Cork: Made in Ireland

That creative energy is no more abundant than in the country’s ‘second’ city, Cork. About a three-hour-drive south of Dublin (thanks to a recently revamped freeway), it is the capital’s dynamic cousin, brimming with creative types in all fields - from music to food to art.

“Cork is a city where artists and creativity are embedded in the city’s fabric,” says Mary McCarthy, director of the influential National Sculpture Factory. “It is inherently a city of makers and producers - from the food producers to the musicians and writers and scientists. It has a heady mix of artists, academics and students living and working together, and this mix ensures the city is vibrant and energetic.”

It’s also refreshingly friendly, which is an attribute the Lord Mayor of Cork, Mary Shields, likes to point out. “In Cork we believe a stranger is just a friend we have not met yet.”

As she pulls a KitKat from her handbag for us to share, Shields explains further: “The experience of having been subjugated has led us to put an extraordinary emphasis on the value of our culture.” And it is a culture that is saturated in creative pursuits and talent. “It’s just in our DNA,” she says.

Drinking it in

So passionate is the city about creating and sharing melodies, that the Cork Institute of Technology’s School of Music made history a few years back when it placed the largest order of Steinway baby grand pianos in the brand’s history - 54 to be exact. Seán McKeown, singer in rock band The Reverse, says this is a classic example of how the city nurtures creative talent. “We wouldn’t be who we are today, or have such an amazing fan base, if we hadn’t started here,” he says.

You’ll find The Reverse, and other Irish bands, frequenting one of Cork’s oldest pubs, The Roundy, which is in a building as old as the town itself. It stocks the entire range of Jameson whiskey - produced about 30 minutes’ drive from the city centre at Jameson Distillery - as well as local craft beers from Eight Degrees Brewing.  Eight Degrees co-founder Scott Baigent, a hydrologist, surveyed the country to find the best waters for the company to create its ales, and found it about an hour’s drive north of the city. “The water supply into our brewery is lovely soft water from a sandstone mountain area called the Galtee Mountains,” he says.

But the beer-brewing scientist wasn’t the first one to recognise Cork’s pristine waters. Anne Ferguson, of OceanAddicts, set up a deep-sea diving, snorkelling and training centre here because of the unique environment. “You can’t find the variety of marine life in one dive like you can in Cork,” says Ferguson. The reason for this is the Gulf Stream. “For our latitude, the water should be a lot colder. The Gulf Stream, which originates in the Gulf of Mexico, comes across the Atlantic and the first place it hits is the Cork coastline, bringing with it nutrients and plankton for the fish to feed on, creating an abundance of thriving sea life,” says Ferguson.

Food philosophy

With fish practically jumping out of the sea, it’s no wonder Ireland’s Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef Martin Shanahan, has a restaurant here. Fishy Fishy is one of the country’s most successful seafood restaurants, which Shanahan puts down to Cork’s abundant waters. “We buy straight from the fishermen’s boats and that’s what goes on our menu that day. When it’s the best in the world, why have it any other way?”

Championing locally sourced, sustainably harvested and seasonal produce at a time when such things were unheard of - let alone mainstream - is one reason why Michelin-starred chef Ross Lewis describes Cork legend Myrtle Allen as the most influential person in Irish food and hospitality. More than 50 years ago, Allen opened the award-winning Ballymaloe House. The food here is a celebration of the bounty of the Cork countryside - think glazed Gubbeen ham and greens just picked from the garden.

Allen’s granddaughter-in-law, successful celebrity chef Rachel Allen, says what they’ve been doing for decades at Ballymaloe has now become the latest buzzword. “I’ve just come back from a food festival in Copenhagen where I went to the best restaurant in the world, Noma, which credits foraging for their success. Ha! Living off the land is just the way of life here,” Rachel says.

Interestingly, graduates of Ballymaloe Cookery School - started by Allen’s daughter-in-law Darina Allen - have found a place in Noma’s kitchen. With its own 40-hectare organic farm and gardens, however, it’s much more than just a cooking school.

“It really is an introduction to a way of life, one that respects food and where it comes from,” says Darina. 

Food-loving tour guide Alice Coyle of Fab Food Trails believes this food philosophy is echoed throughout The English Market - Cork city’s epicentre of local produce. “Since 1788 this market has been the showcase of the city and it is world famous for good reason,” she says.

City stars

But the city doesn’t only produce great food. Cork has also bred a number of well-known entertainers, including actors Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Cillian Murphy. The latter was in town last year, starring in a work by Irish playwright Enda Walsh.

Mary Hickson of the Cork Opera House was behind the return of Murphy to Cork, and epitomises the can-do attitude of Corkonians. “There’s a DIY mentality in Cork people,” Hickson says. “They just get on with things. They are brave and bold and continue to make things happen.”

In turn, Hickson thinks Murphy, best known for his role in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, perfectly captures that Cork determination. “He walked into a blind audition off the street, having never acted before,” Hickson says. “He was studying law at UCC [University College Cork] and didn’t really want to be a lawyer, so thought he would have a go at acting. He was cast in that show, Disco Pigs, and everyone involved went on to great things.”

Cork seems to be punching above its weight… it’s enough to make you think there’s something in the water.

Best of Cork

Consume

The Bulman Bar & Restaurant Although this pub has won a stack of awards for its innovative menu, it’s the location that will bowl you over - at Summercove in Kinsale with Cork’s pristine water lapping at your feet. 

Cafe Paradiso You’ll need to book early to secure a table at this vegetarian eatery. 

Filter Fanatical about provenance, they source their coffee beans just a few kilometres from the cafe.

Stay

Hayfield Manor Soft sunken sofas, grand stairways, wooden panelling and the smell of peonies greet you as you walk through the door. This hotel is well positioned for you to explore the city.

Ballymaloe House You’ll feel part of the Allen family as soon as you check in. Don’t miss a cooking demonstration with Rachel or Darina, even if the kitchen is not your comfort zone. 

Castlemartyr Resort This hotel has everything: fine local food, an indoor heated pool, gardens, a golf course and even two Irish setters who love to go for walks. 

Play

Atlantic Sea Kayaking If you want to go kayaking, walk the Wild Atlantic Way or learn about food foraging (seaweed in particular), these are the people to help you do it. 

Lewis Glucksman Gallery This award-winning art and architecture hub is bursting with activity for all ages.

Words by Nic Hogan - Published in Voyeur May 2015
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 506,211
Time Zone UTC +1
Languages English (official), Irish (official)
Currency Euro
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