Travel: Taking Time to Look — uncovering the hidden gems in Ireland’s Cork City

A map showing the city of Cork.

A recent trip to visit my son’s family in Cork City, Ireland resulted in my musing about the unwelcome status of being a “second city.” During the early part of our own last century,  Chicago grudgingly accepted this moniker. However, that type of diminishment becomes more heightened when you apply it to a smaller nation like the Republic of Ireland (thus excluding Belfast) or just a single U.S. state. 

Having been raised in the Big Apple, I was well aware that though my borough Brooklyn had a much larger population than Manhattan, it was still a secondary borough (Queens and the Bronx might have different opinions). At other times in my life, I have learned that people in Oakland must be content that they need only go across a bridge to get to “The City,” and finally — soon after arriving to Seattle in 1979 — I began to hear of the “Aroma in Tacoma.”

Ironically, with the emergence of newer generations, Tacoma, Oakland and Brooklyn have become quite trendy. Fortunately, small towns — especially charming ones like the one we have chosen for our final move (that is, Edmonds, to which I like to append “By the Sea”), don’t seem to fall prey to such rankings.   But perhaps, Centralia vies with Chehalis, or Winthrop with Twisp — only their residents know if that is the case. Edmonds vs. Mukilteo? Is that a thing? The possibile comparirons are endless.

Rainbow over the bridge at the River Lee at the edge of Cork City. (Photo by Conor O’Keeffe)

In any case, Cork City — with around a quarter-million population — will clearly forever be the second city to the five-times-larger capital, Dublin. Edmonds’ own hometown travel maestro, Rick Steves, doesn’t even include Cork City on his Ireland tours  He does include the nearby much-smaller town of Kinsale, and also down the road a ways, he touts the Dingle peninsula as the prettiestpart of Ireland.

I will admit, as I wrote about here in the fall of 2020, that our unexpected one- month isolation visit to the Dingle peninsula during COVID’s initial year, didn’t cause us regret about not being in Cork City. I am well aware from our many visits to Ireland that there are many, many pretty or historic sites (including a couple of O’Keeffe clan castles) throughout Ireland. However, with the later series of  such visits being mostly limited to Cork City during these past 13 years that my son has lived there, I’ve had ample time to take to look beyond the snapshots and other impressions of that second city. 

I’ve certainly come to appreciate the solidarity of its Rebel tradition. Also, I”ve seen — akin to what realtors call “flow” within the rooms of a house — how its residents flow throughout all parts of Cork City to shop, eat and recreate, including the central Grand Parade section. Unlike the big metropolis of Dublin — basically a British Georgian clone — Cork grew from direct Irish culture grafted  onto a Viking settlement, the reason Cork City deems itself the true cultural center of Ireland.

River Lee bridge
A mural on the Grand Parade shopping street.
A view of the grounds of Nano Nagle Place convent.
A passionflower on the convent grounds.
An cygnet among h many waterfowl at The Lough.
Kayakers on the River Lee.

Cork City arose in an idyllic valley of the Lee River, with the river splitting to surround the original Viking settlement at around 915 AD. Much of its medieval  history has been overridden by more than a millennium of urban growth and development, to be easily masked from attention. In my son’s own neighborhood, there is a 400-year-old star fort wedged amidst housing. The central branches of the Lee are not particularly picturesque, but if you go west (upriver) you get to many striking viewpoints. Go east toward the mouth, and you might not realize from any single point of land that these many confusing coves and islands make up the second-largest harbor area in the world (after Sydney, Australia).

The world’s oldest yacht club lies on one cove, and ancient guardian forts on others. There is definitely a “to be seen” list of recommended sites within the city, one that one can checked off on a visit. This includes the old gaol, several churches, and even a butter museum, which commemorates when Cork City was the center of that product’s world. However, the singular place I would make a “must see” is  the centrally located English Market, which — while it welcomes tourists — is a real locus for locals to pick up specialty foods from family-owned purveyors. It is to Seattle’s Pike Place Market as original Bavaria is to Leavenworth.

O’Connell’s fishmonger at the English Market.
The entry bridge at University College Cork.
University College Cork’s Honan Chapel
Another view of the River Lee.
A monument to those lost in water tragedies.

But mostly, one should forget the tourist brochure list. As Rick Steves recommends, “wander around and get lost” on the central island core, out along the River Lee, through the University College Cork’s charming campus, go in any direction and through any neighborhood. If according to my namesake (but admittedly not related) artist Georgia O’Keeffe, you just “take time to look” and if you move away from the forward focus toward designated points of interest,  you’ll be rewarded with seeing — often along the sides of your path memorable images — whether you chose to capture them on camera or not.

Some are as large as a pocket river view, or a large mural; some as small as a baby swan, or a striking passionflower in a quiet convent garden. In between lie myriad human-scale pieces that the locals have put in place for their own memories or pleasure. Even as a “blow-in” visitor (see more on that term in the Irish Times story here), you will be able to narrow the reputation gap of a second city. Please try this approach in Cork City if you can, but it will work anywhere with secondary visiting status.

— Story and photos (except as noted) by Kevin O’Keeffe  

P.S. While Corconians are friendly and helpful. one once responded to my wife’s mention that we hold Irish citizenship via my grandfather having born there at the time of the Great Famine in 1847, “Well, but that doesn’t make you a local!”  Unfortunately, you can’t type in accents.

Author Kevin O’Keeffe lives in Edmonds

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