Any town that has a butter museum is good by me.
Tucked into a quiet square near St. Anne’s Church, the Cork Butter Museum is a small and slightly eccentric place. It houses a collection of artifacts and photographs that document the importance of the dairy industry in Ireland, from bog butter, buried in peat hundreds of years ago for preservation, to the story of the Cork Butter Exchange, which in the 1700s was the largest butter market in the world.
That world dominance of butter may explain why Cork is the birthplace of the Irish buttered egg. My friend Will explained the origin: “We have an abundance of wonderful fresh butter in Ireland and lots of eggs. But keeping them after the hens stopped laying was difficult till local farm women figured out how to extend the shelf life by coating newly laid eggs in butter. The butter would soften and absorb into the shell, making an airtight seal and preserving the eggs for up to six months.”
After raving about the delicate flavour – “Nothing tastes like a poached buttered egg!” – he told me the best place to find them: the English Market. So off I went on the hunt.
Fortunately, Cork is an extremely walkable city, the butter museum and the market being just two of the places easily visited from the centre of town.
Cork was originally built on an island in the middle of the River Lee, so many of the main streets were built over river arches, making it easy on the feet and the eyes. And in a place famous for buttered eggs, that’s a very good thing.
At the market, I’m first wowed by the elegantly vaulted aisles, home to purveyors of fine victuals since 1788. It’s the oldest indoor market of its kind in the world. Queen Elizabeth visited in 2011 and left for Buckingham Palace with a hamper full of local specialties.
But I’m soon diverted by the many vendors offering culinary treasures, including pink lamb and pork at Coughlan’s (at the market for five generations), butter fudge at Peggy & Michael Murphy’s and glistening piles of prawns and mussels at the Ballycotton Seafood Stall.
A long lunch at the market’s Farmgate Café – lingering over oysters, organic smoked salmon, soda bread, country pâté, corned beef and cabbage – means I run out of time. I pick up a box of fudge, brown soda-bread biscuits, Irish sea salt and a wedge of Cashel Blue cheese, but I never made it to Moynihan’s Poultry where the fabled eggs are sold. Probably just as well – attempting to get them home in my suitcase would have been interesting, to say the least.
Another walk from the Hayfield Manor Hotel early one morning leads me through the old quadrangle at the University of Cork. With its peaceful garden and ogham stones (the standing Irish stones carved with ancient Celtic symbols), it’s a quiet green oasis in the centre of this bustling city.
A short distance from there a visitor can stroll St. Patrick Street, the main shopping area, or explore the tree-lined elegance of Grand Parade. And a five-minute stroll from Grand Parade brings one to St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral, the neo-Gothic church that stands on the site where Cork was founded in the seventh century.
Built from area limestone and marble, and designed by the English architect William Bruges, the cathedral is a landmark of the city, towering over the River Lee.
On the roof of the sanctuary is the gilded Resurrection Angel. Legend claims that if the angel falls, it will signal the end of the world. More than 1,260 sculptures, an ornate pulpit and many stained-glass windows grace the interior.
If that leaves you feeling ecclesiastical or architecturally inspired, nearby St. Anne’s – it’s the church with the three-metre golden fish on the top of its tower – is an uphill walk that is worth the exertion.
The tower is also home to the 18th-century Shandon Bells, which visitors with a Quasimodo inclination can try their hand at ringing. From the top of the tower I could watch the movement of the massive bells and take in a breathtaking 360-degree view of the city and the river.
Closer to the river is plenty of evidence of the city’s affection for beer and whisky. It is an old brewing centre, with a history of beer-making that stretches back centuries and continues today.
You can walk past the Tudor-style splendour of the former Beamish & Crawford Brewery to admire its beauty, but, alas, there are no tours of the premises. To sample a pint, slip into the small Oval Pub across the street and try the brewery’s most famous product, a freshly pulled pint of Murphy’s Stout.
This small historic pub was designed for Beamish & Crawford by the same architects of the main buildings and has changed little over the years. The atmosphere is dark and full of the smells of peat smoke and beer, and on weekend nights there’s live music.
If you need to know more about the brewing tradition, there are tours of the Franciscan Well Brewery and Pub, a local micro-brewery known as the “Fran Well,” where you can sample artisanal beers such as Blarney Blonde, Rebel and the local favourite, Shandon Stout, a creamy dry stout with a roasted malt character. The outdoor beer garden is usually packed in good weather.
Just beyond the city lie other attractions. Blarney Castle is just eight kilometres away, and both Cobh (pronounced Cove) with its Titanic Experience and Midleton, home of the Jameson Distillery Centre, are less than half an hour away by train. The ruggedly beautiful coast is within easy reach.
But don’t shortchange your stay in Cork. This is a friendly city, rich in culture and devoted to the pleasures of good food served with a side of lively music.
And it may be the only place in the world where you can enjoy a cold Beamish and a buttered egg.
Aer Lingus and Ryanair have flights from Dublin and London to Cork International Airport and there is frequent train service from Dublin and Shannon. Ireland’s national train company operates to and from Cork’s Kent Train station, less than 10 minutes walk from the city centre. The No. 5 bus service will bring you the short hop into town and taxi services are also available.
Where To Eat
Orchids Restaurant in Hayfield Manor Hotel has elegant dining devoted to local ingredients, with an extensive wine list. hayfieldmanor.ie
Farmgate Café in the English Market offers more casual, though superbly fresh dishes. farmgate.ie
For great Irish pub dining, try Dan Lowry’s Tavern on McCurtain Street – family run, welcoming and traditional.
Where To Stay
Hayfield Manor is an elegant five-star hotel that is a quiet retreat set in two acres of gardens in the centre of the city, close to the university. Rooms from $223 (CAD) . hayfieldmanor.ie
For More Information
The writer travelled with assistance from Tourism Ireland