A stranger at home: An American gives his verdict on Cork's tourist attractions

According to the Lonely Planet’s latest Ireland edition, “everything good about Ireland can be found in County Cork”. Truth or just wishful thinking? We sent Rob O’Donnell, an American living in deepest West Cork, out to play tourist for a day and give his verdict.

A stranger at home: An American gives his verdict on Cork's tourist attractions

According to the Lonely Planet’s latest Ireland edition, “everything good about Ireland can be found in County Cork”. Truth or just wishful thinking? We sent Rob O’Donnell, an American living in deepest West Cork, out to play tourist for a day and give his verdict.

Rob O’Donnell on the Nano Nagle Bridge. Rob, originally from Boston, is living in Union Hall, Co. Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan
Rob O’Donnell on the Nano Nagle Bridge. Rob, originally from Boston, is living in Union Hall, Co. Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan

I’m wearing seven layers of clothing, ready to be frantically ripped off and reassembled, according to the weather. It’s only half ten and I’ve already changed twice.

George and I get into the car; the sun is still shaking off the last of the morning dew, splashing onto the Cork City streets.

The previous night, we ricochetted between the many pubs and clubs around Oliver Plunkett Street: the Washington Inn, Riordan’s, an Brog, a blurry place indoors, a blurrier place either outdoors or underwater, then bed and now, somehow, morning. George, my brother-in-law, is driving us back to Union Hall, an hour away.

As we pull out onto Washington Street, I squint up at the buildings.

I’m an American, a stranger here.

Our cities, American cities, quickly overwhelm a visitor with their overreaching personalities - leaning towers, crowded footpaths and exploding sewers buckle the knees of any visitor.

Cork City is different. Go into any Cork pub, sit down at the bar, and the people there will pause their conversation.

They will wait for a minute: a chance for you to join in the conversation, or to drink quietly.

Either way, it’s up to you. Corkers, and maybe Irish people in general, smooth down life’s edges; that’s why my girlfriend’s cousin calls himself my brother-in-law.

Cork City has the same personality as its people. You get the feeling that after a night of excess (four local universities create a bustling nightlife), the city looks down the hill - from the church tower of St Anne’s, down across the sleepy houses, the drunken revelers in the Berwick Fountain, the engineers blaspheming, fixing the Shakey Bridge under cover of darkness, the musicians and the painters and the students, the late night lights of sickness, worry or love - and gives an accepting shrug. Then goes and puts the kettle on.

We travel down the main road, the N71, and quickly overtake Inishannon. The sunlight slants down between the shadow-fingered trees that bend over the road; to the right, Dromkeen Wood keeps step with the river, and you can glimpse the nature trails walking among the bluebells and moss covered trees. Stone cottages blur and then pass - it’s a picturesque village.

Bandon approaches from the left hand side. Somewhere, the town’s favorite son, Graham Norton, might be hiding. He will be down for the annual literary festival, at least. Surely he will, there’s a good lad, go on sure, Graham. The sun is shining on Bandon’s expansive farmland - the light spreads out along the green satin hills, mottled here and there with white sheep and purple brush; yellow pea flowers erupt between the golden-green carpet. When the sun is out - oh, wait it’s gone. Before any tourists saw it, thank god. If they thought that the weather here was good - or at least consistent - the place would be overrun.

At my orders (a weak, hungover cry), we slow down in Clonakilty, the next town. It’s true that “Everything good about Ireland can be found in County Cork;” it’s equally true that everything good about County Cork can be found in Clonakilty. Don’t mention the war, but the British were correct when they named Clonakilty the best town in Ireland and the UK.

There are 12 pubs in Clonakilty; each unique, each full. But ask anyone - Scannel’s down the road has the best pints. Live music fills every summer weekend, festivals dominate the summer.

The Inchydoney and Red Strand beaches are just a few minutes away. But Clonakilty is driven by more than just impressive entertainment and the stunning ability to market black pudding as food; it is the sense of community that makes the air breathe and swell as you walk down Pearse Street, below the hanging banners, between the painted buildings, with the sun dripping down Spiller’s Lane and the statue of Michael Collins.

Spiller’s Lane, Clonakilty, Co. Cork. Picture Denis Minihane
Spiller’s Lane, Clonakilty, Co. Cork. Picture Denis Minihane

It’s the town’s spirit that buzzes, that vibrates and hums - that riots and bursts through the buildings, up into the wild Atlantic sky. We stop at DeBarra’s for one.

In DeBarra’s, the stamp of feet to trad music shakes dust from the ancient instruments, African masks and greying photographs of Dylan, Bowie and Noel Redding performing there. After looking out the window and making sturdy, practical observations, we decide that the old saying is true - birds can’t fly on one wing - and we settle in.

But eventually, we run out of wings, and time, and we are back on the road.

If you simply want to see the scenery of County Cork - the horses grazing in a blanket of mist, the silver fish among the white swans, the magpies pirouetting in the darkened sky - you can. Failte Ireland has specially commissioned a fleet of tractors at strategic locations along N71, to bring traffic to a grinding halt, so drivers can enjoy the scenery. In one such lull, I wonder, if swans and sheep are both white, why do only the sheep look dirty? Maybe it was three pints.

We cross the causeway that separates the village of Rosscarbery on the right from the sea on the left. Rosscarbery sits on a hill; at the foot of the hill, the stone causeway creates a small pond, fenced in by the white linen fluttering on the line. In the hard, Irish sunlight, two swans glide in the shifting, shimmering reflection; the bright houses become blurred pastel on the darkened edges of the water. Rosscarbery has one of the most beautiful town centres in Cork, and includes the stunning Nolan’s pub - painted bright yellow; vines and pints and vintage signs spilling out of the red door and onto the street - as well as Pilgrim’s, the local five-star.

Pilgrim’s restaurant.
Pilgrim’s restaurant.

The next town is Leap, where a horseback outlaw jumped the river and declared “Beyond the Leap, beyond the law.” It didn’t hold up in court, but the window of Connolly’s, one of the best music venues in Ireland, still proudly states the slogan.

Connolly’s is everything a music venue should be: wax-covered whiskey bottles throw candlelight from the balcony, over a large floor where the audience, depending on the performer’s genre, can either dance and sweat or hold the singer-songwriter’s hand, crying over his recent sexual mismanagement, as well as a large supply of craft beer.

Connollys of Leap.
Connollys of Leap.

We turn off N71, into Union Hall.

The back roads of Cork, narrow and winding, are a visceral experience. My muscles clench, my knuckles grow white on the dashboard, and suddenly my bowels are eager to get involved.

While in America, the majority of old aged drivers are becoming slowly but increasingly lost in a car park, 96% of Irish drivers over the age of 65 are currently airborne, lifting one finger off the steering wheel - the country hello.

George needs to stop at his parents’ house. I need to change my pants.

The Union Hall Fish Shop sells locally and internationally.

George’s house looks down on Kellbeg Pier, the commercial fishing boats of red, yellow and blue patiently waiting; fishermen race back and forth, carrying green nets, filling the storage holds with ice, noisily clanking their hurried business.

A quick break in the noise and the bustle, then the fishermen drift from the stove and their cups of tea - half warm and half drunk - to the ships that will carry them to Georges Bank and the Flemish Cap.

Half warm and half drunk myself, I fall asleep.

In most places, you can have either a vibrant culture or a stunning landscape - one has to be sacrificed.

The hotels and flats, which accommodate the creatives and the tourists, flatten the natural countryside.

You can have entertainment and culture, or nature and a good night’s rest. You can’t have both - unless you go to Cork.

County Cork tucks the vibrant culture - the poets, the painters, the singers, the saints, the creators and the created, and Graham Norton - into the wild valleys, into the dips between the low green hills and heavy purple heather.

Some readers might note that this is not all of Cork, this is just one hour, down one road. And isn’t that the point? This is just one part of one road in the rebel county.

Drive in any direction in County Cork, you will find the same - I did. I drove, I stopped, and now I’m a stranger at home.

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