Things to do in Cork

Known as ‘the real capital of Ireland’ by locals, Cork is the second largest city in the Republic of Ireland the third largest on the island. The city is home to a bustling university, thriving art galleries, and one of the most famous food markets in the world.

Cork is also a city of history and any visit should include a tour of the city’s 19th Century gaol which housed numerous freedom fighters over the decades and was the scene of a large scale breakout in the 1920s. For a more out-of-this-world experience, you can even explore the cosmos as the Blackrock Castle Observatory.


The English Market

A highlight of any visit to Ireland’s second city is the English Market, called “the best covered market in the UK and Ireland” by TV chef Rick Stein. The current market dates from the 19th Century and was given its name to distinguish it from the defunct St. Peter’s Market on nearby Cornmarket Street (it’s now the Bogeda Bar) which was also referred to as the Irish Market.

The distinction stems from the fact that the English Market was operated by the Protestant or ‘English’ Corporation while the Catholic ‘Irish’ majority used the St. Peter’s Market after gaining a majority on the Corporation following local government reforms in 1840. The English Market continued to be associated with its English creators and so the name stuck but of course, these days, anyone and everyone is welcome.

Traders have operated on the site since 1788 when land following the reclamation of the marshes which once occupied the site but it wasn’t until the mid-19th Century that the current buildings were constructed in the style of the newly emerging covered market in Britain. The ornate Princes Street entrance was erected in 1862 by Sligo born architect Sir John Benson who also numerous other major landmarks in the city including St. Patrick’s Bridge and the Cork Opera House.

Benson’s section of the market was almost destroyed by fire in 1980 and Cork Corporation (now Cork County Council), which was performing refurbishing works on the English Market at the time, began a major conservation effort for which it was awarded Europa Nostra prize. Sadly, another fire 1986 led to another large reconstruction project.

Since 1992 stalls have taken up residence in the English Market selling a range of more exotic foodstuffs such as Indian spices and Greek olives alongside the more traditional vegetable, meat, and fish counters and the popularity of the market among Corkonians and tourists has soared as a result.

Today, the English Market caters to many of Cork’s best restaurants and the market received international attention in 2011 when Queen Elizabeth II toured the stalls during her state visit to Ireland.

For its range of dining options, fresh food to take home, or enjoy as part of a picnic, the English Market has few rivals. |

The Crawford Art Gallery

Housed in what was once the Cork Custom House, built in 1724, the Crawford Art Gallery opened in 1979 and was significantly expanded upon in both 1884 and 2000 with new extensions for the museum’s extensive collection.

A National Cultural Institution, the gallery features a permanent exhibition of Irish and European art. Among the highlights are the Greek and Roman neo-classical style statues of Antonio Canova, which arrived in Cork from the Vatican in 1818.

The statues were acquired by the Royal Cork Institution, a museum body which operated in the city during the 19th Century, who bought them from the Society of Fine Arts in Cork. Canova’s statues had been a gift from Pope Pius VII, who had commissioned Canova to create a set of sculptures based on statues in the Vatican, to Britain’s Prince Regent, later King George IV. George IV in turn gave the statues to the Society.

Some of the highlights include The Belvedere Torso, The Laocoon, and The Disc Thrower.

The Crawford Art Gallery also features a number of temporary and travelling exhibitions and has been used as a public museum since 1830 though the statues were moved to their current location five years earlier when the building was gifted to the Royal Cork Institute – a precursor to University College Cork.

Since that time, the gallery and its collection have passed through the ownership of various philanthropic societies before coming under the stewardship of the Office of Public Works in 2006.

These days, the gallery boasts a sizable collection of 20th Century and contemporary Irish art with the collection featuring over 2,500 works and what’s more, admission is free! |

Cork City Gaol

Cork City Gaol, just a 20 minute walk from St. Patrick’s Street, looks more like a castle than a prison but in the 19th Century this site housed prisoners in often terrible conditions.

The prison is notable for its Georgian Gothic design and the site is laid out with the heart of the gaol leading to two wings, where the prisoners were housed on either side before ending in medieval style towers. Built by Sir Thomas Deane, an Irish architect of Scottish descent, construction began after parliament issued funding in 1806 to replace an older jail on the site which was overcrowded and unhygienic.

When Cork Gaol eventually opened in 1824 it was described as being “the finest in the three kingdom (Ireland, Scotland, and England)” and became an all-female prison in 1878. It would remain a women’s jail until the Civil War when male prisoners were incarcerated there before the eventual closure of the prison after the war ended in 1923.

The cells feature life size wax models of the prisoners along with sound effects to inform visitors of what life was like in the jail. The exhibitions detail the social history of the city and explore why some people turned to crime.

Some of the earliest prisoners to be incarcerated here were men and women who had been sentenced to exile in Australia and were held in the jail while awaiting transport on convict ships.

Many revolutionaries were held within Cork Gaol’s walls including members of the Young Irelanders, the Fenians, and the Land League. The prison’s most famous guest was likely Countess Markievicz, one of the leaders of the 1916 Rebellion, the first female MP elected to Westminster (though she never took her seat) and one of the first women to hold a cabinet position in the world when she served as Irish Minister for Labour.

Cork Gaol was also used extensively during the War of Independence and Civil War with a large group of IRA prisoners managing to escape in full light of the moon without alerting the guards in 1923.

Between 1927 and the 1950s, the top floor of the governor’s mansion was used by Radio Eireann (now RTE) as a broadcasting station and today there’s a radio museum on the site which explores the creation of the medium through Guglielmo Marconi’s pioneering work. You’ll have the chance to test out the Morse code station and oscilloscope and the museum also houses the microphone used by US President John F. Kennedy during his 1963 visit to Ireland.

The control area from the 1927 broadcasting station is also accessible and an exhibition recalls the foundation of radio network here.

Day and night tours are available on request but otherwise visits to the gaol and radio museum are self-guided and well worth your time. |

The Blackrock Castle Observatory

Blackrock Castle, built over 400 years ago on the banks of the River Lee, is now home to a science centre and the Cosmos at the Castle exhibition, an astronomy exhibition which has garnered numerous awards.

The castle was constructed around 1600 when the citizens of Cork asked Queen Elizabeth I to raise a fortress at Blackrock in order to repel pirates. King James I granted control of the castle to Cork Corporation who used it for banquets and ceremonies. Like the English Market, Blackrock Castle has had a poor record when it comes to fire, being ravaged in 1722 and again in 1829. The second rebuilding effort significantly expanded the castle until it assumed it current form.

Self-guided tours take about an hour and you’ll learn about recent breakthroughs and what the latest discoveries mean for life in space. Visitors can also send a Message to Space, which will be directed through the castle’s radio telescope to distant stars known to have planets in orbit around them.

The Comet Chaser, the country’s first interactive theatre, allows you to make vital decisions on a critical space mission to divert an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.

Behind the scenes, Blackrock is a working observatory with a fully functional 16” robotic telescope – Ireland’s first – operated by Cork Institute of Technology researchers who collaborate with teams around the world to identify new planets but unfortunately, public access to this part of facility is prohibited. The observatory has been in operation since the early 2000s. |

Cork Public Museum

Located within two elegant Georgian houses beside University College Cork, the city’s public museum sits in Fitzgerald’s Park and was originally built by the Beamish family, famous local brewers.

The property was purchased by Cork Corporation to house the International Exhibition of 1902 and 1903 before the park was opened to the public in 1906 while the museum opened four years later and the site temporarily housed the city’s municipal offices after British troops razed much of the city by fire in 1920.

It was also an Air Raid Protection Office during the Emergency, which was the name officially given by neutral Ireland to the Second World War. The museum eventually reopened in 1945 and features exhibits on the social, economic, and cultural history of Cork, particularly the trades which were popular in the city during the 19th Century.

Cork Public Museum also has a fine archaeological collection with some artefacts dating back to the Bronze and Iron Ages as well as medieval craft ware. |

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