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April 23, 2006|By JAMIE SKINNER

A memorable place

Discovering the real Ireland

Southern city of Cork filled with tradition, history and music

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to study in Ireland for a semester. My friends and I had been attending class at University College Dublin for more than a month and were ready for a new adventure when we heard about a jazz festival in the city of Cork.

We had little in the way of tickets or reservations, but being students abroad, accustomed to uncertainty, we didn't let that stop us. I had not yet seen the south of Ireland where Cork is located, and on the bus ride down, I found it was the Ireland I had always imagined, misty and evocative, peppered with ancient stone ruins and thatched cottages.

Having found Cork hotels to be completely booked, we stayed at a hostel in a nearby village, which turned out to be delightful - it was yellow with red shutters, like something out of a fairy tale. Inside, there were oversize cookies for sale in glass jars and folk art paintings reminiscent of Beatrix Potter illustrations. Best of all was the cozy reading room, complete with overstuffed chairs and a roaring fire.

In the morning, we got a ride into the city with friends. Cork, with its jewel-toned storefronts and meandering streets, feels more like an oversize Irish village than a city. Part of its appeal is that, like Amsterdam and Venice, it was built on the water, in this case the River Lee. Many of the present-day streets were once waterways lined with the homes of merchants.

Just as we arrived, we were passed by a state funeral procession for a political leader from Cork. I saw, for the first time, members of the Irish military, dressed in olive green.

From there, we crossed the river, where we took in the view from the battlements of Blackrock Castle and found St. Finbarr's, a Gothic revival cathedral in a quiet neighborhood. Looking for a bite to eat, we settled on a lunch of fish and chips at a trendy cafe - washed down with wonderfully cold cider. After watching street performances, we finally arrived at a hotel bar where a swing band was performing. We drank pints of stout, talked and listened to the music, until long after dark.

Jamie Skinner lives in Gaithersburg.

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