The Republic’s second city, CORK (Corcaigh, “marshy place”) is strongly characterized by its geography. The centre sits tight on a kilometre-wide island, much of which was reclaimed from marshes, in the middle of the River Lee, while the enclosing hills seem to turn this traditionally self-sufficient city in on itself. Given this layout and its history, it comes as no surprise that Corkonians have a reputation in Ireland for independence of spirit, not to say chippiness. Indeed, in many ways, Cork sees itself not in second place but as a rival to Dublin. It produces its own national newspaper, The Irish Examiner, brews Murphy’s and Beamish, its own versions of the national drink, stout, and supports a vigorous artistic, intellectual and cultural life of its own. Even its social divisions match Dublin’s: here too the south side of the river is generally more affluent, while the north side has more public housing and a stronger working-class identification.
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In colonial times, Cork also maintained its own strong links with London, through its role as a major port, proof of which can still be seen all around town. The main drag, curving St Patrick’s Street, was originally a waterway lined with quays, while you can still spot eighteenth-century moorings on Grand Parade. Though contemporary Cork doesn’t make the most of its long riverfront, much of which is now lined by major roads, the channels of the Lee, spanned by more than twenty bridges, break up the cityscape and pleasantly disorientate. The harbour area has Ireland’s largest concentration of chemical factories, fortunately downstream of the centre, while the city’s other main modern industry, computers, is linked to the prestigious university, to the west of the centre. All of this has spawned a widespread commuter belt, but the compact island is still the place for the many excellent restaurants, lively pubs and artistic venues.
The best of the city’s sightseeing options are the Crawford Art Gallery, with its fine collection of eighteenth- to twentieth-century art, Cork City Gaol, which vividly evokes life in a nineteenth-century prison, and the hi-tech cosmological displays of Blackrock Castle Observatory. In truth, however, none of Cork’s sights are absolute must-sees, though it’s a pleasant place to stroll around on a fine day. The city centre is essentially the eastern part of the island, with its quaysides, bridges, old warehouses and the narrow alleys of the medieval heart, plus a segment to the north of the River Lee that has MacCurtain Street as its central thoroughfare.
In the seventh century, St Finbarr established a monastery at Cork, on the site of today’s cathedral, to the southwest of the modern centre. Three centuries later, the Vikings created a separate settlement, an island in the River Lee’s marshes, which was taken over in the twelfth by the Anglo-Normans. They strengthened the defences of the central part of the island with the construction of vast city walls, leaving the west and east ends to the swamp and later developing suburbs on the slopes to the north and south. The fortifications were largely destroyed, however, in the successful Williamite siege of 1690, and became redundant when the marshes were reclaimed soon after. The next century witnessed great wealth, through the trade in butter and pickled meat and the development of the port for provisioning westbound sailing ships. Brewing and distilling plants were established, which persist to this day, along with glass, silver and lace industries, but the Act of Union and the introduction of steamships brought stagnation in the nineteenth century. At the start of the last century, Cork took an active part in the War of Independence and the Civil War, and suffered as a consequence. In 1920, the Royal Irish Constabulary murdered the Lord Mayor, Tomás MacCurtain, and as a reprisal for an ambush, the Black and Tans burnt much of the city centre to the ground in 1921. MacCurtain’s successor as mayor, Terence MacSwiney, was incarcerated and went on hunger strike, which after 74 days led to his death on October 24, 1920.