On April 2017 I took a bus to Cork from Victoria Coach Station in London. It was a fifteen-hour journey, leaving at dawn and arriving almost at noon the next day. It was my first trip completely alone—no friends to stay with, no acquaintances to meet once I was there, and a pretty tight budget—. When I got on the bus I was excited, but excitement soon gave way to tiredness when I realized the bus would stop almost every hour, we’d have to wait for new passengers or wait while there was a driver change. Nevertheless, I had two whole seats to myself, some food, music and a book with me. After ten days I would be leaving Cork to join some friends in Dublin, so I took Joyce’s Dubliners with me.
The bus would take a ferry from Fishguard, Wales, to Rosslare, Ireland, instead of going from Holyhead, near Liverpool, to Dublin, which I’ve been told is much faster, although more expensive. The way to Fishguard was about five hours and before we arrived there, almost half of the passengers had gotten off. At one stop we got to take a break outside the bus for some minutes and the few of us who were left, tired and hungry, started talking. An elderly lady who was sitting in front of me asked if that was going to be my first time in Ireland and, when I said yes, she told me she was from Cork. She’d been living for almost thirty years in England though, and now she was going to visit her nephew during the Easter holiday, in some small city near Cork. She looked happy to be going back.
Even before I arrived in Ireland, I noticed a distinctive nature among the Irish people on the bus, a kind of closeness and introverted warmth, a discreet friendliness. My new friend kept asking me things about Mexico and once the bus entered the ferry and we finally got off, she told me that het mother had served as a nurse during WWII. That’s why she had decided to become a nurse too. I made many fleeting friendships during my time in Ireland, all of the with very interesting stories to tell, but this one I still remember clearly. This lady also told me to go to Cobh and spoke for a long time about the Titanic.
Once in Cork, neck aching and a bit confused, I decided to walk all the way to the place that would be my home for the next ten days, just to get familiar with the city. The bus station is right in front of the River Lee, which crosses the city and flows to the East, into the Celtic Sea. So the first thing I did in Cork was to cross the Lee, with a giant backpack on my shoulders, to go north, towards Dillons Cross. From there, passing through St Luke’s, I directed my steps towards down to the river everyday. The city centre is literally embraced by two thin arms of the Lee, right before they unite again, running West, towards the limits of the county Cork.
The centre, at first sight, did not look very appealing. But the more I went through its wide streets and narrow, crooked alleys, gardens and decks, the more I realized that it was really quite different from other European cities I’d visited. There was some weird irreverence about it. The nickname of the city, I learned later, is “the rebel city” because of its support for the House of York during the War of the Roses. And this defiance is notorious, like an effort to set itself aside both from Dublin and Britain. Cork is what we call now “alternative”, with walls filled with street art and stickers everywhere, bars and pubs that promote indie bands, a great diversity of urban characters in outfits that range from punk and goth to quirky. It is as if a second city, a grunge one, positioned itself on top of the religious, gothic architecture, as if a coat of colour covered the grey vestiges of the middle ages. And the city is vibrant, even under the ever-cloudy, almost-always-rainy sky.
Not very far, following the river east, there is Blackrock Castle, a military fortress that later became an observatory, looking northwards. The castle has been modified and reconstructed plenty of times since its construction in the 17th century and, more than a majestic structure, it simply looks like a part of the landscape, with its grey, almost black, bricks agains the grayish blue of the river and the even grayer blue of the sky. Close to the castle (and inside the castle itself) there are many restaurants, cafés and tea rooms from where one can get a nice view of the castle and the river, which is bursting with life during spring.
Going further to the West, still following the river, there is Cobh (pronounced, I was told, like Cov), a little port town, the last place in which the Titanic called before sinking. I arrived there by train and it took like 20 minutes or so. Cobh looks like a little mountain, and on its top stands a spectacular gothic cathedral, the kind you only see in Ireland, and around it lie hundreds of little colourful houses. Here the river flows into the Celtic Sea and hundreds of boats and ships crowd the docks. When I visited Cobh, the sky was clear and the sun shined, although the wind didn’t stop blowing. Cobh’s beaches are of large stones that the sea strikes furiously, there is little sand and walking there is a bit tricky since there are many broken glass bottles among the rocks. But the view makes it worth it. After walking for a while, I went back the centre of the town, full of children and their parents buying ice cream at the many colorful stands near the beach. Only a few minutes from the city of Cork, Cobh seemed to me a very different place, calmer and, despite the vocational atmosphere, more formal (or perhaps just a bit less rebellious) than Cork.
Time after, very far away from Ireland and the cold seas, I read Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In the book, there is a part in which Stephen Dedalus and his father walk through Cork, among pubs, restaurants and theaters. The impressions of the city that Stephen gets are always related to blooming trees and sun streets, and he ponders over his father’s rebellious youth. Certainly I cannot think of Cork as a sunny place— while I was there the weather changed constantly and almost always the wind blew with playful strength. However I do remember it as rebellious, filled with laughter and people drinking wine in the park. A city of carefree beauty, careless and almost defiant.
When I left Cork to go north, I realized it was a unique place, even in Ireland. It was different from all the places I visited near Killarney, near the beaches of Bantry and Kenmare, different too from Dublin, which beats to a different tempo. And different too were the people I met in Cork, friendly, just rightly extroverted, always looking for things we had in common, with a national pride that didn’t seem to impose barriers between us and, with a particular talent to tell stories or, rather, to tell of any event as if it was the most interesting thing in the world (and some of them were, too).
While I stayed in Cork I also visited some other parts of the centre and south of Ireland, but apart from a long trip along the coast towards Killarney National Park and back, I preferred to stay in Cork, get familiar with it and save money for the next adventure, a road trip around Scotland with five friends and a complete stranger. While I was in Cork I though that the worst that could happen would be that we’d end up hating each other. I did not think of the dangers of going north in early spring without a clear plan or no phone signal, or of the frightening freedom of not knowing exactly where we’d end up next, or that my sneakers might not be appropriate for the weather and the roughness of the Highlands.
However, my time in Cork gave me a discreet confidence in traveling alone, as well as it taught me, quite cruelly, about the disadvantages of traveling heavy. I arrived there with a 20 kilogram backpack and left with around 13 kilograms, having had to get rid of uncomfortable shoes, books and shampoo bottles to board the train being able to carry my backpack. Since then I believe I am more careful with shopping, although not as much as I’d like. So I took a train from Cork to Dublin, the meeting point and last stop in Ireland, to then go north in search of some mountains and some more adventures.
Places to visit in Cork City:
St Finn Barre’s Cathedral
Cork City Gaol
Crawford Art Gallery
The English Market
If you’re in Cork you could also do day trips to:
The Ring of Kerry
Have you been in Ireland?
What did I miss? Would love to hear from you on the comments!