants was a temperance one and in spite of this, and the presence of the Fr. Mathew Pavilion, the bars did great business.   Music was a key element of the amusements on offer.   The newly built concert hall could seat 2,000 as well as a large choir and orchestra. The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Orchestra was the most prestigious to appear in Cork as well as bands from Austria, Hungary and France.

Tourism was an important element of the exhibition.   Thomas Cooke was one of the first to exploit the appeal of international exhibitions by bringing tourists to London and Paris. Cook was able to exploit the improved road and ferry services to Cork to encourage tourists to travel there.   Many prominent Anglo-Irish politicians attended each exhibition, including the Prince of Wales in 1902 and King Edward and Queen Alexandra in 1903.

Two Japanese war ships visited the exhibition, as did the Prime Minister of New Zealand and the Cardinal/Arch-Bishop of Sydney, among in 1902, 1.8m visitors to Cork and 2m visitors in 1903.

Two Japanese war ships also visited the exhibition, as well as the Prime Minister of New Zealand and the Cardinal/Arch-Bishop of Sydney.   It was no mean achievement that, in 1902, 1.8m visitors were attracted to Cork and 2m visitors in 1903, a city with a population of only 80,000.   It is estimated that the Cork exhibition brought £125m (today’s price) into the local economy.

The exhibition was such a success that it was decided to run it for a further year.   In 1903, there were fewer exhibitors, 190 instead of 503 and the exotic element of the exhibition was boosted by the inclusion of an Indian section.   In addition, the women’s committee became more significant, with a doubling of its space, and included a loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Royal School of Art in London.

The Irish labourer’s cottage was joined by a Normandy Cottage which intrigued Irish visitors, as its inhabitants “wore clogs, had copper cooking pans and ate rabbits.”   The former Fr. Mathew Pavilion housed the teleautograph, an early fax machine, and an early x-ray machine was also on show, clear signs of new technology that was on the way.   It is interesting to note that Hadji Bey’s Turkish Delight, which is still a firm favourite in Cork, was introduced at this exhibition.

A Brave and confident thing

The book is richly illustrated throughout with excellent research and foot-notes.   The content is detailed and provides both an historical and economic background to the Ireland of the time.

National and international conferences and exhibitions are common place today, therefore, it is hard to appreciate the enormous effort and impact they had in earlier times.   The setting up of these exhibitions in Cork was a brave and confident thing to attempt for a small city.   Whatever the short-comings, it was a tremendous achievement for such a small community.   In 1902, it was the first exhibition in Ireland to bring modern influences from the United States of America and France.   The exhibition also high-lighted the ambiguous processes involved in the search for Irish nationhood and identity vis a vis nationalists and unionists.

The book is richly illustrated throughout with excellent research and foot-notes.   The content is detailed and provides both an historical and economic background to the Ireland of the time.   The authors have made an interesting conclusion on the legacy of these international exhibitions, including the subsequent development of Vocational Educational Committees and other state vocational training bodies.

The exhibitions undoubtedly provided an opportunity for the population at large to experience innovative industrial developments, made art more accessible to the general public and provided an opportunity for much needed fun. Within twenty years, all would have changed utterly in Ireland. For anyone interested in Irish and, in particular, Cork history this book will provide a stimulating and interesting read.



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