Cork City is developing a reputation as a kind of Dublin South, and for good reason. It's far smaller than the capital, but Cork is a busy, attractive, artsy place that combines the conveniences of a city with an appreciation for rural life. For travelers, it offers plenty to see and do, and has the added attraction of a burgeoning restaurant scene that has been making headlines around Ireland.
Cork has had a long and rebellious history, which has been for centuries tied intrinsically to Ireland's struggle for independence. The city was founded by St. Finbarr in the 6th century, when he built a monastery on a swampy estuary of the River Lee. (It may have been built at the site of the current St. Finbarr's Cathedral.) He gave the place the rather generic Gaelic name of Corcaigh, which means "marsh." Over the next 600 years, the little piece of swamp would ultimately become the crown in the Kingdom of South Munster, but by the end of the 12th century, the English had asserted what they saw as their rightful ownership of the region. Over the following centuries, Cork would change ownership many times as the English and the Irish struggled for control. It resisted Cromwell's forces, only to lose to William of Orange.
Once firmly under English control, Cork thrived until the 18th century, when it was battered by the potato famine. The potato blight drained the region of its wealth and, ultimately, of its population.
The city earned its nickname, "Rebel Cork," because it was a center of the 19th-century Fenian movement, and also played an active part in Ireland's 20th-century battle for independence. The fighting here was long and ugly. Thomas MacCurtain, Cork's mayor, was killed by British forces in 1920. His successor, Terence MacSwiney, died in a London prison after a hunger strike lasting 75 days.
British forces in Cork were among the most repressive in Ireland, and many atrocities were attributed to the troops (which were called "Black and Tans" for the color of their uniforms). Much of the city center, including the library, the City Hall, and most of the buildings on St. Patrick's Street were burned to the ground during the British occupation and the subsequent brutal Civil War of the 1920s.
It was not until the last decades of the 20th century that Cork began to come into its own, and to find its feet as a university town with strong connections to Europe and a kind of gentle sophistication. It's certainly not a perfect place -- it has severe traffic congestion, and can feel a bit gritty and crowded, but it has much to offer and is well worth a couple of days of your time.