August 9 – 17, 2016
I’m curled up on a couch in the sitting room, laptop nestled on my knees. Zan is curled up at the other end of the sofa
And Ussi is out enjoying the back garden.
I’ve been working: catching up on emails, professional and personal, and writing a blog post about my trip to Ballykissangel. Just now, though, I’ve pushed my laptop aside and am staring out the front window.
I’ve been doing that a lot arriving at this house-sit in Cork.
For the first few days I hardly leave the house. I’m content to sit, and work, and recreate, feeling happier and more at home than I’ve felt since leaving Portland. It’s something about the spaciousness of the townhouse (two floors, three bedrooms, a proper sitting room, a lovely kitchen) and the privacy of having this space all to myself. There’s a feeling of light and space and unclutteredness that I lean into like a sunflower turns towards the sun.
When I do finally venture out, I don’t go far. The Cork Lough Bird Sanctuary is just around the corner, and I walk here nearly every night. There are several swans in the lough
including a black swan
and a family of goslings.
The first night I go out there’s a traditional Irish band gathered at one end of the lough.
It’s a local group who teaches traditional Irish dances to anyone and everyone each Wednesday night.
I watch for quite a while as kids and adults of all ages join each other in the dance square. The kids are definitely the most photogenic.
There are several spectacular sunsets over the lough
On Saturday I decide to explore the heart of downtown Cork. I pass this interesting sign just as I’m leaving home.
And, further on, I pass the gates to University College Cork.
I like the look of the University – it feels stately and inviting. It reminds me of Beloit College, my alma mater.
The noon bells are ringing as I arrive outside St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral.
I particularly like the statues guarding the doors
and the doors themselves, with their fancy ironwork and gold tile work in the sculptures above.
There’s a service finishing in one of the side chapels, and I’m asked to refrain from taking pictures until the service is over. There’s plenty to look at, and the quiet murmur of the priest’s voice adds to the ambiance.
As with so many of Ireland’s towns, the Viking city of Cork grew up around the Celtic monastery founded here on this site in the 7th century. Tradition says St. Fin Barre, Cork’s patron saint, founded the monastery and was regarded as the first bishop of Cork.
In 1864, the small cathedral on this site was demolished to make way for a magnificent new one. The new cathedral was consecrated in 1870, but as is often the case with churches, work went on for many years afterwards.
Cathedrals were built to impress, and St. Fin Barre’s is no exception. As I walk up the central nave, it’s hard to imagine building something so tall, and so vast.
There’s the required Bishop’s throne
And a magnificent half-dome above the chancel and high altar.
Given the magnificence of the Bishop’s throne and the cathedral itself, the high altar is surprisingly simple.
My favorite part of visiting cathedrals and churches is to ferret out any oddities, and St. Fin Barre’s has a couple of really good ones.
There’s the memorial plaque dedicated to the Honourable Elizabeth Aldworth, the only woman ever to be initiated into the Freemasons of Ireland.
Next to the Dean’s Chapel is a 24 pound cannon ball. Suspended from a chain in the wall, the cannon ball was found in the steeple of the old cathedral when it was demolished in 1864. The cannon ball was fired from nearby Elizabeth Fort during the siege of Cork in 1690.
As quirky as the cannon ball and freemason plaque are, they’re nothing compared to the organ.
Built into the north transept, the organ is made up of just over 3,000 pipes, some of which date back to the 1870s.
It is the second largest church organ in Ireland, and the largest pit organ. What an incredible experience it must be to hear it during a service!
Unfortunately there are no services just now, so I leave the cathedral behind and head to nearby Elizabeth Fort. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but entry is free and I can’t seem to get enough of exploring castles and forts. Ireland doesn’t have many of either, so I’m especially intrigued by Elizabeth Fort.
It doesn’t take long to explore the inside. Built in 1626 and named in honor of Queen Elizabeth I, the fort hasn’t changed much in the last 400 years. It’s built in the shape of a star, with a parade ground in the middle and various buildings and redoubts along the edges.
As I wander along the fort’s walls, I get the sense that the fort is a new arrival on the tourist scene. When I join the free tour, that guess is confirmed. The fort was in use by the Gardaí (the police), the Cork City Council, and the Office of Public Works up until 2014.
With only a couple of years to develop the site, it’s actually coming along quite well. There are several information signs and even a couple of statues about to bring the place to life.
I particularly like the plaque that describes the origins of the phrase “Brass Monkey.”
If you do find yourself in Cork, I highly recommend the guided tour of the fort. My guide did an excellent job of describing the history of the fort (fort, prison, barracks, police HQ).
And more important, to me at least, she did a fantastic job of describing the history of Cork itself. The old city of Cork grew up on an island in the River Lee, which explains why the old town is so compact. Over the years the canals were filled in with dirt and rocks and became roads.
The castle was built on the south side of the Lee valley, up on a hill to overlook the Old Town and the north bank of the river beyond. Cork was a Jacobite stronghold during the Williamite War, which is why it was under siege for four days in 1690.
The view of from the south-facing rampart over the River Lee, Old Town, and the north bank is gorgeous. Our guide spends several minutes pointing out the fact that the parking lot below and to our left is built over a graveyard, and the apartment building next door on the site of medieval hospital.
After I leave the fort, I cross over the River Lee
and am engulfed in the old town. There’s an impressive memorial on the plaza at the end of the Grand Parade.
Each side seems to commemorate a different event, including lives lost in the two World Wars.
These engravings explain the origins of the memorial:
But it is this open book, built into the steps of the monument, which is most striking.
It’s the centenary of the 1916 movement for Irish Independence, a fact that’s hard to miss when every town, village, and city has a sign commemorating the fact.
Next to the memorial is the public library, and on its walls in 3-story tall type, the Cork City Council has recreated The Provisional Government of the Irish Republic to the People of Ireland.
It’s a short but fascinating read.
I wander the Old Town for a time, taking in the many bars and shops that line streets where boats used to tie right up to the houses. There’s an English market, which is crawling with people on a Saturday, and several natural food stores and hippy-ish sounding restaurants.
I pass this sign on the gates leading to a park
And it makes me smile. It’s exactly the kind of thing I’d expect to see in Portland.
The famous Triskel / Christchurch Arts Center and all-around performing arts venue is not open today, but nearby St. Augustine’s is.
As I reach the north arm of the River Lee, I pass several farmer’s markets just wrapping up, and the Vibes and Scribes bookshop I’ve heard so much about from my hosts.
There’s not much to see on the north side of the Cork river valley, unless you’re into the Butter Exchange (it was the world’s largest butter market for most of the 19th century).
It’s just next door to The Firkin Crane, which sounds like it ought to be a pub or an industrial building. It’s actually a dance and cultural center. In former days it was used by the Butter Exchange as a place to repair the butter barrels, called firkins.
Image from www.firkincrane.ie
This too makes me smile; it’s exactly like something you’d expect to see in an arts and culture place like Cork – or Portland.
Close to both The Firkin Crane and the Butter Exchange is St. Anne’s Church. St. Anne’s claim to fame is that for a donation of 5 Euros, you can climb the bell tower and have a go at ringing the bells.
I’m considering climbing the tower, but I also want to catch a bus out to Blarney Castle, and the famous Blarney Stone. With a finite number of hours left in my afternoon, and a finite amount of cash in my pocket, I turn away from St. Anne’s and walk a block to the nearest bus stop.
As I wait for my bus, I think about everything I’ve seen and heard and absorbed about Cork. Dublin feels very much like a modern, industrial-driven capital, with its Grand Docks and wide, fast-flowing river emptying directly into the Irish Sea.
Cork, on the other hand, is much more laid back. It’s often called Ireland’s “second city,” but if I had to choose one to live in, it would be Cork in a heartbeat. Cork has something of a reputation for being a rebel city, and I can feel it as I walk through the streets. It’s quirky and different, with a small town feel even though 125,000 people call Cork home.
There’s a feeling of culture and arts and natural foods and love of the outdoors here that feels very much like Portland – and very much like home. There’s even a women’s barbershop chorus in town (on break just now for the summer holidays).
Not for the first time, I’m really grateful that scheduling conflicts with my townhouse in Belturbet turned my attention to exploring the south of Ireland. Even though I’ve only had a week to dip my toe into Cork, it’s definitely a place I want to come back to. Just as soon as a long-term house-sit presents itself. ; )
Up next: Kissing the Blarney Stone!