Welcome to the “People’s Republic of Cork” and to the island’s largest county. Sprawling all over the south-west, this is the place that gave us revolutionary political leader and Clonakilty man Michael Collins, and Republic of Ireland soccer legend Roy Keane. This is the county that takes in everything from Cork city to some of the island’s most fertile farmland, its wildest peninsulas and its most colourful islands.
It even has its own black stuff (or Murphy’s stout, if you prefer).
Touring Cork is a tale of one town running into the next, with each as individual in character as the next. There is the gourmet getaway of Kinsale, the market town of Skibbereen, the bustling hub of Clonakilty. And then there are long stretches of wilderness, such as the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, bothered by little but the wind whistling through the abandoned Atlantic copper mines.
At the centre of it all, of course, lies Cork city itself. “Dublin isn’t the real capital of the Republic of Ireland,” as one local quips. “We just let Dubliners think it is. We let them entertain the dignitaries. But when the dignitaries are on their days off, they come down here to be entertained properly.”
And no doubt about it, Cork city does entertain. This is where Queen Elizabeth was famously photographed laughing with a fishmonger at the English Market (the beating heart of the county’s thriving food scene). It’s a place where if you climb the 126 steps to the top of St Anne’s Cathedral, you’re welcome to play Kumbaya and The Final Countdown on the bell ropes.
Cork is home to the excellent Crawford Art Gallery, and to a sparkling annual jazz festival. It boasts the wide boulevard of Patrick Street, the nooks and crannies of a tight-knit Huguenot Quarter. It was once the home of Father Matthew, the Apostle of Temperance who strove to persuade the Irish to abstain from alcohol. And it remains the home of many excellent pubs…
West Cork is known the world-over for its wild beaches and jagged peninsulas; and for its Irish-speaking islands like Cape Clear and Sherkin. At the very tip of the Beara Peninsula, you can even take a ride in Ireland’s only cable car – to the Atlantic outpost of Dursey Island.
If you want to break new ground, however, head east. Anchored by Cobh, the port town where Titanic paid its final visit in 1912, east Cork is where you’ll find cheetahs roaming in Fota Wildlife Park, taste Irish country cooking at its finest in Ballymaloe, or turn back the clock in heritage towns such as Youghal (the spot where Moby Dick was filmed in 1956, and Sir Walter Raleigh once served as mayor.)
An all tastes affair in just the one county? No wonder the locals are proud…