Suzanne Harrington returns to her hometown of Cork as a tour guide

Suzanne Harrington returns home with a boyfriend who has never visited Cork and finds there have been many changes over the years to a city which has embraced the new but hung on to the best parts of the old.

Suzanne Harrington returns to her hometown of Cork as a tour guide

My task — to show a foreigner around my home town. Except I haven’t lived in my home town since 1987, and the foreigner — my boyfriend — has never been here before.

When I do visit, it’s always to see family, who live a few miles out of town, rather than explore how the city has changed — Cork could have grown its very own Eiffel Tower and I wouldn’t have seen it.

So where do we go? Neither he nor I is particularly keen on super-touristy stuff involving leprechauns, shamrocks or kissing the Blarney Stone. But with just a few days, how do we squeeze in as much authentic Cork as we possibly can? Where do we start?

Twitter, obviously. I have soon compiled a long list from the flood of helpful suggestions, and am struck by their range and diversity.

But beyond the eternal pubs that never change, Cork sounds full of interesting new stuff. An Irish speaking coffee shop? An award winning contemporary art gallery? Crikey. What next, free Wifi in the Hi-B?

We drive down from Rosslare, marvelling at how the boreens have been transformed into EU highways. There’s even something called a toll plaza. Janey Mac.

DAY ONE

The core part of our mission is finding the right place to stay. Although usually a fan of Air B&B, the Cork Air B&B prices seem to be almost the same as hotels. And those soulless cheap chain hotels don’t appeal either — they’re great for quick stop-overs, but nothing more. No, I want somewhere with a bit history, character, comfort and a great view.

The Ambassador Hotel on Military Hill is the perfect fit. Huge warm high-ceilinged rooms that lead out to metal balconies overlooking the whole city from the vantage point of Military Hill. Below, Cork twinkles. Town is a 10-minute walk away, but up here it’s calm and peaceful.

And the place has a great story. The hotel’s gorgeous red brick building was, from 1879 to 1994, St Lukes Home, formerly known as the Protestant Incurable. It officially changed its name in 1966, because the old name was freaking people out.

My mother and her siblings grew up nearby (my parents were married in the church across the road), and so the whole family remember the Ambassador Hotel when it was still full of Incurable Protestants.

MORNING

Once installed, it is time to set forth and see what Cork actually looks like these days. Sunnier, for a start, with bluer skies. On a purely superficial level, climate change really suits Ireland. The beggars on St Patrick’s Bridge have changed too — instead of late-stage native alcoholics, they appear to be sober Romanians.

In fact, what strikes me the most walking down Patrick Street for the first time in years (apart from the addition of those unlovely street lights), is that Cork looks considerably more multi-cultural than it used to. There are a visible handful of black faces, brown faces, Asian faces. Women in salwar kameez and hijabs, and people speaking with different accents and languages.

When I lived in Cork, the only black faces you ever saw were occasional visiting basketball teams. Already, the city feels bigger for the inclusion of different cultures. As a parent of mixed race kids, this feels bloody lovely.

Within seconds of this thought, we are being mugged by a Hare Krishna in Winthrop Street. He looks authentically monkish, has a strong Eastern European accent, and an extraordinarily persuasive manner.

He convinces me to buy three spiritual books for a fiver. Or ‘donate’, as he says — we quickly scurry into the Long Valley before he has a chance to elicit any more donations. Inside, the bar remains exactly as I remember it 30 years ago, minus its late proprietors in their matching white coats, and minus the rousing march music. Everything else is as it always was. It is only morning, but the place is packed.

What soup are they serving today? “Vegetable,” says the lady, with a certain defiance. No further description. No named vegetables, nothing organic, locally sourced, hand-reared, or free-range. No truffle oil, no shavings, no swirls, no croutons. Just vegetable. It’s delicious.

AFTERNOON

Having walked around for a while, El Novio — the boyfriend, who is from Madrid, and knows about such things — concludes that there seems to be a very large church for about every 50 citizens. Even more churches than in Spain, he says.

Growing up here, the churches seemed just part of the landscape — walking around the city now, as well as the churches, we see signs of religion everywhere. Posters on lamp posts, notice boards, flyers. Cork seems still steeped in it, a very long way from secular.

We pop into St Peter & Paul’s and out of habit, we light a candle, and marvel at the permanent collection box marked ‘Peru Missions’.

Later we cross the bridge for a late lunch at the Quay Co-Op, where I attended CND meetings aged 14 and first heard words like ‘socialist’ and ‘lesbian’ and ‘yoga’. The place has expanded, and looks great. The view of the river rushing below transports me back decades, to when this seemed the only place in Munster where you could eat vegetarian or vegan, or be in a roomful of people with interesting hair.

EARLY EVENING

Time for a pint. While Novio is gagging to try real Irish Guinness, I’m in recovery and therefore don’t drink at all. So if I ask for a pint of fizzy water in the Hi B — will I earn one of those ‘I’ve Been Kicked Out of The Hi-B’ T-shirts you can buy online?

The place is heaving and it’s only 5pm. The sign on the wall urges us to talk to each other rather than to our phones. We nervously comply, though I feel compelled to check some emails just to see what will happen. Nothing — the owner has left the premises.

Novio is slightly disappointed to be neither verbally abused nor ejected, and vows to return with an iPod, iPad and iPhone, and perhaps make a few really loud calls on speakerphone.

DAY TWO

MORNING

After a relaxing breakfast in the book-filled bar at the lovely Ambassador, Novio and I set off on today’s mission — to ingest as much history and culture as we possibly can get in before collapsing with exhaustion. Rather than Shandon or the City Gaol, instead we head for the Crawford Gallery.

Downstairs art students are sketching in the sculpture gallery, and we see the Motivational Deficits exhibition and some of the older work upstairs before a delicious pit stop at the café. My theory that everything tastes better in art galleries is holding up.

Preferring more contemporary stuff, we make our way to the Glucksman Gallery at UCC. It’s like walking through the set of Harry Potter, until we see the magnificent Glucksman building hovering above us like an Alpine wooden spacecraft. Beautiful.

Not sure about some of the work showing inside, though — although I really like the Museum Of The Everyday. But it is the space itself — and the great coffee served in its café — which really delights.

Walking on through the university, we visit Brookfield House, built in the mid 1800s by a wealthy but neurotic merchant called Thomas Jennings, who was convinced that biblical floods and fires were imminent and designed his house accordingly. With row boats on the roof and steel fire doors installed more than a century before such things became the norm, the house was an extraordinary industrial interpretation of a domestic dwelling.

Today he would probably have been prescribed a course of cognitive behavioural therapy — and saved himself a fortune in imported fireproof Staffordshire brick.

AFTERNOON

The best bit so far — Fitzgerald’s Park, 2014 style. What I remember as quite a nice place by the river with a dusty but interesting museum has been transformed into a place of quiet wonder. A garden full of beautiful sculpture, from the Applewoman to the silver globes and that gorgeous pink eye-shaped thing, and a house with great exhibits — notably, the Traveller Culture one. We spend ages there, milling from room to room in silent absorption. Novio is enchanted with it all.

On the way back, we pop into St Anthony’s Stores on Liberty Street to buy a Virgin Mary statue for a kitsch-loving friend, but they are really expensive, so we get candles instead. Our Lady of Perpetual Help. You can’t go wrong. Then we pop into St Augustine’s church, but it’s too modern and boring with appallingly bad sculptures, so we leave.

The North Main Street and Coal Quay are humming and facelifted, yet still studded with old places like Dennehy’s. Except Dennehy’s isn’t open yet, which is probably a good thing, so we check out a photography exhibition in St Peter’s deconsecrated church, which has been around since 1270, and is hosting a marvellous exhibition of black and white photos of Cork from long ago.

Then we pause and reflect on Cork’s undying love of the pun — Chipsy Kings Hand Cut Chips. Fantastic. We pass mathematician George Boole’s falling down house by the Mercy Hospital and marvel at its decay. Like a David Creedon photograph.

EVENING

Our feet hurt.

DAY THREE

Today has been designated Proper Touristy Day, so after walking around watching freezing cold giraffes and tigers at Fota wishing they were in Madagascar — or anywhere other than mid-winter Ireland — we drive to Kinsale and wander around the old town.

Given the size of the place, the quality and variety of bookshops is amazing — particularly Kinsale Bookshop, which is a gem. After a satisfying book browse, I drool — not literally — on the expensive gorgeous cashmere in Granny’s Bottom Drawer gift shop, and then have some expensive gorgeous chocolates at the Chocolate Boutique. So many treasures crammed into such a small town.

Driving out to the Old Head of Kinsale, we are surprised to discover that it is not accessible. Massive metal gates block our way, and a sign saying Members Only. What? A beautiful chunk of coastline reserved just for rich golfers?

But what about every one else — the unrich walkers and nature lovers? We remember a sign we saw on a Cork lamp post the day before: “End The Rule Of The Billionaires.” The sooner the better, frankly.

We drive to Ballinspittle to see the moving statue. There’s not a twitch out of it, but the stretch of road immediately in front of the grotto is immaculately surfaced and without a single pothole, so miracles do happen. We drive back past countryside as beautiful as it has always been, for an exhausted lie down.

OUTRO

Cork has come a long way —embracing the new while hanging onto the best bits of the old. Interesting, accessible, lively.

Food-wise — always a vital aspect of any excursion for me, the city seems to do old school far better than any attempts at trendy — its soup and brown bread is the stuff of champions, but do we really need skinny fries with everything and should you ever serve ice cream on a slate? (No, apply the basic laws of physics). Cork coffee is often still awful, and overall the city is not much cop for vegans — but give it time. It’s better for vegetarians than it was in the 80s, but that wouldn’t be hard. For omnivores I’m sure it’s heaven.

As a place to explore, it is charming and stuffed full of history without being too chocolate box sickly. Novio urges all his friends to visit Cork as soon as possible. It’s amazing, he says.

My work here is done.

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