Kinsale and Cobh lie within easy reach of Cork and should be included in any itinerary of Ireland. Cobh is the famed last stop of the Titanic and Kinsale is the gateway to the Wild Atlantic Way. We visited both on the same day and this was our agenda.
Besides their aforementioned significance, the towns have so much more going. They seem to vie with each other to be the most colourful. Besides the towns themselves they each have an excellent attraction that must be seen. As fortune would have it we would only get to see one of these.
This was the third day of our Cork trip and we had come with one major intention. Off the coast of Cork lies Spike Island, which to all intents and purposes is the Irish Alcatraz. The prison on the island was built 200 years ago and at the time was the largest Victorian prison in the world, with over 2300 prisoners. The island’s history extends from the 6th century and the monastery that then stood there. It was voted Europe’s Leading Visitor Attraction in 2017, and that attests to its quality. Boats depart from Cobh harbour travelling to Spike Island and run at 12 and 2 each day during peak season with reduced sailings during the winter, cost €18, and tours take 3:30 hours. You can explore more on their website at Spike Island Tours. I implore you to make this a priority if in this part of the country as I have heard nothing but great things.
Alas on our visit Cork was battered by Storm Ali. We cancelled plans to make this our agenda on our second day, having seen the sea batter Cobh whilst dining our first eve there. We awoke on day three to similar weather. Credit to the operators as when I called them, they were still running the boats. But we are not the best seafaring couple and we made the call to leave it till another day. Bummer. Hey it’s a reason to return.
But don’t stop reading. We didn’t just pack and go home. Breakfast in the Fota Island Resort hotel was again perfect to set us up for the day. We left our luxurious surroundings and drove to Cobh nonetheless. We were on Fota island and the next island over is Great Island where you find the town of Cobh, at its coastal location. Entering the island you must cross Belvelly Bridge and the awesomely located Belvelly Castle overlooks the water on the banks. This 15th century tower house is in the process of being restored to become a private residence but makes for a beautiful sights. It’s the perfect introduction to the island.
From here its straight to Cobh. It’s a confusing town to drive around all one way systems and narrow streets and hills. It’s best to park in the cathedral car park as we did, it’s free and you can explore the town on foot from here.
St Colman’s Cathedral
This cathedral was only consecrated in the 20th century, but took 47 years to build. Whilst attractive the cathedral is better appreciated from far not close. It’s elevated above the town. Entry is free so its worth a stroll inside if only to admire the pleasant interior.
The walk down to the harbour has more than a few steps and there is quite the incline so bear this in mind. When you reach the harbour you will appreciate the cathedral all the more. Take a look back uphill to where it towers magnificently above the town. The harbour is the epicentre of things in Cobh. The colourful streets that run the length of the harbour are a collection of shops, bars and restaurants. As well as the colours there is some interesting street art to be seen.
The beauty isn’t just behind you. Cobh’s harbour is full of little fishing vessels all as colourful as the town around them. They bobbed in the choppy waters of the day. The Spike Island ferry tours set off from here. So it will another day for us. It’s hard to imagine a grand ship such as the Titanic was docked in this little town. But dock it did. White Star Line used Cobh (known as Queenstown in those days) as one of their departure points and on a day in 1912, 123 passengers boarded the Titanic.
Their story and that of those aboard the Titanic is commemorated in the Titanic Experience Cobh which is also located in the harbour. The experience is in the original ticket office of White Star Line, and it’s a very informative one. Different from the grand scale of Titanic Belfast, it takes a more personal tone. The guided tour lasts about thirty minutes and costs €9.50. You are taken to the final pier where the passengers boarded, and there is also a visual display on the sinking of the ship. It doesn’t feature Leo before you ask.
Our plan wouldn’t take us to Spike Island so we continued to explore the town. The Town Library is housed in an unusual arched building that the road navigates through. This is the gateway to the most aesthetic part of the town. From Lower Middleton Street navigate to West View, known locally as Barrack Hill, which is a collection of different coloured terraced houses. Known as the deck of cards the houses date from 1850, and there are 23 of them that seem to sit on top of one another from the base of the hill all the way to the top. Each similar in style with one large central window, but differing so much due to the vibrance of their colours. It’s a sumptuous street and halfway up the hill there is a park on your left which gives the perfect opportunity to capture that iconic Cobh picture. Behind that row of houses the steeples of St Colmans Cathedral gives great depth and perspective.
Our circular route took us up West View and back over towards the Cathedral and to our car. From Cobh it was 48 kilometres to Kinsale, the only route being through Cork City. The road to Kinsale belies the towns beauty, it was quite unspectacular. But as you approach the town the coast and its harbour come into view. Kinsale is the start of the 2500km long Wild Atlantic Way, which is the longest continuous coastal driving route in the world. The town really packs a punch and leaves a lasting impression.
Kinsale seems to say, anything Cobh can do we can do better. The houses and shops are even more colourful than our previous destination. We parked our car in the main town car park just off pier road, where the charge is €1 per hour. It’s a small town and easily covered on foot in a short time. Next to the car park is the tourist office and this is the perfect place to start. It’s the starting point of all guided walking tours including the renowned Dermot Ryan Heritage Town Walk, voted best in Ireland. Unfortunately the tour starts at 10:30am and we had missed it, but it’s a good option for you. instead I asked the friendly staff of the tourist office who were more than happy to suggest a walking route through the town.
The route brought us up main street which is a mild introduction to the colours, before arriving at St Multose Church. This church is 800 years old and has had a distinct mark on history, not only in the town but in the politics of the United Kingdom. It’s Norman tower still stands and the interior has a beautiful carved wood altar and pulpit. Its stain glass windows are also fantastic.
As the walking tour turns up towards the Desmond Castle now we start to see the real beauty of Kinsale. Houses with bright shades of pink, blue and green climb up a small hill which reminds us of Cobh. At the top the Desmond Castle is a 1500 AD tower house which has undergone many transformations in its time, from a defensive one to a prison, where many enemies were detained during conflicts involving the British Empire. It now hosts an exhibit on its history, and interestingly a wine museum. In a country that rarely produces wine. The castle was closed for renovations on our visit but should reopen in 2019.
Your short walking route takes you down Chairman’s Lane, and to Newman’s Mall and Market Street. This is the focal point of your tour and one of Ireland’s most photographed urban locations. You feel as if you have stepped into an episode of Peppa Pig. There are a number of cute shops and cafes in this area and all throughout Kinsale there are a ton of others as well as bars and restaurants. Some have wonderful names such The Silent Banjo or The Lazy Italian. It makes the place all the more endearing. The town is also known for its culinary prowess, but we didn’t get to sample this so I can’t advise. The last stop on our whirlwind tour is the Courthouse from 1590. The Kinsale Museum is located within which charts the towns history from its founding in 1334, and through all its major events including the sinking of the Lusitania off its coast. We didn’t visit but both the building and museum look interesting.
The route brought us back to the car and we drove along the pier to admire the boats and the waterfront. It would make for a wonderful walk. We drove as far as the Bridge of Kinsale which crosses the River Bandon to some impressive views back towards the town. This is the route to the James Fort, one of two that guard the entrance to Kinsale harbour. However when I asked in the tourist office which fort I should visit she unequivocally recommended the Charles Fort, so back we went.
The Charles Fort is located on a headland above the town and can be accessed from the road to Cork. If you would like to walk from town, its a 2.5km walk uphill. But the good news is the way back is downhill. However you get there, you must get there. I was surprised by the fort, as I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s an absolutely huge attraction albeit with much of it in ruin. The fort was built in the 17th century along with the James Fort as a measure to stop foreign forces from joining any Irish rebellions to overthrow British rule. The fort is star-shaped which is a spec designed by French military tacticians to be most effective. Its primary function was to stop any ships which intended to use Kinsale for docking. It peers down on the town from its lofty location.
The fort is accessed by surrounded by huge wooden walls and accessed by a wooden bridge. Opening hours are from 10 to 6 daily and admission is €5 with plenty of parking outside which is free. Once inside you are free to wander and you suddenly realise how huge the place is. There are some exhibitions in the commanders house which is fully intact but I believe the true beauty of the place lies in the extensive ruins. It’s best to just set off and explore as each corner of the fort gives a different perception. The sea behind adds to the vast loneliness of the place. Many of the ruins can be entered and explored, although imagination is needed to envisage their former function. Words can’t articulate just how fantastic the place is, its a visual treat more than anything. So I’ll let my photos do the talking.
In my assertion these two towns are probably amongst Ireland’s finest. From their engaging coloured houses, to their historical legacy, impressive cultural sites, and coastal locations, there are few other towns in Ireland to compete. Any Irish holiday would benefit from their inclusion.
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