“The Darkest Hour is That Before the Dawn”
As the inscription on the souvenir medal above hints, the aim of the 1852 National Exhibition in Cork was to help lift the country out of the doldrums of the barely-concluded Great Famine, whose effects would be seen and felt for generations.
The event was staged in the corn market at Anglesea Street, with the Corn Exchange building (in later years, Cork Municipal Buildings, destroyed in the December 1920 burning of Cork) converted for use as part of the exhibition venue. While not quite matching the glazed luxurious surroundings of the crystal palace that a year earlier held the first such grand-scale event, London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, the Cork event did take some inspiration from that pioneering display. With a temporary extension to the Corn Exchange hall, designed by architect John Benson and completed within a matter of weeks in April and May 1852, the exhibition was nonetheless the subject of plenty positive press reportage in local, national and London newspapers.
More than 129,000 visitors – close to 55,000 of them season ticket holders – made their way through the halls; so too, during August and September, did 9,344 boys and girls, pupils of 75 city and county schools, who were admitted for free between 9am and 11am. As well as examples of traditional and emerging crafts and industries, aimed at promoting and encouraging local and national economies, visitors enjoyed the works of many fine artists. Works by the city’s better-known masters like the late James Barry and then-flourishing Daniel Maclise hung near those of lesser-known artists like Samuel Forde, the young local talent whose promising career was cut short by an early death 24 years previous; the works of all three have been the subject of exhibitions at Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery in the last decade (in 2005/’06, ’08/’09, and 2014, respectively).
These and the works of numerous other Cork and, mostly, Irish painters, sculptors and architects are described in great detail by John Francis Maguire in his publication of the following year, The Industrial Movement in Ireland, as Illustrated by the National Exhibition of 1852.
Breen, Daniel & Spalding, Tom, ‘Making an Exhibition of Ourselves – Defining Ireland at International Exhibitions 1851-1908’, in Breen, D & Spalding, T, The Cork International Exhibition 1902-1903 – A Snapshot of Edwardian Cork (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2014)
Maguire, John Francis, The Industrial Movement in Ireland as Illustrated by the National Exhibition of 1852 (Cork: John O’Brien, 1853) A searchable flipbook version of Maguire’s book is available here, courtesy of Cork City Libraries’ Cork Past and Present website
Pettit, Sean F, ‘The First National Exhibition, 1852’, in Pettit, S.F., This City of Cork 1700-1900 (Cork: Studio Publications, 1977)