Cork has a long history as a trading port so, as Pat O’Connell told us, ‘We’ve been welcoming outsiders for a very long time.’ Where once it was merchant ships, now it’s the tech giants Apple, Amazon and Airbnb making land here.
Once upon a time, though, there would’ve been something forced about a trip to Cork City Gaol
. Today, its imposing hulk and austere interiors invite striking private events. Take a night tour of the 19th-century facilities, before sitting down to dinner in the three-storey West Wing. Don’t be afraid – its castle-like grandeur trumps everything and, come summer, you can throw open its doors for a barbecue in the courtyard.
University College Cork
’s 19th-century Great Hall is a more conventionally splendid spot for, say, a last banquet before heading on out into the countryside. Close to the campus, The River Lee
is a sharply modern business hotel in pleasantly pastoral surrounds, or there’s five-star Hayfield Manor
, which pairs period style with modern amenities including an array of purpose-built meeting rooms.
For bigger events, Pairc Ui Chaoimh
reopened in July after a £70m refurb. The 45,000-capacity Gaelic games stadium has already got Ed Sheeran in for three nights next May, but you can beat the copper-topped troubadour down there with conferences for 500 or drinks receptions for almost twice that. Pronunciation tip: locals just call it ‘the Park’.
Out of town
A half hour’s drive south of the city – and on the right side of it for the international airport – Kinsale is the longstanding gourmet capital of Ireland. It also now marks the southern end of the Wild Atlantic Way, a 1,500-mile stretch of road all the way up to Donegal.
You won’t find grand gestures here, just simple things done well. Done well because they’ve been done the same way for a long time – this harbour town’s retained its nautical know-how as well as it’s retained its medieval wall. ‘The fishermen are well known and their families have fished here for generations,’ says Suzanne Burns, whose Kinsale Food Tours
are a fine, personal introduction to the local cuisine – and the people who make it – for groups of up to 25.
Big-city imitators are fast emptying ‘farm to fork’ of its meaning. (You’re in walking distance of Piccadilly Circus; do you really expect us to believe that?) To get a feel for the real thing, come to Kinsale: on a Saturday morning, with a crate of lobster twitching on his kitchen counter, John, the chef-owner of Finns’ Table
, had time to shoot the breeze before Julie (front of house, and wife) arrived.
You won’t find grand gestures here, just simple things done well
As well as choosing early from the day’s catch out of the Atlantic’s clean waters, he gets the pick of the red meat from his parents’ butchers. ‘Provenance is a very important aspect of the food in Kinsale – we take pride in our quality and locality,’ confirms Suzanne.
The next inlet east of Kinsale hides Haven Shellfish
, one of the 22 venerable producers that the Seafood Development Centre works with as part of its Taste the Atlantic initiative. Three decades after they founded the business, Ger and Jamie Dwyer take groups to taste their rock oysters – carefully grown in mesh bags for three years – direct from the sea. Just to make doubly sure of their quality, we suggest an evening at The Bulman & Toddies Restaurant
on the edge of Kinsale. The pint we had while sitting on top of the stone slipway opposite suggests that, as well as the good food explosion, the craft-beer revolution has caught light here too.
Inland, on the river Agrideen at Timoleague, Ummera Smokehouse
invites groups in to hear the story of its award-winning salmon, from filleting through to oak smoking.
The waterways of west Cork
This is where the Donovan brothers learnt to row and still train. Gary and Paul won Ireland’s first ever Olympic rowing medal in Rio last year, then made a splash with a post-race interview that spoke – just a little, perhaps – to the local character. (YouTube can fill you in.)
Jim Kennedy, ex-Ireland kayaker and founder of Atlantic Sea Kayaking
, leads group tours of local waters at a slower pace. We met him in Glandore, close to where he runs tranquil, night-time expeditions to see the bioluminescence of phytoplankton. You’ll need total darkness to see these watery mini galaxies, but total darkness isn’t a problem out here.
Daytime excursions can involve lunches on islands and banquets at castles. Whichever you choose, you’ll benefit from Jim’s on-the-ground expertise in the local flora, fauna and marine life. ‘You live the complete experience with us,’ he promises.
Further west, Baltimore Safari can take groups out on the open water to see Roaring Water Bay Rope Mussels farm
– another Taste the Atlantic badge holder. Relax, the bay’s only named for the sound it creates; and the mussels like it specifically because it’s nicely sheltered.
The end of the line for us was Heir Island. Only accessible by boat, Island Cottage
is where John Desmond – once a chef at the Ritz Hotel and three-Michelin-starred Taillevent in Paris – and wife Ellmary Fenton host rustic, no-choice private dinners in their fisherman’s-style home. John does cookery courses too, though kitchen dimensions mean there’s a maximum group size of two.
Up next, is Dublin