Ireland has always seemed like it’s an integral part of the nation in which I live and, probably for that very reason, I have never visited. It’s as though it’s simply too close. Deciding suddenly that this was actually, quite frankly, ridiculous, I got on a plane.
The flight takes all of about ten minutes (minor exaggeration) and the process of airport security and those endless corridors amount to more time than the amount of time you’re actually on the plane. Least we were all safe though, no 110ml shower gels in sight. Phew.
Getting from the airport to the city centre is the easiest thing in the world thanks to the Airlink Express – 7 Euro and I was on the streets of Dublin. My hostel was ideally placed about three minutes walk from one of the stops on the Airlink’s route as well which I was eternally grateful for. I’m really enjoying travelling on my own but am not quite ready to have my first interaction with a new place be in the dark when I’m plane-groggy and in desperate need of a brew.
I would recommend Isaacs Hostel to anyone – cheap, convenient and covering all of the basic requirements (including towel hire for 2 Euro because who really wants to carry a towel around no matter what Ford Prefect might think). The staff are friendly and incredibly helpful and the whole place is wonderfully chilled out.
Waking up refreshed after a great night’s sleep in my allocated blue bunkbed, I was ready to hit the streets. It struck me immediately how Dublin feels both completely alien and entirely familiar. The currency is different, the language works its way through your ears with divergent movements and yet, nothing is strange enough to make you truly feel as though you are not home. Maybe it’s that famous Irish hospitality or perhaps it was just me but I felt more warmly welcomed by Dublin than I have any city for a long time.
Since I was on holiday, first stop of the day called for an Irish coffee. Indulging in such a touristy stereotype required the most “Irish-looking” pub I could find, replete with comfortable morning drinkers. Slatterys was my establishment of choice and I must say that it was excellent – they even had a photo of Shane Macgowan looking relatively human (demonstrating how long ago that must have been!) on the wall.
Feeling as though I’d drunk enough whisky to render me capable of actually breathing fire should I so choose, I meandered my way across to, wait for it, The National Leprechaun Museum. Gimmicky tourist trap no doubt but the museum itself was wonderful and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. Our guide was called Nathan and he was enthusiastic and relaxed, making the museum experience an absolute pleasure. Rather than simply being about leprechauns, the museum focuses more on the role of storytelling and folklore within Irish history. Through a delightfully woven tapestry of narrative (and plenty of folk tales along the way) we were transported through a good section of Ireland’s rich story-filled past, with the wonderful interlude of being able to pretend we were actually leprechauns. Like I said, thoroughly gimmicky but executed with just enough class to make the visit truly worthwhile. And honestly, who doesn’t want to climb up on massive furniture and if not feel like a leprechaun, at the very least be able to capture that feeling of being a child a child once more, even just for a moment, in a giant wooden chair in a lovely little museum in Dublin.
Next stop on the agenda was the castle, which I built up to by visiting the incredible Chester Beatty Library and a wonderful free exhibition in the castle grounds covering the Great Famine.
I’ve always had a love of books, and when I say that what I actually mean is that I have more books than anything else and that I will never, ever feel guilty about buying a book. It’s education, you simply can’t go wrong with that. Making the time to visit the incredible collection of works on display at the Chester Beatty Library was therefore essential to my itinerary.
The collection truly is a lifetime’s work and the passion and care that Beatty had for preserving and caring for collected works of literature over the years is astounding and extremely apparent. There are exhibits on the creation of books, the binding process, early use of materials and inks as well as a number of tomes from the personal collection which are just wonderful to behold. Not a library in the traditional sense but a must-visit for anyone with any interest or inclination towards the written word in any shape or form.
The library also has an incredible rooftop garden which affords those who make it to the top floor with an incredible view of the whole castle courtyard. The garden itself has been designed and engineered to convey tranquility, peace and harmony with the layout and presence of certain plants over others and, whilst my horticultural knowledge is shockingly minimal, as these are the very feelings I seek by turning to a book the effect was not entirely lost on me.
Out of shot on the image above but to the right lies The Coach House Gallery, which currently houses an incredible exhibition on the Great Famine. This was an event which not only devastated Ireland but irrevocably and irreversibly changed the course of it’s history so I felt almost a sense of obligation to take the time to learn at least a little on such an important time in the history of the beautiful city I was visiting. Featuring everything from classic-style oil paintings to bronze structures to livestream film installation, ‘Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger’ was a powerful and moving display of the clear struggle of the Irish peoples to understand and truly register the depth and weight of a famine that swept their nation.
Finally then, onto the castle. Originally a medieval bastion and then a Georgian palace, the place is impressively powerful feeling and filled with more than a little grandeur. The full guided tour is more than worth doing as it not only gives you a full background on this rather daunting building but, also grants you access to the chapel and the “underground” areas allowing you to see more of the original building than the standard wanderer and have everything neatly explained for you. The highly informative tour guide taught our group that Dublin is so called for the River Portal, which formed pools in the original castle gardens, with incredibly dark black-coloured water. These pools were called black pools, due to the colouring of the water, which translates into modern language as Dublin.
The rooms of state were the final element to the tour and were a wonderfully pleasant surprise after being underground and in a cold chapel. Richly, lavishly furnished to reflect the splendour of the height of the Georgian era and bedecked with some incredibly rare works of art, our group’s passage through the rooms felt almost like a trip back in time.
The throne room was my favourite part of the tour of the state rooms due to the explanation which came with it. Purpose built for the visit of George IV, the throne itself is so vast due to the correlating proportions of George, a king renowned for his “love of food”!
The final room we encountered was simply a gallery, which to this day hosts state and regional banquets for those lucky enough to be on the invite list. It was here that I learned that the national colour of the Emerald Isle is actually, hilariously, blue. St Patricks blue no less. You really do learn something new every day…
Now overwhelmed by history and absolutely ravenous, it felt like time for lunch. A friend recommended a great place for a quick bite so off I headed to Bunsen in Temple Bar. No frills burger joint doing one thing, and doing it really bloody well. A cold beer and a delicious burger was exactly what was called for after a very intensive morning being a diligent little tourist.
Over lunch I had another read of my Lonely Planet guidebook, trying to ascertain what might be worth a visit in the tourist trap which is Temple Bar. Very glad I did as it turns out I was right around the corner from the Temple Bar gallery, which was currently hosting an incredible exhibition called ‘The Time Travelling Circus’. An audio-visual mash-up of confusion, murmuring voices and movement, this was well worth a visit.
“The fleeting confusion causes a moment of doubt, into which she vanishes.”
Final stop for the day before retiring in absolute exhaustion was The Icon Factory. This is an astounding project, supported by Unesco and local arts charities, an entirely not for profit organisation which has sought (and managed) to clean up some of the most dangerous streets in Dublin and bring to life a space of artistic creativity and positive change. Featuring a gallery with works from local artists, a creative space and the incredible Icon Walk, this is one of the best examples of using the arts for good that I’ve ever seen. Creative, quirky and infused with that ever-present Irish humour, this is an intuitive display of some of the best that Ireland has to offer.
After all that activity I had to retire to my little blue bunkbed once more, although not before sharing a pint with my bunkmate Julia to discuss our experiences of this wonderful city. Hostel life is frantic and frenzied but above all, friendly.
Breakfast arrived and the main issue of living in hostels reared its ugly head again. Why are the bloody cups always so damn small?! If I’m going to spend an entire day on my feet walking around, I will be requiring a significant quantity of tea to set me up for the day. Amidst some very strange looks from the staff, I appropriated a bowl and got myself sorted. And yes that is Yorkshire tea, because I do travel the world with a ziplock bag of Yorkshire teabags. What can I say, it’s the best and I don’t wish to be without it. Call it my little travel luxury if you will…
First on my list for my final day (fully packed rucksack weighing me down – I might have added a couple of new books following an accidental purchase) I made my way across to the institute of learning that is Trinity College. I stopped off at the General Post Office on my way across to send a postcard and was astounded by the whole place – it is notoriously difficult to find either a stamp or a postbox in Dublin but this place more than makes up for it.
Next stop was a quick visit to see Mr Joyce – unmissable as both an Irish and a literary icon and I enjoyed being reminded of my first experience of his work by way of Dubliners, carefully dissected in a study group at university. Who would have thought that a man cast so casually forever in bronze could have produced such deeply profound works.
Next up, a quick stop at Butlers Chocolate Cafe, for a hot chocolate so rich and delicious that it genuinely felt like I was drinking a gateau. Purveyors of happiness indeed!
Cake now drunk, it was finally time to head to Trinity. I’ve always loved learning; education feels like a natural and integral part of my life and being able to wander through these hallowed grounds felt like a privilege that I don’t even have the words to describe. I must admit to having an elusive plan to do my masters one day and if they’d have me, I’d be more than content to float amongst the flagstones of Trinity.
The tour of the grounds, the Long Room and The Book of Keels is entirely student run, which was a wonderfully informative experience and felt all the more genuine for being led by people who were intimately familiar with the grounds and the way the whole place worked as an establishment. The absolute highlight of the whole trip was the Long Room, an ancient library so beautiful that it almost made me cry. I could have spent hours in there amongst the smell of old books and the weighted, scholarly air. The filing system for the books in The Long Room is one that reeks so strongly of academics that I couldn’t help but laugh: the books are sorted by height and weight and the lettering system follows the latin alphabet, so doesn’t anywhere feature the letter ‘j’. Just fantastic.
The books in that library are so old that they are, for the most part, completely irrelevant to the current students at Trinity and have been that way for quite some time. This to me though demonstrates literature as the purest form of art by way of the written word from centuries past, forever preserved in this mighty hall of educational significance.
On my way back from Trinity I stopped at the Oscar Wilde statue in Merrion Park – an inimitable man of such significance in Ireland that it felt only right to pay him a visit.
After meeting the bronze, forever-reclining Mr Wilde, I passed by The National Gallery of Ireland and checked out their portrait gallery. It features iconic Irish treasures new and old and is a powerful display of the power, creativity and culture that has emanated from this little island.
Final stop for the day was lunch, which I chose to undertake in the inimitable Klaw. Casual, cosy and exactly what was needed, this place serves up the best and freshest array of seafood I’ve seen in a city centre. I had a lobster roll, crammed with fresh herbs and delicious lobster, accompanied by rich and indulgent crab mac and cheese.
Realising after lunch that I had just enough time for a drink before heading back to the airport to catch my plane home, I decided to embrace stereotypes and pop into a pub in Temple Bar. Finding it packed with tourists and featuring a singer pumping out the classics (hello again Shane, I’ve missed you) I felt like I really was in the heart of Ireland. It started with an Irish coffee and ended with a pint, and it all felt just exactly right.
Dublin, you were strange and you were beautiful and I could listen to your stories for days. I would love to visit you again one day.