Jeremy Irons Narrates Skibbereen Heritage Centre Tour - Pop the lid on Cork's Cuisine

Jeremy Irons: Cork cafes

February 15, 2009

Belinda Jackson goes to the end of Europe to sample its finest delights - food, sights and Jeremy Irons.

One in three people in Ireland's West Cork region starved to death during the Great Famine, croons the smooth voice in my head, and the town of Skibbereen, where I'm standing, is notable for the mass grave of 100,000 people on its outskirts.

I confess I've tuned out of the grim statistics pouring through the headphones and tuned into the narrator instead, an English voice that drips of bitter honey and penetrating stares. Um, is it Jeremy Irons?

"Why, yes, it is," says the smiling lad at Skibbereen Heritage Centre, adding helpfully, "he lives round here, down at Kilcoe Castle. Just follow the river."

The island of Ireland ends at Skibbereen, County Cork, the country's most southerly town. It's a colourful little place on the fringe of Europe. Despite the dubious honour of being one of the worst-hit towns during Ireland's Great Famine of 1845, it's a flourishing hotbed of foodies and the famous.

Sure, everyone knows about Bono and his local pub (if you don't, it's in Killarney, in County Kerry). Enya lives around the corner from him. Daniel Day Lewis hangs out in the County Wicklow village of Roundwood and there is even talk that Madge from Neighbours has forsaken Ramsay Street for Galway. Who knew? But Cork can lay claim to Irons, who throbbed almost painfully in the steamy South American film, The Mission.

We are on our own mission to eat Cork into a second food shortage. We arrive in Skibbereen the day after the West Cork Food Festival, where the celebration doesn't stop at food. "T'were a lot of drink consumed, too," pipes up the chic, petite lady mayoress enthusiastically, pressing more tea and biscuits on everyone who's come to celebrate the latest festival, held each September.

It's true, Ireland isn't exactly a star of world cuisines. The national dishes are known more for stodginess than culinary excellence - think Irish stew and Irish potatoes. But our Cork itinerary turns that notion on its head.

A raft of "blow-ins" from other counties and countries and a resurgence of interest in old food traditions has created a niche of blooming organic and slow-food experiences.

We face breakfasts of heroic proportions: black-and-white pudding from the Cork town of Clonakilty, local eggs, preserves, speciality soda breads and fat scones.

We raid Cork's historic English Market, finding freshly made Japanese nigiri sushi topped with salmon from the county of Donegal. We prod the potatoes, chomp on cheeses and sample the seaweed.

We head upstairs to the market's famous Farmhouse Cafe to down steaming plates of comforting, well-seasoned Irish stew before spying the charcuterie plate of duck pate, spiced meats and terrines.

A quick wander along the river's edge is just the ticket between pit stops of noshing local produce such as the renowned Durrus raw milk cheese, tasty Skeaghanore duck, soft Gubbeen cheese and Woodcock smoked wild salmon.

We crawl down hedge-lined roads and, after a few confusing turns, we spot Kilcoe Castle. It's big, solitary and pink. A 1980s salmon pink. Brideshead Revisited's original foppish heart-throb isn't exactly hiding behind a hedge.

What to do when confronted with such an architectural statement? Of course, I photograph it. I get out my tripod and long lens and I snap the big pink castle, where two women are deep in conversation about the oyster farm in Roaring Water Bay.

The next day, we find respite from culinary overdose in the form of a boat trip to Garnish Island - or Ilnacullin - departing from the pier at postcard-perfect Glengarriff.

Former Belfast MP Annan Bryce bought the 15-hectare island, lock and stock, from the British War Office in 1920 and commissioned a garden and grand mansion. With the onset of war, the mansion never arrived but the scrap of land now boasts romantic Italianate gardens, lush bursts of rhododendrons and various exotic pines designed by English architect Harold Peto and encouraged by the warm rains that commute from the Gulf of Mexico to the island. In its midst stands a stocky stone Martello tower, built and garrisoned by the English in a frenzy of fear that Napoleon would invade in the early 1800s.

If we hadn't already gorged ourselves, we would have been saved by the island's cafe.

On the way over, the little Harbour Queen's salty sea captain points out the lazy seals basking on rocks in the harbour, then waves a crooked finger at Maureen's home. Maureen O'Hara, that is. The original flame-haired temptress whose temper boiled and made John Wayne's blood boil in The Quiet Man.

"Her first cousin is my father-in-law," says our man on the ferry. "I've seen photographs of her in nappies."

"Isn't she dead?" I ask, oh-so tactfully.

"No, she had dinner down in the village just the other day."

Why, she's even got a golf classic named after her. My guess is she pulled up a table at the old-school Eccles Hotel, where the Sunday lunch menu - roast beef, lamb and pork, guinea fowl and salmon - reminds you that the hunt is still a respected pastime here in Ireland.

That night, the table at O'Connors seafood restaurant in Bantry groans under Sherkin Island oysters, organic farmed salmon, organic lettuce leaves from Bantry House's gardens, Durrus cheese, smoked chicken and duck from the town of Ummera and the restaurant's own warm, thick and comforting seafood chowder - surely the culinary manifestation of love in a bowl.

As I totter back to my bed and pull open the window to hear the Atlantic Ocean shushing on the flagstones of the town's waterfront, I realise why Jeremy lives here. It's not the fact that everyone ignores him. Or that he can make a quiet quid doing narration at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre. It's the duck, the cheese, the chowder and the leaves. It's the fresh oysters at his castle's front door. The scales won't thank me and my cholesterol has taken on a dark form in my dreams. But I'm coming, Jeremy. I'm coming back.

Belinda Jackson was a guest of Tourism Ireland and Etihad Airways.


Getting there

Etihad Airways has sale fares from Sydney to Dublin from $1910. 1800 998 995,

Staying there

The chic new Maritime Hotel is on the harbour at Bantry, +353 (0)27 54700, see

Getting around

Boats run from Glengarriff pier to Garnish Island every 20 minutes, seven days a week between March to October, +353 (0)27 63116,

Where to eat

O'Connors Seafood Restaurant on Bantry's main street, +353 (0)27 50221, or try the Farmgate Restaurant in Cork's English Market, +353 (0)21 427 8134.

More information

West Cork Tourism, +353 (0)28 22812, see

Back to Home