It’s a hilly old road of boom and bust Cork has stumbled down. The city’s history is a technicolour seesaw of famine and fortune, from locals taken into African slavery by Algerian pirates, to a boom in shipping and trade egged on by seafaring Dutchmen. It was seized by the Spanish. It was blockaded by the English. Cork was even the sunken-chested poster boy for Ireland’s cruel potato famine and yet the glorious cradle of Ireland’s finest brew: Murphy’s stout.
In the wake of the maelstrom, there is something you could say for certain about the Cork of today: the Dickensian urchin has found its benefactor. A healthy cash injection from its wealthy EU sisters has awarded the ancient hub a good old-fashioned scrubdown, put a full Irish breakfast back on the hearth and, most disarming of all, plonked a frilly continental bow around its head in the form of an urbane street redesign by a (gasp) Spanish architect.
It seems Cork is the glorious old high sea frigate that has, in 2005, finally found its estuary. Not only that, Eliza Doolittle has descended the double staircase – in 2005, Cork is no less than the European Capital of Culture.
Not that the locals seem too concerned by the gilded scrubbing brush of the EU. Along the revamped facades and funky maritime street lamps of Cork city, a steady Irish pulse still rocks the town.
The main drinking dens that centre on Oliver Plunkett Street heave with upbeat and bleary-eyed locals, the packed pubs also freckled with cocksure Aussies and Canadians, proud of the fact that they’ve ditched the London cliché and made this harboured wonderland their home.
Government laws to revamp the hard partying Irish image have also been adopted with carefree grace – out under streetlamps the punters smoke as crowds of happy strangers, hip to the strict no-smoking policies indoors as much as they are to the cold.
Cork is also essentially a music city – Wednesdays is live jazz at Scotts Pub on Caroline St – the enduring tip-of-the-hat to the annual Guinness Jazz Festival that seizes the city each year and kicks off from this week (October 28-31; see www.cork jazzfestival.com). Always on the up, the festival has blown out this year into a 75-act juggernaut over six venues. On offer, there’s Chick Corea, Red Stripe Band, Organisms, The Fins and Dave Holland. But back out on the humble cobblestones of Cork, traditional folk and blues bands still mark the scene. At the Lobby Bar (above the Old Oak on the corner of Caroline Street and Oliver Plunkett Street) and An Crúiscín Lán on Douglas Street there’s always a solid grassroots circuit on offer, while the Forum in the Simpson’s Waterside Hotel is the affectionate favourite, with its low-key sessions from up and coming indie bands.
Despite the best efforts of the traditionalists, it’s not all guitars and haircuts in Cork. If you’re into house, hip-hop, salsa or rare groove, then train your sights to Lebowski’s, the club-in- a-pub on Marlboro Street. Besides the fact that Lebowski’s hosts a winning selection of German, Belgian and Czech beers, unavailable in most other Cork pubs, they also have DJs almost every night.
The new night that has everybody talking is Scream, on Wednesdays at the Pavilion. It offers banging four to the floor techno, and a more northern soul playlist downstairs.
There’s also an interesting musical clash of wills evident in Cork – in seemingly every pub the punters shift between, en masse, as the night progresses, the omnipresent sceptre of local-lads-turned-Gods Thin Lizzy stare down from posters on pub walls, looking like shit, even after your sixth pint of stout.
On the other hand, not even the most Euro-weary, Thin Lizzy-loving local can forget the Green Glen Arena’s Eurovision extravaganza of 2002, the singular European event that proves the continent’s finest contemporary cultural offering is trash itself.
So much for the Capital of Culture gong, then.