Louise O'Neill becomes a tourist for a day...in her own town

Most people can reel off the top tourist spots in their home place, but never visit them. So the Clarion Hotel’s writer-in-residence, Louise O’Neill, went on a day-long trip around Cork City

Louise O'Neill becomes a tourist for a day...in her own town

One doesn’t need to be a science buff to enjoy it [Blackrock Castle Observatory], but it was perhaps my favourite attraction of the day

I remember my first day in Dublin. I was a student of English and history at Trinity College Dublin. I got off the bus at Stephen’s Green and it took me two hours to find the Trinity campus. I feigned a French accent, pretended to be a tourist, and asked for directions. (Bonjour Madame. Ou est le university?).

I lived for five years in Dublin, and became familiar with the city. Sadly, the same cannot be said about another city, Cork, which is a little closer to home (I’m from Clonakilty).

“So, Dad,” I asked my long-suffering father, when the Irish Examiner asked me to spend a day as a tourist in Cork City, “You know the Clarion Hotel, right? How exactly do you get there from Clonakilty?”

From his weary sigh, I surmised this was a stupid question, but I set out for the ‘bright lights’, an itinerary cobbled together from friends’ suggestions grasped firmly in my hands.

I began my morning in the famous English Market, a beautiful building of soaring ceilings and arched passageways. Described by the chef, Rick Stein, as the best covered market in England and Ireland, it was bustling with people on this Saturday morning, tattooed hipsters with well-tended beards queuing patiently behind elderly women to chat with one of the indefatigable butchers about which cut of meat would suit their needs best.

The banter between the locals and the traders, many of whom are the second or third generation of their family to work in the market, is endlessly entertaining, and the large wheels of deliciously-pungent-smelling cheeses, dried herbs heaped in bowls with small silver ladles adjacent, decadent cakes, percolating coffee, and freshly baked breads make for an overwhelming sensory experience.

I was reluctant to leave, but I had to stick to my itinerary. Taking the winding road up to St. Anne’s Church, in the historic Shandon district (after being lured into Shandon Sweets for a pit stop), I came upon the ‘Four Faced Liar’, as the Shandon Bell’s Tower is known because each of the four clocks shows a slightly different, and erroneous, time. The north- and east-facing aspects of the tower are made from red sandstone, the south and west from white limestone, which is reputed to have inspired the sporting colours of Cork.

Topped by a weather vane shaped like a fish, and known locally as ‘de goldie fish’, the building is an imposing sight. To get up to the tower, I climbed the narrow, twisting steps hewn out of rock and built into the seven-feet thick walls, stopping to ring the Shandon bells — apologies to any neighbouring houses that were subjected to my dismal attempts to play George Harrison’s ‘Here Comes The Sun’ — before I walked out on the Shandon Bell’s balcony. This was truly spectacular, a perfect, 360° view of Cork City.

My feet were beginning to tire, so I hailed a cab to bring me to the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, in University College Cork. My driver was ‘pure Cork, boy’, a growly-voiced man sporting a fetching yellow-and-green loom band bracelet, who regaled me with stories of his supposedly platonic relationship with a woman he had recently visited in West Cork. He described it as ‘just friendship, like,’ and, once he had discovered my mission for the day, offered me nuggets of useful information about the history of UCC.

I walked through the university campus, admiring the ivy-covered buildings and the rusting autumn leaves falling, wondering why I had been in such a rush to reject UCC when filling out my CAO form.

Finally, I reached the gallery, a modern, curved building made from panes of wood and matt-green glass, and I was given a tour of the current exhibition, a fascinating exploration of animal habitats in modern art.

After a quick stroll through Fitzgerald Park, to admire the futuristic Sky Garden, I was on my way to Blackrock Castle Observatory. I had been to the Castle before, to eat at the excellent Castle Cafe, but I had assumed the observatory was only for children. I was wrong.

The exhibition is suitable for all ages, nor do you need to be a science aficionado to enjoy it, and, much to my surprise, it was perhaps my favourite attraction of the day. I could have easily spent another couple of hours at the ‘Cosmos at the Castle’, the interactive, self-guided exhibition that looks at recent discoveries of extreme life-forms on Earth and the implications this may have for life in outer space.

The next stop was Cork City Gaol.

It’s testament to its charm that it held my flagging attention. Besides the English Market this was the only place that I had previously visited, although I can’t remember much from my sixth-class school tour, apart from the totally hot boy with, oh my God, the best curtained hair ever, from another school. (Hey, it was the 1990s.)

I was given an audio tour, and strolled through the building, which is so lovingly restored that it is easy to sense what the gaol must have been like in the 19th century.

I made a quick pit-stop in Arthur Mayne’s Pharmacy, on Pembroke Street, a 120-year-old chemist-turned-wine bar, for food, before going to the High-B bar on Oliver Plunkett Street.

I had been told by friends who live in the city that this was an essential feature of any tourist’s visit, and I huddled in a corner of the tiny pub, waiting to be told by the notoriously eccentric landlord that I was barred from the establishment. I’m not sure if I was relieved or disappointed when this failed to occur.

Determined to make the very best of my day in the city, I attended a reading by the short story writer, Colin Barrett, at the Triskel Arts Centre that night — another first, and somewhere I am eager to return to — before traipsing back to the Clarion, weary and battle-worn, thanking my lucky stars that the hotel is so conveniently located.

As I stood on my bedroom balcony overlooking the twinkling city lights and the surging river Lee, I thought of something the taxi driver had said to me earlier.

“Listen here,” he had coughed. “Let me tell you something about Cork, girl.

“Cork is the sort of place that you could live here forever, and you’d never get sick of the place. There’s always something new to discover in this city.”

I have to say, I think I’m starting to agree with him.

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