Saturday 4 February 2017

John Wynne, the Cork Cutter

In the search for what brought my great-granduncle, John Wynne, fifty miles from his home in Dublin city to Dundalk in Co. Louth, it crossed my mind he may have been offered such a great a job he had to take it. Why else had he not become a brush maker in Dublin, like his four younger brothers?

And, if he was offered a job in Dundalk, he must have known someone in the town. So, we may have had family there - I am still looking for our Wynne family origins after all.

Then again, if we were related to the Wynne family from Dowdallshill, like those other online family trees suggest, why did John not become a stone mason like his supposed grandfather? Or, take a job in the building trade with his up-and-coming would-be first cousin, the soon to be famous church builder, James Wynne?

Instead, when John married Margaret Ward in July 1876, he was working as a labourer. He could easily have picked up that kind of work in Dublin. So, from the start, it did not look too promising for my ‘great job’ theory. 

By the time the couple’s first child arrived in June 1877, John had started his career as a cork cutter. You’d be surprised at how many cork cutters there were in nineteenth-century Ireland! Cork came from the bark of a type of oak tree, imported from around the Mediterranean. It was used for a variety of purposes, like in the manufacture of shoes and flotation devises, though even then it was most often used for bottles stops and barrel bungs.

I imagine John might have found work at a factory like the Malcolm Brown Distillery in Jocelyn Street, close to his home in Mary Street. In the 1870s and 1880s, the distillery was a thriving business, famous for its whiskey, and one of Dundalk’s largest employers. They probably had need of a cork cutter, or two.

Malcolm Brown & Co.'s Dundalk Distillery c. 1892

Still, increasing mechanisation likely meant that by the time John joined the industry, cork cutting was no longer considered a skilled trade. He was probably never very well-paid, and by the end of the nineteenth century, he certainly found it hard to make ends meet. The distillery business in Dundalk was also going downhill by then. This would explain his daughter Maggie’s letter to her Aunt Mary in Colorado Springs. In December 1900, Maggie complained: 
‘Times are very hard.  Now here everything is so dear. I’m not very strong at present. My health is gone down. My father is going in for Hall Keeper in the Young Men’s Society rooms. I hope we may get it, free house light & fire & £12 a year. So, think of that and my father’s money besides.’

It doesn’t sound like Uncle John was lured to Dundalk by the promise of rewarding work. If he was, it never came to pass. So, perhaps it was ‘love’ that brought him north. I never could find out much about his wife, Margaret Ward, or where the couple might have met - maybe I’ll give her another try.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons - Stratten & Stratten, Dublin, Cork and South of Ireland: A Literary, Commercial & Social Review Past and Present; With a Description of Leading Mercantile Houses and Leading Enterprises.

Many thanks to my third cousin, Phyllis, for the copy of Maggie Wynne’s letter.

© Black Raven Genealogy


  1. I am sure in those days people were grateful for any job, period. I surely hope there was more to cutting cork than making a single slice. Hour upon hour of such tedious work could be mind-numbing.

    1. Maybe, but at least it could be done indoors, out of the weather!

  2. Dara, I have been to Portugal and seen those many, many work trees. It is interesting to think of what come next with the cork. I hope you discover more about John.

  3. Thanks Colleen, I've also been to Portugal, and sadly never even noticed the cork trees. It's looking like these Wynnes are not yet ready to give up their secrets.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on this!