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Cork, Ireland - It's Full of Character (and we didn't even kiss the Blarney Stone)

Are we the only people who go to Cork, Ireland, and don't kiss the Blarney Stone? After four days in Ireland's capital, Dublin, however, we simply wanted to discover the character of this small southern city. It was a pleasant, 2 hour and 40 minutes ride by Irish Rail, again rolling through green countryside. (Ireland is really as green as they say.)

Cork is the second largest city in the Republic of Ireland with about 224,000 people in the main city (remember that although Belfast is larger, it is in Northern Ireland) . It sits on the south east coast; and central Cork is an interesting shape as it is a triangular island formed between two channels of the River Lee which flow to Cork Harbour and, ultimately, the Celtic Sea, as you can see from this map courtesy of Cork City.

Cork is old, dating back to the Vikings before becoming a town in 1185. It was once a medieval walled city. It has a history worth reading to find out why it is nicknamed 'the rebel county'. Cork apparently came by this nickname honestly with its history of rebellion against authority.

And maybe it is that history of rebellion that made Cork comfortable in its own skin. Although Cork sometimes feels like Amsterdam with its rivers and canals, or sometimes feels like Cambridge or Oxford with it's grand university, or sometimes feels like a great European city with it's towering cathedrals, coffeehouses, and downtown walking streets, make no mistake - when you enter one of the countless Irish pubs pulling beer and playing lilting Irish music or simply talk to the locals, you know you are in Ireland. And Cork feels like an Irish city without even trying too hard, as my partner says. It’s a comfortable city that is comfortable in itself.

We arrived at the Cork Kent Station and walked about 20 minutes through the downtown to our stand-alone hotel at the west end of downtown, the Lancaster Lodge, on Lancaster Quay on the River Lee. It is a very well-managed smaller hotel within perfect walking distance to the south side of the waterways, east to the downtown, west to the nearby University College Cork, and even to the north side of the waterways.

Upon arrival at our hotel, our first order of business was to wash the past week’s worth of dirty laundry. For the first time in all of our travels, we dropped off our laundry at a full-service laundry who washed, dried,and folded for about the price of a self-service laundromat. It might have even cost a bit less. We picked up our laundry the next day, all fresh and ready for our final week of travelling. This might be our new strategy in future trips.

The City of Cork has devised four walking routes that, if followed, will show you the main city sights. These are available on line from the City of Cork at "Cork City Walks". The walks are all quite short and give you a real sense of this city full of character.

The South Parish Walk covers the southern edge of downtown. This is one of the oldest inhabited areas of the city, full of history and heritage. Here we saw three of Cork’s probably most-notable features:

St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral sits just south west of city centre, only blocks from our hotel. There were several cathedrals on this site, dating to 606 AD, before St. Fin Barre’s was constructed in the early 19th century. This is an immense cathedral. We were happy to pay the small entrance fee to admire the stained glass windows, marble walls, brass works, and mosaics.

Shortly up the street, so to speak, is the Elizabeth Fort, a star-shaped fortress built over 400 years ago. It is free to enter, and a walk along the top of the ramparts gives a great view of the city below in all directions. Interestingly, Elizabeth Fort has served many purposes since it was a fort - a military barracks, a convict prison for the transport of female prisoners, a food depot during the big famine, and a police station. The history is well-documented in the small museum. This is a great, free place to explore in Cork.

(Can you see the heads on spikes? That was apparently a daily warning in medieval times for people to keep the peace . . . )

Still further up the street and around the corner sits the Nano Nagle Place, almost a secret oasis in the city of Cork. Nano Nagle was a woman in the 1700’s who set up a school and a convent and gave refuge to less-privileged and poverty-stricken persons while some of Cork’s citizens languished in wealth. She would visit the poor by night carrying a lantern and became known as "The Lady With The Lantern". Nano Nagle founded the Presentation Sisters (you will see all types of schools named after this religious Order in Ireland). The convent has been refurbished and is now a museum, book shop, and a place for educational programs. There is a rather hidden church, cemetery, walled garden and green area, and deli cafe that looked inviting sitting amidst the grasses, flowers, shrubs, and statues. It is most worth a visit.

Downtown Cork, itself, is small and navigable by pedestrian-only walking streets and lanes which give it a sociable atmosphere. There are some large ‘chain’ shops and a shopping mall but also many small independent shops with colourful fronts. We joked that you could just alternate between coffee shops and pubs - they are that frequent. The main downtown streets are St. Patrick's, Grand Parade, Oliver Plunkett, and Washington. You can’t get lost. A must see is English Market, a covered food market since 1788 and one of the oldest city markets in the world. The market prides itself on fresh food and produce. On Saturday morning, we stopped at a small farmer's market in downtown with fresh products. (The dark chocolate, peppermint, pistachio, raisin, cookie bark was delicious later in the day.) You could visit the Crawford Art Gallery or the Opera House or simply discover the hidden nooks.

With two branches of a river, Cork has a lot of bridges, 29 to be exact. The River Lee Bridges walk takes you along both channels of the River Lee where, in the downtown, you stroll by small businesses and hotels and cafes with outdoor seating reminiscent of Amsterdam before the downtown thins out heading west until the walk turns to cover the other side of the river back into downtown. If you walk far enough, you will discover all 29 bridges. This is on my 'next time' list. Again,, 'Bridges of Cork - Heritage Treasure Hunt Trail' is a great resource listing all 29 bridges and a map.

One of the downtown sights you pass on the river walk is the Holy Trinity Church with its unique, airy spires and with an inside that is not as ornate as some cathedrals but still beautiful. It is listed in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage. The spires are described as "lacey".

Here are some of the 29 bridges in Cork . . .

But the most famous Cork bridge might be the Shakey Bridge (officially Daly's Bridge) dating to 1927. It is Cork's only suspension bridge and was known to be a little, well, shakey. When it was determined as being "one shake away" from collapse, the City chose to do a complete refurbishing as a loss of this bridge would have been a huge deficit to the local and tourist communities. I can just imagine that old Shakey Bridge has seen a lot - pedestrians, tourists, children jumping up and down, students crossing from nearby schools, families going to the Fitzgerald's Park, and the odd love affair (or two)., History Trail, Daly's Bridge AKA Shakey Bridge is a great article about the history of this iconic bridge.

Another short city walk tells the story of Cork’s historic centre, the Shandon Mile Walk through Shandon Historic Quarter just north of the river. This area was the trading centre of Cork in the 17th and 18th centuries. The streets are narrow, the houses are small and traditional, and the area is watched over by two significant churches.

St. Anne's Anglican Episcopal Church in Shandan dates to 1722 and is one of the oldest churches in Cork still in use. It is described as a much-loved icon, popular for its clock tower known as the 'four faced liar' with the "Goldie Fish" on the top. This is the home of the Shandan Bells and, for a small price, you can climb the tower to ring the bells. We didn't ring the bells but did enjoy the ongoing melody as we strolled the neighbourhood.

Just up the hill is the other major church in Shandon, the Catholic Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Anne (North Cathedral). It also dates to the 1700's, a little newer than St. Anne's Church. I wonder if the two were in competition years ago? It is now a prestigious church, being the mother seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cork and Ross.

When you travel through Ireland, you see a lot of cows. Cork was an important producer of butter from the late 1700's to the early 1900's and had a butter market or exchange. Much of the product went to Spain, West Indies, and Holland. In the Shandan area, you can tour the butter museum and see the old butter exchange building, part of which has been renovated and is now a centre for Cork Dance.

Another great way to see the city is to follow the Cork City Street Art walk. I do wish we had walked this route to discover the"electric-box art" which looks interesting, funky, and maybe a little thought-provoking. We did follow the Ardu Street Art Map (we picked up a hard copy at the Information Centre) and hunted for the 11 murals that make up the walk. ‘Ardu’ means ‘rise’. It was an art project from 2020 during COVID lockdowns and was meant to bring hope and colour to the city. The theme of the murals is the 1920 burning of Cork, a time when the citizens had to show hope and resiliency. They surpassed hard times before and would do so again. Along the mural route, there is other street art worth checking out. Here is a selection.

Remember when we missed out on real Irish pub music in Belfast and Dublin? In

Cork, we chose one of the most uniquely Irish pubs and music experiences possible, the

Sin e` pub. This is known as the home of traditional nightly music, or simply 'trad' as they say. Nightly music starts at 6:30, but the place was already full by then. A rather intoxicated local gave us his table by the window, and we listened for one drink to a quartet playing traditional Irish tunes. Irish traditional music has an interesting history, woven into their culture. Apparently, many superstars show up randomly at the Sin e` to sing or listen to music, but we did not see any.

Just to the west of downtown is the highly ranked University College Cork, founded in 1845. A walk through the grounds might remind you of Cambridge or Oxford - or maybe even Hogwarts. It is a beautiful campus of stately and modern buildings, including the Glucksman Gallery for contemporary art, pictured below on the right. It won European Art Museum of the year in 2022 but, with our lack of art knowledge, we found the displays required much interpretation. It seemed to be a privilege to attend University College Cork.

We ended our visit to Cork with a stroll through the beautiful and peaceful Fitzgerald's Park, adjacent to the university on the west side of town. The park dates to 1901 and is on the banks of the River Lee. It contains a bandstand, the Cork Public Museum, a lake, playing fields, playground, tree-lined trails, flower beds, sculptures, a cafe, and the popular Shakey Bridge. Or you could walk a little further and tour the Cork City Gaol.

But back to the Blarney Stone. Well, none of the four of us had much inclination to attend the Blarney Castle or kiss the stone. Kissing the stone apparently gives the kisser the 'gift of the gab' or eloquence in speech. (Maybe I should have done it.) The castle is just eight kilometres north of downtown Cork, and there are several ways to get there.

There are many possible day trips from Cork, but the most popular are probably the coastal towns of Cobh or Kinsale. Being a little road weary, we chose to visit just one of these towns, but they are both considered beautiful and worthy of a day visit. The bus to Kinsale stopped just down from our hotel, and the ride took about 40 minutes.

Kinsale is a pretty, picture book little seaside town that is known for being the "gourmet capital" of Ireland. There is an information booth beside the bus stop, and we picked up a map with several walking tours listed. We chose to do a brief walk of the central town, around the dock and down the main streets. It is picturesque, with pretty little shops on narrow streets and an abundance of cafes. Lunch was at the Cozy Cafe where we had delicious soup and bread. St. Multose Church is an ancient church dating to 1190 with an ancient graveyard surrounding it. Contrasting the old church is the town’s new library across the street which is styled on the modern libraries of today - places to study, read, meet up, relax, engage in hobbies, etc. If you want a longer hike, those are available around the harbour - there are more historic sites to discover. It is a most enjoyable day trip.

One final note, the best risotto I have ever had was from Quinlan's in Cork.

So, that was how we spent our three and a half days in Cork, Ireland. Next time, I'd like to stay longer as the joy of this city was not so much big sights as discovering the many different vibes and character. Cork knows just who it is and isn’t trying to be more than that.

And off we go to Killarney, the final stop on our Irish adventure. I wonder what we will experience there?

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Apr 29
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Wow and wow both of our families are from Cork

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