28 October, 2007
Dublin, Dublin, where to start? Well, I know I run the risk of alienating the many people who will read this and doubtless adore the town, but I've got to say it: it wasn't our sort of place. Actually, that's being unfair. What didn't hit the spot for us was that it was perilously like... London. And you must keep in mind my intense adoration for my adopted home, but honestly, when you go on holiday, or when we go on holiday, we want to end up somewhere quite different from our home. Dublin is a crowded, enormously exciting, diverse conglomeration of massively beautiful architecture, shopping, people watching, city squares and leafy public greens. Gorgeous, yes, energising, yes, but different from London? Not so very much.
We adults immediately said that if we did not live in London, Dublin would have presented much a different face. It would have felt exotic, foreign, fascinating, offering up endless unusual pleasures. But as we do live in London, what stood out for us was the beauty of the Irish accent, the friendliness of every person we encountered from the hotel staff to the sweeper ladies in St Stephen's Green. And those were to be had in the countryside as well, no doubt.
The positives? St Stephen's Green itself, where our hotel, the Fitzwilliam, is located. A positive oasis of green, falling autumn leaves, young couples in love, older couples in a more jaded moment of life trying to rein in small obstreperous Irish children, old men lecturing younger men on park benches as to the merits of Guinness. And in fact, the whole Green was private until 1877, accessible only to the rich owners of houses the formed the square. But then the founder of the Guinness family and fortunes bought it out, fixed it up, and opened it to the public. What's not to love about the Guinness family, it would seem?
As well, we all three of us fell heavily in love with Trinity College, Dublin. John came home from an early morning walk extolling its virtues, and since we two are now too elderly and dried up to make fabulous plans for our own futures, we promptly informed Avery that her goal should be a place in its green and glorious gates. Actually they are wrought iron and very, very old. But more on Trinity later.
Let's see, what else on the positive side? Well, let me take you on our journey, start to finish, and you can choose the happy bits you want to do when you get there. And believe me, if you're coming, as we would have 15 years ago, straight from New York, or Iowa, or Indiana, there is much to marvel at in Dublin. But if you're already an inhabitant of a visitor-laden, hugely crowded and incredibly expensive cosmopolitan British-ish urban sprawl, you might not need to book a long stay. That's just our experience. And I know, I know, Ireland is not British! But you know what I mean: English-speaking, with Marks and Spencer, Hello! Magazine, tuna and sweetcorn on sandwiches, Waterstone's bookstore. That's what I mean. It was too familiar.
But let's begin at the beginning. Which was inauspicious to say the least. The Irish Ferry? Forget it. Slow, petrolly, evilly decorated and filled with mewling, screaming children waving bags of crisps and hitting their numberless siblings over the heads with bottles of sugar-laden drinks. I know I sound the worst possible snob, but I owe it to my readers. Seriously, hightail it to Luton or wherever and hop on Ryanair (no agent of the upper classes by any means, so I'm not a mindless snob) and land in Dublin, you'll be much happier. Our whingey experience was underlined by the presence of our ill child, silenced by laryngitis, but no fever and no strep, so we dragged her with us. I never thought I'd see the day that I'd long for the sort of running commentaries she gives us on whatever she is reading, or listening to, or thinking, but her silence made me wish she'd recite from the phone book, or her maths homework, anything but total silence. I felt so guilty having brought her, which was brought home to me further when we arrived at the Fitzwilliam and it was clear that all her energy had been completely used up by the journey. Poor mistreated child. But the hotel is the last word in luxury and her little pullout bed was already, well, pulled out, so we piled her up with hot water bottles and her animals and Harry Potter and she took a long rest.
Not so for me: I hit the streets in successful pursuit of the Temple Bar Food Market on Meeting House Square. Take your time finding it; it's not easily done, at least for me with the sense of direction of an oyster. But speaking of: there are delicious oysters on the half shell to be had in the market! I kept the little green napkin that I got with my two Atlantic specimens (unbelievably plump and flavorful), but somewhere between Dublin and home it's got lost again. But never mind, you'll find it. And a luscious treat for Avery called a "millionaire square," from a bakery about whom I can find almost nothing, but if you see their label, buy anything they make, Noirin's Bakehouse. Impossibly rich, even the three of us combined could not finish it: shortbread, caramel, toffee, chocolate. It revived even my sick child! And farmhouse artisan cheese from Corleggy Cheese, whose address reads like poetry: Corleggy, Belturbet, County Cavan. I came away with a lovely smelly cow's milk cheese called Drumlin, very hard and delicious if you cut off a chunk and eat it like parmesan. I imagine it would be lovely grated, or melted, as well.
And David Llewellyn's apples! Worth every penny, and the juice even more so. David is one of a growing number of Irish apple farmers who are growing organic. It's the best apple juice I have ever tasted, and Avery was an instant convert. "Sorry to give you this enormous bill," I apologized to the lady behind the stall, proferring my 10 Euro note, "but this is the first thing I've bought in Ireland and it's all I've got to begin with." The plump apple-cheeked lady (sorry, couldn't resist) said, "Sure now and I'm glad to hear that one of our apples is the first Irish food to pass your lips." Honestly! This is how the people talk. I could listen ALL DAY. And my accent, don't even get me started. I couldn't help it! Would listening to such dulcet tones ever get old? It would take a very long time. It's all poetry, what they're saying, no matter the topic. See?
But here's another caveat, I have to be honest and say. It was a lovely, gorgeous market. But it felt just like the Marylebone Farmer's Market, sure and it's one of my favorite places on earth, but it's very... familiar. But again, if you came from a place without gorgeous farmer's markets, you would have discovered something very wonderful that would brighten your life. And it did mine, for all it was not news to me. But it was wonderful for every interaction to include that lovely lilt.
I found my way back to the hotel, a miraculous feat given my history, to find that Avery had bravely taken some medicine and was feeling better. We headed out to find a place for dinner. And here I take up a bit of a lament: eating out in Dublin just... didn't happen for us. The place recommended by the sweet guy behind the hotel desk was impossibly touristy not to mention overrun by very drunk people who either had been sick or were about to be, so we wandered for a bit and finally, fearing for Avery's stamina, just alighted on a completely forgettable restaurant (see, I've forgotten it already) just to feed her and get her back to the hotel. And she was silent, completely silent, all evening! Poor girl, but she insisted, in sign language, that she had wanted to come, that she was fine. Probably a case where the actual adults in charge of her life should have said, "no." In any case, no sign of the famed Dublin restaurant scene for us, sadly. And the following evening, can I tell you what I succumbed to? I'll tell you so I can get it out of the way. Room service! It's all she wanted, plus a nice warm bath. That and the horror that is "Strictly Come Dancing." I would almost rather stick hot needles in my eyeballs than watch that programme, but there you go, I am not making this up, that's what we did in Dublin. No wonder I'm not in love with the town.
But the following morning all was right with the world because we discovered Trinity College. What a place! We enlisted the services of a completely charming young man who introduced himself only as "James," and he led us on a tour of the public spaces. It's well worth taking a tour, I think, at least if you get such a boy (well, somewhere between a boy and a man) with a biting wit and darling Irish hair, a beat-up leather bomber jacket and lots of hilarious tales. "It's said that if a student is to stand on this stone under the bell when it's being rung, he will not pass his exams. Of course this story may well have been started by a student who was standing on this stone when it was being rung, and... did not pass his exams." I was completely spellbound: it was like listening to a modern-day Sebastian Flyte, without the alcoholism.
I said to Avery, sotto voce, "Isn't he adorable? You could bring a nice boy like that home from university and your father and I wouldn't object one BIT." And what did the lady herself say in return? In her groggy voice, but laced with undeniable disdain, "Until the current fashion for showing one's underwear at the waistband of one's trousers passes away, I shall remain a spinster." John and I had to admit there was merit to her viewpoint, but for one circumstance: in my day, lo these many decades ago, a girl ran the risk of getting entirely too fond of a boy who might, after a suitable courtship period, reveal a deal-breaking preference: boxers or briefs? Now, of course, Avery will be spared this unhappy circumstance, since his underwear will be just about the first thing revealed. But I digress.
The Book of Kells? A bit of a (dare I say it) yawn. I am frightened to utter such a sacrilege, but I must explain myself. Firstly, the modern mania for untold rooms of multi-media setup for absolutely anything an institution might want you to see puts me right off whatever it ultimately turns out to be. It's like how I feel about Leonardo now, after we were all bludgeoned nearly to a bloody pulp by "The DaVinci Code." It's not his fault that he's been turned into a media circus! And left on its own, as I understand the Book used to be, sitting in an unpretentious glass case in the magnificent Long Room of the Trinity College Library, I might well have sighed in delight. Just to come upon it, as it were, and gaze. But to queue for ages, be herded like sheep through cubicle after cubicle of immensely enlarged views of this or that folio, with little videos of a hand (presumably not THE hand) illuminating a letter with the accompaniment of a little scratching sound! No, my scholar's mind protests. And then to be pressed against many other examples of humanity trying to breathe on the glass, no! A thousand times no.
Goodness, could I get any more curmudgeonly? I must say, in my long-ago and misspent youth I nearly wrote a master's thesis on Gothic illuminated manuscripts, one French Book of Hours in particular, and I adore the genre. But the Book of Kells did not inspire. However, do not let me put you off. And DO go see the Long Room. Avery was in absolute awe of the soaring shelves of infinite splendour. "This is even more books than we have!" she breathed to the guide, who then confided that two of her children go to Trinity and are in heaven. Avery officially has a goal. The dormitory buildings lining the squares are gorgeous, although James the guide informed us loftily that they "need updating." I'm sure to his 22-year-old mind they do, but look at the ivy! Avery showed a rare bit of pre-adolescent annoyance at her embarrassing parents, when we took this picture of her. "Suppose some nice student comes out and sees me trespassing!"
Well, from there we were off to a wonderful bookstore called Hodges Figgis, in Dawson Street. Avery had hoped to find some Irish children's books unprocurable in London, but didn't have much luck. This didn't stop her finding lots of other things she couldn't live without, and we had fun. Then onto the Georgian Museum at Number Twenty-Nine Merrion Square, for John's sake, given his obsession with Georgian architecture. So impressive: the furniture and plasterwork and reproductions of precise wallpaper and fabrics. Most wonderful: the rug in the main parlor. And the darling nursery, with scrolls of bits of knowledge that the governess would impart. But my oh my, you would want to be wealthy. The poor little housemaids' circumstances would not be desirable.
Oh, and the Celtic Whiskey Shop! I don't know if I have ever had Irish whiskey before, being a devoted servant of Scotch Whiskey, but if you can imagine they were giving away samples, in broad daylight, so of course we had to have some. We tried several, but the best to our minds was Redbreast, and we brought some home. Smooth, complex, lovely.
Our Dublin stay ended with a pilgrimage, as you can see, to the house where Avery's beloved Oscar Wilde was born. And then we were on our way out of town, saying a wistful goodbye to Trinity College, and looking forward in our heart of hearts to the part of our Irish adventure more conducive to our holiday spirit: a stay in a medieval castle! And it did NOT disappoint...