How To Spend It

Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Cork

Fine dining, artistic treasures and dog racing are all part of the charm of this rich, outward-looking city. Jamie Reid goes in search of a long, luxurious weekend.

August 01 2009
Jamie Reid

If you want a really exciting night out in Cork, there is no better place to go than the city’s Curraheen Park Greyhound Stadium. A 10-minute drive from the city centre, the stadium, which opened in 2000, is the newest, best-equipped dog track in Europe. The sport’s allure may be waning in parts of the UK but in Ireland, the land of the 19th-century superstar Master McGrath, who was presented to Queen Victoria, it remains hugely popular.

At Curraheen Park they stage 10 race programmes on most Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, and you can have dinner and watch the action from the tiered 180-seater glass-fronted restaurant, The Laurels. High-rollers and “bits-and-pieces” punters mingle freely, and after the racing is over there is live Irish music.

But dog racing is not the only sport enjoyed by citizens of the Rebel City, as Cork is also known in honour of its fiercely Republican stance in the Irish War of Independence. They are equally passionate about rugby, rowing, sailing, golf and football. In Cork Public Museum, for instance, among the archaeological remains, examples of Republican silver and fragments of Youghal lace, there is a prominent display case featuring the signed number 16 shirt worn by local hero and Manchester United legend Roy Keane, or Keano as he is known to his scores of worshippers.

The great midfielder had to go abroad to make his fortune, as did many Cork-born citizens, not all of them voluntarily. Some 2.5m adults and children left Ireland via Cork Harbour between 1848 and 1950 (the Public Museum also provides a fascinating history of the city), and a moving modern sculpture called Listening Posts by Daphne Wright and writer Johnny Hanrahan on the city’s Penrose Quay is a tribute to the themes of “migration, displacement and reinvention”.

Some of those emigrants were passengers on the Titanic, which made its last port of call at Cobh in the harbour, or Queenstown as it used to be known, in April 1912. To appreciate the significance of waterborne activities in Cork’s life and history, book a boat trip with the specialist charter company Whale of a Time. Its skippers are adept at finding the resident pod of bottlenosed dolphins as they steer you past the Victorian forts and Martello Towers and onward past Cobh to the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean.

As well as being the starting point of countless emigrant journeys, the harbour is also the main artery through which much of Cork’s prosperity and investment has flowed. The city’s 18th-century merchant adventurers provisioned the British navy, who used the deep-water anchorage while on watch against Napoleon, with salt beef, pork and butter from the surrounding countryside – at one point the Cork Butter Exchange in Shandon was the biggest in the world. The merchant princes reinvested their profits in manufacturing goods for the Atlantic trade and in 1792 two of them, William Beamish and William Horatio Crawford, founded a brewery to make the delicious and slightly caramel-flavoured stout that is still the drink of choice in many of the city’s bars.

The Crawford Municipal Gallery on Emmet Place, which was built in 1724 and was originally the Cork Custom House, is one of the oldest and most attractive buildings in the city. The pink-brick-and-sandstone structure houses an outstanding collection of 20th-century and contemporary Irish art, including several works by Jack B Yeats, whose dark skies and haunted faces capture the elemental dramas of Irish history. The Small Ring (1930) dramatises a boxing match in a provincial Irish town, while Off the Donegal Coast (1922) depicts fishermen in danger in rough seas. There are great portraits too, including one of Yeats, aged 72, by James Sinton Sleator, another by Sleator of Sir William Orpen, one of Jonathan Swift painted in 1735 by Francis Bindon and, by contrast, a 2002 nude portrait by Victoria Russell of the actress Fiona Shaw, which hangs on the right-hand side of the main staircase.

You will eat extremely well in Cork, not least at the Crawford Gallery Café, which is one of the best in Ireland. Most of the city’s restaurants buy their fabulous fresh produce from the covered English Market on Grand Parade, which opens every day but Sunday. The hand-reared beef, poultry and game, the artisan sausages and organic breads, the Irish cheeses and charcuterie and, in particular, the glistening displays of freshly caught fish (Ballycotton Seafood is recommended) look fantastic and stand comparison with the Boqueria in Barcelona. The celebrated fish merchant K O’Connell takes orders by phone and online, so you can have its oysters, prawns and smoked salmon delivered after you return home.

The centre of Cork is on an island between the north and south channels of the River Lee, and the area around the market is crosshatched with narrow streets and charming alleyways, such as French Church Street in the old Huguenot Quarter. This is also the location of Casey O’Conaill’s chocolate shop, which sells 30 different varieties of hot chocolate, as well as brick-size bars of handmade dark, milk and white chocolate created with 100 per cent cocoa. Other intriguing shops nearby include the fine jeweller Marquise of Kinsale on Princes Street, and Liam Ruiséal’s independent bookshop on Oliver Plunket Street, which has a huge range of Irish authors along with an excellent sport section.

On the south side of the market you come to the beautiful, late-Georgian façades of South Mall, which is the heart of the city’s financial district. The premises at 30a have a particularly colourful history. Once a polio hospital and latterly a telephone exchange, they were also the Cork Turkish Baths before being bought 12 years ago by the McCarthy family, who turned them into Jacobs on the Mall, the best restaurant in Cork. The high-ceilinged room has an air of stylish but modern informality (men should definitely leave their ties at home). Chef Mercy Fenton’s simple but mouthwatering cooking features dishes such as fresh fish of the day served with a crab and soft herb risotto, spinach, roast fennel, chilli and lemon butter; and roast cod with savoy cabbage and bacon and a saffron cream sauce with mussels. The excellent wine list has a strong French bias, and the long bar mixes great mojitos, manhattans and martinis, as well as dispensing the exquisitely creamy Midleton Very Rare, a single malt whiskey that costs up to €125 a shot.

Les Gourmandises on Cook Street, whose proprietors Patrick and Soizic Kiely were formerly of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin, also serves excellent food, this time in a smaller, more intimate setting. For something more adventurous, you might try the Ivory Tower on Princes Street, where young Irish chef Seamus O’Connell specialises in unlikely combinations such as swordfish with banana ketchup, and venison with spinach in a bitter chocolate sauce.

On Grand Parade, around the corner from Princes Street, there was once a grocery emporium owned by the Musgrave family, another of Cork’s merchant dynasties which began trading in 1876 and built up a fortune worth about €700m. Hayfield Manor, their former family home, has been converted into a hotel, which is easily the best place to stay in the city. A short walk from the centre, it’s tucked away up a side road near University College Cork and overlooks a secluded garden. Everything, from the elegant entrance hall and double-sided mahogany staircase to the enormous bedrooms, oozes deep-pile comfort and expense. There are two restaurants, a club-like bar stocking more than 25 different varieties of Irish whiskey, and a nine-room relaxation centre and spa complete with indoor heated pool, steam room, gym and outdoor Jacuzzi.

The hotel owns the Harbour Point golf course and can also arrange rounds for you at several of the championship courses in County Cork: wooded Fota Island, for example, where the 2001 and 2002 Murphy’s Irish Open was played, or the spectacular Old Head Golf Links, which is on a 220-acre promontory jutting out to sea.

For an alternative place to stay, the Georgian Maryborough Hotel and Spa in the nearby village of Douglas is a luxurious and characterful option. Or, if you prefer the city centre, the 19th-century Imperial Hotel on South Mall has a lively bar and ambience and is where the Republican leader Michael Collins spent his last night (in room 115) on August 21 1922.

At the other end of the scale architecturally, standing in the grounds of University College is the stunning Lewis Glucksman Gallery, which stages world-class exhibitions of contemporary and installation art. The cantilevered structure of timber, glass and steel, which looks like a cross between a treehouse and a sailing ship, was designed by Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey and shortlisted for architecture’s RIBA Stirling Prize in 2005.

Named in more prosperous times after a former chief executive of Lehman Brothers, the Lewis Glucksman Gallery is one of Cork’s main legacies from its year as European Capital of Culture in 2005. The surge of optimism that accompanied that period has inevitably been dented by the recession, and not all of Cork’s new bars and restaurants will survive the current climate. But Cork is an engagingly optimistic city, and the entrepreneurial flair and outward-looking attitudes that made its fortune in the past suggest it won’t be long before it’s riding high again.