So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 7): Eating, Drinking … and Music

This series started with an introduction, and here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Now, let’s talk about those to-do categories we skipped earlier, shall we? I haven’t forgotten them.

10 Have a drink in a traditional Irish pub
11 Hear traditional Irish music
18 Shop for uniquely Irish items
19 Enjoy the food

I’m going to put off the post on shopping, since this one has already gotten longish. So let’s discuss food, drink, and music! Here’s a little bit of background that will help when you’re planning your trip.

Traditional Music
What you may be calling Celtic is called traditional in Ireland. “Trad.” More than likely, you’re going to find traditional sessions in a pub—look for signs in pub windows. Don’t look for a stage so you can sit close—the musicians will most likely sit at a table somewhere in the room. If you’re an old fogey like me, do be prepared to stay up late: the musicians won’t show up until after 9:00 or even 10:00 pm.

If you love this music—and who doesn’t!—look for music stores in larger towns, where you can pick up CDs by local musicians to take home.

Public Houses
Ireland is the only place I know that exports its pub culture. You can go just about anywhere in the world—even my little town here in Tennessee—and find an Irish pub. (Authenticity is another story. About a dozen years ago I visited one such establishment in Nashville—now defunct—and was dismayed to find the wait staff dressed in caps and vests and short pants, looking like they’d just stepped out of the 1840s. Oh dear.)

You can search the Web or travel guides for well-known pubs in Ireland, but as far as I’m concerned, you can stop into any pub on your route, enjoy the ambience of the moment, and it will be an authentic experience. In his wonderful book, McCarthy’s Bar: A Journey of Discovery in the West of Ireland, Pete McCarthy has a series of travel rules, the first of which is Never pass a bar with your name on it … and this works for me. 🙂 Tourists have subtly influenced authenticity, though, so the further out you get, the real-er they’ll feel. (No pressure to look like an Irish pub for the tourists, you see.)

Unlike England, where you find pubs with names like Red Lion, Goose and Cloud, or Saracens Head, many Irish pubs are named after the owner or a previous owner. (There are exceptions, of course: the Bleeding Horse and the Confession Box, both long-lived pubs in Dublin, are just two.) A lot of social life happens in pubs—celebrations of all sorts, meet-ups, and general relaxation. We have nothing in the United States that approximates Irish pub culture.

With that in mind, here are a few things you should know:

• Belly up to the bar, there may not be a waiter.
• No need to tip the bartender.
• Don’t run a tab. Drinks are bought (and paid for) in rounds; that is, you buy a round for the entire table. And then someone else does.
• It’s pronounced JEM-i-sun (short e), not JAY-mi-sun.
• Remove your hat, young sir.
• Don’t ask for an Irish Car Bomb or a Black and Tan. Please.

Pubs in the larger cities and towns probably offer food—pub grub—throughout the day. More than likely it will be casual comfort food—soups, stews, hot sandwiches and fries—but some city pubs chase the business lunch crowd with expanded menus; in smaller towns you might be lucky to get a cold sandwich. Still, if you’re on a budget, a pub’s a good place to eat.

The local—a good place to meet new friends!

The local—a good place to meet new friends!

Let’s talk about what to eat. Don’t worry about “traditional” food and forget any jokes you may have heard about the quality of Irish cuisine. Some of the best meals I’ve had in my life I had in Ireland.

These, then, are the things that will always be good:

• fish and seafood
• lamb
• potatoes
• pork: chops, sausages, bacon
• brown bread
• dairy: cheese, butter, buttermilk
• fresh fruits and vegetables
• soups and stews: Guinness stew
• breakfast: white and black pudding

Some things are just obvious: you are never far from the sea in Ireland, so fish and seafood are fresh, fresh, fresh. By now you’ve seen the sheep everywhere, so it makes sense that the lamb will be good. Pork too—the locavore movement is in full swing here as in the States; the demand for organic and local foodstuffs supports farmers across the nation. Gerry gets delicious sausage from his local butcher, made to the butcher’s family recipe and available nowhere else.

Speaking of pork, be sure to enjoy the “full Irish” breakfast, wherever you find one; pay particular attention to the black and white pudding, which are really coarse sausages stuffed with oats or barley and pork (pig’s blood, in the case of black pudding). Seriously delicious. And the best B&Bs will be patronizing a local butcher for bacon, sausages, and puddings. Yum. Oh, and about breakfast: you’re not going to find a Denny’s or an IHOP in every town, so if you’re not staying in a B&B or otherwise find yourself in need of breakfast some morning and don’t know where to go, step into the local hotel, where the dining room will bring you a pot of tea and a menu right away. 🙂

Potatoes are served with just about everything in Ireland—fried, boiled, mashed, you name it. They are more flavorful than the potatoes you’re used to, so be sure to sample them. A decade ago we stopped at a pub for lunch and I ordered Guinness stew (a favorite of mine, and always a safe bet if you’re looking for comfort food); when the bowl of stew (beef, onions, and carrots swimming in gravy) arrived it was accompanied by a serving bowl of boiled, peeled potatoes. It was explained to me I should add one potato at a time to my stew bowl. Oh my. I felt like I was tasting potatoes for the first time, tasting ur-potatoes. I’ll never forget that meal. (Oh, and don’t you forget that french fries are called chips, and potato chips are called crisps!)

As noted, you can’t go wrong with a Guinness stew. And soup … OMG. Cooks across Ireland are stirring up the most imaginative pots of soup you’ve ever put in your mouth. I still fantasize about that bowl of parsnip and blue cheese I had in Glandore. Great pub food. You’ll also find delicious fried food in pubs—fish-n-chips, for example, and lovely fried chicken.

Parsnip and blue cheese soup with brown bread. OMG.

Parsnip and blue cheese soup with brown bread. OMG.

You can always count on these types of meals to be served with hearty brown bread and butter. By all means, set your diet aside (you’re going to walk it off anyway) and sample the bread, kids. Heaven!

Or put a slab of cheese on that bread. If your’re a cheese-lover like me, you’re going to love your stay in Ireland; artisan cheeses abound. Be sure to order that cheese tray from the dessert menu, or duck into a farm shop or grocer to pick up cheese to snack on later. (If you’re in Dublin, go to Sheridan’s Cheesemongers and they’ll take fine care of you. Try the English Market in Cork.) I could go on and on about this—one of the magic moments you’ll read about in the next post has to do with cheese—but just trust me: try the cheese.

One last thing: give tea a try, even if you’re a coffee drinker. The Irish drink a lot of tea, and they know how to do it right. And for a special treat, you should consider taking in a “high tea” (or call it “afternoon tea”) at an upscale hotel. (This will include sandwiches and baked goods in addition to your teapot full of joy.) We enjoyed this experience at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin (read about it here) and have already decided to do it again. It was special—and delicious—and it’s a quintessential Irish experience, so you should consider putting it on your itinerary.

Up next: Let’s go shopping!

The Republic of Cork

Day 12 / Saturday, 22 September 2012

I had been trying to stay on top of work; I’d had to bring one edit with me on the trip. But, you know, I was on vacation! I really wanted to not work. After everyone went bed last night, I sat up past eleven o’clock, trying to work a little; I’d found it was best to work late at night or in the early morning when the others were sleeping—quieter, easier to focus.

Then I got in bed … and tried to get comfortable. I wished! This was my third night in a hard, narrow twin bed—I do realize I’ve become very spoiled to my thick, king-sized bed back home, and I am always prepared to be out of my comfort zone—but these thin mattresses and lack of box springs were a whole new brand of uncomfortable. And even though I was up late, I was also up early—because my body clock just goes off.

So I took photos! This was one view from our window. Note the bike.

And the rest of it. I’m quite charmed by the window boxes.

Out the door of our room, down four steps, and halfway up a different set of stairs, there was a window on the opposite side of the building, and a view—sort of—of the church where the car was parked. It’s completely surrounded on all sides by buildings, except for that small alley. Sundays must be interesting. 🙂

I love the steeple. Wonder how far up in it you can go … and whether or not I’d get claustrophobic.

Just as I was contemplating the view, a flock of birds startled up; I snapped a couple quick shots before they were gone.

We met Jill and Alli in the dining room at nine o’clock; that seemed to be a time that worked for all of us. I had my usual: muesli mixed with yogurt as an appetizer before the fry-up. I loved tasting the different variations of black and white pudding—my favorite part of the full Irish. The black pudding Olive served Auburn House was delish. Then Jill and Alli set off and Margaret and I did, too; we agreed to meet back at the little food garden that evening for a street food supper.

We’d been told about a little flea market right around the corner, but when we passed at 10:15, we saw it wouldn’t open until 11:00. But a fortuitous meeting: the proprietor (a young man, mid-twenties, and what I would call a hippie, though perhaps his generation has another term) had just been let out of a van to unlock the building. He was rough-looking (rough as if he were poor) and quite a talker. He let us in early, and then it turns out the place filled up right away. Most seemed to be vendors, but I could have sworn the street had been empty, so where did these folks come from? All were “hippies”—fond memories for me—I love that free-spirited look, that attitude, and loved that they just materialized seemingly out of nowhere.

The flea market on York Street. (Actually, it’s called Mother Jones Flea Market.)

We browsed around—you never know what you’re going to find in these places—but the hippies were much more entertaining than the merchandise. (As we went on through our day in Cork, we noticed lots and lots of young folks with that funky street-people look.) In the end, we didn’t buy anything at the flea market, but the young man had a self-made “magazine” that I bought to be supportive. I am sure I overpaid, but perhaps he had a pint on me later. 🙂

Our intention was to go down a couple blocks and to the hop-on-hop-off bus stop Olive had marked on the map for us … to tour Cork (like tourists! Ha!). But we were just standing there by the river getting chilly and realized we could be waiting awhile.

The River Lee from St. Patrick’s Quay, Cork. That’s St. Patrick’s Bridge; this incarnation of it was built in 1859.

So we starting walking further—crossing St. Patrick’s Bridge—to make our way to the tourist office and the main terminal for the hop-on-hop-off … and we stumbled into Oliver Plunkett Street.

Oliver Plunkett Street … in Irish.

Oh, hello, really delightful shopping district! Oliver Plunkett Street is closed to all but pedestrian traffic, and was filled with little shops interspersed with designer boutiques, and so on. If you can’t find it on Oliver Plunkett Street, you don’t need it. 🙂

Shall we shop? Why yes! I think we shall! (Margaret’s photo.)

We kept working our way toward our destination, but shopped all along the route. We stopped in a music instrument shop (I bought CDs), then a cooking shop (I bought a tea cozy), a little touristy Irish trinket shop, a chemist’s to buy Kleenex … and then we found Mr. Simms Olde Sweet Shop (punctuation is Mr. Simms’s, not mine).

I told you the Irish know how to do candy right. (Margaret’s photo.)

I wish I’d bought more Simpkins Travel Sweets.

This was a high-end candy shop where I bought Simpkins Travel Sweets—hard candies in orange, lemon, and grapefruit, probably my fave flavors. I was using them to keep myself from coughing so much.

The English Market, Oliver Plunkett Street entrance, Cork City. (Margaret’s photo.)

And then we happened on the English Market. There’s been a market on this site since 1788. And oh my goodness. If I lived in Cork, I would only shop for groceries there. Fresh everything—fish right off the boat, chicken, aged beef, deli meats, breads, sweets. It was incredible. Too bad we’d recently had breakfast!

I’ll have a little of everything, please. That Crozier Blue in the lower left is made with sheep’s milk. (Margaret’s photo.)

Fresh salmon at the English Market.

This was the fresh fish aisle, I think. All sorts!

A yummy-looking deli selection. (Margaret’s photo.)

English Market bakery. (Margaret’s photo.)

Jill and Alli were there, too, just a little earlier. :)

Jill and Alli were there, too, just a little earlier. 🙂

When we left the English Market we were just a block away from the HOHO terminus, but when we arrived—slow walkers, we—we still had a thirty-minute wait for the next bus. We whiled a little time away enjoying the way the light was striking this memorial on the Grand Parade, just across from the Tourist Information Office. Unveiled on St. Patrick’s Day in 1906, this Irish Gothic–style monument commemorates Irish patriots and the rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848, and 1867. It’s called the National Monument of Cork.

It’s quite large. The National Monument, Cork City.

This is “Mother Erin.” The National Monument, Cork City. Note the lovely marble columns.

Don’t forget you can click on these photos, then click again to zoom in. The National Monument.

So … a conference: what do we want to see, really? Answer: St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral. And that was in walking distance. Why wait for the bus?

It’s just right over there, really. At the National Monument, Cork City. (Margaret’s photo.)

And we just started walking and made our way slowly there. I have a lung problem and Margaret has fragile feet. We are a matched set in terms of getting around. 🙂

See? That’s St. Fin Barre’s in the distance. We’re standing on the Nano Nagle Bridge (I just report these things, kids) just off the Grand Parade, crossing to Sullivan’s Quay. (You know this is pronounced KEE, don’t you?)

Let’s zoom in. That’s the South Gate Bridge; it was built in 1713.

As is always the case, the journey is just a little further than you think. 🙂 I remember looking at the Eiffel Tower from atop the Arc de Triomphe and thinking it wasn’t all that far. Uh-huh. Still, the walk itself was interesting.

A good part of our walk was along the south channel of the River Lee (I don’t know if “south channel” what they call it). I was fascinated by the flora along the river wall. This was taken right at French’s Quay.

A close-up: loved the flowers.

And then … there it was.

Well, we’re almost there!

We were both intrigued by those stairs on the left. Where did they lead? (Margaret’s photo.)

This is the back gate to St. Fin Barre’s.

St. Fin Barre—Fionnbarra in Irish—founded a monastery on this site in the seventh century. And as it was consecrated land, a succession of churches rose and fell here. During medieval times there was a Catholic cathedral (from which a carved doorway survives) but during the Protestant Reformation (around 1536), that cathedral became part of the Established Church (what we know now as the Church of Ireland).

There would be one more cathedral built here before the present structure, which began in 1864 and was consecrated in 1870. This building is a Victorian interpretation of a thirteenth-century French Gothic cathedral … and is still unfinished.

It’s quite lovely, I think. (Margaret’s photo.)

It was a delightful walk through the graveyard to the front of the church, which faces Bishop Street—away from the center of town. (Margaret’s photo.)

It was sunny and pretty as we made our way forward. (Margaret’s photo.)

It’s really something up close! St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral.

I loved this piggy gargoyle.

And then we walked around front. St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral.

It’s a lot to take in. St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral.

We were greeted by a grey-haired docent and encouraged to enjoy the cathedral. “Don’t forget to light a candle,” she said, and handed one to each of us. After my prayer, I sat down near the front on the center aisle and just … looked. As I say, it’s a lot to take in, outside and inside. (Also, of course, I needed to catch my breath.)

The apse and ceiling, St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral.

Looking straight up, St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral.

Now looking straight behind: the pipes and rose window.

Everywhere you looked, so much detail—and with local Irish stone. I loved this image of the Green Man.

Margaret got a nice shot of some of the stained glass windows, which were exquisite.

Margaret asked where this door led—and was told it goes nowhere! An organ loft was planned, the door built, but the loft was never built. The carving above the door is the Old Testament King David … playing an Irish harp, of course. (Margaret’s photo.)

Fin Barre’s was beautiful. We sat in the sanctuary for a long time. The lovely lady in the gift shop came forward to chat with us as we sat there—folks hear the accent, I guess—and we asked her about a place to eat; it was past lunchtime. After some discussion—the places that were close were just so-so, but we didn’t want to have to go too far—she directed us to a vegetarian restaurant, Café Paradiso. She even drew us a map. And off we went. (Well, after pausing outside: the bells began ringing, joyously. Check the link: you can hear them too. What a finale to our visit!)

It was an interesting walk, along an area of town that was once the site of a Dominican friary, which had been named St. Mary’s of the Isle (the original Cork City sits on a series of islands large and small in the River Lee); you can read that story here. Of course, the Dissolution of the Monasteries did them in, and the monastery is long gone, although the name remains. Now the Sisters of Mercy have a convent on the site.

Convent of Mercy, St. Marie’s of the Isle, Cork.

Once past the convent, you reach Wandesford Quay, which crosses the Lee to Washington Street (also known as Lancaster Quay). The pale blue building, fourth from the right, is Café Paradiso. (Margaret’s photo.)

We were headed to the Café Paradiso and arrived at three o’clock in the afternoon; the place was packed. “Do you have a reservation?” we were asked. Ummm, no. (Check the online review sites: Reservations essential they say. I imagine this is absolutely true for the evening hours.) Fortunately a spot was found for us and we would soon understand why it was so busy: the food is astonishingly good (even for a committed meat-eater like myself). I mean, it was so good, I wanted to lick the plates.

We truly had no idea that it’s famous, for heaven’s sake, but it is. Like, celebrity-famous. It’s a chef-owned restaurant, has garnered many awards, and thus has spawned four best-selling cookbooks. I am kicking myself, now, for not purchasing one; they were all available there in the restaurant.

My first plate untouched. I’ve checked the website and this is no longer on the menu (it changes seasonally). I had ordered off the summer tapas menu.

Now opened: it’s arancini (that is, a fried rice ball) with a Mossfield cheese center, sitting on what the restaurant tells me is salsa verde. (It is not what I’d call salsa verde, but …) And it was way yummy!

My second plate: potato quiche-like thing (actually, sort of like scalloped potatoes, only drier) sitting on a rosemary aioli sauce, with a spicy sweet pepper jam. It was a wonderful taste combination!

Dessert: lemon tart (you may notice a trend—if it’s lemon, I’ll usually order it) and vanilla/blackberry ice cream, sitting on blackberry sauce.

Café Paradiso opened in 1993 and it’s still in business, which says a lot about the food, I think. And for a place that’s been open this long, it has a young, hip vibe; the ambience is fantastic. Tables were set very close together (it’s a small room) and, as we’d discovered elsewhere, service was leisurely (read: long and drawn out, which was fine when we were eating but when we were ready to go I finally approached the desk and asked if we could pay). We spent more than two hours there.

There was one thing we both really loved though: we’d entered the restaurant right behind a tall slim man, early forties, whose girlfriend was waiting for him. She leapt up, smiling hugely, they embraced. As it turned out, they were at the table tightly next to us, and they were really, really into each other (like something out of a movie). The rest of us might as well have not been there. It was lovely to see, and, of course, I imagined a million different stories for them. I tried to take a surreptitious photo, but it doesn’t do either of them justice.

He really *is* that into you! Not a great picture but, you know, I was trying not to be obvious. 🙂 She’s a lucky gal … and he’s a lucky guy.

We were tired and I still had an edit to work on, so we’d promised ourselves a cab ride back to the B&B. Frankly, neither of us was going to be able to walk back uphill. Still, we thought we’d have to walk closer to the city centre to catch a cab but we stumbled on an old gentleman taxi driver very close to the restaurant. His accent was incredible—oh, you could just swim in it!—and he was quite a conversationalist. The Cork accent is very musical, lilting (Gerry says they don’t talk, they sing).

When we got back to the room, we’d just had time to relax when we heard Jill and Alli come in. They’d also had a late lunch, so none of us wanted to go out for street food. We ended up standing in the little hall talking, comparing their day with ours—and all agreed that Cork had been delightful. I would’ve liked to’ve seen more, but my energy/air level precluded that. Ah, well—I’ll be back!

Home again, home again, jiggity jig: comparing notes w/Jill and Alli.

Today’s Observation

I’d added Cork City to the itinerary because I had never been there, and since this was my third trip to Ireland, I wanted to see some new things, in addition to revisiting places I’d really loved. But—“What do you want to do in Cork?” Gerry had asked early on.

This question—and the tone of it—later made a little more sense. During our first week—spent entirely in Dublin, with Dubliners (ah, except Maureen; I simply must consult with her about this!)—everyone asked, “What are you going to do during the rest of your stay? Where are you going?” The Irish are lovely that way; they’re interested.

“Two nights in Kilkenny,” I’d say.

“Ah! Luvly.” Big smiles. Kilkenny is relatively close to Dublin. And it’s undeniably cool.

“Two nights in Cork—”

“Oh, Cork”—eyes rolling—“the capital of Ireland.” (Alternately: “Oh yes, the republic of Cork,” again with the rolling of eyes and shaking of the head.)

It’s a thing, apparently. 🙂

And I think I get it. Cork is so very different from Dublin, just a completely different vibe. I felt very comfortable there with the hippies and the street people—because in my head I am still a twenty-five-year-old California girl, you know, even if my current look screams “chubby middle-aged woman”—but Dublin is the capital, full stop. It has everything a capital city should have. It’s more formal, more buttoned-up, and I find it pretty sexy. I’ll go back to Cork, but my heart belongs to Dublin. 🙂

UPDATE: I’ve just been reading something that sheds some light on this: David Monagan’s Ireland Unhinged: Encounters with a wildly changing country. An American who moved his family to Cork (first for a year, then to stay), Monagan has this to say about his adopted city: it’s a “mad, party-loving town—the Irish equivalent of New Orleans.” I see. I’ve been to NOLA. I’ve lived very near it, one miserable winter long ago (long story).

Cork is a New Orleans in more ways than one, a party town awash in festivals for just about everything under the moon. … Now [Cork] was being instructed to make a statement of itself [the European Capital of Culture 2005] in an evening grand finale by the river. The crime was that you needed tickets.


The one thing that Corkonians—like Irish people in general—most despise is being told what to do. At important sporting events they wave American Confederate flags—not from any love of slavery, since numeroud Irish were once sold themselves as slaves by the Vikings—but as icons of the self-styled Rebel County’s defiance against outside forces, including Dublin. In the middle of any avenue they saunter into traffic, sometimes with a baby in a pram. There they pause to take a call on their mobile phones. Payment for almost any building, cleaning, or maintenance job is demanded in cash to that no central authority can track it. The People’s Republic of Cork, they call it.

Oooooh. I get it now.