Dancing Through Dublin
Despite the total exhaustion that gripped me, the bus ride between Belfast and Dublin kept me alert and braced for impact the entire way. Our bus driver drove as if his dick girth depended on how fast we got to Dublin. This was especially unsettling considering that when I boarded the bus, he seemed almost catatonic, barely able to gather together the wits needed to punch my ticket. But now he hauled ass like a man possessed through the Irish countryside and his driving style was more fit for a small, high performance car, rather than the behemoth bus, stacked with passengers, that he was commanding. He passed all manner of vehicles – trucks, other busses, Ferraris – on the narrow two lane road, wrenching the bus through sudden lane changes, stomping violently on the accelerator and the brake and taking hills as such break-neck speeds that my butt actually became briefly airborne at the peaks like on a roller coaster. I pitied the poor souls on the bus who suffered from motion-sickness. With the way Velocity Boy was driving even my unshakable, air-tight stomach was starting to get woozy by end of the three hour journey.
Once I disembarked and calm my nerves, I set out to see Ireland’s largest city. Like many other ancient cities in Europe, Dublin is the victim of having originally been dozens of scattered settlements, all with their own small set of streets, before they all grew together into one large city at which point some moron decided not to take all of those street names that had merged together and consolidate them into one name. Instead every street name in Dublin changes every second block making getting a fix on your position with your deficient guidebook map about as easy as clipping your toe nails with a spoon. Fortunately for us tourists, Dublin’s tourism office has compensated for this predicament by offering a free, huge, detailed map with every single street name, and their transformations, clearly noted along with big pictures of each significant tourist site plotted on its appropriate spot on the map so that even an illiterate, one-eyed, colorblind monkey can navigate Dublin with little or no help. But I still got lost. Sigh.
On that note, finding help in Dublin is not nearly as easy as it is in Belfast. In Belfast, all you have to do is unfurl your map and look around expectantly and within seconds a passerby will screech to a halt and help you. The Dubliners on the other hand walk very fast, with their heads down and their walkmen blasting them into their own, undisturbable little worlds. Once you get their attention they are accommodating and friendly, but you have to occasionally execute a rugby tackle on them to get them to notice you.
The combination rush hour and tourist pedestrian traffic required me to slalom my way through the never-ending crowds of people to get to the enormous O’Connell Street, passing the soaring, cloud tickling Spire, before I cut across the River Liffey and headed into the ancient Temple Bar and Viking Area neighborhoods. Once the nerve center of Dublin, these cramped streets are now nearly wall-to-wall restaurants, pubs, clubs, shops and art venues. During the day it is crawling with tourists and at night it is crawling with even more tourists and deeply inebriated locals blowing off steam. I was told to watch my step here at night, assuming that a broken nose wasn’t part of my Dublin itinerary.
Next stop was Dublin Castle. The relatively small Record Tower is the only part of the original 13th century structure that is still standing. The rest of the castle is made up of more modern buildings, making it look more like a palace than a castle. Having just ogled the airport sized Edinburgh Castle a few days earlier, it was a bit under-whelming, but the gardens were colorful and tended to perfection – the black pool beneath the gardens (“duhb linn”) is where the city gets its name – and the attached cathedral, while not 700 years old, is still older than anything you are ever going to find in the U.S., and unquestionably attractive in its own right.
I pushed further west until I came upon the Guinness Storehouse, where I paused briefly only because I personally knew at least a dozen people back in the States who, if they were in my place, would have dropped to their knees and started convulsing like they had just seen the Holy Ghost. The brewery tour is supposed to be something of a life altering experience for Guinness enthusiasts, but not being a beer drinker I opted to skip it and instead decided to take advantage of the awesome photo opportunity backdrop provided by a wicked cloud cover, illuminated from below by the setting sun. I rushed around taking wildly lit pictures of every old structure that I could find, including the House of Lords, the Dublin City Wall, Christ Church Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral before the sunlight pooped out.
Because I seem to excel in torturing myself and because I was tossing and turning anyway, I got started on the following day by getting up early and walking for seven hours straight. This included two forays into territories off the Dublin city map, because I’m an idiot, so I was consequently lost in the industrial and shipping port areas for a large portion of the afternoon.
Since I was way off the beaten path of interesting things that warranted picture taking, I decided to get into the heads of the locals and stopped for a few (OK, several) ciders in various pubs. Among other subjects, I had to explain for the millionth time that the car racing happened in Indianapolis, not my home town of Minneapolis. Sheesh! Can’t these foreigners get our cities straight? Of course, most people in the U.S. think that Norway is the capital of Sweden, so I suppose I should let these little misunderstandings slide. The Irish are most definitely the friendliest group of people I have ever run across. Even the ornery drunks were nice to me. It was weird. Here I was, not even pretending to be Norwegian, and I was making friends so fast that I had to juggle conversations on three sides of me at the bar.
As enjoyable is it is to interact with the Irish, communication can occasionally grind to a halt. The intermittently confounding Irish brogue aside, it will come as a surprise to some visitors to learn that there is indeed an Irish language – closely related to Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Breton – which was the native language to the majority of the country until the early 19th century when English suddenly took off and in a relatively swift 100 years English was spoken by 85% of the populace. Today only 32% of the natives claim knowledge of Irish, but the language is experiencing a revival. There is a dedicated Irish radio station, Radio na Gaeltachta, an Irish language television service, “Telifís na Gaeilge,” that was launched in November 1996 and a growing number of schools, known as Gaelscoil (all-Irish Schools), that conduct classes exclusively in the Irish language. So if you find yourself surround by bunch of native Irish, particularly along the western seaboard and in the south, and suddenly realize that you have no idea what’s being said, they are probably speaking in Irish, unless you are in a bar, in which case they may simply be jovially drunk and letting that brogue fly. To resolve the latter situation, consume an additional pint or two and your ears should adjust to the banter in short order.
After my painstaking, “research oriented” pub stops, I trudged back to central Dublin mildly stewed and swung through the grounds of Trinity College, which was founded by Elizabeth I in 1592 and is packed with numerous gorgeous, very old buildings. Walking tours are offered, but being the anti-tourist that I am, I took it upon myself to wander around alone, which allowed me to linger on benches to soak up the surroundings while resting my throbbing feet and letting cider induced hallucinations make me seriously wonder whether or not I might be in The Matrix. Other than its outstanding edifices and grounds, the college’s main attraction is the “Book of Kells” – a manuscript dating from around 800 AD, making it one of the oldest books in the world – which is housed and dramatically exhibited in the Library Colonnades
On the subject of books, it should be mentioned that Ireland’s contribution to literature has been staggering considering its tiny size and population. Four Irish writers have won the Nobel Prize for Literature (Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney). Other internationally identifiable names include playwright Oscar Wilde, author Jonathan Swift (“Gulliver’s Travels”) and of course there is James Joyce who blessed us with “Ulysses” and cursed us with “Finnegan’s Wake.” The pricey but exhaustive Dublin Writers Museum is devoted to these artists and Joyce has his very own super-fan shrine at the nearby James Joyce Centre. Although I am a writer (well, I tell people that I am a writer in any case…), I am not one to obsess over and study classic literature, outside of acknowledging its historical significance. I can’t claim to have read many of these writers simply because anything deeper or more complicated than a “Married With Children” episode is usually beyond me, so rather than spending half the afternoon reverently studying original manuscripts and scrutinizing biographical displays on these literary luminaries, I redirected that part of my time and budget into more friendly ciders with the locals.
Despite being the end of August, when presumably kids should have been going back to school, the heinous tourist presence seemed to be unaffected. Every time that I decided that I’d seen the worst tourist crowds, along came something even more ungodly. Dublin seemed to be a popular destination for the Middle-Aged Tourists (MATs). The MAT tour buses were more numerous than the regular city buses. The scene on foot wasn’t any better. Every time a street light turned green, it was like the opening gun at the Boston Marathon as people swarmed like locusts into the streets, annoying the local traffic who fought back with constant horn blaring. In my weakened condition, the sensory over-load of all the noise and people was getting under my skin and discombobulating me. Additionally, my legs were like rubber, the soles of my feet felt like I had been walking on marbles all day and I had a plane to catch at 6:00 the following morning. Seven hours of walking – well, technically it was about four and a half hours of walking and two and a half hours of the aforementioned cider-fueled investigation – had taken its toll and I was eventually forced to hobble back to my hostel.
A few days in Dublin can be as rewarding as they can be punishing. The prices are high, the crowds are nasty and the weather is unpredictable, but the wealth of places to go, things to see and cider to drink is, er, intoxicating. Millions of annual tourists can’t be wrong. Avoid July and August, wear comfortable shoes and bring a large umbrella.