|Cork's claim of being Ireland's 'real capital'
is supported by culture, class, and history, yet the city effortlessly
holds onto its country town charm. The second largest city in the Irish
Republic, Cork is modern, lively, and attractive, with lots to offer the
short- or long-term visitor. The centre of Cork is located on an island
between two channels of the Lee River.
Patrick's Street runs through the heart of the city. It offers a host of shopping opportunities and boasts some of Europe's largest retail chains. Oliver Plunkett Street, which runs partly parallel to Patrick's Street, bustles with smaller shops, life and colour. Second-hand books, hand-made chocolates, an infinite array of surprises can be found in the alley-ways and lanes around this central shopping district. Heading west, one comes to the English Market, the culinary heart of Cork, boasting a huge array of fresh local produce, and tantalising international delicacies. Following Patrick's Street eastwards leads to the statue of Father Matthew, much respected founding-father of the Irish Temperance Movement. Tucked off to the left, one finds the Cork Opera House, venue for national and international theatre, opera, and concerts. The Crawford Art Gallery with its impressive collection to suit modern and traditional tastes is to be found here as well. At the other end of Patrick's Street lies the Grand Parade. A visitor might wish to turn left here, past the cheerful greenery of Bishop Lucey Park, and view the impressive Nationalist Monument, or turn right to ramble along the Coal Quay, with its bustling Saturday open-air market, second-hand shops, and enjoy a pint or a coffee in the spacious, gracious Bodega. One block further west lies North Main Street, and the Cork Vision Centre: situated in the historic St Peter's Church, it offers the visitor the opportunity to really get a feel for the city with a magnificent 1:500 scale model of the whole city.
Further south is the Triskel Arts Centre, a vibrant cluster of gallery, theatre, and drinking spaces, with a Sushi Bar thrown in for good measure. Further along this stretch one finds the graceful Tudor-styled Beamish & Crawford Brewery, (Cork also boasts the Murphy's Brewery, and the rich, sweet aroma of brewing stout often wafts through the city). Venturing further west, one leaves the inner centre of the city, past corner-shops, and pubs, and toward the Mardyke Walk. This delightful stretch, which has been an institution amongst locals for over a century, leads directly to Fitzgerald Park, a popular family spot in the Summer, but boasting a beautiful array of well kept flora whatever the season. The Cork Public Museum is situated within the park and offers a wealth of information for those interested in local and national history. Defined by the two channels of the Lee, the city centre of Cork has a beauty of its own, easily and best experienced on foot. A stroll along any of the water-ways can be surprising and rewarding, while the island itself invites the visitor to lose their way, yet easily to find it again.
North of the City
The "North Side" is defined by hills rising up from the river, and toward the city's more hidden charms. Dominating the landscape is St Anne's Church; the lime and sandstone, (two walls built of each), clock tower can be seen from all over the city. For only £2, one can climb the tower to ring the famous Shandon Bells, and savour the spectacular view from the top. Directly below "the bells", is the old Cork Butter Exchange, now home of the intriguing Butter Museum, and the Shandon Craft Centre. The old weighing-house of the Butter Exchange has been transformed into The Firkin Crane Centre, a two stage theatre which is famous for showcasing the best of Irish ballet and contemporary dance. A little further north, one finds the impressive North Cathedral, a triumph of modern design fused with reverent antiquity. Perched on a more western point of the hill, lies the Cork City Gaol; this gloomy nineteenth-century prison welcomes the modern visitor with interesting exhibits and audio-visual displays.
On the eastern end, Patrick's Bridge links the city centre with the charming MacCurtain Street, a busy stretch of road offering everything from antiques to ice-cream. Worth noting on this street is the majestic Everyman Palace, venue for local and touring theatre productions, and the historic Metropole Hotel, head-quarters for the annual Cork Jazz Festival. Once a year the whole street travels, effortlessly, back in time for the Victorian Street Fair.
South of the City
The Gothic grandeur of St Finbarr's Cathedral dominates the horizon of Cork's "South Side". This nineteenth-century, Anglican cathedral is as impressive on the inside as the gargoyle clustered exterior. Legend has it that the golden angel, perched on the cathedral's eastern extreme, will blow her horn to announce the ending of the world. In 1999, her two horns were stolen during construction work; they were returned some days later, to the great relief of locals. Nearby, one finds the ruins of the seventeenth-century Elizabeth Fort, a sombre reminder of the Cromwell era, and the rambling character of Barrack St, as featured in the film Angela's Ashes. The street also offers a number drinking and live-music venues, popular with students of the nearby University College Cork (UCC). The stately college quadrangle is itself worth a visit, while the fascinating collection of Ogham stones (on public display), and the stained-glass windows of the Honan Chapel, make a visit to the campus an enlightening experience.
The eastern end of the South Side is dominated by the City Hall, from the steps of which President John F Kennedy gave a public address in 1963. Perhaps he glanced longingly at the Lobby Bar, just across the road, and famous for nurturing and presenting the best of Irish traditional music. To the other side of the City Hall is the bustling docks area, while further out of town parks and walkways follow the river as far as the quaint and curious Blackrock Castle. Currachs (Irish traditional rowing boats), school-boy eights, and mammoth container ships share this stretch of the Lee, reflecting the tradition and the industry that so define the city.
Beyond the City
Cork also makes an ideal base from which to explore the surrounding area. Busses leave frequently to the famous Blarney Castle. Traditionally, a kissing of the Blarney Stone invests the visitor with the "gift of the gab", though the more reticent guest might prefer a silent stroll in the beautiful surrounding gardens. Cobh (pronounced Cove), is connected by an hourly train to Cork. The Cobh Heritage Centre documents the town's place in history as the departure point for generations of emigrant, commercial and leisure vessels, as well as the last port visited by the ill-fated Titanic. Picturesque, and boasting some of Ireland's finest restaurants, Kinsale is only a short bus-ride from Cork, as is the Jameson Heritage Centre Whiskey Distillery in Midleton. Further afield, the beauties of West County Cork lay just waiting to be discovered.
However long one choses to stay, Cork city is able to repay the visitor's investment with interest. It is easily accessible with airport, rail, and bus stations, and offers a fine, as well as reasonable range of hotels, restaurants, pubs and clubs. For history, charm, and culture, 'the real capital' is a perfect, compact option.