I’ve sung along to ‘Cockles and Mussels’ and ‘Wild Rover’ at many a 17th March celebration. I’ve helped to raise funds for various charities over time by participating in many a quiz in many an Irish Pub, and downed more than a few Irish coffees whilst there. Two of my colleagues and best friends, N and S, are ex-pat Irish. In fact, until recently, I had considered that all the very best of Ireland was exported!
For years I’ve taught works from Goldsmith to Friel and felt increasingly ashamed of my country’s role in Anglo-Irish history, which I have learned about through Anglo-Irish literature. Yet like my monarch until 2011, never had I been to Ireland.
With J and G newly arrived to live in “Dublin’s fair city”, I now had the opportunity to share Bloomsday with them, and to follow in the literary footsteps of James Joyce whose Leopold Bloom spent 24 hours wandering around Dublin on 16th June, 1904. So, over a century later and courtesy of Aer Lingus, not only did I walk across Dublin Bay sands to the Martello Tower in Sandycove, the scene of Telemachus – episode 1 , which opens Joyce’s ‘Ulysees’, but we drank together in Davy Byrne’s on Duke Street which is the scene of Lestrygonians in episode 8. We didn’t, however, sample the gorgonzola sandwich as Leopold had done at 1 pm all that time ago, although plenty of Joyce and Molly look-alikes were doing just that in homage.
Sunday, 16th June, 2013 happened also to be the day that the female Obamas flew into Dublin whilst the 44th President of the United State s attended the G8 meeting in Loch Erne, Eniskillen, Fermanagh, and it’s not blarney to say that it was “no, nay, never” to visit The Book of Kells, Michael Flatley’s ‘Lord of the Dance’ show and The Shelbourne Hotel, as Dublin went into lockdown for the duration of their stay.
I had seen the famous picture postcard from Ireland with nothing on it except large drops of rain and J had told me to expect all seasons in one day but we were lucky, and even got a tan during our time there. Walking around any new place is undoubtedly the best way of discovering it and, coupled with excellent DART train links and information gleaned from G on an early napkinplan blog, we did the Howth Head hike. Leaving the poet W.B.Yeats’ glorious childhood home on Balscadden Road perched on the headland behind us, we craned to see nesting guillemots and glimpsed grey seals as we clambered along the cliffs gazing across the Irish Sea in shimmering early-summer splendour. We truly earned our Dublin Bay prawns at the renowned ‘King Sitric ‘ prior to catching the last train back into the city.
There is, nonetheless, plenty to do in Dublin without stepping foot on a train, and much is free. An unexpectedly fine moment was the sight of two huge deer skeletons on either side of the main doors inside the Museum building in Trinity College. We had taken the student tour, which I thoroughly recommend, though it proved difficult to locate any reference to or painting of the college’s benefactor – the first Queen Elizabeth. To be fair, Eoughn and Quinn, our student guides were new to the job and a graduation ceremony, or Commencement, was going on at the time.
The canal walk into the city from the Aviva stadium was also a delight – directions for this too can be found elsewhere on G’s blog. The whole vista as you sweep into Dublin from the south east up to Merrion Square, with its connections to Oscar Wilde, and on to St Stephen’s Green is splendidly and grandly Georgian . We ate a wonderful meal at ‘The Cliff’ a sophisticated seafood and oysters place with, as in most of the restaurants in Dublin, an excellently priced pre-theatre dinner menu.
On the other side of the city, north of the river Liffey, my favourite evening was spent , first, at another eatery, this time the Michelin starred restaurant apposite ly named ‘Chapter One’. Our set menu was divine; tasty local food with a creative French touch, and the service was outstanding most notably from the sommelier. This meal was followed by a brilliant performance of Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy of the People’ at the exquisitely intimate Gate Theatre which has one of the most charming bars that I’ve ever spent an interval in.
Of course, no trip to the Emerald Isle would be complete without hearing a fiddle or two. My friend and musician C had tipped me off about where to go, and where not to sit! Apparently, there is strict protocol about this in every pub as the musicians have their particular arrangements. Arriving in the packed ‘Cobblestones’ mid-song to hear a large, ruddy and elderly Irishman in passionate full ballad flow, I was ushered forwards for a closer look and listen. Imagine my horror when I realised that he was singing about Easter 1916. I dared not open my mouth and after a quick drink we fled.
In this respect, it was no better the following day on a visit to Kilmainham Gaol, but it was the cultural highlight of my stay. If you are wondering how to spend an utterly unique, absorbing and full afternoon, then think no further as this ticks all the boxes and is very well organised with plenty to see and do. Take reading glasses, if you need them, and refrain from speaking English aloud , but above all be prepared to be shocked by the very human stories you will hear and read. I suggest a taxi or bus there as it’s a little too far to walk, although many tourists seemed to be combining the Gaol tour with that of the St James’ Gate Guinness Brewery as it is relatively nearby.
Obviously a visit to the Chester Beatty Library, which is behind Dublin Castle , is a MUST. Eating lunch there from a selection of delicious, colourful and healthy options looked like it would be a pleasure, and it would definitely be worth a good half-day trip in a dull weather. There is a lot to absorb , so don’t be tired when you visit but expect to be wowed by CB’s vision, his eclectic collection of books from all over the world, and perhaps, like me, by your own ignorance.
The list of ‘things to do’ in Dublin is honestly exhaustive, and the amount of good coffee to be drunk and good fish to be eaten is too. If you love shopping for books then look no further than Hodges Figgs; for Crozier or Cashel Blue cheese, then Sheridans’ is for you. Finding Stuart Weitzman shoes on sale in BT was my own peccadillo.
As Queen Elizabeth II said to President Mary McAleese after she had laid a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance, “it is impossible to ignore the weight of history” but in Ireland where there’s a lament , there’s usually a song, and today in Dublin’s redeveloped docks area with Google Europe, full of fitness-obsessed youth, the song is loud and clearly that of the international prodigal wild rover.