World Cup Dispatch: Part Three (Dublin, More Pints, And Joyce Fanatics)
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Contributor Andrew Post is traveling in the U.K and Ireland for the next two weeks covering the World Cup and his trip for TheExpeditioner.com. Minus any hooligan-related incidents, Andrew will be checking in with dispatches along the way. God help him.
By Andrew Post
There are many ways to enter Dublin. The Vikings came with swords and ships, ravaging the countryside, uniting the two Gaelic villages of Dubh Linn and Átha Cliath into a major city. The English came with daggers and promises, finishing the work that the Vikings began, placing the Irish and the new city of Dublin under British rule. And now, in the last few years, people from around the world — Asia, Africa, continental Europe — have come to Ireland to build new lives, bringing industry and exotic foods and foreign spice, lending a dash of international flavor to an already culturally wealthy metropolis.
My buddy and I decided to come to Dublin with a hangover.
Where’ve All The Irish Gone?
In less-than-triumphal progress, Jeff and I stepped off the Ryanair jet and into the terminal at Dublin Airport. We were broadsided by the apparent Irishness immediately. All the airport signage was bilingual: Gaelic in prominence, printed in jaunty shamrock green, with English in white, taking a small, secondary place beneath.
We’d left comforting Newcastle far behind and entered a foreign land, no longer part of the U.K., where the euro ruled and age-old tensions still lurked in the shadows.
Yes, we thought, we’re here. This is the real thing. We’re about to get a taste of the Ireland we’ve heard about from Joyce and McCourt.
That illusion began to dissolve as we stepped across the threshold of our hostel, just east of the Temple Bar district of Central Dublin, south of the River Liffey, on College Street.
The young lady behind the reception desk was Australian.
So was our roommate, Harry. A Melbourne man, backpacking across Europe, he was the most dapper hiker we’d ever run across. He was never without his waistcoat and button-down shirt, or a fancy sweater laid over a starched collar.
Undaunted by exhaustion, Jeff and I resolved to set out on the town and see something of the place before the slowly setting sun gave out on us. Our hostel was ideally situated: right next to the beautiful campus of Trinity College, itself adjacent to the Bank of Ireland. Both establishments were monolithic, built in the Georgian style. The bank resembled the Parthenon, with 50-foot columns sheltering a pair of humble ATM machines. The college was positively palatial, statuary sprouting from green lawns, the roof soaring skyward, impressive stone facade dotted with windows, and several impressive arches leading into a central courtyard.
The whole city of Dublin displayed a strongly Georgian influence, with many buildings decorated with columns, carvings and inscriptions. Just a block over from our hostel, north of the Liffey on O’Connell Street, stood the statue of Daniel O’Connell himself, the Irish hero who repealed many of the restrictive laws put in place by the British. Behind him, a few blocks further on, the Spire of Dublin reared into the sky, hundreds of feet tall, its silver skin gleaming in the rare Irish sun. Intermingled with these grandiose structures were several more modern buildings, city offices and towers, lending a weird juxtaposition of old and new to the city. Throw in three million convenience stores, fast food joints, shops and pubs, and modern-day Dublin comes into view.
. . . except, of course, for the bewildering lack of Irish people.
Jeff and I split up. I went down O’Connell Street, across the river, to search for an internet café; Jeff went the opposite direction, farther down College Street, to search for a pharmacist. Both of us were still feeling rotten. I stumped my way across the O’Connell bridge, wide as it is long, marveling at the pedestrian crossings, where the green man not only lights up, but makes a noise like a laser beam to tell you when it’s time to dash across. The streets were just as narrow and crowded here as in London, and double-decker buses warred for room with scooters, taxis, small cars, and hundreds upon hundreds of people.
The accents were from all over, yet I didn’t hear an Irish one in the bunch. I heard English, Australian, and American accents more than anything else. I could never be sure, when looking at a comely female (of which there were many in Dublin), whether they were my compatriots or not. It was impossible to tell by looking. Trendily-dressed girls were everywhere, sporting skirts and heels in light of the beautiful spring weather. There were men in polo shirts, businessmen in suits, rough-looking men in tank tops and tattoos, elderly women shuffling their serene way down the sidewalk, young couples strolling hand-in-hand, mothers pushing strollers down the sunny streets, sunglasses and short sleeves on everyone. The weather was gorgeous, a warm sun, a cool breeze, temperatures around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the skies blue as the Irish Sea.
It felt like Ireland. It just didn’t sound like it.
The Oldest Pub In Ireland (Maybe)
Jeff and I met up back at the hostel, and after an hour’s nap we felt well enough to venture out on the town for a pint. We were looking for a proper Irish pub, mind you. There’d be the next day for tours and pub crawls, but tonight we just wanted a quiet pint to detoxify with. Over a free lunch of pasta and salad, we heard rumors of the perfect candidate: the Brazen Head. It possessed all the fixings: brick walls, dark wooden rafters, climbing ivy, an outdoor patio, Guinness on tap, the works. So out we went.
After about 30 minutes of wandering aimlessly around Temple Bar, trying vaguely to recall the directions we’d been given, hunting around cathedrals, twisting side streets, back alleys, theaters, and hotels, we found it. The sign, painted on the whitewashed stone wall of the building proper, proclaimed it to be the oldest pub in Ireland, established 1198. Whether that was true was anyone’s guess. (Later on, we would discover a pub north of the river that claimed to be the oldest pub in Dublin, so unless there was some unprecedented expansion of the city boundaries after the Viking invasions, one of the two was wrong.)
Let’s just settle the bet right now: Guinness actually tastes good in Ireland. The best reason we heard for this was that Guinness breweries in Ireland are allowed to use the finest ingredients stored in the Irish warehouse; the rest of the world’s Guinness breweries must use the inferior stock in Norway. That being said, the difference in taste and texture between Irish Guinness and, say, American Guinness is astounding. The beer is so smooth, so flavorful, so much less bitter and flat, with such a soft and creamy head, as to make the drinker’s previous experience with Guinness utterly meaningless. I took a sip, looked down, and saw that a perfect impression of my upper lip had been left in the foam, as if it were modeling clay. The coffee-ish overtones of the beer were excellently buoyed up by an understated bitterness and a strong finish. It was the most satisfying stout I’d tasted in many a month. Jeff and I had a relaxing drink, watching Brazil beat North Korea as the sky darkened to its northern purple hue.
“Is It All Right If I Really Stick The Knife In?”
The next morning, energized by a good night’s rest and a free breakfast of toast and cereal, we joined the group of people heading out for the free walking tour. We assembled in a small square just up the road, near City Hall. Our tour guide, Cillian, was the first Irish person we’d met. He led us up the street and to the left, stopping outside the gates to Dublin Castle. He stopped, turned, and bid us gather around. And then, rubbing his hands together and rocking back and forth on his feet, speaking quickly and resonantly in an accent that would’ve had any 17-year-old American girl swooning, he explained a few things.
“Welcome to Dublin,” he said, “and the Republic of Ireland, independent since 1916. WAAAAAAAAAAAAY!” he cheered.
The tourists looked at each other and smiled nervously.
“My name’s Cillian,” he went on. “That means ‘little church’ in Gaelic. I’m going to try to give you the 11,ooo-year history of Ireland in the next 30 minutes. I speak very fast, so if any of you have trouble understanding, just tell me and I’ll slow down. Can everyone hear me okay?”
Everyone could, and Cillian went on.
“I’m just going to start by taking a quick survey of the audience here,” he said, his freckled face alight, his eyes sweeping around the semicircle of people gathered before him. “What nationalities do we have represented in the crowd today?”
“No fighting between the U.S. and Canada, okay?” Cillian joked, looking at Jeff and me. He turned back to the crowd. “I didn’t notice that we had any English folks here today, right? So is it all right if I really stick the knife in?”
We all grinned and nodded, so Cillian went ahead. He launched into a soliloquy on Ireland’s history, starting in the Stone Age, when the first inhabitants of Ireland arrived by land bridge and boat, and moving on up into more subjective matters.
“Then something happened that not a lot of Irish people were happy about,” Cillian said, after he’d finished with the Vikings. “The English came.”
It seemed that the Gaelics colonized Ireland, and were in turn attacked and subjugated by the Vikings. Then the English, led by the Anglo-Norman named Strongbow, came to Ireland and announced that they were now in charge. Things were peaceful for a while, with the Anglo-Normans settling into Irish ways, learning the Irish language, marrying into Irish families, and becoming, as the man once said, “more Irish than the Irish themselves.”
That didn’t sit well with the English, though, and they put severe restrictions on Catholics (i.e., the Irish) and barred them from holding office and basic rights. Hence the Troubles, which plagued Ireland for years. The Irish Civil War followed directly on the heels of the War of Independence, and has never officially come to an end.
Cillian didn’t pull any punches when it came to the English contribution to all this.
Then he led us all about Dublin, through the castle (which more resembled a mansion), telling us the interesting stories about the statues there, and how they symbolize British imperialism; past the records tower, the only castle-ish thing in sight, where a captured Irish prince was held for five long years before escaping; into the Dublin Castle Park, the best-kept secret in the city, the quietest and most secluded park imaginable. Then to Christ Church Cathedral, a beautiful piece of Neo-Gothic architecture (originally constructed of wood by the Vikings), truly an awe-inspiring sight.
We perused Dublin’s New Theatre, where U2 was discovered, and the Clarence Hotel across the street, which kicked U2 off their premises for being too scruffy. The band vowed to own the place someday, and returned after striking it big, buying the hotel. Cillian told us that he’s often seen The Edge having a quiet drink in the hotel bar.
The tour ended, and Jeff and I had three hours to cut loose and see Dublin before the hostel-sponsored pub crawl at 7:30. I paid six euro to enter the Christ Church Cathedral — I couldn’t resist. It was worth every cent. I saw the tomb of Strongbow; the solid gold communion service set which James II granted the church; the dimly-lit crypt, sheltering the memories and markers of those centuries dead; the mummified bodies of a cat and a rat which a janitor found in an organ pipe; and the cathedral itself, soaked in grandeur and tradition.
Unkowingly, we’d hit town during Bloomsday, June 16, when the Joyce faithful turn out to reenact his epic novel, Ulysses. Groups of bowler-clad, bespectacled actors roamed the streets, randomly reproducing scenes from the controversial novel. We stopped by one crowd of people gathered around a particularly successful troupe, watching the action without knowing what was going on, but loving it nonetheless. The scene ended, everyone applauded, and we all walked away vowing to read the book someday.
Then it was on to the Old Jameson Distillery for a tour. The new distillery has moved south, but John Jameson’s original facility has been preserved as a museum. Being a recently-minted bartender, and yet knowing nothing of the actual distillation process, the tour was extremely enlightening, despite the parsimonious anti-Scotch propaganda. At the end of the tour, I volunteered for the tasting ceremony. I and seven other intrepid souls — none of them Irish — tested Jameson against Jack Daniels (representing American whiskey) and Johnnie Walker Black Label (representing Scotch whisky). Of the three, Jameson was my favorite, so I answered honestly, pushing the empty center glass forward and thereby receiving the approbation of the tour guide, Georgina — and a certificate with my name on it, indicating that I was now a whiskey connoisseur.
Georgina was the second Irish person Jeff and I met while we were in Dublin.
After a quick run to the hostel for a shower and a change of clothes, we all rendezvoused at the Purty Kitchen, a pub/club in the center of Temple Bar. Beers were free until eight, so we dashed back and forth between the bar and the chaperone with the free beer tokens, displaying a red piece of paper to the former and our empty glasses to the latter.
We downed about five rounds in 30 minutes, doing our best to meet and greet with fellow foreigners while Uruguay socked it to South Africa on the television. I joined up with a trio of Australians and had a long chat as we got progressively more buzzed. Then it was onto Kearney’s, where I got my first taste of beer pong. Literally my first taste, as Jeff and I came up against a pair of Oklahomans who schooled us in the art of defeat. Jeff and I, heads beginning to spin, sat at the downstairs bar and chatted with a couple of ladies from Maine, wondering how we got ourselves into this mess, and where all the feckin’ Irish people were.
More pubs, more beers, more shots, and a steamy, sweat-laden club session later, Jeff and I stumbled home, clumsily undressed, and collapsed onto our beds, alarm clocks forgotten, hoping that we would somehow be sober enough in the morning to navigate our way to the bus station and the airport. We had been blindsided by the goodness of Guinness, astounded by the mythic scale and antiquity of Dublin. We had hit almost all the major landmarks we’d wanted to, been blessed with rare good weather, and had found our way about despite all odds.
The weather was alien, the company foreign, the welcome anti-British, but the party (or, as they say in Gaelic, the craic) was all Irish.
We’d settle for that.
Coming Next In Part Three: Departing Dublin (the National Museum), an outdoor picnic in Newcastle, and how to host an American barbecue in England. After that…the train to Edinburgh, haggis, and Scottish weekend nightlife.