It’s a country pub in a city. That’s my thinking as bartender Michael O’Donovan lets my pint of Murphy’s settle on the counter, pausing for an intuitive amount of time before topping off the stout’s creamy crown. There are licks of flame in a tiled fireplace nearby. The wood spits and crackles as the conversation eases into gear.
The Castle Inn is on South Main Street, a stone’s throw from Cork’s main drag. A pub has stood on the site since the 1870s and has been run by the same family since the 1930s. It’s a traditional pub with a small snug inside the window, timeworn red-and-cream wood panelling and little tubs of snuff for sale behind the bar. Walls are galleried with old beer ads and black-and-white photographs of sports legends like hurler Christy Ring, wearing a flat cap in the days before helmets. The interior design here is timeless.
Outside, night is falling and streetlights reflect off rainy pavements. Inside, it’s brightly lit, warm and cosy. I pay for my pint and join in the chat softly orchestrated by the bartender around his counter. We talk hurling and high gas bills and taxis and technology. Anything and everything. The man beside me has placed his glasses on a rolled-up newspaper.
I ask if I can photograph the fireplace, and O’Donovan nods, telling me how the chimneys connect like secret passages through the old house above. “If these walls could talk,” he says, smiling.
Cork is Ireland’s second-largest city, but it walks and talks like a small town. Set by a huge natural harbour, split by the River Lee, its quays and waterfronts give it a classic, open feel. But there are also tight-knit alleys and steep hills to navigate. Its English and Marina markets are world-class, a high percentage of its fascia-boarded shops and restaurants are independently owned, and the colourfully canopied Princes Street has led Ireland’s new wave of outdoor dining.
It’s a post-pandemic city, too. You’re never more than a few steps away from spots of dereliction and flashes of crumbling heritage. Compact but cosmopolitan, it feels both inward and outward looking. ‘Ireland is like a bottle’, as a mural painted on an electrical cabinet on Parnell Place begins. ‘It would sink without a Cork’ it ends.
About 100 bars are dotted around the city, and they perfectly encapsulate the split personalities and rebel spirit of the place. Choices range from old-school pints at The Castle Inn or Mutton Lane to swanky salons like the Glasshouse rooftop bar at The Montenotte hotel. There are hip haunts such as Arthur Mayne’s, a former pharmacy turned wine and tapas bar on Pembroke Street. Or the Franciscan Well Brewery & Brewpub — be sure to try a pizza in its backyard beer garden, washed down with a pint of the Hazy IPA. And then there are the uncategorisable — by which I mean the Hi-B, a first-floor lounge surviving from a long-gone hotel on Oliver Plunkett Street. ‘No mobile phones. Talk to each other’, the sign outside says.
Before my city pub crawl, I sought suggestions for bars to visit from friends and on Twitter. One told me to ask the bartenders at Cask to recommend a cocktail and just go with it. A polished bar set opposite the Metropole Hotel in Cork’s slowly gentrifying Victorian Quarter, Cask’s menus change every 12 weeks, and the focus is on ‘seasonal, nature-led’ drinks — a plum fit for a city that prides itself on showcasing the best seafood, farm produce and artisanal ingredients produced in the wider county.
I pull up a stool and ask the bartender to prescribe a cocktail for me. “Awesome,” she says. “But first you have to tell me what you like in a drink...” Cue a bit of back and forth before we settle on the glass curtain — a tart and boozy lowball mixing Jameson Black Barrel whiskey with shiso and blackberry, topped with a cracker laid across a huge cube of ice. It’s just the ticket; a velvety, spirit-forward slug that cools my fingers and warms my chest.
Other weird and wonderful choices on the menu ping with Irish brands, producers and ingredients. There’s a jammy git mixing Glendalough Gin, Longueville House Apple Brandy and Mary O’Connell’s damson jam with Cava rosé (€13), for example. Or the pure mouwldy, which contains Blackwater Vodka, Cashel Blue Cheese distillate and Hivemind honey from the nearby coastal village of Myrtleville.
The bar is certainly on-point, with bare brick walls, tattooed bartenders in leather-strap aprons and counters popping with the herbs, mixers and other accoutrements of cocktail making. It feels a far cry from the crackling fire and country pub vibes at The Castle Inn, but in its own way, just as warm and personable — handwritten on my bill is a note: ‘Thank you, my dear’.
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