There are over 40 castles in the County of Cork. Cork is the biggest county in Ireland, which I only learned after booking a hotel in “Cork,” taking a bus to “Cork City,” and learning that Cork is much bigger than a city and there was no way to get to our hotel. Nonetheless, we changed the plans and stuck around Cork city for a little over a week. The first half spent exploring and working, the second half spent exploring, working, dog sitting the best dog ever.
Cork County & City
Cork county is located in the south of Ireland and is in the province of Munster. It is the third most populated county in Ireland (behind Dublin & Antrim). Cork city is the capital of this county and, as with most capitals, the most densely populated part of the county. The city is beautiful and has a large river running through the middle of it. It is incredibly colourful and lively and reminds me of a larger Galway (probably due to all the street performers).
While there are loads of castles to see in Cork County, there a just a few that are convenient to visit from Cork City. If you decided to rent a car, all are accessible. Otherwise, as part of a day trip the best to visit are The Blarney Castle and Blackrock Castle. Both are easily accessible by public transit (Bus Eireann) from Cork City Centre (as well as other stops in and around the city) for just 2.40 euro each way.
The Blarney Castle and Gardens
This castle is located in the village of Blarney, 8km outside of Cork City and is open until 5pm. You go through the ticketing area and pay 15 euros per person (less for students and children). This may seem like quite a bit, and initially, I thought it was. But the grounds were massive and beautiful with so much more to do than visiting the castle.
Blarney Castle is home to the famous Blarney Stone. Which legend says gives the gift of gab, or eloquence, to those who kiss it. The stone is easily the most popular area to visit on the grounds, as it was the only place crowded or with a line. There are signs throughout the grounds, making it simple to navigate. Once you go into the castle, there’s what seems like a never-ending line to get up to the stone, but it moves fairly quickly.
Walking up the narrow stairway that curls up a tower, you don’t want to be someone who likes personal space, or too tall. There are small doors and openings along the way that you can go through to pop into other ‘rooms,’ but you have to come back into the line to continue on – so you may be standing there for a while hoping someone lets you back in.
Once you reach the top, you get beautiful views of most of the grounds. You see the windy pathways, the small village you went through before the castle, and fields with cows and horses off in the distance. You can look downward into the castle, seeing people exploring the rooms from above.
When it’s your turn to kiss the stone, it feels over before it even began. You lower yourself onto the mat and the man working there helps you lean backwards, with your hands on a metal bar above you. You lean your head back and kiss the stone. Now you either have the gift of gab or all the diseases of the people who came before you. I’m hoping for the former.
After (or before) exploring the castle, there are some beautiful gardens to check out. Not everything was in full bloom (I went in April) but the poisonous garden I found to be particularly interesting. They even have some of the famous plants from Harry Potter, like Mandrake and Wolfsbane. They also have Ricin (Breaking Bad anyone?), among other interesting plants.
The cafe is also worth visiting if you’re there on a sunny day. Most of the seating is outside, and the cafe is in what looks like an old stable. Brightly coloured, quite adorable, and they make a good quiche.
Blackrock Castle & Observatory
Blackrock Castle is only 12 minutes away from Cork City Centre (or about 45 minutes by bus) and is also open until 5pm. Blackrock is not your normal visit to a castle though. It was never a “King & Queens” castle and has had various purposes through the years. It is also much smaller than many castles we have visited.
Currently, Blackrock Castle is used as a science centre and observatory. Only 6.50 euros per person, you walk through an interactive science center. Very information based (kind of museum-y). Very little of the castle has much to do with it being a castle. There are screens with glowing poles to touch that tell you different information about space and evolution, different interactive things about compases and light. It was pretty neato.
There are two tours included in the price – the “historical” tour and the “planetarium” tour. The historical tour takes you up to the tower where you can get some good views of the water and surrounding port. The guide discusses the history of the castle and the different people who lived there. He also told us some previous uses of the castle (such as an events hall) before it became a science center. Also while on the top of the tower you are shown the giant telescope that’s up there. Afterwards you are taken to a gunnery which is lower in the same tower where you listen to a recording and look at a cannon. It’s quite short (~half hour) and includes a great view, but I didn’t personally find it very interesting.
The planetarium tour immediately followed the historical tour. Here you are taken into a big inflatable dome with the night sky projected onto it. You’re shown the darkest parts of the evening from around that same time of year (a year prior) and different things you can see in the night sky. The guide discusses different constallations and planets you can see at certain times and when/where to look for them. I found this one way more interesting – but if you don’t like sitting still for half an hour in essentially a tent with twenty other people – it’s not for you.
The restaurant in the castle is also awesome. Much fancier than one would think, and it’s reccommended to get a reservation. Their menu is extensive and a little pricy, but quite good. It is called the Castle Cafe and open much later than the castle itself (until 9pm).
With so many castles in Cork to choose from, you can take your pick based on what you’re looking for. These two are very much at opposite ends of the spectrum. Old 15th Century Kind & Queens castle with legends surrounding it makes Blarney Castle a great pick. The modern science infused Blackrock Castle and Observatory gives you a completely different option.
I chose these two based on their proximity to Cork City and recommendations. If you have a car while you’re in Cork, I’d certainly recommend exploring further and seeing the less visited castles. While Blarney was my favourite, I’m happy I went to both.