• Tuesday , 12 November 2019

The Cork Distillers Bottling Plant (1961-1964)


The 1960s were to be a prolific decade of building in Cork. The County Hall, designed by the City Architect Paddy MacSweeney, was Ireland’s tallest building when completed in 1968. Dundanion Court, Neil Hegarty’s RIAI Silver Medal for Housing scheme was completed the same year, having been designed in 1964. Yet 1964 was also the year that the Cork modernist Frank Murphy would complete his largest building in the most tranquil of Cork City locations.

Frank Murphy was one of Cork’s busiest and most renowned architects and by the sixties his office began to work with larger clients other than the religious institutions he had built his practice on. Graduating from UCD in 1939 and part of a circle which included architect Michael Scott and the artist Louis Le Broquy, Frank Murphy was deeply rooted in the modern movement. His office was in continuous demand and he and his practice would dominate Cork in the 1960s. In Tom Spalding’s booklet, A guide to Cork’s twentieth century architecture, he states that Murphy was ‘Cork’s most exciting architect at this time’.[1]

Frank Murphy

It did not come as a surprise, when in 1961 the Cork Distilleries Ltd appointed such a modern architect and his team. Cork Distillers wanted to create an image of a modern company that had facilities to rival their then Dublin competitors, Powers and Jameson Whiskey. This project had an impressive pairing; an ambitious Cork client matched equally with a home grown determined architect.

Brewing and distilling have long been an important story in Cork’s past. Produced in various city sites for centuries, the industry was a large city employer right up until the twentieth century.[2] The largest of which was the Cork Distillery Company on the North Mall, a leafy settled island west of the city centre. In 1920 a fire broke out, and production was moved to a Middleton distillery. In 1961 Cork Distillers had outgrown the Middleton facility and looked back at the dormant North Mall site for development. They wanted a modern state of the art bottling facility that would announce the historic company’s return to the city centre. Their choice of architect was instinctively Frank Murphy.


Murphy’s first move was to position the plant along the south river bank of the island, formally facing the city and enclosing the rest of the site facility behind. The plant is overwhelmingly long and expansive. It is arranged in four blocks and to keep the scale of the plant with the city, Murphy insisted it would be only one storey. Instead of one large expansive factory with one material, each zone has a different approach regarding its function or purpose. This allowed Murphy to break up the mass of the building. The office and administration wing are distinguished by bright yellow glazed brick and neat window arrangements raised on a cantilevered concrete plinth, with deck access facing the river. Management could walk along this raised pathway looking out on the river and lush planted parklands beyond. The goods-in area is covered with an enormous chevron concrete canopy, whilst the main entrance and goods-out area is cast entirely in concrete, with glass bricks for lighting the interior. Murphy finishes the entrance with the inclusion of the vertical chimney stack that breaks the formal horizontal mass of the building facing the River Lee. The arrangement of the administration area in its use of pattern glazing and layering of various materials breaks the mass of the building successfully and creates an approachable and curious structure. The rectangular glazed brick chimney proclaims it presence quietly to the city beyond, just breaking above the tree canopies.


Like many Irish architects of the period, Murphy had a keen interest in Scandinavian architecture. For his honeymoon in 1947 he travelled to Sweden, presumably for the abundance of modern architecture he could visit.[3] From the mid-fifties, Murphy in his own work would bring a soft, considered approach back to Cork, often using pattern, rhythm and surface decoration to ease buildings into their environments. This can be seen in the administration offices area of the factory. The long horizontal aluminium windows are set in a series of stepped layers on the façade. The windows sit on a band of cast concrete which acts as a sill and frames the window. This is set in contrast with the glazed brick wall that runs the entire length of the offices, connecting both exit and entrance. The parapet looms behind a heavy rusticated limestone – a local stone quarried outside Cork. Glazed brick was chosen for being historic, the colour yellow was Murphy’s bright and eccentric touch.

Irish Distillers Ltd.2


This contextualism and abating of severe lines is a strong theme with Murphy which can even be connected to his later passion for restoration work. Murphy, according to those who knew him, had a profound sense of place and through his teaching and work, deeply encouraged the built environment of his native city. In 1967 Cork Distillers Ltd amalgamated with its competitors Jameson and Powers and became Irish Distillers Ltd. It bottled Jameson, Paddy and Powers whiskey until 2007, when production left for Dublin and Northern Ireland. The site and plant were jointly bought by University college Cork and the Mercy Hospital and today remains dormant as plans for development intend to demolish the facility.

Fifty years have passed, the site has settled, and the trees and planting have grown to surround and shelter this sleeping giant. The composition is its enduring factor and possibly what sets it apart from other buildings designed at the time. It faces the river formally with a grand formal entrance cast entirely in concrete which looks remarkable today – a testament to PJ Hegarty builders in 1963. Cork City Hall is often referred to as the last of the James Gandon style, grand river fronted buildings (completed in 1935 by Jones & Kelly in a classical revival style). Yet Murphy’s river-fronted bottling plant is original, contextual and innovative and, in true Gandon fashion, remains contested and controversial today.

Irish Distillers Ltd

[1] Spalding, T. A guide to Cork’s 20th century architecture. Cork: Cork Architectural Press. 2010.
[2] Rynee, C. Industrial Ireland 1750-1930: In archaeology. Cork, Collins Press. 2006.
[3] Butler, Richard, 2015, ‘‘All saints, ‘Drimoleague, and Catholic visual culture under bishop Cornelius Lucey in Cork1952-9’’, Journal of the Cork Historical and archaeological society, Vol. 120, pp 79-97

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