Published: May 29th 2008May 26th 2008
“Sweet bloody Jesus! And Christ almighty!” came the voice of man behind us. These were the first words Angela and I heard upon our arrival at Cork International Airport. What caused the man to utter these words we did not know, but it cheered us nonetheless. We had arrived in Ireland and it sounded good.
Cork was founded in the sixth century by the wonderfully named Saint Finbarr. He founded a monastery, around which settlements soon grew. As time passed, the Vikings came and destroyed parts of the city, but it was soon rebuilt. However by the seventeenth century Cork finally hit the big time. It became the butter capital of the World, providing butter to ships plying the busy transatlantic routes. Then came famine followed by British interference, which drove the city into decline. But today, Cork is one of Ireland's Celtic Tigers and now stands as the second largest city in the country.
“So where-yas-from?” asked the jovial taxi driver as we left the airport. In his sixties and wearing a blue sailor’s cap, he looked like an old sea dog. We told him we were from England. He visibly cheered at this news. “Ah,
England! I do love that place! Lived in Liverpool many years ago. And in Birmingham, so I did! Lovely place!”
As we headed into the city, Angela and I surveyed our surroundings. We’d expected Cork to be a picture-postcard sort of town, a bit like Whitby, only in Ireland. But so far, it seemed to be stuck in some sort of weird time warp, alternating between run-down Victorian and drab sixties-style buildings. A closed-down cinema added to this effect, fly posters and graffiti adorning its once grand entrance.
“Cobh is a nice place to go if you have the time,” said the taxi driver, perhaps sensing our mood. “It really is a lovely little harbour and it was the final port that the Titanic stopped at. It’s about half an hour by bus. And then there's Blarney of course. You’ve got to kiss the stone!”
“What's the Murphy's like?” I asked. Irish stout was a favourite of mine. I’d tried Guinness in Dublin and now I wanted to try Murphy's in Cork, the place it was brewed.
“Oh they all taste the same to me,” the man answered honestly. “But the wife likes a bit of
stout now and again. She says the Guinness doesn't travel too well so she prefers the Murphy’s.”
The next morning was overcast and drizzly. Our hotel, the Ambassador was located on a high hill to the north of the River Lee. “It says here,” I said, reading a placard I'd found on a wall. “This hotel used to be a protestant hospital for people with incurable diseases. Maybe there are still traces of disease in the beds.”
After breakfast we headed into the city centre and began our sightseeing trek. It quickly led us to the main shopping areas of St Patrick's Street, Oliver Plunkett Street and the Grand Parade. Our first port of call was the English Market. Originating from the early seventeenth century the market was full of stalls peddling meat, fish, cheese, breads and lots more besides. We spent a good while browsing the items on offer before the smell of raw meat became too much for us. We headed back outside into the fresh air.
The view to the north of the river wasn't particularly picturesque. It looked like any other industrial city going through a transformation to become more modern. Drab buildings,
grey listless housing and gaudy shop fronts greeted our gaze as we headed towards a bridge. We traversed the River Lee and headed uphill towards the Firkin Crane Centre.
A firkin was an old measurement of mass, with one firkin being equivalent to about 25kg. The Firkin Crane Centre used to be part of Cork's Butter Exchange, a reminder of just how important Butter was in Cork. Nowadays, the centre has reinvented itself as a venue for contemporary dance, but just along from it was the renowned Butter Museum, a place that our guidebook described as being unmissable. “Can you believe they have a firkin butter museum?” I said to Angela in a thick Irish accent. “It better be firkin good.”
Twenty minutes later, after having wandered through the museum’s displays, we both stepped outside. “I thought it was okay,” said Angela. “But certainly not unmissable.” I nodded. For an interesting insight into the history and manufacture of butter in Cork, it probably did a sterling job, but being the butter heathens we clearly were, it hadn’t hit the spot. Instead, we headed across the street to St Anne's Shandon Church, one of Cork’s most prominent
We paid a woman the six Euro entry fee so we could climb the tower. The steps were both steep and rickety, and at the half way stage we came to the famous bells ropes. By yanking hard, it was possible to play out a tune. Angela knocked out a quick ditty and then we were off, ascending further up the tower. At the next level, there were some large headphones dangling from a rafter. And then someone below started playing the ropes. Immediately, the vibrations from the enormous bells were so immense that it actually started to hurt. We quickly grabbed some headphones and put them on, looking decidedly out of place wearing them in the rafters of a church. Then we squeezed into the bell tower itself. But we still had further to climb. To get to the viewing platform we had to squeeze over some rafters into a narrow opening above whilst carefully avoiding the bells. We managed this successfully and could now stand up to appreciate the view below. The wind and drizzle cut short our viewing pleasure and we climbed back down, glad we’d done it.
“I enjoyed ringing the bells,” said
Angela as we walked down the hill past the Firkin Crane Centre again. “What’s it called again? You know, bell ringing?”
“Campanology I think. Why? You think of joining a group?” Angela didn’t even bother with a reply.
A visit to Cork without seeing the Blarney Stone would be like visiting Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower. We hopped on a bus for a twenty-minute journey to the quaint little town of Blarney, eight kilometres northwest of Cork.
Blarney was certainly prettier than Cork. And the place had a fair few tourists, mostly American. We headed towards Blarney Castle, paying the ten Euro entrance fee.
The castle itself stood in the grounds of a large area of parkland. As we approached the castle, we crossed a small bridge. Below, in the stream, were hundreds of coins, tossed over the side for good luck. The castle was itself was rather small, being made up one main rectangular section surrounded by a few small circular towers. There were plenty of people about, most snapping off photos in the tunnels cut into the limestone rock from which the castle was built. We moved upwards, soon entering the castle itself,
climbing up the spiraling stone staircase towards the top. We soon found ourselves in a queue.
Elderly Americans were in front and behind. We were all in line to kiss the famous stone, supposed to bring eloquence to anyone who did so. Every so often we would shuffle upwards a couple of steps until finally we emerged into the daylight at the top of the small battlement.
We watched as a woman ahead of us went through the process of kissing the Blarney Stone. First she had to lie down on her back. As she did this, a kindly gentleman held her around the middle to stop her slipping. The woman then had to stretch forward to kiss the stone. She did this and stood up. With the woman safely out of the way, we prepared ourselves to kiss the stone ourselves. Just then though, the man in charge got up and started fiddling with a flask placed on a nearby wall. “Ah,” he said. “I’m just having a tea break! I won’t be long. Five minutes is all I'll be.”
I turned to Angela, wondering what she wanted to do. Personally, I was happy to give
the whole kissing thing a miss. I’d seen the stone, I’d even photographed the stone, but kissing the stone was something I could leave for another day. Angela agreed and so we stepped past the rather plain looking Blarney Stone and exited the castle down another spiraling staircase.
“Well that was firkin fun,” I said as we left the grounds of the castle. “But now I think it’s time for a pint of Beamish.”
O’Connor’s Muskerry Arms sold all three kinds of stout. It was full of locals and tourists alike, and Angela and I sat down in a corner to enjoy a pint of Cork’s finest. To be perfectly honest, Guinness, Murphy’s and Beamish all looked identical to me, and they tasted similar too. That said, the Beamish I was currently sipping was a mighty fine drink and while Angela settled down to look at some shoes she’d bought earlier, I leafed through a magazine I'd found. One page caught my eye. It was an advertisement for an upcoming new play to be shown in Cork. Its rather mundane name, Cleaner, couldn’t have prepared me for what it was about. I read the accompanying blurb: Using a
combination of puppetry, dance and domestic cleaning products…an alternative adult fairytale about a woman who falls in love with her sweeping brush. I gulped a mouthful of Beamish down.
For our final morning in Cork, we decided to walk to St Finbarre’s Cathedral, to the south of the river. Walking back through the main thoroughfare of shopping streets we were once again struck by just how drab the city looked. Indeed the front cover photo of our guide book was not actually of Cork but of Cobh, something we only found out afterwards. But as we headed towards Finbarre’s, passing the massive Beamish Brewery, things started to look a little better. With the smaller tributary of the Lee on our right, and some quaint looking houses on the left, this was perhaps the most picturesque part of the city we had come across. And the Cathedral itself was rather nice too; its triple spires finished with a golden statue of an angel.
Our trip to Southern Ireland was over. We headed back to the airport.
- Compact City
- Near to other major sights - e.g. Blarney
- Friendly locals
- nStout - Murphy’s and Beamish
brewed in Cork
- Not a very pretty town, in fact, rather drab looking
- Not actually much to see in Cork itself
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