My husband and I spent a long weekend in Dublin, as is expected of Aussie expats doing their stint in London.
The authentic Irish experience began before we’d even left the Heathrow tarmac. We flew with Aer Lingus; the cabin crew greeted us with ‘good morning’ spoken in the lilting Irish accent, and classical music played softly as we took our seats. The pilot’s voice crackled over the intercom, informing us that it was ‘A rather pleasant tir-teen degrees in Dublin’. That’s summer in Ireland for you.
We went straight to O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main thoroughfare. You don’t have to look far to ascertain that you are in Ireland — the pillar boxes are not red but a sedate shade of green and we spotted shamrocks decorating the street lamps. Street signs provide both the Irish and English, which is handy as you can’t get by just pronouncing the Irish phonetically, for example ‘Dan Laoghaire’ is pronounced ‘Dan Leery’.
Up the Dubs: a turbulent recent past
O’Connell Street is home to The Spire of Dublin, a 398ft stainless steel spike that looks like it is waiting to receive a receipt the size of a city block. The Spire is located on the site of, and is a replacement monument for, Nelson’s Pillar which was bombed by former IRA members in 1966. This bombing inspired (amongst other things) the folk song ‘Up Went Nelson’ by The Go Lucky Four, which maintained the number one spot on the Irish music charts for eight consecutive weeks.
O’Connell Street is also home to the General Post Office, where we posted postcards in the aptly titled ‘All Places Except Dublin’ slot. During the Easter Rising of 1916, the GPO served as the headquarters of the uprising’s leaders and was extensively damaged in the assault by the British forces. It was repaired years later when the Irish Free State government came into power, but bullet holes can still be seen on some of the original columns. The leaders of the Rising didn’t fare so well, they were court-martialled and executed.
Temple Bar and yes, the real Guinness: black nectar of the gods
We crossed the Liffey River via the Ha’penny Bridge (the main image, top – via Pixabay) so named as this was the toll once charged to cross it) and wandered through the narrow cobbled streets of Temple Bar.
We were keen to find a pub and see if there was any truth in the rumour that Guinness tastes different in Ireland. There certainly is, the delicious dark pint I sampled in Temple Bar was a world away from the bitter brew I had tried on St Patrick’s Day back in Oz, or the can I had grabbed at the off-licence last St Patrick’s Day in London to make ‘black velvet’ (Guinness and champagne).
A further surprise was how well Guinness complements oysters.
Our newly discovered taste for Guinness inspired us to visit the Guinness Storehouse and make the seven floor ascent of the pint shaped building. The Guinness brewery business was founded by Arthur Guinness. A somewhat far sighted fellow, he took a 9,000 year lease on the 4-acre brewery at St. James’s Gate for an annual rent of £45.
We had visited the Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam earlier in the year so were familiar with the ingredients and process of brewing beer. Guinness differs in that roasted barley is used, giving a distinctive colour (ruby red, not black as we are shown by holding the glass up to the light) and burnt aftertaste.
Nothing quite awakens a craving for Guinness like learning how it is made while breathing in the sweet, malty scent this produces. Thankfully we didn’t have to wait until the seventh floor to taste the Guinness, instead sampling it in the tasting lab on the first floor. We had a laugh at the Guinness advertising, had a go at pouring the perfect pint and finally arrived at the head of the pint, the Gravity Bar, where we sipped Guinness while taking in 360 degree views of the Irish capital. It has to be one of the most scenic bars in the world, let alone Dublin.
Trinity College: The ghosts of Ireland’s literary past
Our next stop was Trinity College Dublin, Ireland’s oldest University. Amongst the graduates are writers Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, scientist Ernest Walton (Nobel Laureate in Physics), three Presidents of Ireland and even a Premier of New Zealand.
We took a walking tour of the campus and strolled around taking in the art, architecture and tall tales. At the sculpture of George Salmon, the provost of the College from 1888 to 1904, we were told that Salmon fought bitterly to keep women out of the College, threatening to admit them ‘over my dead body’. He fulfilled this promise by dropping dead shortly after the College was finally open to female students. To add insult to injury his statue is dressed in women’s clothes one day a year.
Bram Stoker, author of Dracula studied at Trinity College and we’re told of the ghost of a professor that haunts one of the residences. A group of disgruntled students were throwing rocks at his window and he retaliated by sticking his rifle out the window and letting off a couple of shots. The students scattered, but soon returned with their own firearms and a gunfight ensued in which the Professor was killed. The incident was deemed a prank that spiralled out of control and the students were not punished. In protest, the Professor haunts the residence to this day.
We strolled through the atmospheric Trinity College Library. A dark wooden ceiling arches high over the vast hall which is lined on both sides by both a ground and mezzanine level containing rows of wooden bookshelves marked with gold lettering. Marble busts of College alumni guard the ends of the ground floor rows. The library is unusual in that the books were arranged by height; wooden ladders are built in to allow the librarians to reach the smaller books on the highest shelves. The result is aesthetically pleasing, but must make it difficult to locate the books.
The Book of Kells
One tome that is easy to find at Trinity College is the Book of Kells, an elaborately decorated Latin manuscript of the four gospels which was produced early in the 9th century by the monks of Iona. The book is magnificent; the pages are so much more than mere lines of text.
Meticulously copied by hand and embellished with richly coloured historiated initials (the enlarged letter at the beginning of a section of text, which contains a picture) and other miniatures. The full page illustrations are breath-taking.
Molly Malone: the tart with a cart
I was keen to see the statue of Molly Malone, whom I knew from the song on one of my Dad’s records by The Fureys which had the following lyrics:
In Dublin’s fair city,
Where the girls are so pretty,
I first laid my eyes on sweet Molly Malone.
She wheeled her wheelbarrow
Through streets wide and narrow,
Crying ‘cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o’
I was quite shocked to hear her described as ‘the tart with the cart’ or ‘the trollop with the scallops’ (amongst other unpublishable epithets). It turns out that the song fails to mention that Molly moonlighted as a lady of the night.
Howth you doin’ James Joyce?
We caught the bus to Howth, and worked up an appetite walking through the heather and gorse, and avoiding the prickly blackberry bushes on the climb to Howth Summit. We took in the view whilst being buffeted about by the wind and then walked back to Howth Harbour for a delicious fresh seafood lunch accompanied of course by a pint of Guinness.
It was amongst the rhododendrons on Howth Head that Leopold Bloom proposed to Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (eager Molly said yes seven times, by the way). It would be interesting to spend 16 June in Dublin as this is Bloomsday, when the life of Irish writer James Joyce is celebrated. This involves enthusiasts dressing in Edwardian costume and retracting the route taken by character Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses, for example stopping at Davy Byrne’s pub on Duke Street for a glass of burgundy and a Gorgonzola sandwich. The pub still exists and does a roaring trade in Gorgonzola sandwiches all year, but particularly on Bloomsday.
Of course, it would be wonderful to spend St Patrick’s Day in the fair Irish city too. But that’s another story…