I’d never intended to visit Kinsale, but more times than not, unexpected encounters have proved to be the most fruitful. I was in the gloomy city of Cork for a couple of days, scouting the county for a gripping seascape to shoot, and my research eventually led me to Old Head of Kinsale at the southern end of Ireland, almost an hour from Cork.
Driving there, I went through the fishing town of Kinsale. Looking at the small harbor by the river, I decided that I shouldn’t pass by it on the way back. That was a good call because soon I would discover that someone had built a hideous golf course on the tip of the Old Head peninsula, effectively cutting the access to the famous lighthouse and ruining my plans. After cursing the elitist twats for a good ten minutes, I went on to visit the Lusitania museum which is right there, in the middle of the green Irish countryside, not far from the Atlantic Ocean.
Lusitania, was a state-of-the-art liner sunk in 1915 by a German U-boat, dragging with her to the bottom of the ocean many of the 1198 men, women, and children that died that day. The whole thing was over in 18 terrifying minutes. The museum is housed in a small 19th-century signal station and features an array of interesting items from the shipwreck and documents of the locals’ efforts to save the passengers.
Outside, a peaceful memorial garden has the names of everyone who lost their lives that day, engraved on a long ribbon-like metallic plate. The atmosphere is quite electric, and you can feel the proximity to the shipwreck and the tragedy that unfolded 11 miles off the coast. If you were standing on the signal tower that Friday, you’d be able to see the ship going down, and the survivors struggling with the waves for 3 hours before the first boats came to their rescue. The Lusitania incident had a profound effect, and later, it would be used as a cause by the US to get into the Great War. I kept thinking about it as I was driving back.
Kinsale is built on the north bank of river Brandon, very close to its estuary on the Atlantic. It’s the kind of town with nice pavements lined with trees, and well-trimmed grass in front of small colorful houses with tiled roofs, and flowery gardens. The small harbor is definitely the centerpiece; the connecting link between the past and the future. Fishing is what kept this city alive for centuries and eventually turned it into a great food destination, perhaps the most famous in all Ireland.
An Astounding Culinary Scene
Kinsale has always been a coastal holiday resort for locals and foreigners alike but somewhere in the 2000s, something happened that changed the place forever — a culinary revolution. It started with places like Fishy Fishy that decided to push the boundaries of the local culinary scene beyond pub food, but without ruining the pub-like experience of dining in a small cozy place. This is Ireland after all.
Today, Kinsale has around 60 eateries. Four of them are listed in Michelin’s food guide (2020), and one has a Michelin star: Max’s, Finns’ Table, Fishy Fishy, and Bastion*. Not bad for a city of five thousand people. It goes without saying that the main ingredient here is seafood: oysters, mussels, lobster, salmon, cod, hake, and haddock. Often, covered with creamy sauces or dipped in golden batter, many of these fish had been swimming in the Atlantic just a few hours before ending up on your plate.
If you prefer meat, there are wonderful surf and turf dishes with famed Irish beef fillet or tender lamb from the lush hills of Kerry County, accompanied by delicious fresh scallops or shrimp — pure joy for the palate. To keep quality up to the higher standards, most of the side ingredients are produced locally, and you can really taste the freshness.
For street food, I can’t recommend enough the Catch of the Day, a food truck by the bridge of Kinsale that makes fresh fish and chips with anything their boat caught that particular day. Heavenly tastes with perfect crispiness and a dash of lemon to stir things up.
In Kinsale you can see some classic attractions, the most notable being Charles fort and James fort built just outside the city on Brandon River, one across the other. The city’s museum is also interesting, with many exhibits from the local marine life, and historical artifacts from the battle of Kinsale. For a cup of tea or coffee, there are some great cafes scattered around the town, and little shops selling anything from books to wool clothing made from the famous Irish yarn. Everything you would need to spend a relaxing vacation is there.
Even though Kinsale is popular with tourists, it has managed to keep its genuineness as a destination, and with its picturesque charm and unique character remains one of the most attractive and representative places Ireland has to offer. If you ever find yourself in Ireland and Cork County, make sure you pay a visit to this charming little town.