Dipping a Toe into Dublin

Ireland is a Tiny Country

It measures just 84,400 km2 compared to my country – Australia – and its 7.6 million km2.   Ireland has a population of 4.8 million and Australia has 24 million people. Ireland celebrates its “little people” – the leprechauns – while Australia in a rather unfortunate mimicry of the Great Satan – the USA – celebrates the great pineapple, the great prawn and even the great avocado … but not the great hair brush-over.

Australia’s European history stretches back to 1770 when James Cook discovered this new land, this Terra Australis. By contrast, Ireland’s European history stretches back more than 8000 years when the Mesolithic hunters and fishermen arrived in 6000 BC from what is now Scotland.

A tiny country … ?

Yes – but Ireland is a tiny nation with a history of bloody conquests, of famines, of political struggles with its overbearing neighbours.  It is a country that has been repeatedly raped by Britons and Scandinavians and the French, and is a country reinventing itself as a proud and independent member of the European Union … while the UK declines and struggles with the unpleasant realities of BREXIT.

Australia has statues of early explorers; Ireland has statues of patriots who fought against the English and those who were executed by the English for daring to do so.

Dublin – without Molly Bloom

Unfortunately my arrival and departure were through Dublin Airport – perhaps one of the worst airports I have endured although Lagos in Nigeria does come to mind …

What seems to be tacky chicken wire is stretched above low walls to the ceiling as you arrive, and there are two queues – one for EU passport holders and one for everyone else. Europeans breezed through but it took the rest of us over an hour from landing to reach the Immigration desks – with, at times, just three bored-looking staff members in action – or inaction. On departure, even in the priority lane for security checking, there was just one elderly chappie who moved at glacial speed, while an officious young woman kept calling out

  • Women only please!

And so women jumped to the head of the queue to be frisked, while the majority – men – continued to wait for the anthracitic chappie to check us all for hidden weapons of mass delay.

  • Chicken wire security and chicken shite efficiency.

The Pope arrived the same day as I did and I wonder if he found the same sorts of delays? Or perhaps his arrival caused my delays.

Waiting for the Pope

Waiting for the Pope

I later walked around Dublin, battling quite modest crowds of tourists and the faithful, and almost larger crowds of police and security guards. Rubbish bins along the way were welded shut to prevent bombings, and Himself finally appeared for a flash from a tiny car surrounded by scores of motorcycle police and horse-mounted escorts and fast-moving sedans.

The local newspapers for days following carried page after page of Papal reports – most of them decrying the fact that he did not do and has not done enough to redress the sexual abuses committed by Roman clergy.

Perhaps because of this, the percentage of Irish who identify as Roman Catholics is steadily falling – with only 67% claiming to be members of the church in an Irish Times survey  a 17% fall from the 2011 census and fall of more than 24% since the 1991 Census. Almost one person in ten in Ireland now declares no allegiance to any religion.

Dublin has a population of half a million and a metropolitan area of a hundred or so square kilometres. It also has at least two Roman Catholic cathedrals and over 400 other churches (1). No waiting! No delay! Line up here for your daily dose of sanctity.

But Ireland – despite everything – is much more than the sum of the Christian / Roman / Protestant / British / Home Rule cauldron of past and present hatreds. During my short visit I saw one or two battered men with magnificent purple bruised eyes – you know – the Battling Irish – and quite a few men and women sleeping rough in the streets or begging on bridges or street corners, but I also saw scores and scores of happy smiling people of many nationalities for whom popes and past histories were just that – past or irrelevant history.

Sláinte!

The local language – Irish Gaelic – is quite wonderful. Although it is the official first language for the country, only 30% of the population are able to speak it and reportedly only 5% (2) use it on a day-to-day basis.  However, as I walked around the city there seemed to be many more than this small handful of souls chatting away in the impenetrable language.

For a new arrival it is a very confusing language.

Dublin, for example, is Atha Cliath and the town of Merrion is Muirfin. Little Island is An tOileán Beag. If you go to the WC, abbreviated signs for FIR and MNA might be misleading as the latter is for women. To EXIT something, look for the sign that says BEALACH AMACH and if you see a road sign yelling GO MALL it is not an instruction to do some shopping … but an instruction to drive slowly.

Even if a speaker is talking to you in English there may be language difficulties. Spoken Gaelic has a musical lilt to it but when the Irish speak English there is room for misunderstanding.

I was trying to find a charger for my telephone and visited several shops without luck. However a couple of people told me to try Morrisons. OK – where is this shop?

  • Try Morrisons!
  • OK – where is this …
  • Go down here, turn left, then first right

I followed the instructions and found that I was not actually supposed to go to Morrisons … but to Moore Street.

This little street is not far from the central high street – O’Connell Street – and is the site for a lovely fruit and flower market and has lots of tiny shops that sell everything – including the charger I was after.

Strolling through Dublin

Most of the city of Dublin is quite flat – sprawling either side of the marvellous River Liffey and its thirty-two bridges. You can take a “Viking Splash” amphibious boat tour of Dublin, its bridges and rivers – but beware: the wearing of horned Viking helmets seems to be compulsory – if rather embarrassing …

Old cobble-stoned streets are lined with pubs and more pubs including the Brazen Head – supposedly dating back to the 1100s and Ireland’s oldest pub. Alfred Guinness started brewing his dark black magic in 1759 and is still going strong – it is almost compulsory to have at least one pint of Guinness if you visit Dublin. It also seems to be compulsory that all pubs have huge hanging baskets of bright geraniums with dangling Christmas lights and as optional extras you can add bunting in the yellow, green and white of Ireland’s national flag.

The Duke

The Duke pub

The Temple Bar area of tiny cobbled lanes, jaunty bunting, pubs and restaurants, Christmas lights by the mile, a theatre or two and a few more geranium-decked pubs is a hub of activity at just about any time. It is easy to find a good place for a pub meal here or nearby. I had a great Irish stew (OK: should I have had pizza? When in Rome …) at The Duke … and if I win the lottery I will return to Merrion Street and the Merrion Hotel with its grey top-hatted valets, and the adjacent Patrick Guilbaud restaurant with its two Michelin stars … where the EUR 11.00 I paid for a large and steaming bowl of Irish stew might get me a small dinner roll or two.

Butter is extra.

Street-side signs – in English and Gaelic – are found just about everywhere, so finding Trinity College or Temple Bar or any other attraction is pretty easy. There are hundreds of beautifully preserved Georgian and Victorian buildings – some – like Boston College – are covered with Virginia creeper which must be quite spectacular in autumn.

Boston College

Boston College Dublin

Some – like the veritable Hibernian Club on St Stephen’s Green – offer glimpses of well-fed and well-watered portly or stout gentlemen tottering onto the street after a long and liquid lunch. I’m guessing they indulged not only in fine wines and bloody rare beef – but also lots of port and a few pints of stout.

Aha!  NOW I know why the adjectives “portly” and “stout” describe some rotund people!

There are also signs on many buildings explaining what part that building played in the Easter 1916 Uprising, or how the great famine influenced a particular area or how British brutality crushed yet another Irish attempt for independence.

Shelbourne Hotel

The Shelbourne Hotel – from which bastion British troops used machine guns to suppress the Irish patriots at the Easter uprising in 1916

What a bloody and confusing and bitterly sad history this country has.

History through Drama

 I had a delightful evening at the historic Abbey Theatre, where Jimmy’s Hall, adapted (from Paul Laverty’s film script) and directed by Graham McLaren was being presented.

This was a most enjoyable evening of stunning dance (Riverdance mixed with jitterbug and jive), music and drama. Jimmy’s Hall tells the real-life story of Jimmy Gralton who in the 1930s built a tin shed for locals to learn new skills and to laugh and sing and to dance. Naturally he fell foul of the government and of the church. The hall was destroyed and Jimmy earned the dubious honour of being the only Irishman ever deported from his own country. The story resonated, naturally enough, more with the Irish members of the audience than with visitors, but it was still a great night.

Jimmy's Hall

Some of the actors, singers, dancers and musicians in “Jimmy’s Hall”

I had not heard of Graham McLaren before, but of course Ireland has been a great crucible for literature. There is a statue – a rather effete one at that – of Oscar Wilde. There is a magnificent new Irish harp-shaped bridge named for Samuel Beckett, and one of the longest serving Deans of St Patrick’s Cathedral was Jonathan Swift who wrote Gulliver’s Travels. Then there are JM Synge, WB Yeats, dramatist George Farquhar, Brendan Behan, Roddy Doyle, James Joyce (creator of Molly Bloom), Louis MacNeice … and …

And the Book of Kells.

This magnificently illustrated book, dating from 800 AD and stored at Trinity College Dublin, is perhaps the oldest Christian text in the world, with the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark Luke and John.

While casual visitors cannot pick it up and lick a finger to thumb through it (why do we “thumb through” things? I use my index finger – licked or not – to turn pages), there is an excellent interpretive display of the book in the magnificent library at this ancient university founded in 1592 at the orders of Queen Elizabeth I.

Trinity

The Library at Trinity College

The university occupies a great chunk of land in the heart of Dublin – and is gradually acquiring more and more real estate. According to one person I spoke to, what used to be small local businesses are being bought by the college, turned into administrative buildings and destroying the local ambience. Ah – progress!

Everything old is new again

Progress of a different sort is quite welcome.

Large areas of the old docks have been – and continue to be – transformed into screamingly modern apartment building, offices, entertainment and commercial venues. The lovely old Jeanie Johnston – a replica of three-masted tall ship that was originally built in Quebec in 1847 by John Munn – is an almost incongruous link to the past when all else in this area is glass, polished concrete and stainless steel.

Other old buildings have been repurposed, too. The magnificent gardens and buildings that were part of the 17th Century Royal Hospital at Kilmainham now house IMMA – the Irish Museum of Modern Art – and the stark grey buildings that used to be military barracks overlooking the Liffey now offer a huge display of decorative arts.

Dublin may have had a bloody and difficult past but it has a history that is fascinating to the modern traveller.

PM's office

The Prime Minister’s Office

It is now a vivacious and relaxed multi-cultural city.  The country’s PM or Taoiseach is a gay man named Leo Varadkar.  The city has battle-scarred and bullet-holed buildings happily rubbing concrete shoulders with LUSH soap and H&M department stores. Sleek trams scurry along major thoroughfares.  The Grafton Street pedestrian mall offers the chance to be photographed as a Leprechaun.  Guinness and steak pies are more common than vols au vent or dim sum … and the Liffey flows happily on underneath Ha’penny Bridge.

Ha'penny Bridge

The Ha’penny Bridge over the Liffey River

After my all-too-short visit to this charming city it was time to get on the appropriately numbered 747 bus that leaves from Dublin Heuston railway station and ends up one hour later at that dreadful airport once again.

Notes

  1. dublinchurches.com/churches
  2. bbc.co.uk/languages/european_languages/countries/ireland

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Text and photos © Christopher Hall 2018

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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.

Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship

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