in which your author gives a 100+ year-old item a visit to its former domain, eats delicious things, hears mahler in an irish pub, has amazing old and new friends, and almost dies of plague, again
02.01.2014 - 03.01.2014 40 °F
“I love waking up to rainbows…”
…said Amy as we stepped formerly dank, dark Cork into the bright new morning. The sunswept sky seemed to contain fissures from which pockets of rain emptied themselves politely, and we’re immediately graced with a full rainbow extending itself majestically in the very direction of the center of town. Cameras are grabbed, oohs are ahhed. What does it mean?!
Let me backtrack slightly. By the time of the rainbow, it’s around 11am and it’s already the earliest Irish morning we’ve seen so far. I woke at around 9:45am, quite proud I’ve both arisen fairly early only one day into the five-hour time difference, AND quite happy to have seemingly (though quite falsely) kicked The Plague Bug From My Brother.
We had a loose idea of plans in Cork to meet with a friend – let me call her "@freckledpast," a knitter, baker, and sewer with DC roots whom I knew only from Twitter. (Brief footnote: many people, almost none of them on Twitter themselves, give me guff for what they see as the pointlessness of social media. The story which follows is one of many I’ve experienced which prove the lie to that canard!) Yet since our lovely Cork hostess had no steady internet connection, I couldn’t get in touch with @freckledpast – henceforth known by her actual name Evin – and thus we needed to get into Cork as soon as possible to establish contact. So we started walking, in search of free wifi under the end of that rainbow.
I snapped some shots on the twenty-minute walk into Cork – the first time I’d actually used my real camera and not my iPhone. (Technology has certainly improved since my first Ireland trip. And/or I am far too lazy to worry much about photo quality.) The streets are rugged, time-worn, residential units tightly squeezed together. Dormer windows.
Things get more picturesque when we make the turn into city center: pub signs in reds and yellows, old, crumbling establishments, brightly screaming billboards.
We walk along the lovely canal and are beginning to get a feel for the outskirts of downtown Cork.
Amy claims a hunch on a vegetarian café, and scampers up a set of stairs to find out if they have wifi.
We get the thumbs up and are subsequently treated to an enormous spread of scrumptious veggie options, probably the best food we’ve had on the trip so far – Amy is entranced by an Irish take on samosas, me with a bulging raspberry scone, and we add full breakfast plates of other veggie-friendly goodies on top of that. (This particular restaurant has been open thirty years in what our kindly waitress describes as an extremely vegetarian-friendly city.) With our first steady wifi connection in what feels like days I scramble to publish my first blog post of the trip, knowing that skipping the first would lead me to possibly abandon the whole works!
Evin, already demonstrating great patience, tells us to meet her at the Cork Central Library which is just over a footbridge with a large Ferris Wheel in front. She notices our confused tourist gait straight away and we meet not only her but her devastatingly precious 2-year old Liam. I run into the library to procure sleeping arrangements for us in Kilkenny where we’d be off to that night, and Amy and Evin chat while Liam grins his way through a much-desired carousel ride.
As I alluded to in my last post, there’s an element of reconnaissance adjoined to the Cork side of this trip. About three years ago, I came across a brown paper sleeve which would originally have housed a 78 rpm record, of the variety found ca. 1905-1910 or so, in a bin of dusty old records in a Salvation Army in Brockton, MA. (I remember at first passing on it then going back to find it again a few days later.) I don’t believe I even paid anything for it at all. God knows how long it had been in the US, but it had originated from a record shop found at 34 Grand Parade, Cork, a place where one could not only purchase records (the brand new American-invented tech fad sweeping Europe) but also send telegrams, and even participate in something called “oxygen.” For years I’ve displayed it holding a 78rpm record of my partial namesake James McCool, an Irish tenor from Philadelphia recording around 1905. Knowing I was visiting Cork for the first time, I decided to bring it along and stop into whatever became of 34 Grand Parade…
…which as it turned out was very close to the library, about a 2 minute walk across the street. As we approached what was now an Adecco Temp Agency (ironically, a place I once did some work for when I lived in NYC) at 34 Grand Parade, a pretty, vivacious blonde woman was locking the door. I approached her: “So, this is a reallllly strange thing but I thought you might be interested in this – I’ve brought it all the way from America.” Any worry I had that this curio may have been more interesting to me than anyone else was erased as her face scrunched up with disbelief. “This is so amazing! Please, come in!” “Did you have any idea this used to be a music shop?” “None at all!” We spend a minute inside she gives me her card, and I promise to send a copy. It’s really a special and very unusual moment. I wonder what the sleeve itself thought?
We continue walking and enter the English Market, which our hostess Caitriona had mentioned was an essential visit. Inside, we’re overwhelmed with the sights and scents of fresh meat and fish and other produce. I pick up some “award-winning” brown bread crackers and raspberry vanilla jam for the folks. Evin and Amy are chatting like old friends, Liam is tumbling around and seems a natural explorer of spaces, and since I’m still feeling significantly under the weather it’s nice to not have to worry about being so “on” with a new friend.
It’s chilly and starting to drizzle so we stop at a local chocolatier Evin recommends for a hot drink, and we all nestle into an upstairs lounge area for some mochas and caramel flapjacks. (I remember how delicious these were from Edinburgh.) Liam takes an apparently new liking to chocolate and given the quality of the stuff I don’t blame him.
We carry on and the rain is stronger, and while she heads home to get Liam some fresh clothes, Evin directs us to a pub called Hi-B Bar on the second floor of an old building around the corner. We’re warned (for the first time) that the owner was one of the most famous creatures in all of Cork, a cantankerous crank notorious for both his much sought-after pub (rated as the #2 “must see” pub in all of Ireland, we’re told) and for his, shall we say, old fashioned approach to customer service.
I enter the pub alone and am greeted with a warm smile from the barmaid, a thin, early-30-something brunette with a sweet face and demeanor, prepping the bar, playing Sinatra. We chat pleasantly for a bit and then my eyes boggle upon seeing the framed photo of Gustav Mahler which sits in front of one of the stacks of hundreds of CDs. An Irish pub open since 1926 with an ornery owner whose father opened the place and who loves Mahler? Could this be any more my scene?
I brazenly disobey the “no mobiles allowed in the bar” sign (sorry, couldn't help it) and snap a few shots and my companions show up. Within 15 minutes, the pub fills and conversations effortlessly spread, generally centered on the uniqueness of the pub itself, which one patron describes as “your great-grandfather’s sitting room,” also known for mixing in what the barmaid calls “famous politicians and crazy alcoholic Dave who may be homeless.” Overheard at the bar #1: “I’ll have a whiskey, thanks be to God.” The major topic of discussion, however, is "THE OWNER" – who isn’t in the pub but who lives upstairs and may or may not be watching all of us on closed circuit camera – and his unorthodox take on customer service: a woman orders a Heineken and he will only serve her a red wine. When he doesn’t appreciate a businessman’s conversation, the owner marches over and cuts off the fella’s tie! Overheard at the bar #2: “How old is he?” “84.” “Oh crikey, he was that age ten years ago!”
At one point Liam bumps his head, starts a two-year old wail and jokes are passed about how many adults have cried in the pub for less cause. The barmaid offers to heat up his milk bottle. Can’t say I’ve ever seen that on a cocktail list.
This pub vibe was exactly what I needed: friendly, warm, packed with stories and even a dose of classical music: the barmaid heeds my suggestions on Mahler and we depart only after the end of the Adagietto from the 5th Symphony. Imagine that?
We say our goodbyes to our lovely and helpful new friend Evin (and our tumbling wonder Liam) – who swiftly complies THIS lovely melange of illicit photos from the pub...
...then really hears it from her Cork friends about her own photo-taking (thanks for putting your social life on the limb for us, Evin!) – and we hop in a cab to defend against what is now a full-on rain beating down on Cork.
Our driver is as colorful as most Irish cab drivers seem to be, and asks us if “yer man was at the High B? he’s a crazy one!” He gives us a bit of Cork history on the way back to our place, delivered in the unmistable thick Cork dialect. We grab our bags just as Catriona arrives so we quickly tell her about our day, say a proper goodbye and hop in the car, departing for Kilkenny. (Who killed Kenny?!)
Sadly, given the craic of Cork we hadn’t left quite enough time – and then proceeded to make a wrong turn out of the city costing us 25 minutes – and had issues with the GPS giving us directions to the wrong place – AND had no cell or wifi service – AND AND it’s absolutely teeming rain and poor Amy is driving ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD on some of the windiest country roads imaginable with seemingly oblivious drivers whizzing by in the opposite direction… and thus by the time we got to the Kilkenny area ostensibly for dinner with a friend’s brother, we were not only behind schedule but horribly lost, and our dinner plans fell apart. Glumly, we drive to the Airbnb we had reserved in Kilkenny, greeting our cheerful hosts Corey, a 40-something Kilkenny native and Nadia, a 30-something Bulgarian native, far earlier than they had expected us. They set out some tea and biscuits and it’s lovely to be in another cozy home. (More on these guys tomorrow.)
Corey is driving to see his granny and we hitch a ride the half a mile or so into downtown Kilkenny, a town I visited for just one night on my first trip to Ireland in August, 2008. One goal of mine is to find a pub where I visited with an ex in August 2008 in which I heard some brilliant trad music, and where I also shot some video that I ended up using in my American Popular Music classes for seven years. Problem is, my fever is rapidly increasing and I know I’m not well at all. We enter Langford’s Hotel, a stunningly gorgeous, massive structure with multiple glistening function rooms, designed by the same local architect who designed Madonna’s house. We sit and have some food at the bar (my mashed potatoes are disappointingly clumpy and not as good as my Dad’s; then again few versions are) and I have a half pint of local Kilkenny Ale and I sink further and further down into the depths of this nasty sickness. I barely have the energy to stand, never mind make small talk with my poor travel companion. After what feels like hours we leave and walk in the direction of Corey and Nadia’s, with the hope of locating the mystery 2008 bar along the way. We try every place Corey had mentioned, but no luck. Even with luck, I’m not sure I would have been able to do much beyond collapse into a heap anyway. We get back to the Airbnb and I do in fact collapse into a heap, with a forehead that feels like a stove. Amy asks them for cold medicine (which they are generous to provide) and they make me the most glorious hot toddy (called a “hot whiskey” around here) I’ve had since my mother made me one so as to ward off laryngitis the night before my high school musical opened. I drink it all and eventually fall asleep. A long, complex day peppered with heavy cold rain, but also warm and wonderful people to lighten the burden.