The plate of Manooshet Falafel appeared in front of me, straight from the oven. The freshly baked flat bread generously topped with falafel, hummus, tahini and rocket, and gently dusted with sumac made me salivate. I had been stuffing myself the whole day, but suddenly found more room in my belly for this feast. Eating traditional Palestinian food would not have been my guess on a list of things to do in Cork and yet here I was. What a treat. I also found my new Achilles heel – Saffron cake. Too good to pause even for a moment to take a photo. I inhaled all of it in a minute!
Izz Cafe’s delicious Palestinian food (left) and the English Market (right) in Cork City
While I was excited to visit Ireland’s second city with its long tradition of making butter (it was the largest butter market in the world at one point), see its majestic churches with glorious vantage points and explore its coastlines made for postcards, it was my encounters with people that I’ll always remember.
Cork has more bridges than Dublin and is the foodie capital of Ireland; the centre of Cork is basically an island separated by a river, so there are multiple bridges to cross to get from one side to another
Trying to hike across the Old Head of Kinsale
The weather forecast had gone from bad to worse. Heavy rain and strong winds starting at 2pm, I remember reading. “A little rain isn’t going to put me off; I’m going to do it,” I told myself. Little did I know what I was in for.
“Where are you headed to today?” the friendly bus driver asked me on the local bus service from Kinsale. “I’m trying to hike the Old Head of Kinsale starting at Garrylucas beach,” I replied cheerily. “Oh let me know where exactly you want to get off; I can drop you there no problem,” he said warmly.
I couldn’t help but think how different this was compared to bus journeys in London where exchanging a mere greeting with the driver is a rarity. Although admittedly we were on a minibus and I was one of only two passengers on it. The unfriendly weather arrived sooner than expected. It was just approaching 12.30pm and the heavens had opened. And in Ireland I was quickly learning that rain falls almost horizontally given the billowing wind.
“Do you have any rain gear?” the driver asked, looking quite concerned before I got down. “Yes, thank you, I’ll be fine,” I instinctively responded even though I had nothing more than a small umbrella and a winter jacket. I opened the minibus door. In a second it felt like Ironman had wrenched the door wide open, the wind howling. I gulped. This was going to be an interesting hike.
Twenty minutes later, I was completely drenched. My jeans were clinging onto my legs. My supposedly waterproof jacket was not as waterproof as I believed. I didn’t even try taking my camera out, fearful it would get damaged by the water. My umbrella had blown inside out. “One and a half hours more in this weather would be brutal,” I thought. Time for a shortcut to the Speckled Door pub.
“Table for lunch?” the friendly waitress asked automatically as I entered. She tried her best to conceal a chuckle when she discovered what a drenched wreck I was. After apologising for dripping water everywhere, I tried (in vain) to dry myself using far too many paper towels and settled down for a plate of fish and chips. I stared out of the glass bay windows at the trees swaying vigorously outside. This just wasn’t my day. Or so I thought.
Two hours later, I mustered up the courage to head back out. There seemed to be a brief respite in the weather. Strike while the iron is hot? As I was zipping up my (still wet) jacket, I heard someone calling out to me “Are you going walking in the rain?” the gentleman at the adjacent table asked. “Yes,” I replied somewhat sheepishly, realising how mad I must have seemed. “If you don’t mind waiting a few moments, we can drive you.”
And so what began as a miserable afternoon with me soaking wet, led to me befriending a kind-hearted retired couple. Sean* and Dearbhla* were staying nearby for the weekend while their house was being renovated. Little did they know their quiet post-lunch drive would turn into becoming tour guides for me! When they knew how much I was looking forward to hiking around the Old Head, they drove me across the entire stretch. And stopped for me to get down and have a quick look at the views (they just smiled and shook their heads when I asked if they wanted to jump out of the car too; like most sensible people they preferred to stay warm and dry).
If you’ve come across a drone photograph of the Irish Atlantic coast that made you gasp with wonder, chances are you were looking at the Old Head of Kinsale. The iconic headland with dramatic cliffs rising from the sea has outstanding scenery throughout. That’s provided you can see it on a clear day instead of being hammered by sheets of rain.
The strong, unforgiving waves have acted on the thin layers of soft rock to create a fractured coastline with blow holes and narrow sea inlets. I managed to grab a few glimpses thanks to Sean & Dearbhla, but have an incentive to visit again on a clearer day 😉
I got back into the car only to find them animatedly playing Wordly (a word scramble app). “Vin, you must have a go,” they began, trying to teach me when they discovered I had no clue what it was. While I’m quite content living the single life, I couldn’t help but smile warmly at these two kind souls, and how they enjoyed the simple pleasures of a rainy Saturday afternoon in Kinsale.
I peered tentatively through the glass door. Sunshine was beaming in. I couldn’t see anyone yet. Glancing at my watch I saw the time: 09:26am. I was the first person eagerly standing outside Ellen’s Kitchen, a small cafe at the edge of a little seaside town called Cobh (pronounced Cove).
The night before, I was reading about Spike Island which had piqued my curiosity. Just off the coast at Cobh, Spike Island was used at one point as a holding centre for thousands of prisoners who were sentenced to ‘transport.’ Many of these people were political prisoners or had committed petty crimes (more serious crimes like rape and murder were not transportable offences).
Once they were sent to the overseas colonies (Americas, Australia), the convicts were used as forced labour. In other cases people emigrated to the colonies voluntarily on a scheme where the travel cost was paid for and in return the recruits committed to working and staying for fixed periods.
“People were literally kidnapped by “man catchers” who received £4 for every person successfully captured and transported in an effort to ethnically cleanse the Irish population. It is thought as many as 50,000 people were sold to the plantations in the Americas in the 17th century.”Cobh Heritage Centre
This morning it wasn’t before long I was sitting down, coffee mug in hand, talking to mother and daughter, Caoimhe* and Roisin*. By the strangest of coincidences, Roisin came from a military family and grew up on Spike Island when it was a barracks!
Sipping her steaming black coffee, Roisin explained, “There was a small school and the teacher used to come on a boat each day. So if there was a storm, there was no school. And school didn’t start at the same time everyday because the boat could cross over only when the tide was high enough.”
“What about food and groceries?” I asked.
“Fresh bread and milk were delivered daily to the military barracks so you could buy that. For anything else, we (the families) had to hop across to Cobh every Saturday to buy what we needed. If you didn’t get it then or ran out mid-week, you had to somehow find a way to manage!”
Walking into town from Ellen’s cafe, you can cut across to a pedestrian path right by the water.