County Cork, in the south-west corner of Ireland, is the largest county by area, home to Ireland’s second-biggest city, Cork. Known as the ‘Rebel County’, Cork has always had a fiercely independent streak. While Dublin might be the biggest city and the seat of Irish government, including the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Cork locals know that their city is the ‘real capital of Ireland‘. Get out of the city and County Cork offers the quintessential country scenery of the ‘Emerald Isle’, all rolling green hills, and the beginnings of the famous Wild Atlantic coast.
During the period of English rule, Cork City (Irish: Corcaigh, ‘Marshy Place’) was a major port, maintaining close links with Great Britain. Today, the city remains prosperous thanks to a vibrant university, IT businesses, and Ireland’s largest concentration of chemical factories. The heart of the city – on an island on the River Lee – is home to elegant Georgian buildings and charming medieval lanes. Visitors with an interest in Ireland’s history shouldn’t miss the Cork City Gaol, where the harsh environment of the 19th century penitentiary is vividly evoked. In a time of colonial rule from Great Britain, Irish people were punished for the crime of poverty, forced to do hard labour for crimes such as ‘drunkeness’ and ‘obscenity’. During the Irish War of Independence from the United Kingdom, the Gaol housed a number of Republican prisoners, becoming a local radio station in the early years of the Republic of Ireland.
A quick day trip from Cork will take you to Cork County’s most popular tourist sight: Blarney Castle and the Blarney Stone. The legend that made Blarney the most famous of Irish castles is dated to the 16th century. Though supposedly loyal to English rule, the Lord of Blarney, Cormac MacCarthy, was able to stall Queen Elizabeth I’s emissary with good hospitality and conversation – distracting him from his mission of restoring English control over south-west Ireland. The Queen is said to have responded:
Blarney, Blarney, what he says he does not mean. It is the usual Blarney.
MacCarthy, it was said, could talk ‘the noose off his head’, from which the term ‘blarney’ – used to describe the Irish facility for flattering and deceiving through loquaciousness – derives. In the 19th century, with the spread of mass tourism to Ireland’s west coast, the Blarney Castle became a major destination, and the legend developed that a kiss to the Blarney Stone would bequeath the kisser with the gift of the gab.
The west of County Cork is the other major draw for the visitor, offering the beginning of the Wild Atlantic Way, which spans from Cork right up to Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. Cork and the adjoining county of Kerry are home to five peninsulas spanning out like fingers into The Atlantic Ocean. The Mizen Head, Sheep’s Head and Beara peninsulas in Cork, are among Ireland’s best scenery, all sheer cliffs, stony ridges, and pristine beaches.