County Cork: The Rebel County

Outside of Dublin, County Cork is a popular destination for many.

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But did you know that it’s the largest and southernmost county in Ireland and that it is known as the “Rebel County,” a name given to it by King Henry VII during the 15th century?

West Cork is a region that is well known and popular with tourists, but there are other towns and gems across County Cork that are also worth exploring.

Here’s what you should see when you visit County Cork.

I suggest that you start in Cork City and make your way around the county from there.

From Dublin, Cork is about a 3-hour drive on good roads (primarily the M7 and M8).

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An aerial view of Cork International Airport. Photo: Slongy, Getty Images.

If you are arriving in Cork from the U.K. or continental Europe, you will be flying into Cork Airport, which is conveniently located near the city.

All the major car rental companies are at the airport.

There is also a ferry service to Cork from France.

While you can get a more in-depth account of the city in this blog post, the main attractions you’ll want to see include The English Market, Elizabeth Fort, the Crawford Art Gallery, St. Finne Barr’s Cathedral, Cork City Gaol, the Shandon Bells & Tower, and The Butter Museum, to name a few.

large whiskey vat Jameson Whiskey Distillery
The Jameson Distillery at Midleton, Cork. Photo: Chris Hill for Tourism Ireland.

While you’re there, be sure to visit the Jameson Distillery in Midleton, which is considered part of the metro area.

The distillery, which is where the Jameson brand of whiskey is made, was established in Cork in 1975.

Its Dublin location is now purely a tourist attraction.

Book a Tour and Tasting at the Jameson Distillery in Midleton

Blarney Castle is also a short distance from the city.

The attraction is perhaps the most popular one in all of County Cork.

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Blarney Castle is a favorite destination for many tourists to Cork. Photo: Pixabay.

Blarney Castle is of course the home of the Blarney Stone, set into a tower of the castle in 1446. It has since become synonymous with flattery and, as the legend goes, anyone who kisses it will be blessed with the attribute.

There’s more to the attraction than that of course, and the other things to see at Blarney Castle include the castle grounds, including its magnificent gardens.

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The Blarney Castle estate houses one of the few poisoned gardens in Ireland.

In fact, the original poison garden that was planted in the 15th century still exists today. It contains plants like wolfsbane, mandrake, ricin, and opium, all of which were possibly used as medicinal cures in medieval Ireland.

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An area of the castle where visitors can explore. Photo: Jennifer Boyer, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenniferboyer/ https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Sections of the castle’s interior that are of special interest include the Murder Hole, the Wishing Steps, the Witch’s Kitchen, and the dungeon.

Purchase Tickets to Blarney Castle and Gardens

Cobh and Surrounding Attractions

No visit to County Cork would be complete without visiting Cobh.

When emigration reached unprecedented levels in 19th-century Ireland, Cobh became synonymous with this sad chapter of Irish history.

You will, no doubt, want to find out more about the place that was the last glimpse of Ireland for many emigrants, possibly your ancestors, too.

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The statue of Annie Moore and her brothers on the harbor at Cobh. Photo: Courtesy Catherine Crowley for Failte Ireland.

At the Cobh Heritage Centre, you’ll find a wealth of information, including the story of Annie Moore, the first emigrant to be processed at New York’s Ellis Island on Jan. 1, 1892, as well as information on the waves of emigrants who left for Cobh (then known as Queenstown) bound first for Canada and later the United States.

In addition, approximately 40,000 convicts were shipped to Australia and the West Indies from Cobh/Queenstown.

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The Cobh Heritage Centre. Photo: Peter Craine, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9364079

The heritage center’s exhibits also tell the story of the Titanic, which docked at Cobh to pick up additional passengers before making its way to New York, as well as the Lusitania, which was sunk by a German torpedo during World War I.

You can book a one-hour session with the center’s genealogist if you are interested in finding more accurate information on your Irish ancestor. The fee is €60.

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After leaving the heritage center, take a moment to walk around the harbor to enjoy the view, including the nearby houses painted in bright colors that have made their way into many travel brochures and Instagram posts.

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The award-winning Spike Island off the coast of Co. Cork. Photo: Spike Island Management.

While you’re in Cobh, a visit to Spike Island is a must.

Once the largest prison in the world, the popular dark tourism attraction offers several tours that give visitors a real insight into this fascinating place.

“Spike Island After Dark” is a popular one that takes participants into the prison’s underground tunnels, some of which are believed to be haunted.

Ferries to Spike Island are available from Cobh.

Kinsale

This pretty heritage town is another popular tourist spot in County Cork.

But there are more than pretty shop fronts to explore here.

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A colorful building in Kinsale. Photo: Tim Thompson for Tourism Ireland.

Located 16 miles/25 km from Cork City, the town has a formidable history given its strategic importance as both a military and trading center along the southern coast of Ireland.

William Penn, an English Quaker and the founder of Pennsylvania, was a clerk in the town’s Admiralty Court.

Sadly, the Battle of Kinsale, which proved devastating to the Gaelic way of life, took place in the town in 1601.

Over the next 100 years or so, two forts were constructed near Kinsale, including James Fort and Charles Fort.

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The seaward Devils Bastion and lighthouse of the 17th Century Charles Fort, with Kinsale boatyard in the background. Photo: Courtesy Cahir Davitt / Davitt Photography for Failte Ireland.

If you want to get a close-up look at Charles Fort, take the 6-km (3.7 miles) Scilly Walk, a lovely coastal trail that can be completed in as little as 30 minutes each way.

The walk starts at The Spaniard pub in town.

Kinsale is also known for its amazing restaurants, so be sure to sample some of those while you’re there.

Frommers recently named its Top 10 Kinsale restaurants. Some include The Black Pig/Wine Bar, Finns’ Table, Fishy Fishy, Man Friday, Max’s, and The Spaniard.

Clonakilty

Once you’ve reached this friendly seaside town, you’ll be smack in the heart of West Cork.

Like Kinsale, the town, which is resplendent in bright, colorful shop fronts, is also home to a number of great restaurants and pubs.

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The interior of the Clonakilty Pudding Visitor Centre. Photo: Mark Coombes, Failte Ireland.

They include the Clonakilty Brewing Company, the makers of the Tojo American Pale Ale, the Smuggler Irish Porter, and the Inchydoney Blond Belgian Wit; the Clonakilty Black Pudding, which can be found on the menus of several restaurants in the region and around the country; Clonakilty Homemade Ice Cream, with over 18 delicious flavors to choose from in its shop located in the center of the town, and Scannell's Pub and Restaurant, a popular gastropub.

Clonakilty was the birthplace of the famous revolutionary hero and politician Michael Collins and as a result, there is an interesting museum dedicated to him in the town.

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An exhibit at the Michael Collins House Museum in Clonakilty. The museum's War of Independence exhibition is up until Sept. 30th. Photo: Michael Collins House Museum Facebook.

Two private tours are available from the center that will give you a real insight into the much-revered Irish hero who was assassinated in 1922.

The West Cork Model Railway Village is another popular attraction in the town. Kids are particularly drawn to the replica of an old West Cork railway that was once active in the 1940s.

Outside of Clonakilty, there’s plenty to see.

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The early morning light illuminates the Galley Head Lighhouse. Photo: David Creedon / Anzenberger for Failte Ireland.

Drive along the coast and you’ll reach the Galley Head Lighthouse, which is owned by the Irish Landmark Trust and is available for rental.

The Galley Head lighthouse and the nearby Fastnet Lighthouse are two of the most powerful lighthouses in Europe.

While not as striking as Stonehenge in England, the Drombeg Stone Circle is still formidable and one of the finest stone circles in Ireland.

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The Drombeg Stone Circle in West Cork. Photo: Brian Morrison, Failte Ireland.

Visit it when nobody else is around and you’re certain to feel the ancient vibes from this special place.

West Cork is dotted with beautiful beaches. Among them is the Blue Flag Inchdoney Island beach, which is popular with locals and tourists.

Read More: 6 of Ireland’s Coolest Lighthouses to Visit in 2024

You’ll find the Timoleague Friary (also known as Timoleague Abbey) along the way between Kinsale and Clonakilty.

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The Timoleague Abbey in County Cork. Photo: George Karbus, Failte Ireland.

The medieval ruin, once home to the Franciscan Order, is the largest medieval site in West Cork.

The attraction, which is a discovery point on the Wild Atlantic Way, is worth an exploration.

 

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Skibbereen

Like other towns in West Cork, Skibbereen is a vibrant, colorful place to visit.

And like so many other communities in West Cork, this one, too, attracts its fair share of foodies, artists, and others who are drawn to this beautiful part of Ireland.

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High Street in Skibbereen, Co. Cork. Photo: Jonathan Billinger, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33791733

Its heritage center, like the one in Cobh, also reflects on the Great Famine and how it devastated the town in the 19th century.

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A Must-read: Skibbereen: The Famine Story

Islands Off the West Cork Coast

As you make your way along the West Cork coastline, you may notice a group of islands that are known as the Carbery’s Hundred Isles.

The name comes from a poem published in 1844 that retells the story of a raid on the coastal village of Baltimore.

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The North Harbor at Cape Clear Island. Photo: Yvonne Gordon, Failte Ireland.

In 1631, Algerian pirates (from the Barbery Coast off North Africa) stormed Baltimore and took most of the inhabitants to the slave markets in Algiers.

They included a mix of English settlers and Irish natives.

The Carbery Islands include Cape Clear Island and Sherkin Island, which are two of the largest islands in the archipelago.

You can get to Cape Clear Island via the Cape Clear Ferries from Baltimore or Schull and to Sherkin Island from Baltimore with Sherkin Island Ferries.

Bantry

Bantry, located in an area known as the Beara Peninsula, should be on your list of places to visit while touring County Cork.

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Bantry House & Gardens in Co. Cork. Photo: George Karbus Photography for Failte Ireland.

A big tourist attraction in the town is Bantry House & Gardens, which was built in the 18th century and has been occupied by the White family (formerly known as the Earls of Bantry) since the 1700s.

While the house is well worth a visit (you can take a self-guided tour anytime between April and October, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) the magnificent Italian gardens are its finest feature, with lawns that sweep down to the sea.

The estate also serves as a bed and breakfast.

Prices are higher than other forms of accommodation in the area, with an average nightly rate for two of approximately $200

The sumptuous surroundings may well make up for the cost, however.

If you’re looking to spend some time golfing in West Cork, the affordable 27-hole Bantry Bay Golf Club is an ideal choice.

Green Fees for visitors range from €45/$47 a day in the winter to a high of €60/$63 during the summer.

Read More: Budget-Friendly Golf Courses in Ireland

If you’re in the mood for walking, the Sheep's Head Way, while a lengthy 93 kilometers (57 miles) can also be attempted in smaller looped walks.

Gougane Barra

A 26-minute drive north of Bantry will bring you to the incredibly beautiful Gougane Barra located in the Gougane Barra Forest Park.

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St. Finbarr's Church on Gougane Barra Lake in County Cork. Photo: Carrig Photos for Getty Images.

The main attraction in this 1,000-acre park is the small church with stained glass windows that sits on a tiny island at the edge of Gougane Barra Lake.

Saint Finbarr, the patron saint of Cork City, established a monastery here in the 6th century and the remains of his hermitage can be found near the church.

Is County Cork on your list of places to visit? If so, let me know in the comments below.