The skeletal remains of six people found at the site of a former pub in Cork city in early October have all the makings of a “medieval mystery”, according to a local historian.
Dr Kieran McCarthy speculates that the “Barrack Street Six” are at least 300 years old, and could possibly have been connected to the siege of Cork in 1690 or to the hanging of United Irishmen at nearby Gallows Green in 1798.
Dr McCarthy, who is also an Independent councillor and author, says there are multiple possibilities in relation to the origin story behind the remains which were uncovered at the site of Nancy Spain’s pub .
The remains were discovered by builders who were doing preparatory work to demolish the pub on Barrack Street in order to build social housing. The first skeletal remains were unearthed on October 7th, with the remains of five more people found in the days that followed.
Nancy Spain’s pub, which closed two decades ago, is situated in a very historic area. It was positioned just 500m from a 17th century gallows and some 200m from the 17th century Elizabeth Fort.
Dr McCarthy says: “It is a council property that is being developed. I don’t think they realised they were going to find six skeletons. It is not one or two. It is six. Which is quite strange.
“They were found beneath the foundations so they go very far back. Barrack Street as an area began to grow some 900 years ago, and not everyone was buried in formal graveyards in those times.
“What happened to these six poor souls?…With one skeleton you would say that somebody wanted to be buried underneath their house. Two they could be star-crossed lovers, but six is a different story.
“It harks back to Cork’s darker past. You had the site of Gallows Green up the road. You had Elizabeth Fort. We have things like even the mortality within the town as well. A lot of people didn’t live beyond 40 years of age 700 years ago. Or even 400 years ago.
“Barrack Street has such a strong sense of place. Maybe we haven’t come to grips with its history enough or showcase it enough. Maybe we are afraid of studying Cork’s medieval and post-medieval past.”
Dr McCarthy says the skeletons could have a connection to the siege of Cork in 1690. At the time nearby Elizabeth Fort and the walled city of Cork was held by Jacobite forces while being attacked by Williamite soldiers. The fort held out but was surrendered when the city wall was breached after about a week of bombardment. No recording was made of where the casualties were buried.
He also notes the remains could be connected with Gallows Green where many people were hanged, but there is no official report on where they were buried. One of the earliest recorded executions took place there in 1644 when Lady Roche Viscountess Fermoy was sentenced to death after she refused to renounce Catholicism, while United Irishmen were also hanged “en masse” at Gallows Green in 1798.
“We have only scattered reports from Gallows Green. We don’t have an official file of who was hanged there. We have 19th century antiquarian accounts which say that the first recorded hanging there was in 1644, with the last in the 1820s.”
He says information about Cork’s dark past is very scattered. In medieval times in the time of the walled town things like South Gate and North Gate Drawbridge Tower used to have heads on spikes. “We have old sketches of old maps of the old town wall which have etched-in heads on spikes,” he adds.
“These six that were found under the building are really interesting. There are so many possibilities. There could be more out there underneath the floorboards of old houses.”