Our arrival in Dublin was to blue skies and sunshine, and that musical lilt of voice and language unique to Ireland. The hotel we’d chosen, Castle Clontarf, is a 16th century castle; the rooms were gloriously, beautifully modern, but the reception, lounge, bar and restaurant were set within the actual castle walls, and wonderfully atmospheric.
When in Dublin…
We unloaded our bags and headed off to the city, passing by Christchurch Cathedral and Temple Bar on our way to the Guinness factory, first thing. It was a good call to purchase tickets early, to cut through the queues. The brewery is massive, and visitors only have access to the Storehouse, where interactive displays on brewing techniques, ingredients and machinery are shown. There’s a free taste of the different brews, a floor on marketing (very entertaining!), and at the pinnacle of it all, a free pint for every visitor and the most magnificent views across Dublin from the Sky Bar. I liked the literary quotes strung out across the glass walls, one each from Dublin’s great writers; Joyce, Yeats, Shelley.
We had a map, and a guidebook, and set off for old Kilmainham Gaol. The gaol only allows guided tours, so make sure you get there before the last scheduled one leaves! The insides reminded me mostly of other mid 19th century gaols I’d visited; in Australia mostly. Today the gaol is a contrast in prison methods – the West Wing freshly painted, flooded with light; the East Wing dark, dingy, filled with cobwebs. It was easy to imagine the conditions that prisoners were subjected to, grotesque and unimaginably squalid. The inhumanity of being human. There were numerous executions at Kilmainham, mostly political prisoners from the Easter Uprising of 1910.
Ireland has always been cut across along religious lines – we were immersed in her history for a brief hour; the potato blight, the famine, the Black Plague, the English influence. We caught a bus back into the city. I was weary by then, but we made a stop at the Winding Stair, a bookshop overlooking the River Liffey, and managed some mediocre dinner before heading to the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s National Theatre, to catch a play called The Seafarer. The Abbey was co-foundered by Yeats, and have been hosting plays for well over 50 years. It was a smallish venue, with great seats and at €15 a pop, a steal! The plot is based, loosely, on the poem by the same name from the Anglo-Saxon. I enjoyed the excessive swearing quite a bit, and the lovely Irish idiom quite a lot.
The next day we traipsed off to Trinity College, to pay our respect to The Book of Kells. This is the earliest known manuscript of the Bible, illustrated in great detail. There are four books, and all of them are beautiful, the colours still fresh and vibrant, the workmanship superb. These books are made from leather, so making them couldn’t have been easy; they were never meant to be used practically as there are spelling mistakes in the text. Trinity College is all grey slate stone and cobbles; there is a grand square where a clock tower resides, but the most beautiful part of our visit there was the Long Room.
It is a longish (hence the name) room, stretching into the distance as you come in through the door. The floor is dark wood, and on either side, marble busts of thinkers, philosophers, scientists and inventors line the corridor. The light is muted, so as to not damage the books (The Book of Kells itself is so fragile it is housed in a dark room) and it drifts in from the tall, arched windows all along the walls. But now we come to the books… and there are books aplenty in the Long Room – some 20,000 of them. They are loosely organised alphabetically, and arranged with the big, heavy encyclopaedic volumes at the bottom, while the lighter books sit on high shelves. The shelves themselves stretch up to the about 3 metres, and then again, up to the arched, vaulted ceiling on the second level of the room. All the shelves are a dark wood, and all the books smell of age and dust and ink and crisp, crumbling paper. Utterly gorgeous, and such a pity (though understandable) that photos are disallowed.
Dublin is a small city; after Trinity College Jeff and I meandered our way to O’Neills, an old-school Tudor-facade pub which served an amazing Guinness stew. In Ireland, the potato is king. They have potato with everything. Even potato. I was offered stuffing, mash or roast potato and mistakenly, chose mash, only to have the girl serving me to shake her head and look confused.
Didja not want some roast potatoes too?
Here, in Ireland, the Irish take their potatoes very seriously. After lunch, our bellies groaning, we made our way to St Stephen’s Green, passing by Grafton Street and doing some shopping on the way. It was a lovely, hot sunny day, and we hunted around for an ice cream before falling asleep in the park.
A Daytrip from Dublin
We visited Guinness Lake, so called because it looks like a pint of Guinness, complete with creamy head, and is owned by the Guinness family. The country is wild and rugged – with stony, craggy peaks and the golden brown of stubborn grass. It is peat country; the black peat filling up my horizon, over the curving hills. I spot a deer, grazing in the far distance. There are few houses this high up, where the land is so desolate. Lunch is at Laragh, a twee mountain country town; we opt for sunshine and a lunch of sandwiches and tea instead of pub grub – I sit and bask in the sunlight.
We head off to Glendalough, where in the 1st century St Kevin set up shop. He was a hermit, and so gentle that animals used to come and sit with him for days without him ever alarming them. A pretty tale, but the valley of the two lakes (Glen-Da-Loch – literally – in Irish) is breathtakingly beautiful and a fitting setting.
Our next destination is the serene Wicklow Mountains, so off we set. On our way there we stop at the coast, just outside Dublin. There is a place where waves meet rock called the Forty Foot Place; notable for its nude swimmers, bravely carrying on a tradition left by the British garrison who were stationed there in yesteryears. Our next stop was for cream tea and scones at the Avoca handweaver stall, owned by a Quaker family for generations. The day was wet and cold, but it started clearing up as we drove up into the Wicklows – perfect timing!
There are still ruins from 900 A.D in Glendalough; arches from the old gateway, a wishing stone with a Celtic cross carved into it, the church and confession hut, the prayer rooms and graveyard. It is idyllic, scenic and beautiful here, and my eyes drink in the great big space and sky. St Kevin’s grave is here, marked with a giant cross. The superstition is that if you can reach your arms around the cross and touch your fingertips, you will always have good health. We go for a walk along the Upper and Lower Lakes, we eat ice cream. The day has gotten hot, and there are families with children, dogs gambolling, lovers strolling hand-in-hand.
The day is still bright as we’re all dropped off back into Dublin city; it’s that inbetween time, neither dinner quite yet but too late to go back to our hotel and back out again, so we head back to St Stephen’s Green to just chill out… On a friend’s recommendation we head to Cafe-en-Seine for dinner, a nouveau art, pretty little place. I like the indoor plants and the artwork and the skylights; we head home, back to our castle by the sea while its still summer bright.