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A Cultural Stroll Through Dublin, Ireland

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A Cultural Stroll Through Dublin, Ireland
Dublin, O'Connell Street Bridge in Ireland
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Dublin, Ireland – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

Everyone knows that the political situation in Ireland and North Ireland in the past has been volatile. Ireland in general and Dublin in particular experience a lift of spirits when peace endures yet another year.

Visitors sense a resurgence of pride among the Irish. Just as the classic poet, Yeats, created a new dimension of Irish pride by staying in Dublin, refusing to go to London, so also have other more recent groups of Irish creators. The decision of the music group U2 that they would stay in Ireland signaled a new maturity in the arts for this small island nation. Irish-made films, such as My Left Foot, have brought honor to Irish creators and a feeling that one could make a living in the arts in Ireland.

Those who count the years of Irish existence indicate that the capital began around 988 A.D. when a Celtic King was strong enough to conquer the prosperous Viking settlement of Dublin. The Vikings had arrived in their longboats about 840 A.D. and set up a thriving trading village. The Irish King declared that the Vikings would pay the Irish one ounce of gold per Viking household on every Christmas night, forevermore. The wealthy Vikings managed the tribute at first, but eventually lost their powerful position and withdrew back to Scandinavia.

Dublin’s Character

Early Dublin boasted few of the amenities of today. Viking women may have enjoyed silk hats from China, but the squalor of daily existence, with its hygienic atrocities and endemic malnutrition, caused life to be nasty, brutish, and short. Gold and silver adornments were popular and plentiful, but the main purpose of intricate deer-antler combs was the removal of omnipresent head lice. The Vikings’ superior 50-foot oak boats, plus their advanced iron weaponry and armor, enabled them to roam the oceans unchallenged, but home was still a woven-sapling house of walls plastered with dried cow dung.

Origins of the city name, Dublin, go back to the “dark pool” peat-colored appearance of the Liffey River. The name Dyflin evolved slowly to the Dublin of today. Another early name in Gaelic refers to the “river ford” that allowed crossing here on rocks and branches in the shallows.

Two main interests for a modern international traveler are the observable Irish character, seen in the behavior and writings of the country, and the museums or historic architecture that define what life has meant in Dublin.

The Irish character is full of ambivalence and paradox, which G. K. Chesterton expressed so well in his observation, “All their wars are merry; all their songs are sad.” The warm regard for the tourist, which amounts to a genuine friendliness, is expressed in the title of the tourism agency, called Bord Failte, which means Board of Welcome. The contradictions and tensions of the Irish soon become evident. For example, city signs are in English and in Gaelic, a language that is mainly spoken in some pockets of western Ireland. Ironically, the Irish speak so well, and write so well, English, the language of their historic conquerors and oppressors. Some would say, however, that the Irish speak in a subversive manner with that English, answering a question with a question.

Words have been a major export of Ireland in recent times, starting with Dean Jonathan Swift in the 18th century. The Irish are full of “crack,” which means good conversation rather than a cocaine drug. You shouldn’t say no to good crack in Dublin, which can be intoxicating, filled as it is with lighthearted blasphemy.

Be sure to allow an evening in your schedule for a visit to Dublin’s Abbey Theater, where you might hear, among the typical repertory, a performance of John M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. Feminists will want to recall that when the play was first performed, the audience rioted, partly because the play actually portrayed women talking back to men, something then considered Un-Irish. Moreover, the play’s characters were universally despicable, though appreciated for their vitality, a paradox that many theater goers felt was inappropriate.

The moving play during my visit at the Abbey was a fitting commentary on our dangerous times. The play, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinnes, depicts eight young Protestant men of Northern Ireland as they march to their death in World War I. In the course of the play, they become disillusioned with hatred of the Catholics, with their country, and with their religion.

Irish Writers

A traveler of today can see Dublin through the eyes of James Joyce’s great character, Leopold Bloom, with a Bloom map in hand, available from the tourism office. Visitors can journey to the Martello tower, near Dublin, where Joyce stayed briefly. The tower is now a museum of Joyce memorabilia. There is a Joyce Centre, where the writer’s legacy gets nurtured.

The sarcasm of George Bernard Shaw seems to lurk in the streets. You can visit the Shaw birthplace, now a museum.

The Dublin Writers Museum presents a short course in Irish literary history, providing chronological depictions of the major Irish wordsmiths.

A thirsty walker might want to stop for a drink at playwright Brendan Behan’s favorite pub, McDaid’s. It is sometimes said that half the people of Dublin are writing plays and all the people of Dublin are acting in them. An organized literary pub crawl is sometimes offered as a tour, with actors presenting short excerpts from modern works, possibly to Neary’s and The Long Haul, pubs favored by the literati.

Dublin, O'Connell Street Bridge in Ireland
Dublin, O’Connell Street Bridge in Ireland

The earliest written words of Ireland are a major experience for a visitor to encounter. Go to Trinity College, off Grafton Street, and walk into the exhibit area beneath the Library to see the display case containing the 8th-century Book of Kells. This colorful, illuminated manuscript of the gospels somehow survived the ravages of war and the limitations of the leather materials on which it was inscribed. Equally interesting, but less well known, are two other early books on display, the Book of Durrow, from 670 A.D., and the Book of Dimma, from the 8th century. These cultural documents were created by ascetic monks, who withdrew to remote places and  set up their centers of meditation and learning. These monks served as protective keepers of both knowledge and of the gold or silver accumulated by Irish kings. Irish scholars contributed to the rekindling of learning on the European mainland in the early medieval period. The trade routes that allowed for the illumination of the books is another fascinating story. Beetles from the Mediterranean and minerals from as far away as Afghanistan contributed to the coloring compounds.

Sightseeing: Pubs and Cathedrals

After viewing the Book of Kells, walk upstairs to see the vast collection of two million books in The Long Room, glancing at the white marble busts of the great scholars of western culture. Also on view is the oldest Irish harp in this land of strummers and balladeers. The harp is constructed of willow from the 13th century.

Pubs, sometimes called “the poor man’s university,” are where the daily conversation of the modern Irish person can best be heard. Pubs are where they keep the talk. Pubs are also an introduction to the local food and drink scene. The level of camaraderie at Irish pubs is high, making them homes away from home for many men and a few women. It is sometimes said that the three institutions guiding the country of Ireland are the church, the home, and the pub. The proper beverage to drink at a pub is a pint of Guinness, drawn from the tap, with its dark black color, strong bitter taste, and head of white, creamy, satin-smooth foam. Guinness makes 60 percent of all the brewed beverage consumed in this thirsty country. The production is said to amount to six million pints a day. Guinness has been refining its style of brew-making since 1759. The other national libation would be a small glass of straight Irish sipping whiskey, spelled with an e. Blackbush and Jameson 10-years-old are choice brands.

A pub lunch at Kitty O’Shea’s, within Dublin, or at Coachman’s Inn, in Sword’s, near the airport, might consist of a hearty plate of fried fish, smoked fish, or roast meat, surrounded by ubiquitous fried potatoes (aka chips), carrots, and peas. In the evenings, some pubs, such as O’Donoghue’s or Merchant’s, become singing venues for the locals, who bring alive the Irish ballad with their guitars, pipes, and flutes.

For fine dining in Dublin, one good choice is Dobbins. Among Irish specialties to indulge in are the local sea bounty (salmon, trout, prawns, and oysters), lamb (as in rack of), brown breads, and cheeses.

When exploring downtown Dublin, the area of interest is fairly compact, easy to walk. Everything is seen with reference to the Liffey River, which runs west to east through the city. Center of the city is the O’Connell Street Bridge, crossing the river at the base of a huge statue of former Lord Mayor Daniel O’Connell, another would-be emancipator who envisioned a free Ireland from outside and inside a jail cell. The downtown area is littered with statues of political luminaries from the last hundred years, especially those involved in the 1916 birthing of modern Catholic Ireland, which W. B. Yeats called a “terrible beauty.” Unrepaired bullet holes from the 1916 uprising can still be discerned by the informed observer who knows where to look. (Clue: Look in the wings of the angels at the base of the O’Connell statue).

Architecturally, the Georgian style of 18th-century brick-facade structures, often with colorful doors, is one of the distinct signatures of Dublin. One main place to see Georgian construction is Merrion Square in the downtown area.

The two cathedrals of Dublin are, ironically, in Protestant rather than Catholic control, though the country as a whole is 92 percent Catholic. Christ Church and St. Patrick’s are major church architecture. The English conquest of Ireland eventually resulted in both of these cathedrals becoming Protestant. Early Christian history in Ireland is noteworthy for its absence of blood martyrs. The religious guiders of early Ireland led by their inspiration and piety, rather than by sword or decree. The later heroism of the country has been expended on ambivalent political matters, which have an English-Irish Protestant-Catholic basis, hopelessly intermixing religion and politics. The Irish flag colors are green (for the Catholics), orange (for the Protestants), and white (for the hope of peace between them).

Two main museums to see are the National Gallery and the Municipal Museum. The National Gallery contains an eclectic mix of European paintings, including notable work by Frans Hals and Jan Steen. The Municipal Museum displays the state treasures of Ireland, mainly early gold and silver craft work, including the noted Tara Brooch from the 8th century. Quality craftsmanship is evident in the numerous gold and silver artifacts, both for secular adornment with brooches or bracelets and for religious rites with chalices or croziers. The fondness for creating hordes of silver, as an index of wealth, can be seen in the stashes of bullion once the property of medieval Irish lords.

Irish goods can be bought on Grafton and Nassau Streets, the main shopping lanes. Several stores on Nassau, opposite Trinity College, such as House of Ireland, sell a range of crafts. The main Irish gift exports are Waterford crystal, wool sweaters and coats, recordings of Irish music (including New Age artists such as Nanuna and Enya), books, ceramics, and lace. Woolen goods are particularly in demand, such as sweaters bearing the Aran Islands label. Nassau Street also houses one of the main bookstores, Hanna’s.

The Countryside

A trip into the countryside can easily be arranged from Dublin, either by rental car or escorted tour. The entire country is merely 300 by 182 miles, though these are long miles on narrow, twisty roads. Frequent rains create the green Emerald Isle appearance of the countryside.

South of Dublin, in the “Garden County” of County Wicklow, visit Glendalough tower, a good example of the tall, round, protective towers built in monastic settings to shelter people during a Viking or Wild Irish attack. The internecine squabbles of the various Irish factions actually did more raiding damage to the country than did the Vikings.

Glendalough was a major center of monastic learning, started by St. Kevin in the sixth century. St. Patrick is said to have been the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, in 432 A.D. The only entrance to the tower at Glendalough was via ladder through an opening high above ground. In time of danger, people, treasures, and supplies could be sealed safely in the tower and the ladder could be drawn up.

While in Wicklow, a good example of a landed gentry’s house is Russborough. The house and furnishings are an exquisite example of what money and taste could buy from the 18th-20th century in Ireland. One special feature of the house is the small, but select collection of great European art, the Albert Beit collection. Here you can see Frans Hals’ The Lute Player, for example.

Trips out from Dublin enable a traveler to understand why Irish writers and balladeers express such fondness for the landscape of green, rocky pastures and brooding skies. Unfortunately, much of this land was stripped of its forests, mainly in the 18th-19th centuries. Today, massive reforestation with Douglas fir and other trees is in progress. The countryside is thinly populated and not terribly prosperous, which recalls that two million Irishmen emigrated to America after the Potato Famine of 1849. Only recently has the steady flow of emigrants been surpassed by the birthrate. Today there are 4.4 million Irishmen, down from 8 million in the 1840s.

North of Dublin, two great estates, Malahide and Newbridge, can be visited to give you a further sense of the castle-and-gentry life of the country. Malahide Castle, home of the Talbot family for eight centuries, is noted for its 268 acres of gardens and its furnishings. Newbridge shows a vast collection of scientific specimens that a well-traveled gentleman of learning would have collected, ranging from cobra-skin draperies to butterflies of India. As with most of the major estates of Ireland, the cost of maintenance and property taxes in these egalitarian times has overwhelmed the formerly-affluent owners, causing them to arrange a graceful sale of the property to the state, which opens up the place for tourist viewing.

The favorite pastimes of travelers venturing beyond Dublin range from fishing for salmon to hunting for ancestors. The fish are in the western lakes and streams. The ancestors are everywhere. Superb genealogical resources are available for finding forebearers from  the most common Irish name, Murphy, to the more exotic appellations, such as Mulready. The Heraldric Store on Nassau Street or the National Library would be good beginning points for a genealogy buff.

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Dublin, Ireland: If You Go

Overall information on Ireland comes from the Irish Tourist Board, www.discoverireland.com.

 

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