Cork was my introduction to Ireland, to Europe and to a unified, more organic way of life than I was used to growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania. Carbondale, a defunct little ex-coalmining town near Scranton where I grew up, is several decades past its prime. While it retains some of its Irish, Italian, and Polish heritage, the landscape is dominated by chain restaurants and strip malls which funnel the money out of the area and make for a rather bleak atmosphere for a sensitive, idealistic teenager like I was.
But in the spring of my junior year of college in 2006, I encountered in Cork an environment that I had no idea existed and of which I had never dared to dream. Here was a city where the streets snaked and swirled around each other, some like hidden goat paths home to small neighborhood pubs – where you drink the locally brewed Murphy’s Stout, not Guinness, if you don’t want the locals to give you a good-natured razz.
Instead of strip malls, the River Lee dominates the city; it splits into two channels, the north flowing by the pastel-colored buildings next to my apartment, the south through University College Cork, the palm trees and flowerbeds of Fitzgerald’s Park, and St. Finbarre’s Cathedral.
The island in the middle, where I lived, makes up center city. The shopping on the broad avenue of St. Patrick’s Street, renovated by the city as part of its preparations for Cork’s celebration as the 2005 European capital of culture, is highlighted by the English Market, an indoor bazaar where shops sell meats, fish (the crabs still feebly waving their claws), cheeses and olives from Spain and Portugal. The long straight Oliver Plunkett Street is home to more pubs than anyone can count, at one of which I discovered a great low-key folk band from Fife, to whom I still listen on a regular basis.
Cork is truly a walking city – home to 120,000 people, you can walk across it in half an hour – and its pubs, shops and art galleries are made for discovery on foot, a welcome change from the suburban sprawl in which I grew up.
Cork’s not especially touristy but is a fantastic place to live, which I had the opportunity to do there for five months. There’s so much more to say than space will allow, but I’ll end on an image that will stay with me for a long time.
I walked to the southern edge of the city one day and saw not highways and housing developments, but the rolling Irish countryside. Ireland strikes a perfect balance between urban culture and the untrammeled appeal of the natural world.
First-year Ph.D. in English