John Phillpott visits Cork… and discovers a musical and gastronomic gem set in the crown of the Emerald Isle

IF you ever cross the sea to Ireland there’s one place you shouldn’t miss. And that’s Cork.

Set deep in the southerly Munster region, this riverside city is enjoying an unprecedented popularity boom, thanks to travellers who are rapidly discovering what was once the Emerald Isle’s best-kept secret.

And if you really want to catch the action while you’re there, then don’t fail to visit The Oliver Plunkett, arguably the epicentre of a vibrant city rapidly becoming renowned for its food and music.

From early evening to well past the midnight hour, this centrally placed pub in the street of the same name is filled with the sights and sounds that embody everything we have come to know and love about this small country perched on Europe’s most westerly edge.

The Oliver Plunkett is named after the last Catholic martyr to be executed in England. The Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland, he was implicated in the so-called Popish Plot, a conspiracy concocted by clergyman Titus Oates in 1678.

Ireland loves her heroes and the unfortunate cleric lives on in the form of this lively establishment where live bands and duos perform non-stop seven days a week.

Downstairs the styles can vary, often featuring bands that enjoy no small degree of local and regional fame. Meanwhile, upstairs in The Frisky Whiskey bar, the material tends to be more traditional, ranging from old favourites such as The Black Velvet Band, Whiskey in the Jar and any number of jigs and reels.

Resident step-dancers often join the performers onstage, which further add to the electrifying atmosphere.

In fact, Oliver Plunkett Street is a thoroughfare that personifies the beating heart of Cork. Walking down this avenue of sound that runs parallel to the River Lee, music collides headlong with your senses.

It spills out from bars and from side streets, greeting the ears like myriad conversations. Meanwhile, buskers ply their various trades from side streets or outside shops.

This may not exactly be Beale Street in Memphis or Nashville’s Grand Old Opry, but the feeling might as well be the same.

The legacies of days gone by are never more than a street corner away in Cork and the city’s chequered past is well documented by the Elizabeth Fort in Barrack Street.

This star-shaped fortification was built in the aftermath of the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. The structure served to reinforce English dominance and protect the walled city.

It performed numerous functions during its long lifetime, including use as a military barracks, a convict depot for the transportation of women prisoners, and a food depot during the Great Famine of the 1840s.

And just outside the city lies the port of Cobh, from where the Titanic left on its ill-fated maiden voyage in April, 1912. The Titanic Experience takes you back to that fateful time, courtesy of expert guides and evocative visual displays.

Not far away is Spike Island, a grey-walled fortress that held hundreds of prisoners awaiting transportation to the Americas or Australia. Another reminder of Ireland’s grim past is Cork City Gaol, situated just outside the city on a rise above the River Lee.

But back at The Oliver Plunkett, all thoughts of Ireland’s tragic history are easily dispelled. As we walk up the stairs to the Frisky Whiskey Bar, past the memorial wall to the late blues-rocker Rory Gallagher, we hit a wall of sound… the unearthly wail of uilleann pipes, accordion, penny whistle and hard-strummed rhythm guitars.

Yes, the people of Ireland may have experienced trouble and hardship during their long history. But what triumphs above all adversity is their indomitable optimism and the dogged ability to have a good time.

And if there’s one place that typifies that unquenchable spirit then it must be The Oliver Plunkett… not so much a pub, more a way of life.


* Built just after the Napoleonic Wars, Cork City Gaol was actually a vast improvement on the barbaric conditions previously endured by prisoners. But people still faced long sentences for relatively minor offences, such as stealing food.

* Cork is rapidly becoming a hotspot for gourmets. Because of its proximity to the Atlantic, seafood in all its forms is the city’s speciality. And the portions are generous, too.

* For well over two centuries, the English Market has supplied the people of Cork with fresh fish, meat, fruit and vegetables. The origins of the market can be traced back to 1610, although the present building dates from 1786.

* Not far from Cork is the small town of Kinsale. Occasionally battered by the Atlantic gales, many of the brightly painted houses seem to shout their defiance as if to challenge the mighty ocean to do its worst.

* Kinsale’s inhabitants invited the Spanish over in 1601 to help them in their struggle against the English. They lost the ensuing battle and so the victorious sons of Albion built Charles Fort to make sure there were no further invasions.

* The city of Cork was founded in the seventh century by St Finn Barre who built a monastery on the site where the cathedral now stands.

* Situated around four miles from Cork, Blarney Castle is most famous for its stone, which has the traditional power of conferring eloquence on all who kiss it.