This one got a wee bit long, so try to stay with me! (For those of you who can’t stick it out, tl;dr = Cork has decent food, we saw lots of flowers at the Blarney Castle, and we visited the Titanic’s last port of call.)
From Kenmare we headed towards Cork. Along the way we stopped at Drombeg Stone Circle to see some Druidic ruins (sensing a theme here?). These ones were particularly interesting because there was a standing stone circle (like Stonehenge but on a much smaller scale) and there were the ruins of some buildings that were used as kitchens. There were the remains of a basin that held water which was brought to a boil with hot stones and then used for cooking, and there was an underground drain system to empty the basin. It was pretty cool to see how people lived and the innovations they came up with.
(A side note about the Druidic ruins that are sprinkled over the country, specifically the standing stones: They always make me think of Outlander, the book and the TV series, and I am afraid to touch them lest I get transported back in time! 😋)
Continuing on our way to Cork we stopped for a little walk around the town of Kinsale, a medieval port town and then got back on the road. We got into Cork and checked into our Airbnb which was in an outer neighborhood of the city so it was a bit of a trek down towards the city center, about 30 minutes downhill.
Martin had read about Franciscan Well Brewing, a great brewery that also does really good wood-fired pizzas, so obviously we went there for dinner. Since the weather was nice (i.e., clear and cold, but not grey and damp), we joined the throngs and enjoyed our beers and delicious pizza in the back beer garden. We got to try a couple of beers which were all very good, and the pizza was a nice break from traditional pub food; I think the pizza even had veggies on it!
We trekked into Cork again on Sunday morning to explore the city a little bit more. Of course, we didn’t think about how in Catholic countries everything is closed on Sundays… As we weren’t super keen on checking out any of Cork’s main sites (the Butter Museum, and the old women’s prison…), and the one that we really wanted to see is closed on Sundays (the English Market), we decided to go on a bit of a drive to explore some of the other highlights of County Cork.
Our first stop on our exploration was Blarney Castle, home to the Blarney Stone. It being a Sunday, the castle and the gardens were pretty packed with tourists but we decided to suck it up and join them for a few hours. The gardens around the castle are pretty sprawling and spectacular, well worth a visit in their own right. We got a few moments of sun while we strolled around, and we lucked out being there in the springtime when all of the flowers were blooming and bright.
We’ve been surprised at how many rhododendrons there are all over Ireland! And we definitely timed it right to enjoy their lovely colors. (A quick Google search tells me that they are not indigenous to Ireland and that they are very invasive and killing off many native plants. But they are awfully pretty!)
You could spend days getting lost on all of the trails and niches in the gardens at Blarney Castle. There are so many different areas that it feels each one is its own separate park: forests with a white blanket of blooming wild garlic; streams overgrown with reeds and grasses; perfectly manicured lawns with meticulously planned flower plantings; Druidic ruins and standing stones next to more recently assembled water features; pathways lined with aisles of flower beds and shaded by vine-covered trellises; and even a poison garden with examples of poisonous plants (as well as those plants thought “poisonous” by the original inhabitants).
After feeling sufficiently overwhelmed with all of the gardens, we finally decided to venture into the castle itself. There was a line to get into the castle because the Blarney Stone is at the very top and everyone wants a chance to kiss it and receive the gift of gab. The line winds through the castle so while we were waiting we got the chance to check out the construction and the interior of the building. In a lot of places we were able to see the imprints of the wicker scaffolding that they had used to support the ceilings and archways as the clay dried. Blarney Castle is a pretty cool and intact example of how medieval people lived and functioned. From reading the plaques throughout the castle, it’s hard to know what the actual history of the building is because every story ends with some variation of, “…or, it might all be blarney!” It was cute the first time, but got kind of old…
We did eventually make it to the top ramparts of the castle where the Blarney Stone is actually built into structure itself. Martin didn’t want to kiss the stone, but I figured I should do it just to be able to say that I did. “When in Blarney!” So I did it! Except, I didn’t actually kiss it. 🙂 There are attendants there to help you because you have to lay down on your back and then skootch back so that your head and upper torso are hanging down into a gutter between the ramparts and the castle. And then you reach forward with your lips to kiss the stone! I just gave it an air-kiss because I was not entirely confident in the cleanliness of the stone, and I’d heard stories of what the locals may or may not do to it. Also, as I am a bit short of stature, I would have had to slide down farther than I wanted to even be able to reach it for a real kiss. I guess you have to actually kiss it to receive the full gift of its powers; I haven’t been feeling much more gab-y than before my visit. But at least I can say that I did it! …kind of.
We hopped back in the car when we saw the tour buses coming to the castle and headed to the little town of Cobh (which is pronounced “Cove,” but I bet you already knew that). Cobh is a picturesque little seaside town, famous mostly for being the last port of call for the Titanic. It is also quite touristy, with most of the shops and restaurants bearing the White Star Line logo and other Titanic memorabilia. There were even some ladies dressed in period-appropriate attire, although it was unclear whether they were actors to lend to the town’s atmosphere, or just amateur enthusiasts doing it for fun. Unfortunately, Martin would not let me do the Titanic Experience museum. After a cup of tea and a bit of a wander around the small town, we were ready to head back and away from the throngs of tourists.
One of our main reasons for wanting to visit Cork was that we had heard that it had a great up-and-coming food scene. So we decided to treat ourselves to a bit of a nicer dinner on Sunday night! The place we actually wanted to go to, the restaurant inside the English Market, is of course closed on Sundays and Mondays. But Martin found another place that was quite good and we enjoyed another dinner of not-pub-food.
We had wanted to check out the famed English Market (a name that the locals hate, of course) in Cork but it was closed on Sunday when we were in town. So before getting on our way on Monday, we headed back into town to wander around the market.
It is an 18th century covered market with traders selling all sorts of locally produced food. There is a restaurant upstairs which serves meals prepared with products sourced from the market below. It was very cool to walk around and see all the local cheeses, breads, meats, fish, fruits, veggies, and all other sorts of delicious foods. We were amazed at how inexpensive almost everything was! Especially as compared to the prices the same products could fetch at a comparable market in San Francisco. We were also surprised at how much beautiful produce there was in the market (as we had also noticed at other markets in Ireland) because we hadn’t really seen any fresh fruits and veggies in the meals that we had been eating! I think we had assumed that there wasn’t a lot of good produce in the area, but after seeing the plethora in the market I guess the restaurants and pubs just don’t use it, or they just cook it until it’s unrecognizable.
I think other than our two dinners and the market in Cork, we were not super excited about that city. I think it was hit quite hard by the financial crisis and the subsequent austerity measures, and now as it is starting to come back to life it’s having a hard time figuring out what kind of a city it wants to be. It’s an odd mix of old narrow streets, shiny new department stores, and empty industrial areas; while that melange somehow works in other cities, it just felt haphazard and disjointed in Cork. There are some very beautiful parts, to be sure, but I think we were both ready to move on by the end of our stay.
We got on the road again and headed towards Midleton and the old Jameson Whiskey distillery. We didn’t have a chance to do the Jameson tour when we were in Dublin and I’m actually glad it worked out to do the one in Midleton as I think it was probably a less crowded and more interesting experience.
The distillery in Midleton was originally owned by James Murphy & Co in the 1820s and didn’t become associated with Jameson until the mid 1970s when they and several other distillers bought the property and moved all operations to that site; even though they have moved all production to the Dublin location a lot of the buildings are original so you can see how they were doing the distilling hundreds of years ago. Compared to the Guinness factory storehouse “tour” that we had done in Dublin, the Jameson tour was really good! It was actually a guided tour where they took us all around the campus while we learned the history of whiskey-making and Jameson, and we got to see a lot of the old brewing apparatus. The largest pot still in the world (almost 32,000 gallons!), built for the distillery in the 1820s, is still there even thought it’s not longer used.
Like the Guinness experience, we got a drink at the end of the Jameson tour and some volunteers got to do a whiskey tasting. The “tasting” consisted of a few sips each of an Irish whiskey (Jameson), a Scotch whiskey (Johnny Walker), and an American whiskey (Jack Daniels). I’m not sure that it was the most interesting of taste tests since it was clearly rigged so that everyone’s favorite was the Jameson, but it was definitely fun.
Stay tuned for more of our Irish adventures in Kilkenny!