Late summer days in Cork

 There’s something magical about Irish summers, even if you get there at the tail end of them. There are still a handful of festivals going on, there’s still the occasional dry day when you can stroll in the countryside, the abundant red and purple fuschias are still in bloom, and bone-grinding chill of winter on this island on the edge of the Atlantic hasn’t hit yet.

This summer was no different. A trip to West Cork in the southern tip of Ireland offered up a surprising array of treats – including an attempt by hundreds of guitar players to break a Guinness World Record, the 250th anniversary celebrations of Guinness; a food festival in Skibbereen and an inordinate amount of traditional music sessions in pubs.

The “craic”, as we Irish like to say, was mighty.

The guitar festival in picturesque Clonakilty attracted guitarists from, not just Ireland, but from around the world.  During the festival, they attempted to enter the record book for the most guitarists playing the same song at the same time.

Corkonian folk singer John Spillane led the biggest gathering of guitarists ever seen in Ireland on a rousing chorus of the traditional Irish tune “Óró, sé do bheatha ‘bhaile!”, which means “Óró, you’re welcome home again”.

From the stage, there seemed to be guitar players as far as the eye could see.

Guitars of all sizes, colours and conditions were put to work. Little kids, their foreheads creased with intense concentration, played next to a traffic warden who was hitting the G chord over and over again as Spillane in his soft encouraging voice instructed the guitarists from the stage.

A woman bedecked in the Cork colours of red and white chatted with a man in dreadlocks as both plucked their guitar strings.

Standing in a park surrounded by more than 800 guitar players all strumming the same chord at the same time was quite a unique acoustic experience, one that organisers say will be repeated next year. They broke an Irish record, but needed more than 2,000 to break an international one, so they aim to do it all over again next year.

And when they didn’t break the record, there was a mass shrugging of shoulders, a few pats on the back, and the usual Irish philosophical response of “Ah well, we’ll get it next time.”

For those who’d built up an appetite with the morning’s strumming, a trip to Skibbereen, a market town 20 miles away, resulted in some delicious culinary goodies featured in the annual “Taste of West Cork Food Festival”.

Food tastings, cookery demonstrations, and chances to indulge in some of West Cork’s most famous foods, like black pudding, salmon, and great local brown soda breads and cheeses, abounded.

No trip to County Cork would be complete without a visit to Cork City. Ireland’s second capital, the city has undergone a major facelift in the past 20 years. Some streets have been widened and other pedestrianised for easier access, it boasts a bewildering array of restaurants, many of them excellent, and a street full of familiar high street brands.

The county has always had a rebellious and independent streak, and Cork city is the perfect place to buy a Cork Republica or People’s Republic of Cork t-shirt – the ultimate souvenir.

And then, of course, there are the pubs. With the recession biting hard in Ireland, bars are offering more free entertainment to customers in a bid to draw in more drinkers and diners.

In Cork city, the Long Valley Bar, an institution that has attracted many a customer with its rustic, doorstep sandwiches, oxtail soup and soda bread, as well as the well-pulled pints of stout, has not in the past relied on music sessions to draw in custom. Now, however, “trad ceol”, or traditional music, is an integral part of the mid-week evenings.

On the night we visited, a couple were playing a fairly bewildering array of instruments to accompany their singing of some great old Irish classics.

The evening coincided with international celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Guinness stout. At 5.59pm, or 17.59 on the 24 hour clock (1759 being the date the stout was launched in Dublin), the entire country was to raise their pints of Guinness and toast the founder of the famed “black stuff”, Arthur Guinness.

Many in the bar stared at the countdown to 17.59 on the television, and then took a sip of their Murphy’s, Cork’s own locally brewed stout. Cork is, after all, the rebel county.

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