A cork is an important thing. You don’t taste the cork itself – you don’t want to taste it! – but it keeps what’s in the bottle fresh. You have to get past the stopper and taste what you can pour out.

The word cork, once you open up the etymology, comes from Latin cortex, meaning ‘bark’, a tree’s interface with the outer world, because corks are made from the bark of the cork oak. Cortex is also the word for the skin of your brain, its involuted outer layer, the part that is so important in consciousness and memory, your awareness of your interfaces with the outer world.

Cork, the city in Ireland, is not named after cork bark. Its Irish name is Corcaigh – pronounced like “corky” in most of Ireland but a bit closer to “corkage” in Cork’s own region. It means ‘swamp’ or ‘marsh’ – well, it’s the dative form, so it means ‘to the swamp’. Which sounds like an instruction to go find a wet place.

After we stopped our car in Cork, parked it, and checked into our hotel, we went to find a wet place. Or several. We were just outside the centre of town, so we walked on to the island that is the heart of the city. By luck, the day was dry. By design, the establishments we sought out were not.

We did walk the streets.

We visited the English Market, which is like food markets I’ve visited in Madrid, Vancouver, Philadelphia, and two blocks from home.

But then we found the Mutton Lane Inn. Where we found Murphy’s Stout and other local favourites. And I noticed a fact of Irish pubs: some people come alone. Not to meet other people. Just to take a glass of what comes from the tap and peel back page after page of a thick book in the lampglow. Another kind of cork-pulling.

From there we went to Sin é, a pub across the river. Its name means ‘That’s it’. It is. And at a certain hour, a reserved table in the corner is occupied by musicians and their beverages to complete the scene and the sound. Take note, though: the pub is next door to a funeral home, and when the latter is lined up for a visitation you have to take the side door of the former for politeness.

After that we needed food and found some at The Old Town Whiskey Bar, the odd one out. It felt like a converted bank. But it, too, had music.

At last we finished at The Oval, reputedly haunted. Haunted anyway by its customers in groups and singles.

When you drink draft beer, there’s no cork, of course; it’s from a keg, and it’s tapped. But when you have spirits, there’s a bottle with a stopper. The Oval may or may not be haunted, but all pubs have spirits, and not just the high spirits of their patrons. And when the bottles of spirits have poured out what they came with, they are stopped one more time – with a candle. At last the cork has become a flame to light your outer layers and the pages of your memory.

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