With the Sea Always On My Right: County Dublin
The plane swung out wide over the Irish Sea and presented me with a sweeping view of Dublin Bay before descending over the Howth Peninsula to land. There were large patches of green in the water. Earlier I had my first glimpse of Ireland when we had landed at Shannon to pick up passengers. What a perfect scene met my eye – immaculate farmhouses, hedges dividing one strikingly green field from the other, the River Shannon and up above it all, a patch of blue sky coming out through the clouds. It was as I had imagined the Emerald Isle always to be!
Orla O’Leary from Cork was my seatmate from Atlanta to Ireland. She was flying from Peru to Dublin, having spent two months there on business. What a typical Irish lass she was with blonde hair and those incredible “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” blue eyes!
My traveling companion (TC as referred to from now on) met me at the airport. My TC had picked up our rental car so we headed out to the parking lot. It was a Ford but no model like we have here in the US. I laughed at first when I saw how small it was. But, later, as we traveled on the narrow coastal roads and interior lanes of the island, I was very thankful that our car was not an inch bigger.
Like he’d driven on the wrong side of the road all his life, my TC got behind the wheel of the car and drove us into Dublin. We came into the northern part of the city on Dorset St. and took it all the way to the River Liffey. The famous, pedestrian Ha’Penny Bridge, which Orla had told me not to miss, was the first sight I beheld.
The Hotel St. George on Parnell Square was our choice of lodging. Back home before we left, we had looked up hotels on the internet and searched through our guidebooks. We had decided this was the place we wanted to stay. We usually like to have a reservation for the first night but then after that, we get a room wherever we happen to be. On this trip it would have been impossible to have any advance reservations because we didn’t know how far we would go each day.
Turning onto O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main thoroughfare, we tried to get to our hotel but the road veered off right and also to the left the block before. It looked so simple on the map but the map doesn’t tell you about the one-way streets. But it was fun being a little lost because we got to talk to our first Irish people, asking them directions to Parnell Square. They were just like the characters out of a work by James Joyce, walking the streets of Dublin.
Although their brogue was thick, I could understand everything. It was amazing to me that they spoke my own language. It was back in 1988 when I toured England, Scotland and Wales that I had had the last experience. Since then I’ve been to places where English was not the native language. Since Ireland is the fifty-fourth country I’ve visited, that was thirty countries ago. Of course, the Irish have their own language as well and we were to travel to places where the people spoke Gaelic.
We checked into our hotel and went to our room, which had a large, front window overlooking the Square. I always like to take photos of views from my room. On the right were the Abbey Presbyterian Church and the Hugh Lane Municipal Art Gallery, with lilacs blooming in the foreground in the park. The Rotunda with a gleaming green dome, as I was looking into the sun, was to my left. Dr. Bartholomew Mosse built this first maternity hospital in all Ireland and Britain in 1757. He was trying to alleviate the terrible infant mortality of the time.
According to the hotel brochure, James Ensor designed Rutland Square (later Parnell) and built a Georgian palace there. He was apprenticed to Richard Castle who designed the White House in Washington D.C. In 1907, William Conarchy refurbished No. 7 and opened one of the most elegant hotels in the city. The current owners are still in the process of bringing this place back to what it used to be.
Outside, it is the typical four-story Georgian structure with elaborate doorway. Inside, there are magnificent chandeliers, a marble fireplace with an antique mirror, a period staircase and a lovely stained glass window. New draperies are in all the guestrooms as well as all the modern conveniences such as TV, telephone, and private baths. It has its own carpark, which is a great convenience. But the rooms are furnished with modern pieces so the hotel isn’t quite there yet. It’s a “wannabe” elegant Georgian hostelry. The price was pretty steep at IR£95 a night.
Neither one of us had had a wink of sleep the previous night on the plane but we were wide awake and ready to explore Dublin. But since we were tired, we decided to do it by car rather than on foot as is recommended. We crossed the river at Capel St. on Grattan Bridge and headed first to Dublin Castle. Built first for King John in 1204, the castle has undergone many transformations. Parking in the lower court, we admired the Record Tower, huge and reminiscent of the ones I had seen at Nuremberg Castle in Germany. Completed in 1258, it’s the only part of the Norman castle that survives from King John’s time.
Going through the gate to the upper court on Cork Hill, we came upon the main edifice. A magnificent red brick building with Palladium porch was topped by a cupola with a green, copper dome. This was the former seat of power of the English government before Irish independence. My main focus in any country is on the architecture from the outside and, of course, its natural beauties. So we rarely took any tours of the interior of structures. This saved time and money. Walking back to the lower court, we went in the Royal Chapel, with its fan-shaped nave and beautiful stained glass windows. I was disappointed to learn that it had been built in the 19th century. It seemed much older.
An attendant at the gate told us we weren’t supposed to come in there with a car. But the gate had been open and unattended when we came through so that was a bit of “the luck of the Irish” for us. We turned right and were soon upon Christchurch Cathedral, the center of medieval Dublin. Nearby, between the church and the river, was the original Viking settlement of Dublin dating to 988 A.D. But Dublin was inhabited much earlier by the Celts. Baile Atha Cliath, which means “Town of the Hurdle Ford”, is Dublin’s name in Gaelic. This refers to the crossing of the waters where the Liffey met the Poodle River. A black pool or a dubl linn was created. Little is left of the Poodle River today. But the crossing was at Gratton Bridge, which we had just come over earlier.
The construction of Christchurch Cathedral was begun by Richard de Clare, earl of Pembroke, better known as Strongbow. An Irish noble, he invaded Ireland with an Anglo-Norman force in 1170. Lawrence O’Toole was archbishop of Dublin at the time. He was later to become St. Laurence and the patron saint of Dublin. Christchurch dates from 1172 but it wasn’t completed until after the death of both men. It had been heavily restored in the 19th century.
A lovely, covered bridge connects it with an edifice across the street. Some have said it reminds them of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. But to me, it invokes the memory of that beautiful, covered bridge on a lane near the Cathedral in Barcelona.
Turning left on Cook St., we came upon the last remnant of the city walls, dating back to the 12th century. A film crew was on location, so we didn’t know whether we’d be able to walk in this area or not. But we found a parking place right across from the entrance, paid the parking and were on our way, exploring. Going under St. Audoen’s Arch, also dating back to the 12th century, we walked around to the front of St. Audoen’s Church.
A lovely green space and garden fronted the church, which is now the Church of Ireland or Protestant. Two St. Audoen Churches stand side by side. The latter dates from the 12th century and its tower contains three of the oldest bells in Ireland. Walking further, we came to the sidewalk of High St. where the Catholic St. Audoen’s Church is located. Built in 1846, its dome collapsed and was replaced in 1884. Corinthian columns add an impressive and elegant touch to its facade.
On Merchant’s Quay on the Liffey, we viewed the Palladium structure with a green, copper dome, the Four Courts building across the river. Then I was intrigued by a glimpse of the Church of St. John and Augustine, so we headed back down Bridge St. to High St. We turned left, parked the car and walked inside the church. A mass was being celebrated. The architecture was appealing to me.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Back at Winetavern St., where Christchurch Cathedral is located, we went south and finally found St. Patrick’s Cathedral on St. Patrick St., the same street. The streets just change names every two or three blocks. We rode all around it to see it from all sides, stopping briefly for me to take some photos. Coming first to the lovely garden side with a fountain, I wondered if this was the spot where St. Patrick is said to have baptized converts. Passing in front of the church, we then went to the other side. A cemetery was located here and I got to see my first Celtic cross in Ireland.
The present building dates from the 12th century just like Christchurch Cathedral. But it again was greatly restored in the 19th century, when it was given flying buttresses to make it appear old. I gather there is a certain amount of “blarney” concerning all of this. Both Cathedrals are Protestant and the Catholics have no Cathedral in Dublin.
As soon as I got home from Dublin, I attempted to read Ulysses by James Joyce, again. I had started it once before and didn’t get too far into it. But now the book was so exciting because I had been in Dublin and been to the areas Joyce frequented. I finished it in a week. Now, I find that when I’m writing about Dublin, I have to tell the reader every street we went on and the directions we took, a la Joyce.
Beautiful St. Stephen’s Green, with lilac and other trees in bloom, was a delight to walk in for a short time. The elegant Shelbourne Hotel is on the north side. Then we drove over to Kildare Street. The National Library is located on the left and National Museum on the right with Leinster House in the middle. Leinster House, designed by Richard Castle of White House fame, is the location of the Irish Parliament. It houses the Dial, the lower house, and the Seanad, upper house. Going around this large block, one side of which fronts on Merrion Square, we saw the National Gallery and National History Museum.
Wanting to go next to Trinity College, we returned to the River Liffey, so we could get away from the one-way streets, that made us go around in circles. We crossed the river on O’Connell Bridge and came out on College Green. The old Irish Parliament building was the impressive, circular, white marble building on our right. Originally built in 1729 to house the Irish Parliament, it voted itself out of existence with the Act of Union in 1801. It later became the Bank of Ireland.
The stately entrance to Trinity College was to our left. Several streets converge here making it one of the most traffic-congested areas of the city. We kept to the left, going on a portion of Grafton St. before it becomes a pedestrian mall. We continued on Nassau St., then Westland Row and Pearse St. and back to College Green again. We were driving in circles again as we went around Trinity College six times, until we found a parking space right across the street. “Luck of the Irish” again.
We had to hurry because the Old Library closed at 5:00pm. Walking through the main arch onto the cobblestones of the quadrangle, we turned right and came into Fellows’ Square. We made it into the Library around 4:30pm.
One of the oldest books in the world, the Book of Kells, is located here. The four gospels of the New Testament were written in elaborate calligraphy. Transcribed in Latin by monks who lived in a monastery in Kells in County Meath, it was brought to Dublin in 1654. The brilliantly-colored designs and art work are what make it so interesting to the modern viewer. Dating back to around 800 A.D., it is a product of the “age of saints and scholars”, where monks worked in monasteries all over Ireland, creating these masterpieces.
Over a thousand years old, its colors are still so bright. The designs were inspired from Ireland’s Celtic past. The first page of the Book was open. Convoluted drawings of serpents, symbols of resurrection, and a tattooed figure of Jesus were the fascinating illustrations on this page. We saw one other page from the Book of Kells and two pages from the Book of Armagh.
A library has existed at Trinity College since it was created by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592. The Old Library is the oldest surviving building, constructed between 1712 and 1732. The incredible Long Room is housed on the second floor. Books are stacked up to the ceiling, two stories high, with a huge concave hallway. From there, we returned to the gift shop where I purchased a bookmark with a fanciful letter “S” for my name. A round, apricot candle with three gold swirls, Celtic in design, was another souvenir. The library closed and we walked back out of Trinity College and onto to Grafton St. Passing the statue of Molly Malone, we looked in several shops. But hunger and fatigue were setting in, so we decided to stop in one of the pubs on Duke St., off of Grafton.
Davy Byrnes was our choice and I immediately liked the décor. With flowers painted on the ceiling and interesting chandeliers, it had a warm ambience. We ordered – what else? – Irish stew! I had a pint of lager and my TC had a Guinness. In walked what I assumed was the town character. He was talking to himself.
Sitting down beside us, my TC started talking to him. It turns out he was a very erudite, intellectual, the kind you just expect to meet in Dublin. We finally noticed his collar and found out he was a Catholic priest. He’s been coming to Davy Byrnes for forty years. He told us it was in Joyce’s Ulysses. Then I remembered this was the place I had noted in my guidebook as the one that I wanted to visit in Dublin. Another “luck of the Irish” had brought us here without us even knowing it.
My TC told Father Sean that he had a grandmother who was Irish. Sean asked me if I had any Irish relations. I said I’ve done a pretty thorough genealogical search and have found ancestors from Wales, Scotland and England but not Ireland. But that didn’t keep me from being a fierce Irish patriot on the order of Maud Gonne, William Butler Yeats’s love, who didn’t have a drop of Irish blood in her either.
The talk resumed concerning Joyce. Father Sean said the place has been re-decorated but it’s still the same establishment that Leopold Bloom frequented. Bloom had lunch here. It consisted of a gorgonzola cheese sandwich with mustard and a glass of Burgundy wine. This took place in the book between one and two on Thursday, June 16, 1904. It occurs in Chapter 8 of Ulysses.
Today, Wednesday, May 12, 1999, had been exciting, informative, tiring. I found Dublin to be a vibrant, interesting capital with some gorgeous architecture and eccentric and interesting people. The weather had been so erratic. We arrived in sunshine then it rained and I got chilled to the bone. I was afraid that I hadn’t brought enough warm clothing or coats. But then the sun came out and it was warm again. This happened four or five times.
We went back to our hotel. I read some of our guidebooks and collapsed at 8:30pm. Slept till 1:00am when I occupied my time by writing in my journal. I went back to sleep at 5:00am and was awakened by my TC bringing me a tray full of breakfast at 10:30am. Oh, the joys of jet lag!
We decided to explore our neighborhood before starting our road trip. We walked over to the Writer’s Museum to the right of our hotel on Parnell Square West. The Irish are proud of the fact that they have three Nobel Prize winners for Literature – George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats and Samuel Beckett. Next to the museum is the Writer’s Center. We realized we were in the literary section of Dublin. Walked up Great Denmark Street past the Belverdere College, the Jesuit school that Joyce attended from 1893 to 1898.
Turning right onto Great North George’s St., we found it lined with Georgian homes and their distinctive doorways. We went in No. 35, which houses the James Joyce Center. In the gift shop, I bought a copy of Dubliners by Joyce. It will be special for me since I purchased it in Dublin. We walked down to Parnell St., turned right then took another right back to our hotel. We noticed that the Gate Theater was across the street. We plan to go there on the night when we return to Dublin. That seems so far away now. We made reservations at the hotel for our last night in Ireland, May 24.
On the Road
It was about noon and time for us to start our driving trip along the coastline of Ireland. We made the decision to go north rather than south. We didn’t realize what a good decision this was until a few days later. Since they drive on the left, it meant that our car was always on the inside lane and not on the cliff edge. I always had the sea to my right as the title of this piece suggests. In the tourist area of the southwest, we found that there was a lot less traffic going this way, also.
Today, we decided, would be our “castle day.” So we first went out to the Howth Peninsula to see Howth Castle. Coming to the waterfront of the picturesque hillside town of Howth, we had seen no castle nor any sign for it. We asked a gentleman about it and he told us that the castle is not open to visitors. We were disappointed. But then he said we could drive on the castle grounds located at the Deer Park Hotel. We turned left at the sign and soon came upon our second castle of the trip, Dublin Castle being our first.
Howth Castle’s demesne or land was acquired by the Norman noble Almeric Tristram in 1177 and has remained in the family ever since. The structure dates to 1564 but it has been much altered over the years. It was everything an old castle should be with towers, turrets, gateway, and a lovely, light-pink flowered vine crawling over the wall.
From there we went to Castle Malahide. A large expanse of green lawn, which is part of this 268-acre demesne, greets your eye before you come to the carpark. The Talbot family owned this place for 791 years. Richard Talbot received the land from the Anglo-Norman King John in 1185. When the last Lord Talbot died in 1973, the property was put up for sale and the Dublin City Council acquired it in 1976. It houses the National Portrait Collection.
Castle Malahide is remembered sadly for its breakfast on July 1, 1690. Eighteen members of the Talbot family sat down to eat before the Battle of the Boyne. None of them came home alive. The battle was a decisive and calamitous event for the Irish. William of Orange, a Protestant, defeated James I, a Catholic. From that day, Protestants have ruled in Ireland until Irish independence. Land owned by the Catholic Irish was taken away and given to Protestant Englishman. The Catholic Churches were also taken over and turned into Protestant sanctuaries. James was William’s uncle and father-in-law but family ties seemed not to matter.
Again, we didn’t take the tour but did go in the restaurant located inside the castle to have lunch. I had not had the big Irish breakfast this morning, just tea and toast, so I was starving. I ordered an open-faced ham sandwich on brown soda bread. I couldn’t believe the amount of ham I was served along with coleslaw and a lettuce salad. I spoke English but the older woman who was waiting on me couldn’t understand so a young girl came over and told her what I wanted. The coat of arms of the Talbot family was hanging on the wall. It was in French from the Normans. It had a lion for strength (forte) and a dog for fidelity (fidelite).