A CURIOUS, dark figure in top hat and cloak can be seen stalking the streets of Cork. Meeting his cluster of willing victims in Emmet Place, he proceeds through the streets of the city, holding forth about the most macabre and bloodcurdling secrets of Cork’s history.
Cork Ghost Tour has become an increasingly popular way for tourists to soak up some our history, all while evading jump scares and having a bit of a giggle: it’s currently ranked number one of 37 Cork tours on TripAdvisor.
The shadowy and mysterious figure who leads the tour is actor, writer and street theatre performer Damian Punch. He launched the tour in 2015 with fellow performer Noelle O’Regan, having researched and written the material for the tour himself.
But Damian himself hails from Limerick.
“You couldn’t get a Cork lad to do it because he’d just tell you how great Cork is,” Damian jokes, an irreverent twinkle in his eye.
“You need a Limerick lad to come in and get to the heart of it: Cork is fantastic, but it has a dark history just like any place else.”
Damian moved to Cork at 30. With a degree in Construction Economics and no history of performing other than an innate love of comedy, he had planned to enrol in the Permaculture course in Kinsale College of Further Education, but instead found himself drawn to their Drama course.
“I never looked back,” he says. “I laughed all the way through the course: it was a clean canvas, life number two at the age of thirty.”
Although acting in all its guises was a draw, Damian quickly discovered that he loved street performance, where live interactions with an audience and passers-by kept him on his toes.
“I did all sorts of promotions for businesses and then I developed my own street shows,” Damian says.
“I busked on the street with ridiculous things, including being a singing dog, which I did for three Christmases in a row. When you’re on the street, you have to be wide: the street will always throw you curveballs. But that’s the great craic of the street too. You need to be able to play with the things that happen and incorporate them into your story.”
Damian is also a long-standing member of Snatch Comedy Improv, Cork’s monthly comedy improv night, with a rotating cast that includes Laura O’Mahony of comedy trio CCCahoots and George Hanover, who recently chilled spines with her rendition of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz at Cork Opera House.
He says that Cork Ghost Tour is the perfect blend of his street and improv work, and never grows boring: “It gives me great freedom because it’s very dark humour,” he says. “I have great craic with people, but I don’t have to be too nice because I’m a ghost tour guide. They know I have a twinkle in my eye and I’m loving what I do, though. I love interacting with people while I’m performing.”
Winding up to Shandon, where once the hillside flowed with blood from the local beef abbatoirs, the tour is part theatre, part horrible history and part local knowledge, and comes complete with a ghostly cast who pop up at appropriate moments to provide scares.
“Without giving too much away, yes, there are spirits who put in an appearance during the tour,” he says, smiling.
“I love it when we get a screamer, because it’s contagious and once one is screaming they all are. Recently we had an American family and the mother was jumping out of her skin: her teenage son turned to her and said,’ stop jumping, mom, you’re giving me a fright!’”
Damian says the tour is a big hit with foreign visitors, but also with Irish people: “Irish people are fascinated with the macabre and humour and history; you get a genuine mix of history and dark things, so it’s very popular with the home audience. Locals and Americans are the biggest audience, and after that probably Germans.”
Although locals were initially sceptical about the tour, now they are fonts of knowledge and have helped Damian add to his collection of local lore. And it’s all added to his interest in and appreciation of the second city’s unique and often bloody past.
“If you understand Cork, you understand medieval Europe, I think,” he says. “Cork was basically like Game of Thrones; they were trying to get their own man as King in Britain, and then the mayor getting his head lopped off…I didn’t realise the vast history of Cork.”
“Vikings, Normans, the famine, the battles: I think the biggest thing is how much it’s changed. It’s amazing that it was all rivers until the mid-1700s. It looked nothing like how it looks today.”
There are plenty of famous Ghost Tours of other European cities, but the trend hasn’t quite caught on to the same extent in Ireland: Kinsale, Dublin and Kilkenny all have their own version, but Damian has been stunned by the warm response to the Cork one.
“The only thing I don’t get is why nobody thought of doing it before,” he says.
For more information, see www.corkghosttour.ie
The ghost tours run until September 27 and again at Halloween from October 25 to October 31.