Never have I felt closer to home in a foreign land than when I traveled to Ireland’s Cork (city). The industrial heart of southern Ireland is practically a reflection of my American Rust Belt home, Cleveland. Yet when my fellow travelers, Vic and Rob, and I decided to visit Cork, we did so on a whim.
This whim was the result of a conversation on what cities we wanted to visit while in Ireland and Northern Ireland for 10 days. Dublin? Belfast? Of course, but what else? “Hear anything about Cork?” I asked my friends, while hovering over a map of Ireland. Our knowledge was limited to the attractions of County Cork — the Blarney Stone and whatnot. Cork (city) was a different story.
Like any travel junkie, I started abusing the Google Street View function to get a feel for the different, less populated cities of Ireland. Something drew me to Cork. Enough so that even when our original plan skipped over the county entirely, I continued to humbly suggest we reconsider. A few days before our trans-Atlantic flight, we amended our itinerary to include the city of Cork.
Rust Belt Ireland
We arrived in Cork city via Bus Éireann after two days in both Belfast and Dublin. Although we had experienced cloudy days throughout our travels, there was a particular gloomy vibe when driving in along the River Lee. Factories populated the shores, giving a decidedly different feel than Dublin. Had we somehow traveled back to Rust Belt America while sleeping?
Backpacks in tow, we made our way toward Brú Bar & Hostel, which we saw was voted seventh best hostel in the world by hostelworld.com. It’s no wonder, considering the hostel’s attached bar served as the perfect meeting ground for travelers and drinkers from across the world. But perhaps most memorable was our toilet that sounded like a cacophonic mix of a lawn mower and thunder when flushed. Some might find the sound echoing throughout the hallways a nuisance. I, however, thought it was an endearing aspect of our visit that provided hours of late night laughter.
After dropping off our packs in our room, we found The Shelbourne Bar, a wide-open space with an old pub feel. We fueled our bodies and began exploring Cork city by foot. This led us to Merchants Quay Shopping Centre in the heart of the city. Cobblestones painted the area, which was surrounded by shops and locals filling the pedestrian-only streets.
At night we found Old Oak, which turned out to be a monument to FC Barcelona football. Luckily, the team had a match that night against UEFA rival Chelsea, allowing us to see the pub in all of its glory as fans from both sides turned what was a quiet drink in the late afternoon into a rowdy night.
Following the game, we went over to Bodega where we heard some amateur jazz acts playing. Inside the nearly pitch black club were a handful of performers on stage in front of a young, energetic crowd relaxing with a glass of wine. The group onstage was clearly riding out a freeform performance until an eager volunteer took to the stage. Lanky with a slight slouch and scraggly hair, the singer seemed contrary to every image I ever had of a jazz singer. But, in a trite phrase, he brought it.
Snapping his fingers with the beat, he sang with the passion of a longtime professional trying to move his listeners. Performing with what I assume was a group of strangers, the moment highlighted the wonder of jazz. Strangers can come together to make something instantaneously beautiful. As the night grew late, we returned across the river to our hostel for a couple of drinks before calling it a night.
The next morning was much slower than any other since arriving in Ireland. Because we had decided to stay one full day in Cork, there was no rush to fill our packs and catch a bus to the next town. Instead, we rolled out of our beds, giggled once more at the roaring sound of our beast of a toilet, and headed out into the city.
We began at a nearby coffee shop for a much-needed caffeinated boost before embarking on our nonexistent agenda. Across the street I noticed the word “free” on a sign, which captured my frugal-minded interest.
It was for the Crawford Art Gallery, and inside was an impressive array of contemporary and traditional pieces of art, including sculptures and paintings. It was a relaxing beginning to the day in strong contrast to the hurried pace of our earlier days in Belfast and Dublin.
Nearby we found the English Market, a covered food market that has been serving the city since 1788. Filled with fresh fruits, vegetables and locally raised meat, the market is a tapestry of delicious, local food. And despite several fires throughout its history, the market has been able to maintain its awe-inspiring mid-19th Century architecture.
Kissing the Blarney Stone
Ever thought about lying down on your back, leaning your head backwards over the edge of a castle tower, and puckering up to a moist piece of stone? If so, that’s exactly what you’ll get to do when you go to kiss the Blarney Stone.
The Blarney Stone, officially known as the Stone of Eloquence, is a stone laid in the parapets atop Blarney Castle, a medieval fort near the city of Cork. The stone has many legends; some say that it is the other half of the Stone of Scone, a famous stone in Britain which was used for centuries as the crowning stone of British monarchs. Others say it is the Lia Fáil, a stone upon which Irish kings were crowned.
Regardless of the stone’s history, a visit to Blarney Castle is remiss without a quick smooch with this ancient rock. Today one will find modern safety implements to prevent you from falling off the tower, but previously to kiss the blarney stone required you to literally dangle oneself from the side of the tower head-first. Now, an attendant will hold your legs as you grab a hold of the railings and slide down to the rock face. A photo at this magical moment is all but required to remember such an inelegant pose. On the bright side, it is said that those who complete this activity are granted the gift of eloquence, e.g. “the gift of gab”.
The grounds surrounding the castle are covered by well manicured paths and gardens. It is also possible to tour the neighboring Blarney House, a Scottish baronial mansion. And, don’t miss the Blarney Woolen Mills, opened in 1824 in Blarney Village, now one of Ireland’s largest craft shops.
The rest of our day was spent building an appetite, traversing the city centre and its surrounding area by foot on what turned out to be a comfortably brisk afternoon. We walked deep into the surrounding neighborhoods, passing by historic St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral, where the hustle and bustle of the city centre disappeared. Quite often we found ourselves alone on the block. Still, Cork gave a much more calming feeling than Dublin, typical of a smaller yet still lively city.
Tiny gray homes were stacked side-by-side along narrow streets. It was a decidedly different feel than the big-box suburban community I’m accustomed to seeing in the United States. Here, everyone seemed fine without a lawn or 100-feet of space between homes. This gave a feeling of community I didn’t quite sense in Dublin, if only because Dublin’s size and status as a city of the world seem to make it impossible to truly know your neighbors. Ultimately, it was difficult not to imagine a tranquil life living in a small condo, listening to the relaxing hum of the nearby river.
With our appetite ready to be quenched, we heeded our hostel host’s suggestion to treat ourselves to a three-course meal at Greenes Restaurant, a French-inspired establishment featuring the delicacies of Chef Frederic Desormeaux from Paris. For only €35, the meal seemed like a steal compared to the horror stories I had heard from others who attempted to eat a satisfying meal in one of Europe’s major cities. I only hope I didn’t stick out too much in such a high-end establishment, the type where the host usually raises a curious eyebrow at anyone below the status of politician or celebrity. Tired, we returned to our hostel for a drink. Unexpectedly (or expected in hindsight), one drink turned into… God only knows.
We quickly made nice with the bartender who had also checked us in the day before. She poured us pint after pint of Leffe Blonde, a Belgian Pale Ale that was quickly becoming a favorite of mine. As we continued to chat with our gracious host and accumulate empty pint glasses, Rob found himself behind the bar as an iPod DJ. Thirty four hundred miles away from home, we had seemingly found our Cheers.
An Irish Reflection
We awoke the following morning, quickly packed our bags, flushed the NASCAR toilet a few more times, and checked out of our Cork City home.
In 24(ish) hours, I had discovered an Irish reflection of my Rust Belt home. The pride residents of Cork hold for their city is reminiscent of the pride I see back home in the Rust Belt from Cleveland to Detroit. Like my home, the industrialization of the city gives it character and appears to have created a tight-knit community of people who will insist they don’t see why people would visit Dublin over Cork.
Written by and photos by guest contributor Joe Baur for EuropeUpClose.com.
Joe Baur is a freelance writer, filmmaker and satirist with a diverse array of interests including travel, adventure, craft beer, health, urban issues, culture and politics. He ranks his allegiances in the order of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and the Rust Belt; and enjoys a fried egg on a variety of meats. Joe has a B.A. in Mass Communication with a focus on production from Miami University. Follow him at joebaur.com and on Twitter @MildlyRelevant.
Kissing the Blarney Stone was written By Andy Hayes for EuropeUpClose.com