Tap Into the Past & Toast to the Future in Ireland's Rebel County
From the Blarney Stone to the Butter Museum, cultural riches await.
When Queen Elizabeth II passed away at the age of 96 earlier this month, I couldn’t help but think about my late grandmother. She grew up in Trinidad under British rule, the daughter of a Venezuelan mother and a white father of Scottish descent. And even though she moved to the States after meeting my Brooklyn-born Italian grandfather, she remained an English loyalist to her core. It was all about God, family, and the Royals—in that order.
So you could imagine my surprise when my FamilyTreeDNA test kit—administered on a whim out of tepid curiosity—came back declaring that I was neither Scottish nor English, but a whopping 33% Irish. That’s right: My grandmother, despite her almost zealous love for the House of Windsor, her commitment to writing “Trinidad, British West Indies” on letters home long after the island gained independence from the Crown, and her reverence for the Campbell tartan that had me swathed in green and blue plaid as a child, was, at least genetically, a daughter of the Republic.
I had been to Ireland once, to Dublin and Galway, and fell deeply in love with the Emerald Isle, both its landscape and its people. Hell, I even watched hurling from time to time. After a bit more digging, I discovered that a large majority of my chemical makeup originated in County Cork on the island’s southwestern shore. And seeing as I’d recently agreed to join Norwegian Cruiseline for the christening voyage of the state-of-the-art Prima liner that just so happened to dock in Cork—I knew I had to hit the streets.
Ireland’s second most populous city, Cork City is often overshadowed by the capital, Dublin, with its massive airport and many tourist draws. But the entire region is rife with intriguing historic and cultural sites, standout restaurants and pubs, and breathtaking street art. Here’s everything to do when visiting County Cork, from crushing pints of Murphy’s Stout and sampling locally made black pudding to celebrating the Republic’s courageous rabble-rousers.
Cruise over to Cobh for historic seaside vibes
If you land in the county via cruise ship, like I did, you’ll be docking at Cobh, a picturesque seaside town about 30 minutes by train from Cork City. Cobh—pronounced “cove” for those of us who don’t speak Gaeilge—has long served as one of Ireland’s key points of departure, as evidenced by the famous Annie Moore Monument guarding its wharf: three figures cast in bronze, representing young Moore, the first person the enter the US through Ellis Island on January 1, 1892, alongside her two brothers, Anthony and Philip.
Yet while Moore’s story was a happy one, not all voyages casting off from Cobh’s port ended quite so fortunately. On April 11, 1912, the groundbreaking ocean liner RMS Titanic left Cobh on its maiden sail en route to New York. Three days later, well, you already know what happened. In 1915, just as World War I was beginning to ramp up, a British passenger steamship called the RMS Lusitania was struck by a German U-Boat just 20 kilometers from Cobh’s broad marina. The Lusitania quickly sank, taking more than 60% of those onboard with it. You can learn all about these harrowing events and more—including details about the forced deportation of convicts and indentured servants to other British colonies—at the Cobh Heritage Centre just off the docks, while down the way, the Titanic Experience offers visitors an immersive look into that bit of maritime history. Perhaps not the sunniest educational excursion, but a fascinating one to be sure.
Afterwards, cheer yourself up with a stroll through the seaport’s many shops and restaurants, stopping to take in the ocean breeze before ascending up the hill to St. Colman’s Cathedral. Built in 1868, it’s a gorgeous piece of architecture complete with resplendent views. Keep trekking up the road from there, and you’ll stumble into Mansworths Bar, a narrow, two-room pub dating back to 1895. Ask the barman for a pint of Murphy’s—County Cork’s answer to Guinness—and settle into a booth to admire the knick knacks and historical artifacts covering the walls. And lest you think you finally escaped the shipwreck stories, a plaque on the front wall states: “In 1912, when the Titanic was here, it is probable that ale and food were served by them [sic] to emigrants during the American wakes that preceded their departure.” Perhaps a shot of Jameson ought to be in order, too.
Tie one on at the Jameson Distillery
Speaking of whiskey, a trip to the iconic Jameson Distillery is a clutch agenda move in these parts. The brand’s stately Old Midleton Distillery has been cranking out the juice since 1825, and offers an hour-long behind-the-scenes tour that follows the revered spirit’s production from grain to glass. Finish your lesson with a tasting guided by trained ambassadors, and then pop over to resident snack-purveyor Fred’s Food Truck for a sandwich stuffed with spiked ingredients like Jameson-glazed bacon and whiskey-marinated pulled pork. “Slainte” never tasted so good.
Give your credit card a workout on St. Patrick Street
Cork City’s supremely charming downtown revolves around St. Patrick Street, a bustling riverfront thoroughfare lined with stores, pubs, restaurants, and other retail crowd-pleasers. You could easily pass an afternoon poking your head into different storefronts; window shopping at famed department stores like Brown Thomas, Debenhams, and Marks & Spencer; and inventorying your treasures while stationed at a sunny sidewalk cafe, pint in hand. Pedestrian-friendly side streets snake off St. Patrick’s, each providing their own network of independent bookstores, clothing boutiques, craft displays, and eateries.
Dive into the county’s rebellious past
It’s not all wool sweaters and designer handbags around here. Cork has long been known as Ireland’s revolutionary capital, and the city is littered with monuments, museums, and other markers commemorating its hand in the Republic’s fight for freedom along with other social justice pursuits.
Start at the National Monument on Grand Parade, located just south of St. Patrick’s Street in Cork City. Dating to 1906, the hulking Gothic, steeple-like structure pays tribute to multiple rebellions spanning 1798, 1803, 1848, and 1867. Depictions of Irish patriots Wolfe Tone, Michael Dwyers, Davis Crowley, and O’Neill Crowley stare out from each of four corners, while an eight-foot-high rendering of Mother Erin watches over them from the center.
From there, turn your attention to the newly minted Mary Elmes Bridge, a striking pedestrian and cycling path connecting nearby Merchants Quay to St Patrick’s Quay over the River Lee. Dubbed “the Irish Oskar Schindler,” Elmes (a Cork native) singlehanded rescued upwards of 200 Jewish children during the Holocaust, often hiding them in the trunk of her car and smuggling them to safety.
Nano Nagle, another Cork legend, has not only been granted an eponymous bridge but also a fascinating museum complete with beautifully manicured gardens, archives, and a cemetery just across the river. Open to the public, Nano Nagle Place celebrates the life of the 18th Century charity worker who, despite strict prohibition from the British, opened a bounty of Catholic schools and other resources for Ireland’s poorest women and children. In 1775, she founded Sisters of the Presentation, a religious congregation that continues to combat poverty via education and outreach to this day.
Over in Béal na Bláth, a village about 30 minutes west of Cork City, stands the Michael Collins Ambush Memorial, a gated stone cross marking the spot where the Cork-born Irish Civil War hero met his fateful end back in 1922. Curiosity piqued? You can always see Liam Neison bring Collins back to life in the standout 1996 biopic, Michael Collins. Or learn more about the beloved revolutionary, soldier, and political figure IRL at the Michael Collins House Museum in Clonakilty, another 20-or-so-minute drive down the road from Béal na Bláth. The interpretive center takes visitors through Ireland’s centuries-old quest for independence, highlighting the role Collins played in the struggle along with the previous actors that influenced his path.
Stock up on snacks at the English Market
Downtown Cork’s English Market is one of the oldest covered markets in all of Europe. It’s been in business continually since 1788, a collection of vendors hawking their wares beneath canary yellow canopies and hand-painted signage. The market remains buzzing with activity during working hours, with shoppers filling the aisles in search of locally cultivated produce, baked goods, gourmet sweets, fresh seafood and meat, and prepared foods. Grab a fragrant artisan loaf from the Alternative Bread Company, pick up some burgers infused with Irish black pudding from family-run O’Flynn’s Gourmet Sausages, or load up on sandwiches crammed full of cured meats, sun-dried tomatoes, and raw milk mozzarella from the Sandwich Stall before retreating to the mezzanine cafe to enjoy your finds with a side of prime people-watching.
Head out on a street art scavenger hunt
In October 2020, a pandemic-born project called Ardú embarked on a mission to transform Cork City into one giant work of art. They initially brought together seven renowned Irish artists and unleashed them upon the city, arming them with brushes, paint, and boundless creativity. For inspiration, they turned to the story of the Burning of Cork, channeling the city’s miraculous rise from the ashes after it burned to the ground in 1920.
After the completion of the project’s second installment in 2021, 11 eye-catching, large-scale murals from the likes of Garrath Joyce, Deirdre Breen, Asbestos, Aches, James Earley, and more can be found spanning walls, doorways, and alleys around Cork. Download a map off Ardú’s website and hit the pavement in an attempt to collect them all.
Kiss the Blarney Stone, if you’re so compelled
Built in 1446, Blarney Castle is indisputably one of Cork County’s most popular attractions. The stone behemoth stationed about 20 minutes outside of Cork City has been drawing major crowds for centuries, many of whom are determined to pucker up and kiss the estate’s famous Blarney Stone. It’s said that anyone who suspends themselves upside down against the ancient rock and touches their lips to its craggy surface will be given the “gift of gab,” or the ability to sweet talk for the rest of your days. In the time of COVID, however, this might not seem like the best bargain, even with the castle’s new safety and sanitizing protocols in place. But to each their own.
Get spooked at the Cork City Gaol
Back in Cork, it’s hard to miss the hulking Gaol. The stone castle-like former prison is perched across the River Lee from idyllic Fitzgerald Park, and the cold fortress is anything but welcoming—despite its lush green grounds. Opened in 1824, the jail housed hundreds of prisoners until its closure in 1923, including hoards of Irish nationalists incarcerated by the reigning British during the Civil War and War of Independence.
Left to rot in disrepair for decades, the gaol was later gut-revamped and converted into a museum opened to the public in 1993. Today, visitors can wander the prison’s stark halls, peering into cramped cells, poking their heads into the relatively cozy governor's office, and learning all about the building’s past, from jailbreak attempts to famous inmates. If you’re so inclined, you can even rent out the gaol for your next big event—weddings, it seems, are a strangely popular booking.
Churn up at the Butter Museum
Did you know that in the 19th century, Cork laid claim to being the largest butter exporter in the entire world? No joke. Discover that fun fact and so much more at the utterly charming Butter Museum, tucked away in the city’s quaint and historic Shandon area. The museum sits across from a curious round building that once served as the Butter Exchange, the industry’s central hub. A brief video is followed by a series of exhibits documenting the history of dairy production in Ireland and how Irish butter—specifically Kerrygold—has come to define the country’s agricultural economy (despite margarine’s early-1980s coup attempts).
The entire museum is well worth the modest entry fee, but upstairs is where the true star of the show awaits. There, you’ll find a firkin (AKA wooden keg) stuffed full of 1,000-year-old butter that’s been preserved in a naturally carbon-protective peat bog. We’re talking medieval bog butter, staring back at you through plexiglass display walls. If those curds could talk, eh?
Eat your way through Kinsdale, Cork’s colorful culinary gem
Known for its Crayola-hued houses, Kinsale is a formidable lunchtime destination when exploring Cork City. The walkable streets are dotted with beckoning businesses, from quirky gift shops like Canvas Works, Stone Mad, and Granny’s Bottom Drawer to Michelin-recommended bars and restaurants. Snag a table at Max’s on Market Street for artfully plated local eats, drop by Milk Market Cafe for coffees and smoothies behind a cerulean storefront, or drop into the aptly named Fishy Fishy for some of the best and freshest seafood in all of Europe.