Dublin – Like a Dear Old Friend
March is the month when people around the world celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. In the U.S., where five times as many people claim Irish ancestry as actually live in Ireland, celebrating this country’s patron saint seems reasonable.
But for an island the size of Indiana (with a population only equal to the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego combined) to generate such affinity worldwide is pretty remarkable. Since it’s doubtful that corned beef and cabbage or pitchers of green beer alone are bringing out these revelers, there must be another explanation. I believe that it’s due to people’s desire, even if only for a day, to unlock a little inner “Irishness.”
“Irishness” isn’t something easily described, but it’s something that’s definitely felt when visiting this country. Two everyday Irish words begin to explain people’s general approach to life here – “devilment” and “craic” (pronounced crack). Not readily translated to English, both speak to an affinity for fun (sometimes bordering on a bit of mischief), story telling, not taking themselves too seriously, and feeling a sense of pride and strong connection to those around them. There’s an old Gaelic saying that illustrates the genuine kindness and warmth of the people as well – “Cead Mile Failte” or “a hundred thousand welcomes.” With all the beauty and history in this country, it’s the Irish peoples’ embodiment of these words into everyday actions that make this country’s beauty and history come to life. People here live and breathe their heritage and practice old traditions with pride.
So unlike the many festivals held around the world (which can often feel like tourist traps), in Ireland, they manage to still retain an underlying tapestry of Celtic history when social life revolved around markets and fairs. When all that is added to the ever-present music (which tells a story with a vitality and passion unlike any other country), it’s easy to understand people’s desire to embrace that culture once a year.
It’s this “Irishness” that brings out the revelers on St. Patrick’s Day and also draws tourists to Ireland’s shores. National Geographic’s editors agree. When choosing Ireland’s capital city of Dublin as a top 10 destination for 2018, they did so because “visitors immediately feel at home in a city of 1.2 million people, which still remains intimate and exudes a friendly, village vibe.”
Dublin – with a compact city center built around the River Liffey and frequent bridges spanning the water – is a city easily covered on foot. And with this city’s burgeoning food scene, buskers (street performers) and spectacular architecture at every turn, walking makes possible those moments that turn a generic vacation into a memorable travel experience. Visitors need not worry about getting lost since signs are abundant and everyone speaks English (and with such an appealing accent!). If you do stop and ask someone for directions, be forewarned; they will probably walk you there (and regale you with a grand story along the way). Here are some iconic sites to see (and generally keep aiming toward as appealing sights and sounds along the way will invariably cause you to stray).
- The River Liffey divides the city center north and south. Three of its many bridges are pedestrian-only; the most famous is referred to as the Ha’Penny Bridge for the half pence toll once required in order to cross.
- City Hall: The tiled medallions and interior ornamentation make City Hall an outstanding example of mid-1700s’ Georgian style. The lower vault has an excellent multimedia exhibition that chronicles Dublin’s history, and visitors can often stumble across a wedding, as we did (complete with a 3-year-old ring bearer in his kilt).
- Sunlight Chambers Building: Located at Essex Quay and Parliament Street, this 1901 corner building was originally Lever Brothers’ (the soap and detergent manufacturers) Irish headquarters. The building is decorated with magnificent Italian-styled friezes, but closer inspection revealed them to illustrate the use and manufacture of soap. Ranging from the extraction of raw materials to merchants purchasing fragrant oils and women cleaning clothes, this is certainly an unexpectedly elegant promotion for lowly, yet necessary, soap.
- Trinity College and “Book of Kells”: Dublin makes visitors feel as if they’ve stepped back in time. That’s certainly the case when walking through the cobbled courtyards and venerated halls of Trinity College, which was founded in 1592. Its 18th-century library is home to the Long Room – a 215-foot chamber filled with ancient books and busts of famous scholars. It houses some of Ireland’s most cherished relics, including the only remaining 15th-century wooden harp. Considered the symbol of Ireland, it’s displayed on everything from the Guinness logo to Irish coins. But it’s the “Book of Kells” for which the library is best known. Handwritten in 800 A.D. and dramatically illustrated, this copy of the four Gospels of the New Testament is the world’s most famous medieval manuscript. It attracts more than 500,000 visitors annually; lines to view it can be long, but “before-hours” tours are offered through TripAdvisor.
- Dublin Castle: This city derived its name from the Black Pool (or Dubh Linn) originally at the site of the present castle garden. With some of the oldest architecture in the city, the original castle was finished in 1220 as the viceroy’s residence. Early fortifications predated that and have been partially excavated in the lower level Undercroft. The state apartments, now used for presidential inaugurations and state functions, can be toured along with the chapel.
- Temple Bar District: This energetic spot on the southern end of the Ha’Penny Bridge is full of pubs, restaurants, artists and shops. Many of the bars have a line-up of live traditional music starting mid day and lasting late into the night.
- Guinness Storehouse: Seven floors of displays and memorabilia engage visitors in the story of this dark stout brewed here since 1759. Guinness variants are offered in the tasting rooms, and a free pint is served in the rooftop glass-walled Gravity Bar with panoramic views over Dublin.
- Green spaces: At 1,752 acres, Phoenix Park is the largest urban park in Europe. With a number of stately homes (including the Irish president’s official residence), sports fields, bicycle and pedestrian paths, and Victorian-styled gardens, it even has a large herd of deer originally introduced by King Charles II in 1662 for hunting. It is rich in history, and both Neolithic and Viking burial sites have been discovered on its grounds, and a medieval tower house sits fully restored next to the Visitor Center. St. Stephen’s Green is a 22-acre park in the heart of Dublin. Created in 1664, the park’s pond, bandstand, statues and gardens are a surprisingly quiet spot in the middle of city bustle. Directly across is St. Stephen’s Green Shopping Center with its informative and moving account of the Irish Potato Famine.
- Grafton Street is a pedestrian-only shopping avenue anchored by St. Stephen’s Green and Trinity College at either end.
- The Famine Memorial/Jeanie Johnston Ship/EPIC Emigration Museum: Ireland was forever changed by a single crop’s failure. Nutrient-rich potatoes were frequently the only food for tenant farmers (often Catholics forbidden from owning land) and a major component of every Irish diet. Caused by mold that blighted and then destroyed the potato crop, the famine was the greatest single peacetime tragedy in Western Europe since the Black Death in the 14th century. One million Irish died from starvation and another 1 million to 2 million left the country from 1847 to 1855. Initially reducing the population by 25 percent, the disaster created circumstances that led to the further emigration of 8 million to 10 million more over the next 80 years. Reminders of this poignant history are in close proximity to each other along the north bank of the Liffey. The Famine Memorial consists of emaciated bronze figures of emaciated men, women and children standing along the bank of the river. The Jeanie Johnston is a replica of one of the ships that carried those seeking a new life across the Atlantic. The EPIC Museum is housed in the vault of the 1820 Custom House Quarter building (the original departure point for many emigrants). This museum tells the story of the Irish who left and their influence in their new countries. Interactive displays and resident genealogists also enable visitors to reference their own Irish ancestry.
- Christ Church Cathedral is Dublin’s oldest building and home to a 12th century crypt, one of the oldest and largest in Western Europe. Founded in 1030 by Norsemen and incorporated later into the Irish Church, it houses ancient manuscripts, artifacts and costumes from the Showtime TV drama “The Tudors.”
- Teeling Whiskey Distillery: Founded in 1782, it’s the only fully functioning distillery in a city renowned as the heart of the Irish whiskey industry. With a traditional three copper pot still, it has been completely rebuilt to allow visitors to experience the entire process through sight, smell and taste of the product, all with guides to explain and teach along the way.
You may notice that I’ve included my maiden name in the byline – Cronin. It is Irish, passed down from ancestors who immigrated to America before the Revolutionary War. Lest you think that ancestral bias and pride are responsible for my glowing endorsements of both Dublin and the Irish, I had always believed that my ancestors came to America by way of Scotland. And my husband (with no similar ancestral claims) feels just as at home in Dublin as I do – and is the only one with corned beef and cabbage on his plate.