It’s a gourmet hot spot with a spectacular outlook on Ireland’s south-west coast.
Bernard O’Shea goes exploring and even finds some kin in Kinsale.
Kinsale is one of the prettiest towns in Ireland and in theory it’s an easy 25-minute drive south of Cork on the R600, but of course the great Bernardo (that’s me) had to complicate things and ended up in a cul-de-sac somewhere in Cork’s southern suburbs. After some deft manoeuvres – crunching a child’s bicycle while reversing in a driveway, playing dodge-em cars with gateposts and turning a simple three-point turn into a four-pointer then a five – Bernardo was soon back on the R600 and, hopefully, heading south.
Things began to look promising after he passed the village of Belgooly – the road began to hug a pretty waterway, the River Stick, and even crossed over to hug the other bank. Then we (Bernardo and his dodge-em car) veered away from the river, went uphill a bit, then downhill and suddenly there it was, the town of Kinsale, on a bend in the River Bandon, with its little harbour walls decked out in hanging baskets of flowers. Bernardo pulled off the R600 into Lower Road, where there was ample parking, to take in the view (below).
It was a tranquil midweek morning and the town looked quiet; the main signs of activity came from some kayakers having a genteel paddle on the river. But Bernardo astutely observed that all the parking spots on the opposite quay were taken, so rather than drive over and cause havoc in the cul-de-sacs and steep side streets (there’s no room for five-point turns in this place!), he left his car where it was and walked.
Nowadays Kinsale is known for its cuisine and annual gourmet food festival, and it’s a popular port of call for yatchies and pleasure craft, but it has played a significant and sometimes violent part in Irish history (and the conflicts between Protestant England and Catholic Spain and France). In October 1601 a Spanish Armada landed there and held the town for three months (the plan was to link up with Irish rebel forces coming from the north) but had to surrender to the English after what is now known as the Siege or Battle of Kinsale. A replica of the mast of a Spanish galleon has a nice perch in the port today.
In another notable incident, in 1689, James II, the last Roman Catholic King of England and Ireland and (as James V11) of Scotland, landed in Kinsale with an army after having been deposed and fleeing to France the year before. But his hopes of regaining his crown were defeated at the Battle of the Boyne the following year.
The two old forts – one on each bank – that guarded the mouth of the estuary are popular tourist attractions, particularly the spectacular star-shaped Charles Fort on the eastern side at Summercove (there is great aerial video footage of the fort on this website). It was used by the military up until the 1920s and is by far the larger of the two. James Fort, on the opposite bank, dates from 1602 and fell into ruin in the 19th century. But both are great places for walks and stunning views. For something other than a landlubber’s view, do a harbour cruise out to the mouth of the river.
Most people who come to Kinsale, though, want to sample its gourmet fare (it hosts a world famous food festival in October) and absorb its charming ambiance. On any day some of its restaurants can be really busy, particularly those that cater to the coach tour trade. (Bernardo was amused to find a busload brought in by his possible distant kin, the O’Sheas of Kerry – pictured inset.). But there are many quaint, quiet spots where you can sit in calm contemplation.
Kinsale is the kind of place where you never know what will be lurking round the next corner, and when you find out, you are often pleasantly surprised. There are some great little alleyways and cute shops to poke your nose in to.
Kinsale would be a great place to spend a weekend or a few nights midweek, and the vibe during its gourmet food festival must be terrific. Alas, Bernardo’s time was limited and he could only pass through. Still, you can’t stop in the gourmet capital of Ireland and not tickle your tastebuds, surely? Bernardo ordered a wee something…
It tasted great. Cheers! TTW
Bernardo travelled at his own expense. More information on the official Kinsale website. Photos © Bernard O’Shea.