My next adventure abroad took me to what is affectionately known as Ireland’s “Rebel County”, County Cork. Located at Ireland’s most southern tip, Cork largely derives its nickname from its history of aiding the rebellious IRA (Irish Republican Army) against the British at the turn of the century. It also happened to be the birthplace — and eventual place of death– of Irish revolutionary hero Michael Collins, the head of the Irish Republican Army in Ireland’s War of Independence (1919-1921) who played a major role in the birth of Ireland has a nation. But there is well more to County Cork than just a historical IRA presence. Seated in the province of Munster, Cork is notable for its rolling green hills and rugged coastline, a long stretch of cliffs dotted with a number of shore towns. As I would soon find, Ireland’s south (both countries Cork and Kerry) held some of the country’s most spectacular views.
Our first stop on the journey to Cork was not actually even within the county’s borders. Instead, we ventured to nearby County Tipperary to visit the Cahir Castle. Of course, I was nothing but excited to explore within the castle’s walls, being that it was my first true castle experience. I was fortunate enough that, within passing the castle’s gates, the Irish skies gave us a spectacular rainbow sitting right over the castle walls. There may be a lot of rain in Ireland, but it is almost worth it to see a few authentic Irish rainbows. I was also able to walk along the top of the castle walls, which provided a great view of the surrounding town and country side. The following picture, circa February 2013, is of myself standing in front of the rainbow-topped castle wall.
Soon we arrived in the city that gave the county its name, the city of Cork. Situated on the River Lee, Cork is the Republic’s second largest city after Dublin. And I noticed that it had quite a different feel than Dublin, too. To start, Cork felt significantly smaller. It seemed as though there were only a handful of interesting places to go and see. One of the main complaints I heard from students studying in Cork was that frequenting the pubs to drink was the only thing you could do for fun on the weekends. In our limited time there, though, I did appreciate my Cork experience, even if it was a little underwhelming. We visited Cork’s main shopping district and the city’s “main street.” Here, I experienced my first “English Market” and bought a few delicious chocolates from a series of candy shops along the street. Cork does have some quirky sites to see, like a butter museum– which, unfortunately, we did not venture into. While the city wasn’t in any way terrible, I felt it left a little to be desired as a tourist. But County Cork’s appeal certainly did not come from a city– instead, it’s beauty lied within it’s countryside and coast. The city of Cork is pictured below, circa February 2013.
Outside of the city of Cork, we visited Clonakilty, the town in which Michael Collins was born. We took a quick ride through the center of the town, only to realize that there wasn’t actually much there. Save, maybe, a statue of Michael Collins in the city center. Clonakilty was much like most Irish small towns, marked by a series of brightly colored buildings built close together lining its town center. Nothing unique for Irish standards, but pretty to look at nonetheless. A picture of the city is shown below. We spent the rest of our stay in Clonakilty at a model train station, which was significantly less interesting. But hey, at least there was a ball pit and swings.
My favorite spot in County Cork– and perhaps, one of the most beautiful spots in the country of Ireland– was called Mizen Head. If the city of Cork didn’t quite live up to my expectations, Mizen Head came out of left field and was actually a pleasant surprise. Mizen Head marks Ireland’s most south-western tip, and provided a series of cliff edges that overlook the Atlantic Ocean. It was, by far, my personal favorite ocean-cliff overlooks in Ireland (which is saying a lot: Ireland’s coastline was probably the best thing about the entire country, visually, for me).
Yes, Mizen Head was quite breathtaking. It was lined with a number of different walking pathways, so one could observe the beautiful cliffs and carved out sea caves from a variety of angles. There was something so calming and peaceful about Mizen Head. Perhaps it was the sound of the ocean and seagulls in the wind, or maybe it was the grassy green hills and farms that covered the cliff’s top. Whatever it was, I could have spent hours at this place. Luckily for me, I was daring enough to jump a fence with some friends, and there we captured an even more spectacular view (in my opinion).
Seated on a small grassy hill, we were able to overlook a vast stretch of Ireland’s picturesque carved out coastline. This still might be one of my favorite views in the entire country. We sat atop the hill for as long as possible, until the sun began to set and the group returned back to head toward our next location: the small sea town of Bantry to end the evening.
The next day, we continued our trip along County Cork’s coastline, visiting another small ocean-side town by the name of Kinsale. I don’t usually throw this word around a lot, but Kinsale was, put simply, adorable. To begin our trip, we ventured to a fort (named Charles Fort) positioned directly outside the city– built to defend the city from a naval attack. Within the city’s limits, Kinsale turned out to be mostly dozens and dozens of brightly colored houses and buildings, all lined up in rows along the city’s streets. While this is commonplace in an Irish sea town, Kinsale seemed to be just that much more brightly colored than the rest. Pictured below is a neighborhood located outside the city center, on the hills surrounding Fort Charles.
We ended our venture to Cork in one of Ireland’s top tourist destinations: the Blarney Castle. How could I possibly live in Ireland and pass up a chance to kiss the Blarney stone? The bus driver mentioned on the ride over that one kiss of the Blarney stone was worth 7 years of good luck, but you could get “14 if you add in a little bit of tongue.” Oh, those silly Irish. The castle itself was located in a beautiful field surrounded by rivers and woodlands. Yet, it had a bit of an ominous presence when looking up at the top against a gray Irish sky forewarning of rain. Ascending the stairs turned out to be surprisingly difficult– the staircases were each incredibly narrow, twisting, and steep (that would not fly here in the United States!). They even had rope in some sections for you to hold on to, in case you felt it was too steep. And if two people were trying to use the staircase at once, forgedabout it, it was a nightmare. But once we reached the top, the scary trip up was rectified by the gorgeous view of the surrounding countryside. But the adrenaline didn’t stop pumping after the staircase was over. The actual kissing of the Blarney stone proved to be a feat which required a bit of courage, too. You see, in order to kiss the stone, you must lie down while an Irish man holds your ankles. You bend your head back, more or less dangling over the side of the castle (there is nothing below your head but the ground, many feet below). And still, in this disoriented state, you have to place your lips on a big sheet of rock somewhere in front of your face. Yeah, it was a little intimidating, but I got the job done. Guess I’ve got the “gift of gab” for 7 years, then! (No, no tongue was included. I don’t need 14 years that badly).
That about wraps up my time in the “Rebel County.” County Cork had some highs and a few lows. Cork city, and some of the other towns like Clonakilty, weren’t as interesting as I had anticipated them to be. However, places like Mizen Head and Blarney Castle (which I had not been excited for, as I figured it would be a typical “tourist trap” headache) turned out to be pleasant surprises. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that Blarney Castle was my favorite Irish castle experience, while Mizen Head was my favorite Irish cliff side. If you’re heading to County Cork, you never know what kind of pleasant surprises could await there!