Rachel Gaffney - Exploring Cork City

The famous foodie who’s flying the tricolour for us in Texas enjoys a day out exploring some of the gems of her home town  

During the autumn I hosted two live digital feeds from Ireland for Indagare Travel and the Wall Street Journal. One in September and one in October. The weeks between the episodes allowed me to spend more time in Cork City. I set about each day with no particular plan but to let it unfold so I too could enjoy the city. It is of course my home town, but a city that has evolved and I wanted to see what she had to offer.

My day, like many days, began in Lafayette’s Brasserie in the Imperial Hotel. I would order a latte and sit by the window, looking out on the South Mall. With its magnificent ceiling and ornate deco one would be forgiven for thinking one was in a Parisian café. Each and every time I sit here, I always feel warm. Whether it be the sun streaming through the window or simply listening to the animated lilting Cork accents around me. It is almost always from here, that I plan my day. On this September day, I had arranged to meet a friend for lunch but where and when was yet to be determined.

I knew Elizabeth Fort had opened its doors to the public almost a decade ago but I had yet to visit. As it was a beautiful sunny day and Elizabeth Fort was a mere fifteen minute walk from the Imperial Hotel, I decided today was the day to visit.

As I walked down the South Mall, I was reminded that this city once resembled Venice with it’s steps and mooring points for boats. These rivers now run beneath the South Mall. Crossing over the bridge, I made my way up Barrack Street, my legs noticing we were indeed walking uphill. A short walk nonetheless. Entrance to this visitor attraction is free, which was a pleasant surprise as I for one am more than happy to pay an entrance fee to support its upkeep. This spectacular star shaped fort dates back to 1601 when it was first constructed.

I walked the walls of this fort, stopping to take in the panoramic views of Cork City. It was simply quiet breathtaking. I took my time. I spent two hours here with one of the lovely tour guides always on hand to chat with you. Alternatively you can take a multilingual audio tour. Cork has had a turbulent and colourful history and the centuries are well documented here. One of my favourite views was that of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral (1870). I always knew Cork was a low lying city, but on this day while walking the ramparts I truly witnessed this for myself.

I had arranged to meet my friend Aisling for lunch at the nearby Good Day Deli, a sustainable foods café located in the gardens of Nano Nagle Place. This was a mere seven minute walk from Elizabeth Fort via Abbey street. As I walked along this street I was taken back to my late teenage years. Friends and I would often attend céilís here. I was a mere 15 or 16 years old and was not permitted to attend discos yet, so this was our way of socialising. I arrived at Nano Nagle Place, once home to the Presentation Sisters. When I was living in Cork, it was known as South Pres, a girls secondary school. Its founder Nano Nagle, born in 1718 to a wealthy Cork family, opened 7 schools for poor children across Cork city. During this period of time in Irish history, people lived under the penal laws. This meant catholics could not attend school unless they agreed to attend Church of Ireland schools. Nano was sent to France to be educated, despite the fact that it was forbidden. Upon her return to Ireland, she began visiting poor families and for the rest of her life she dedicated herself to them.

The story that follows is long and challenging. Here at Nano Nagle Place, there is a wonderful exhibit telling this gripping story. I was met by Susannah Ahern, a large than life lady. She was welcoming, kind and animated. You could just feel that she loved what she did. Upon chatting with Susannah, I learned she was a past pupil of this school. We walked to the restored gardens, and laughed and joked about our early memories attending convent schools in Cork. I was an Ursuline student and she a Presentation student. We both agreed our time with the nuns was indeed a very special time. Perhaps that is why I have been drawn back to work with the nuns at Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, but that is a story for another day.

I have never experienced anywhere like Nano Nagle Place before. To try to define it, is tough. It is a community in every sense of the word. Once a school, the buildings have been repurposed, reused and transformed. The buildings are over 200 years old and the nuns, understanding they were in a perilous position needed to regroup and pivot. The chapel has been turned in to a heritage centre, other buildings have been regenerated and now house community groups and charities. As you walk past the waterfall and graveyard, you make your way to the wild and beautiful gardens.

There, sitting in the middle is the Good Day Deli Café. It was here I was meeting my friend for lunch. One side of this timber cafe is completed made of glass looking out onto the gardens. Owned and operated by environmentalist Clare Condon and her partner Kristin Makirere, who is from the Cook Islands, this café promises and delivers ‘healthy, local, seasonal, organic and fair trade foods with a commitment to sustainability throughout our food chain’ I think it only fair to say, I ate every last morsel on my plate. It was simply delicious. Sitting here chatting with my friend Aisling, I realised I was again surrounded by Cork accents. Local accents. I have lived in Dallas for almost 26 years and I am accustomed to being the person in the restaurant with an accent. It felt so comforting to be the same. This was because I felt at home.



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