Somewhere along the M8 — Ireland’s Friendliest Motorway — to Cork, the Gift Grub phrase pops into my head: Cork: You could call it the fillet of Munster.
It’s from Mario Rosenstock’s Radio Roy (a skit where Roy Keane had a phone-in radio show. He doesn’t have one yet but he’s already ‘killing it on Instagram’ — so surely it’s only a matter of time) Before the M8, the fillet of Munster line used to pop up at the sight of Skeheenarinky.
It’s not even Cork yet, but you don’t forget a name like Skeheenarinky. It comes from the Irish for ‘dancing bush’ and apparently was a bush on a floating island in a pool. That’s Tipperary for you. Cork has Matehy. Meaning ‘the plain that moved’. A PLAIN. But then again Cork is a different scale.
The M8 approaches Cork from on high. You round the bend wondering when the traffic jam at the Tunnel will begin, every yard gained a bonus. But it’s not the only approach of note to the city. In the southwest you drive under the Chetwynd viaduct. Officially built for the Southwestern railway but we all know they built it so Mick Barry could throw a metal ball over it in the 50s.
And the best Cork entrance for a small child on their first train to experience — the tunnel out of Cork railway station. You never forget that thrill of three seconds of daylight followed by a Victorian darkness as you stare at your sandwiches and crisps in the reflection in the window. We didn’t have many working tunnels in Ireland in the 80s.
And then, I’m biased of course but the Carrigrohane Straight is the finest approach to any city you could get. I love nature in all its unbridled twistiness ‘but you can’t bate a the bit of straight’. No disrespect to the County Hall, but I do think the road should be complete with a giant statue straddling it like in Game of Thrones. Maybe the hurling legend Christy Ring about to swipe an elegant groundstroke to send 100-ton sliotar scudding towards Dennehy’s Cross.
So what I’m saying is that you should approach Cork with glee.
Of course, I would have known the city as Town. Journeying in from Dripsey on the road that hugs the north bank of the Lee. And so much of Cork hugs one side of a hill or other. That’s why we’re very difficult to shake off.
However, it’s those hills that give the city its character. That and the channels. And in some ways to get an appreciation of how Cork grew up you should get right into those channels. Years ago I did a canoe tour around the island of Cork with Atlantic Sea kayaking.
Canoeing through Cork is a singular experience. All the usual frames of reference for travelling in the city are changed. When you drive or walk around the city, it’s all about streets connected to other streets, buildings in-between every now and then a bridge to allow you to get to even more streets. Maybe once in a while, you might lean on the bridge and look down at the Lee. But even then, the river feels like something in the way. Go on the water and the whole perception of Cork changes. It becomes obvious the river was there long before any one else.
This is a route that cannot yet be travelled on Google Street. On the way up to Patrick’s bridge you see where the river, that flows under Patricks Street, joins the North Channel.
In fact, Cornmarket Street, Grand Parade, Patrick Street were all river channels once upon a time. Cork was known as the Venice of the North. I guess the singing gondoliers could have been grown-up Echo boys talking about ‘Only The Wan Cornetto’.
Just imagine canoeing up Patrick Street — getting your paper in Eason’s, floating by Dunnes having a browse in the window as you pass. No such thing as floating double yellow lines.
Of course, it’s not just the city. Co Cork demands you pay it some attention.
For a start, it’s big. How big? Well, even though Co Cork is only 10% of the area of Ireland and Ireland is one of the smallest countries in the world, to listen to us, you’d swear Cork is bigger than the Sudan.
“Did you know” we’ll say to someone at a wedding we’ve just met but are already fierce friends with, “that if you travel from Mizen Head to Dublin, the half-way point is still in Co Cork?” I wouldn’t be surprised if we found previously undiscovered herds of antelope in its vastness.
In such a large county there are, of course, many different versions of Cork.
You have a number of regions or states of mind. West Cork is the most famous. It may be hard to believe but it was next to the Atlantic long before it was named the Wild Atlantic Way. You can see it in the cosmopolitan mix down there. The typical West Cork person is a farmer, fisherman, and has had a part in at least one Oscar-winning film. East Cork is the same, without the Oscars and with bigger fields.
The harbour is a fascinating mix of different environments — from estuary of the Lee to the lemurs of Fota but my favourite is Spike Island. Cork’s own Alcatraz. Which makes Cobh a sort of San Francisco. It has the hills anyway. But perhaps it’s also kind of riviera-y on the waterfront. You half expect some soon-to-be-cancelled film director with big grey hair to zip by in a convertible.
But you don’t have time to wonder. Your ferry for Spike is leaving. After you disembark and climb the hill to the old prison, make sure to look out for the entrance display. It’s a mannequin of a typical 1990’s prisoner. He has floppy hair and is wearing a Happy Mondays T-shirt while being berated by a female visitor wearing a shell-suit. It’s clear he’s in there for possession of yokes.
I’m from Dripsey in the vague area known as Mid-Cork. The best place obviously. A bit of everything and ideally placed to get everywhere. If you can drag yourself away from the river valley village of Dripsey, you can wander around Blarney or one of Ireland’s 12 nicest towns (according to American website, East End Taste Magazine).
And that’s even before they finish the bypass.
A short jaunt up into the plateau around Donoughmore. I mean like, you wouldn’t call it a plateau in any other county but remember Cork is the ninth-largest landmass in the world (citation needed). Maybe you might join the Butter Road to Kerry.
A strategic route to seize in any butter wars. Or just go due north brings you into the beautiful Blackwater valley lands of north Cork — with the mature deciduous trees and the walled farms that look like they’d be in a country episode of Bridgerton.
Or just back into town in 20 minutes, past the County Hall and into a city that pedestrianised 17 streets this summer while everyone else was talking about it. A city itching to get going again with its day-life and nightlife.
Like, you’d want to see us when we get a head of steam with events. There’ll be festivals just because it’s a Monday.
We’ll get the summer and be all continental eating our food outside. And if we’re on our best behaviour, a bit of fillet.