24 December 2005

Cork: Walk of the month

Its buildings, geography and people make Cork the perfect place for a winter stroll, says Christopher Somerville.


'Well, being an Englishman, now, you'll know all about our saint and his horse?" said the old woman who was kneeling at her morning prayers in the sanctuary of St Fin Barre's Cathedral.

She got slowly to her feet and began to spin me the story. "Well, Fin Barre was a very handsome, fair-haired man by all accounts, and when he went over to visit Rome he seems to have made himself a lot of friends. One was St David - isn't he the Welsh saint? - well, anyway, Fin Barre called in to see him on his way back to Cork, and David lent him a great horse, and what did St Fin Barre do but 'gallip' the horse across the sea till they landed back in Ireland!"

She looked up at me consideringly. "Now, some might say that's just an old species of story. But the creature could have swum it, no bother at all to him, if he'd a saint on his back!"

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Cork's Fin Barre Cathedral

You're never starved of an enthusiastic word or 10 in Cork city, whether it's in the snug of some roaring old pub or in the holy hush of a great cathedral.

Under the blue and gold angels of the high Gothic sanctuary ceiling I took a short course in Irish sainthood, and another in the city's turbulent history.

"Burned to cinders!" whispered my friend, her sibilants hissing like snakes in the red marble gloom.

"Burned by King William in 1690, and burned again in 1920 by the Black and Tans. But sure it's a grand old place, right enough."

Grand old places need more than a set of historical horrors to rest on if they are to make a great winter walk.

Architecturally and geographically Cork has what it takes, in spades - a comfortable, lived-in appearance to the winding streets and back lanes, attractive low-level Georgian houses and public buildings, handsome church towers and spires to give drama to the skyline, and a fine succession of bridges spanning the twin channels of the River Lee that part and join to make an island of much of the old city.

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St Patrick's Bridge across the River Lee

As for atmosphere and vibe - Cork has been staging music, theatre and art exhibitions all year in celebration of its reign as European City of Culture 2005, and there's nothing in the demeanour of the fun-loving Corkadians to suggest the party is going to end any time soon.

Out in the winter cold on the steps of St Fin Barre's Cathedral, I paused, hands plunged in pockets, to admire the space-rocket pinnacles and the sculptures of angels, saints and demons so exuberantly designed by wee William Burges, neo-Gothic architect to the rich and eccentric of Victorian Britain.

Then I crossed the South Channel of the River Lee and headed into the centre of the city.

Fat gouts of steam were rising into the leaden December sky behind the dully gleaming silos of Beamish & Crawford 's brewery on South Main Street. I thought of the sweet tang of Cork stout, and of a rattling good reel.

"Oh, aye, there'll be a session tonight all right," agreed the barman in the dark, snug interior of An Spailpín Fánach ("The Wandering Labourer"). "There never isn't, except on a Sunday. Do you play yourself? Well, you'll be welcome."

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The centre of Cork: "there's nothing to suggest the party is going to end"

Before the night's music-making, I wandered around the English Market and the old lanes of the Huguenot Quarter, refuge and workplace for dozens of Protestants on the run from religious intolerance in pre-revolutionary France.

Cork celebrates its great men and women in the names of streets and bridges - MacCurtain Street in memory of the political murder of Tomás MacCurtain, first Republican Lord Mayor of Cork; Nano Nagle Bridge after a selfless educator of the 18th-century Irish poor; Christy Ring Bridge to commemorate the greatest hurler in the history of Irish sport.

In the Huguenot Quarter itself, Rory Gallagher Place honours the late blues and rock guitarist, who was brought up in Cork.

Bell chimes were floating down on the north wind from Shandon. I crossed Christy Ring Bridge and made for the tower of St Anne's, high above the city.

"On this I ponder Where'er I wander, And thus grow fonder, Sweet Cork, of thee, With thy bells of Shandon That sound so grand on The pleasant waters Of the River Lee."

Old Father Prout is certainly Shandon's most famous son, but he might not be the most popular. His song The Bells of Shandon, written nearly two centuries ago, has drawn countless pilgrims to climb the tower on the hill and try to knock a tune out of the bells.

All day, every day, local residents must grin and bear the sound of punters chancing their ringing arms on Amazing Grace or Molly Malone. I had an over-confident go at Out On The Ocean, a jig I had temporarily on the brain. A nasty discordant mess of clangs and jangles shivered the midday quiet of the hill.

Back by the River Lee I passed the massive and futuristic face of Cork's Opera House. I had a cup of tea in the Crawford Art Gallery and a look at its exhibition of Irish Impressionists.

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Futuristic face: Cork's Opera House

In Rory Gallagher Place an icy afternoon wind stirred the leaves. A young girl set up to play in the shadow of the Gallagher sculpture. She shivered as she sang a Kate Rusby song in a brave little voice. A red-faced old boy in a thick scarf stopped and doubled back to drop a couple of euros into her guitar case and nod, "Good luck, now."

Towards nightfall a sudden hail shower scoured the streets of Cork. It drove me along Oliver Plunkett Street and up the steps into the Hi-B.

Now that is a bar made in heaven, a pub for a winter walker, a drinker's warm paradise in ancient plush, firelight and recondite talk. Sartre? Never had any time for the man. Christy Ring, you said? Now there was a nice hurler if you like. Existential, if you like. I saw them goals of his in the '56 Munster final, didn't I, Tommy? Wait till I tell you . . .

Stepping out

Cork City map available from Tourist House, Cork City (see below).

Getting there
Flight: Aer Arann (www.skyroad.com) from Bristol, Edinburgh, Southampton; Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) from Heathrow; Air Wales (www.airwales.co.uk) from Cardiff, Plymouth, Swansea; Bmi (www.flybmi.com) from Leeds Bradford; Bmibaby (www.bmibaby.com) from Cardiff, East Midlands, Manchester; British Airways (www.ba.com) from Manchester; Flybe (www.flybe.com) from Birmingham; Loganair (www.loganair.co.uk) from Glasgow; Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) from Stansted.

Ferry: Swansea Cork Ferries (www.swanseacorkferries.com).

Walk directions
From Tourist House Information Centre, left along Grand Parade; cross South Channel of River Lee by Nano Nagle footbridge; right along Sullivan’s Quay and Proby’s Quay to St Fin Barre’s Cathedral.

Return along Proby’s Quay; left across South Gate Bridge; up South Main Street between Beamish & Crawford Brewery and An Spailpín Fánach. Right along Tuckey Street , left up Grand Parade.

Right through English Market to emerge on far (east) side in Princes Street. Left to cross St Patrick Street and go up Carey's Lane into Huguenot Quarter.

Right at Rory Gallagher Place, along Paul Street and Emmet Place, passing Crawford Art Gallery and Cork Opera House, to cross River Lee’s north channel over Christy Ring Bridge.

Left along Pope's Quay for a few yards, then right up John Redmond Street to Firkin Crane Institute, Cork Butter Museum, Shandon Craft Centre and St Anne's Tower (The Bells of Shandon).

From St Anne’s, right past Shandon Arms pub to reach North Cathedral. Leaving North Cathedral, right along street; left down Shandon Street to cross Griffith Bridge; left along Kyrl's Quay and Coal Quay to turn right at the south end of Christy Ring Bridge.

Down Emmet Place and Paul Street; left down Frenchchurch Street; left along St Patrick Street; fourth right down Wintrop Street to Oliver Plunkett Street (Hi-B bar on corner).

Right along Oliver Plunkett Street ; fourth left down Princes Street; right along South Mall to return to Tourist House Information Centre.

Length of walk
Allow half a day.

Lunch/breakfast: English Market; lunch/tea: Crawford Art Gallery café; drink: An Spailpín Fánach, Hi-B bar.

Jurys Inn Cork , Anderson’s Quay (00 353 21 494 3000, www.jurysinns.com): from £57 for a double room, b&b.

Further information
Cork Kerry Tourism, Tourist House, Grand Parade, Cork City (00 353 21 425 5100, info@corkkerrytourism.ie; www.corkkerry.ie).

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