Friday 7th August 2009, Rush, north of Dublin
We are quite exhausted having spent the entire day on our feet around Dublin. By 9am we were already in the city centre and didn’t get back to Modestine until 7pm. Even that wasn’t enough to do more than get an impression of the city and we will need to return tomorrow to take in some of the more important bits we’ve missed.
Yesterday we didn’t do much, or to be more accurate we did an enormous amount, but it was an admin day, sorting out photos, blogs, internet, bank accounts, all that sort of boring but necessary stuff. It was a grotty day anyway for sight seeing and we got pretty well soaked when we walked up to the village - it passes for a town in Ireland - for some emergency shopping and to check out bus times to Dublin. We discovered we could buy a ten euro bus pass for two people giving access to Dublin and use of the transport around the city while there - not that Ian would dream of using the bus within a city when he has a map in his hand, regardless of how swollen and tired my feet may be. It was still a bargain though as the journey in takes well over an hour.
This morning the sun and rain were so guilt-ridden to have treated us so mercilessly for weeks that they swapped roles for the day. The sun came with us for a day out while the rain went off somewhere on his own. Pity we couldn’t trust either of them though so had to carry rainwear and jumpers around all day.
As we arrived in the city we saw newspaper hoardings announcing that a woman had just been found murdered in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, having been stabbed ten times. We promptly crossed the park off our list of places to visit today and headed off in search of the main post office, not for stamps but because we’d read that it was a stunning building, designed by Francis Johnston in 1814 and that it had been the headquarters of the rebels in the 1916 Easter rising. Most of all though, we’d read in Angela's Ashes that there was a bronze statue of Cuchulainn there and were curious to see it. He was a hero in the mediaeval Ulster cycle of mythical tales and legends. Irish children learn about him as English ones learn about Robin Hood or King Arthur. He fought and won many a battle and when finally mortally wounded he had himself tied to a tree for support so that his enemies would see him still standing. It was only when a raven landed on his shoulder they realised he was dead and dared to approach.
The post office stands in O’Connell Street, named for one of Ireland's great statesmen. It is one of the city’s major streets and leads down to the bridge over the River Liffey. It is flanked with important buildings, statues and monuments.
Trinity College was an obvious starting point for our tour around Dublin. It is now vacation so there were no students and many tourists. We were rather disappointed really. While we could wander freely around the grounds, there was no indication of what the different buildings were. It cost 10 euros to see inside the library, there were queues and Dublin was already working out to be exceptionally expensive. By all accounts it is a really magnificent library with superb collections and the entry price did include seeing the displayed original Book of Kells. It was as well we’d seen the facsimile recently and with so much else to see we decided to give the library a miss - so no description. Aren’t you all glad?
Near Trinity College stands the Bank of Ireland. It was originally built in the middle of the 18th century as the Parliament building. It only became a bank when the Act of Union in 1800 meant that the Irish Parliament was dissolved and the building was no longer required as Irish MPs sat at Westminster.
Merrion Square, laid out in 1762 is flanked on all sides by terraces of large Georgian houses, each with an attractive front door with a decorative glass fanlight above. Many had the original iron balconies and railings. This is where the elite of Dublin society were once to be found. It is where Oscar Wilde’s parents lived, as did William Butler Yeats, and it is the district where the Duke of Wellington was born. The square in the centre is a beautiful area of public parkland with lawns and flower beds as well as paths of shady trees. Here we found a statue of a very indolent Oscar Wilde and ended up having our usual problems trying to take a photo without oriental tourists in front. They are unlikely to have been familiar with Wilde’s writing and the idea that we might not want them all in our photos was something beyond their comprehension. We later had exactly the same problem when we chanced on Molly Malone with her wheelbarrow of cockles and mussels.
Until today we've seen very little in the way of art galleries so headed for the National Gallery of Ireland. It's free and its collections are really amazing. At first we saw the Irish galleries and thought that was all there was. The works were good but we'd heard of very few of the artists or of the statesmen they'd painted – except Mary Robinson. Then we discovered the rest of the galleries. The collections can hold their own with any in Europe. There are Spanish works by Caravaggio, Murillo, El Greco, Goya and Picasso. There are Dutch and Flemish paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Franz Hals, Pieter de Hoog, Jan Steen, Ruysdael and Rubens. In the French gallery are works by Poussin, Monet, Sisley and Renoir. England is represented by Hogarth and Gainsborough and there are hundreds more works by the major painters of Europe.
We were particularly interested in a special exhibition of the drawings of Harry Clarke used to illustrate an edition of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. We discovered this talented 20th century Irishman's work recently in Dingle where he designed the stained glass windows in the convent. His coloured fantasy drawings, so full of mystery and movement, with their bright colours, flowing curves and long narrow limbs remind us of the work of his contemporaries, Aubrey Beardsley and Arthur Rackham.
Also of interest in the 20th century Irish gallery were several works by Paul Henry which were excellent, showing fishermen launching a coracle and a full moon reflected over the sea.
We could have spent far longer looking around but by now we were really hungry. We discovered the cafeteria at the gallery serves the best and cheapest food and drink in Dublin in a very pleasant atmosphere.
Somewhere during the afternoon we chanced upon the office of the Irish Prime Minister, unfortunately closed to visitors.
We found our way to Grafton Street, the main pedestrianised shopping area with its living statues, harp players, fiddlers and bagpipe musicians. There was also a black band with athletic break-dancers. Nearby is a large, multi-story shopping complex with lifts and elevators. However, we couldn't work out if it was old or very modern as the whole thing seemed to have been built as a crystal palace.
Our peregrinations next took us to the courtyard of Dublin castle where there were several excellent sand sculptures depicting the four elements. So much work is involved but how long do they last we wondered.
At the back of the castle is the Chester Beatty Library, a magnificent gift to Ireland by the American mining magnate Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968) who also presented many paintings to the National Gallery in Dublin when he settled in Ireland in 1950. Throughout his life he collected books, paintings, drawings and artefacts to illustrate the main cultures and religions of east and west and built up one of the finest private libraries ever known. Treasures from his collections are displayed in two galleries, the lower one to reflect the arts of the book and the upper one the main sacred traditions of the world. There are dozens of manuscripts of the Koran, with exquisite calligraphy, series of Mughal miniatures including rare depictions of Muhammad, old master prints by Durer, Piranesi and others. There are Japanese scrolls, including an example of the earliest known block printing, dating from 770AD, Burmese palm leaf books, Chinese jade books, fine European and Islamic bindings, including several decorative examples from 18th century Ireland. In the section on religions are early gospel manuscripts from Europe and, most fascinating of all, some of the earliest surviving Biblical texts on papyrus fragments, dating from the second and third centuries. It would have been interesting to learn whether they differ from the texts used today. The treasures emerge from the subdued lighting which heightens their impact and the library was declared to be European Museum of the Year in 2002. We could see why.
Near the castle is City Hall, another magnificent 18th century building with its steep steps and columned portico. From there it was a short walk to Temple Bar, Dublin's answer to Soho or the Left Bank. It was crowded, noisy, brash and very touristy with buskers and countless bars. It needed to be seen once but we were glad when we accidentally found ourselves on the banks of the Liffey with the Halfpenny bridge – so named because it used to cost a halfpenny to cross.
By now my feet were really bruised from the cobbles and our brains were suffering cultural overload. So we hobbled back to the bus station for the long ride home. Hopefully our feet will have recovered by tomorrow. Now though, we are exhausted and longing for some sleep. Goodnight.
Saturday 8th August 2009, Rush, north of Dublin
Last night when we returned home we discovered a cache of food beside Modestine’s back door. According to the campsite owner they’d been left for us by a couple who’d hired a camping van and were just finishing their holiday and needed to return the van at Dublin airport from where they were flying home to Italy. Obviously they couldn't carry foodstuffs with them. At first we assumed they’d selected us because we looked like hungry vagrants until we discovered the pasta carried the brand name of Roma. Modestine is a Romahome so they obviously had a sense of humour!
Today we were off early again to catch the bus into the city. After yesterday’s sunshine we risked wearing sandals to relieve our aching toes and left wet weather gear behind. A mistake! No sooner were we heading towards Dublin than the rain began again. It could have been worse however and we have stayed mainly dry until we were on the way home.
It being Saturday we were astonished at just how many people live in Dublin and most were out on the streets. O’Connell Street was so packed there was hardly room for a needle between them all. In fact, there is indeed a needle in O’Connell Street known as the Spire of Dublin. It’s a thin steel spike rising seven times higher than the post office building we saw yesterday. It’s so tall we could hardly get it all in a photo. It’s not far from the River Liffey and with typically crude Irish humour, is called the “stiffy by the Liffey”.
We’ve walked at least as far as yesterday, mainly looking at Dublin's magnificent buildings from the outside but where exhibitions were free we explored further. In a terrace of Georgian houses we found the museum of Irish writers and nearby the James Joyce museum. Although there are places with Joyce connections all over Dublin there is no specific place connected with him as he apparently moved around so much. In fact, we discovered more about him and his writing when we visited Trieste in 2006. He selected Trieste as his self-imposed exile and undertook much of the writing of Portrait of the artist as a young man there.
In the National Library of Ireland however, there were a few panels about his four main works - The Dubliners, Ulysses, Portrait of the artist as a young man and Finnigan’s Wake.
Also in the National Library is a pleasant cafeteria where we paused in our wanderings for a much needed coffee before investigating the rotunda reading room and the online genealogy databases. I suddenly remembered the name of my great grandmother and that she was originally from Ireland. The census return for 1911 listed only one person with that name and she came from Newry. I think though she would have been older.
There were a couple of exhibitions in the National Library. The first was on the life and acquaintances of W.B.Yeats. We’ve encountered him so much during our travels here we are becoming quite expert about him though I have yet to actually read anything he has written. Ian says he finds much it impenetrable and after learning of his involvement with such hermetic organisations as the Order of the Golden Dawn, theosophists and the influence of the automatic writing of his wife, he can understand why it is so opaque.
The second exhibition covered Irish migration throughout Europe between 1600 and 1800, the reasons why, where they went, what they did and how they settled. The main causes were political, economic and religious. All levels of society were involved from the aristocracy, businessmen, mercenaries and those escaping religious persecution in Ireland or attending Irish colleges set up throughout Europe to educated Irish priests during the times when Catholics were denied education in Ireland. Not surprisingly Catholic migrants tended to head for Spain and France seeking protection, patronage and employment while Protestant migrants headed for the Lowlands, England and Scandinavian countries.
Outside the library we discovered a group of monkeys playing billiards.
Next door to the National Library is Leinster House, the Irish Parliament building, the Dail, and beyond that the National Museum.
Here we sheltered from the rain as we discovered exquisite Celtic gold jewellery recovered from peat bogs, dating back to the Bronze Age. There were heavy twisted gold torques, rings, brooches and bracelets as well as wide collars of beaten gold looking like half-moons, delicately incised. The gold is apparently Irish and analysis has almost convinced experts that it must have come from the Mountains of Mourne. There were many artefacts found in the peat bogs including the longest dugout canoe ever discovered made from one solid trunk of oak. There were shoes, preserved cloth and garments, utensils and tools, even wooden tubs of butter presumably buried in the bog to preserve it and forgotten. Of course there was much concerning other cultures in the museum such as the Romans and Egyptians, but we had time only to concentrate on what affected Ireland. The Viking gallery explained much about the raiding parties they sent to pillage the monasteries and the effect they had on Irish culture as they over-wintered here and gradually assimilated themselves into the communities. There were traders as well as warriors and among the exhibits were silver pennies minted in Exeter about 1000AD.
In search of the bizarre we set out to find an unusual – to say the least – statue of the composer G.F.Handel who conducted the first performance of The Messiah in Dublin's Charitable Music Society's hall in 1742. It proved very elusive but eventually we discovered it well away from the accidental view of tourists bent on reaching the Guinness Brewery a little further down the road. Why would Handel chose to conduct in the nude? Handel's handle was there for all to see!
Nearby but of less interest was St. Peter's Protestant cathedral and a pretty, peaceful and very overgrown churchyard to the parish church of St Audoen. Further along we found a Pugin designed church with stained glass windows from the workshop of Harry Clarke.
As we were near the Guinness Brewery we followed the crowds and the trail of dung from the horse-drawn jaunting cars – no equine nappies here! This year is the brewery's 250th anniversary of Guinness which started in 1759. The combined smell of horse dung and fermenting Guinness was horrid. The streets around were packed with scruffy, overweight and very lairy young people heading for the tour and the complimentary glass at the end. It cost 15 euros to see round and they could have bought a six pack for that. The whole place looked scruffy and dirty but why should the company bother to make it attractive when visitors couldn't hand over their money fast enough?
Down along the Liffey we made our way back through the mizzling rain towards the bus station, passing the law courts, the customs house and the Ha'penny Bridge. We also passed by Dubliners having a typical Saturday afternoon beside the river.
Unfortunately, although Dublin has so many attractive buildings, some of its inhabitants are filthy. The council has done what it can. There are notices warning of fines for dropping chewing gum and for dog fouling. There are litter bins provided, but still in some quarters every corner and gutter is cluttered with empty drinks cans, crisp packets and cigarette stubs. Scruffy people sit or sleep on benches or in the gutter. (When we needed a nap this afternoon at least we took it in the darkened video room of the museum where nobody noticed.)