Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ireland Day 3: Dublin City Centre

On Saturday morning, the group of us met after breakfast at 10:30 to head to the Dublin City Centre. I'd already trekked around a good portion of Dublin on Thursday, but this time we had the bus driver, who pointed things out to us, and gave us the stories behind them. We passed the Custom House, which has a sculpture incorporating a harp, a lion, a crown, and a unicorn. The unicorn represented Scotland, which was not an association I'd ever heard of before. Our driver (named John, of course) was well versed in Joyce's Ulysses, and had a tremendous knowledge of Irish literature and culture in general, which was astounding.

On the road from the Guinness Brewery area back towards the center of town, we passed the house of the President of Ireland. In a field nearby, there were people playing polo, on segues, with frisbees. No, don't ask me to explain it. But just about everyone on the bus wanted to photograph it. Myself included:

Our first stop after driving around Dublin for 2 hours was the National Museum. I don't think I saw every exhibit in there, but I did see the gold collection, the Medieval Irish collection, as well as two fairly well-preserved bog people (or at least parts of them). There was a long dug-out canoe that had been pulled from a bog as well. In fact, nearly everything in the pre-history section was pulled from a bog. I was amazed at how well preserved everything was, especially the gold jewelry.

I exited the museum and saw my group standing there. There seemed to be a bit of commotion, and as it turned out, Niamh had accidentally reserved matinee tickets for Riverdance instead of evening ones. So, plans had to be changed. We went to see the Book of Kells, and then those going to the show had to get to the theatre. There was a long line for the Book of Kells, and none of us were keen on waiting, but it ended up being no more than a 15-minute wait. The book was open to a passage from Luke 23, and the illuminated page was a vibrant green and blue, darkened slightly by the aging vellum. Upstairs was what was called "The Long Room", a huge library lined with busts of philosophers and poets, and cases of Irish historical artifacts down the middle. There was a discussion of book conservation and preservation, and how to identify conservation needs (rated from 1 to 4, with 1 being in good shape, and 4 needing emergency attention.) At the end, you could put in a donation to the preservation work of Trinity College.

At the end of the exhibits was the oldest existing Irish harp inside a case. A little boy was looking at it with his mother. "Look, Mum, it's the Guinness symbol."

"No it isn't."

"Yes it is."

"No, it just looks like it, but that's not what it is."

They went on disagreeing about it, and I had to stop and ponder about this change in association. The harp has always represented Ireland symbolically, and now it represents Guinness. Corporations really are taking over the collective psyche.

In the end, only two of us were not going to Riverdance. I was looking forward to walking around on my own. I was in the Grafton Street area, which was hugely busy, and largely overpriced. The Dublin gay pride parade was going on, which made for a lot of dancing in the streets, but also made it a lot more crowded. I ended up checking out a few bookstores, and a charity shop after having a couple of pints near Stephen's Green Lower. We all met for dinner, and a large group of us went to Bruxelles, the same pub we had visited on my first night in Dublin. Everyone was really wiped out by the time we got back to the hotel at 11:00. My roommate is a night person, and I'm a morning person, so there's been some level of adjustment to our schedules. I'm sure we'll all be fully adjusted by the time we have to leave.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Ireland, Day 2: Glasnevin, Newgrange, and Knowth

I was up bright and early and able to walk after 10 miles of trekking the previous day. I got to the airport a bit early to meet the group, only to be told by the CIE driver waiting there that the flight with most of our group was delayed until 9 AM. So, I settled into the airport cafe until Niamh came over to get myself and Jackie, another member of our group who had come in at 7 AM. We had breakfast at the hotel, and finally were on our way a little after 10:00.

Our first stop was Glasnevin Cemetery. I was told there would be breakfast at the cemetery, which was puzzling, until I realized that it was at the cafe in the Visitor's Centre. Some of us went on a tour, others that had just flown in had breakfast, to save time. There are a lot of famous people connected with Irish political history buried here, as well as the family of literary figures like James Joyce. The delayed flight left us short on time, so our tour guide gave us a quick rundown of a few important graves. The first grave we stopped at was that of Michael Collins, who is the one responsible for signing the treaty with England that allowed for partition of the 6 Northern counties, while freeing the rest of Ireland from British rule. His grave is the only one adorned with flowers, and people leave all kinds of things. A young boy had left a poem, and apparently a French woman comes regularly to leave flowers with notes. Flowers are not placed on graves as a rule in Irish cemeteries, or at least not in Glasnevin. But Collins is an exception.

She then pointed out the grave of Kitty Kiernan, who was Collins's fiancee. He was assassinated in August, and they were supposed to be married in September. She eventually married someone else, but upon her death, asked to be buried as close to Collins as possible. We visited the grave of Eamon De Valera, who was the founder of Fianna Fáil, an anti-British union party, who was and is a rather controversial figure. The guide told us that some people fall to their knees at his grave, and others avoid it, symbolic of the cultural rift between republicans and unionists.

The last grave we visited was a huge crypt with a large tower--the grave of Daniel O'Connell, who had founded the cemetery. O'Connell was a politician around the period of An Gorta Mor (the Famine), and fought extensively for Catholic rights, being one of the first Catholics allowed to hold office. He is known as the Great Emancipator, and he has a lavish crypt, painted with Celtic-style spirals and the text of his dying words: My body to Ireland, my heart to Rome, my soul to Heaven. His words were taken literally, and his heart was removed and put into a silver box, where it resided in a Vatican seminary for years. The guide told us that it is no longer there, as it was stolen. There is a tradition that touching the coffin of O'Connell is good luck, so inside the stone crypt there are openings to touch the wooden coffin.

We had to leave Glasnevin rather quickly, but were blocked by an incoming funeral. Finally getting on our way, we headed up to Newgrange, to see the old Stone Age monuments at Knowth. Our group went up by bus, and were dropped off at the gate in the road. The mounds were huge, and surrounded by large kerbstones with megalithic designs on them. Our tour guide (named John, like everyone else on our tour so far) gave a very entertaining description of the mounds and their use from the Stone Age through early Christian times. 2/3 of the Stone Age artwork found in Europe is here at this collection of sites. We were not able to go into the prehistoric tunnels, but we did go down into the tomb, and I took a couple of shots of the passageways with the carvings on the wall. There is also a stair so that you can climb to the top of one of the mounds. It was incredibly windy at the top, and had a breathtaking view of the countryside. It alternated between being sunny and misting and raining for the entire hour that we were there, though the wind was brutally consistent. What really amazed me besides the carvings were the stones that built up the ceiling, that seem to be hanging in mid-air. It was rather high-tech for a people that pre-dated the Egyptian pyramid builders, and preceded Stonehenge by about 1,000 years. What these were really used for, no one knows. As the guide said: "These were not used for farming, they were used for ritual purposes. Which means we have no idea what they were used for."

After visiting Knowth, we headed back to the Visitor's Centre, where some people had tea. Upon returning to the hotel, we finally got our room keys. I am sharing a room with Deborah, who is a middle school teacher from Rockland County. We talked for about 2 hours before heading down for dinner and drinks. We all chose to stay in the hotel, as most people just wanted to go to sleep early. Indeed, I was really exhausted, and from the time I said goodnight to Deborah, I didn't remember anything until my phone rang at 6AM with a wrong number.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Ireland, Day 1: Dublin

It's about quarter past ten (as the Irish would say) in Dublin. I am sitting in my hotel room with a small bag of rosemary and olive oil potato chips purchased in JFK airport before coming. I did not think I would be awake or hungry at this point. But the body frequently does not cooperate with the brain.

Certainly there is a reason for needing sleep. I took a shuttle to JFK airport on Wednesday morning. I did not realize that this would require a transfer to another shuttle in the middle of Times Square, but it wasn't a problem, everything worked out. I got to JFK in ample time--enough to wait on line for almost an hour and a half until the Aer Lingus check-in desk opened so I could drop by bag. The girl on line in front me predicted that when the did open, there would be only two people to wait on everyone, and one of them would be incompetent, so that would leave one person to deal with the line. She turned out to be psychic. Amazingly, I got through security in all of 3 minutes; the scanner didn't even beep at my hematite ring, which now attracts paper clips and other metal objects. After having lunch, I waited at the gate, and was surprised to see Bill, who is leading this Ireland trip and also the professor for my class. With him were Dawn (who I recognized from the graduate office), and Jodie (who I had never met, but has assisted with this trip for the last 3 years). We met up again after a very quick flight--Bill said the tail wind speed was up to 200 mph, and we were cruising at over 600 mph. Of course, this is one flight where we did not need to arrive early, as nothing is open in Dublin before 7 AM.

After having coffee in the airport and being met by Niamh, who is another leader on this tour, I got to my hotel at 6:30 in the morning, and was pleasantly surprised that a room was available. The receptionist warned me that just outside the window was the Luas rail line. I told her that didn't bother me, and was shown to a really beautiful room on the second floor. I'm used to London hotel rooms, where I'm grateful if the room is clean and bigger than a broom closet. Now I won't be able to look at London the same way again.

There is an old adage about "the best laid plans", and I didn't get to do half the things I'd intended to do my first day in Dublin because of a light mist that later became driving wind and rain. It didn't help that this was my first time in Dublin, and the maps that I have of the area are really not detailed enough. I managed to get down to Grafton Street to have some really wonderful Irish porridge at Bewley's Cafe for breakfast. I contemplated the map; I'd hoped to visit the Guinness Storehouse, even though I was told it was an overpriced tourist trap. It looked like a reasonably straight walk along the South side of the Quay to that area, but my first lesson about Dublin is that most straight lines on the map are baldfaced lies. There are so many roundabouts, and places where roads branch off, and it's hard to see where your road continues. I did make it to the Storehouse, which has 7 levels and is shaped like a Guinness pint glass. The tour was only moderately interesting; the best part was claiming a free Guinness at the Gravity Bar at the top, and looking out over the entire city of Dublin from the circular glass room. What horrified me were all of the unfinished pints of Guinness sitting around the room; many tourists come to see the place, but don't really drink. They take one sip, and leave the pint sitting on the table. It's really criminal to not finish a pint of Guinness. At least make a better effort, for God's sake.

Before getting on the lift again, I noticed a new Guinness advertisement that said, "It's alive inside". I think this is more disturbing than enticing. I'm reminded of the cheesy 80's horror movie, "The Stuff", which is about a weird parasitic substance found in a cave that is marketed as ice cream, taking over people who eat it.

I walked out of the Storehouse into driving rain, and was occupied trying to keep my umbrella from turning inside out, and trying to stay dry, and I was not terribly successful at either. To make matters worse, I headed up the road to get back towards the Quay, and went too far North, ending up in the Kilmainham area of Dublin, which was barely covered on my map. After about an hour of walking, I gave up and hailed a cab, who got me back to my next destination--a bookstore across from the Halfpenny Bridge, called the Winding Stair. I found my obligatory book of Irish ghost stories, and might have settled in for a glass of wine, but I found the store to be too small. Supposedly it has a restaurant, but I did not see where one would access that. I went across the bridge and had a pint at the Halfpenny Pub, as it was now lunchtime. I wandered around the Temple Bar area, eventually ending up in Grogarty's for lunch and some Irish music. Grogarty's was recommended by Bill for its food, but I was less than dazzled by their fare. But the Irish music was wonderful, especially when they started playing a set of reels. Probably 99% of the people in the pub were not from Ireland. Sharing a table with me was a German couple who were soon heading back to Dublin Airport to go home. I talked for awhile about American politics with the man, who was the only one who spoke reasonably fluent English. I felt a little bad for his wife, because she really couldn't participate in the conversation, and I could see that this frustrated her a bit. They finally had to go, and I had received a text from Niamh that the group from my school was going to be in town around 3:30. I ran into them near the Temple Bar pub, and we took a walk over to Bruxelles to have a couple of pints. Several of our group were drinking something called "Smithwick's Shandy", which is a Smithwick's sweetened with a red lemonade. The red lemonade is made with Red No. 5 dye, something illegal as an additive pretty much everywhere else. I didn't try it, as I'm not a big fan of sweet alcoholic drinks.

After a couple of pints with the group, they planned to go for dinner, but as I'd just had a big lunch and was thoroughly exhausted, I went back to my room instead. Niamh came with me, to make sure I didn't make any other unintended detours through town. We talked about the next day's arrangements--around the corner from my hotel is the central bus station, called Busaras in Irish. Niamh tells me that "Aras" means "place" in Irish.

Speaking of Irish, I'd asked Niamh (pronounced "Neeve")if people often butchered her name. She mentioned a Starbucks incident where she made the mistake of telling them her name, and then spelling it for them when they wrote it on her cup. The barista referred to her as "num-num".

I think if I'm disappointed about anything today, it's that I didn't get to take this evening's ghost walk, which I was looking forward to in a big way. But there was no way I was walking another 2 1/2 hours in the rain, and having the tour end in a part of town quite far from my hotel. As it is, I think I'd expected about 2-3 miles of walking, and ended up with 10 miles, quite unintentionally. I usually find that maps exaggerate the distances between places. In Dublin, it is the opposite--what looks close can really be quite far. Objects seen are not as close as they appear.

The Luas train is going by now, and it purrs very quietly. The drunks outside are much louder than the train. Now that I've had a snack, I'm pretty sure I can get back to sleep. I finished reading, "McCarthy's Bar", an account of Pete McCarthy's journey through Ireland. He visits St. Patrick's Purgatory, and after a 26 hour sleepless vigil, he finally lays down and can't get to sleep. He finally gets to sleep by imagining Ian Paisleys jumping over a fence like sheep, goaded by a cattle prod since he is notoriously resistant to everything. I will have to find my own equivalent.