There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Dublin (3) Famine and Plenty (of Guinness)

Tuesday had been sunny and warm, Wednesday looked less promising but we set off, undaunted, towards the Liffey, pausing for Lynne to pose with James Joyce. As I write I have every intention of reading Ulysses, and soon. And so the path to hell is paved.

Lynne and James Joyce, Earl Street, Dublin
Reaching the river we turned east, towards the sea, passing the handsome 18th century customs house which now houses the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

The Custom's House, Dublin
Near the customs house is the Famine Memorial. Between 1845 and 1852 one million Irish people died, and a further million emigrated. The immediate cause was potato blight – about a third of the population were wholly dependent on this one crop – but throughout this time Ireland was producing sufficient food to feed itself. Grain was exported in bulk as ruthless landlords (many of them absentee landlords, many of them English) saw an opportunity to clear the land of the rural poor. The British government was criminally uncaring, if not worse, and stood by watching as Ireland lost around a quarter of its population.

The memorial is the work of Dublin sculptor Rowan Gillespie. The group of ragged people and their equally thin dog stand on the quay, almost staggering to the point of embarkation. Dublin has much public art, some of it good (though I have serious doubts about The Spire) but this is something else. You can almost feel these people's misery as they embark on a journey they may well not survive. For some it will be the gateway to a new and better life, but as they stand here, on the very edge of Ireland, they have few dreams and little hope.

The Famine Memorial, Dublin
I also photographed them from behind - I felt the sculptor wants us to see them this way, too. They stand facing the sea with their backs to their old lives knowing there can be no return as the cringing dog realises that he will be left behind

The Famine Memorial, Dublin
A little further down the quay is the Jeanie Johnston, a replica of one of the emigrant ships. We arrived for the 10 o'clock tour, but it was booked by a school party so we had an hour to fill. We strolled along the south side of the Liffey in search of monuments that were either not there - like Molly Malone, the Viking Steyne Stone has given way to the burgeoning tramway - or were hardly worth seeing. I did, though, like the blue lamp outside Pearse Street Garda Station. Everybody knows British policing was better when George Dixon stood beneath a reassuring blue lamp.

Blue lamp, Pearse Street Garda Station
After an early coffee we returned to the Jeanie Johnston. It would be misleading to describe our visit as a guided tour, you can hardly ‘tour’ something so small. We stood on deck and listened to the guide and then we went below and listened to the guide. That said, Paul's tales of life on board, description of his researches into the fate of the migrants, and the stories of their descendants returning to see the ship made an hour slip quickly by. It was his second tour of the morning and would give the same talk six times during the day, but it still sounded fresh.

The Jeanie Johnston, North Wall Quay, Dublin
The original Jeanie Johnston was built in 1847 in Quebec and bought by John Donovan & Sons of Tralee. She carried timber to Ireland and emigrants to North America, making 16 such voyages, sailing to Quebec, Baltimore and New York.

In all those journeys the Jeanie Johnston had the remarkable record of not losing a single life among passengers or crew. Most newcomers landed in Grosse Isle in the St Lawrence at Quebec, where 5,000 who did not make it are buried.

Aboard the Jeanie Johnston, Dublin
Ship owners were businessmen and many cared little for their human cargo, packing them in tightly and often scrimping on food. Jeanie Johnston's owners were relatively enlightened, as was the master James Attridge, and the ship carried a doctor, Richard Blennerhasset, who was not only fully qualified but also competent. Even so Jeanie Johnston carried 17 crew and around 200 migrants on each journey which lasted, on averaged, 47 days. The modern (full-sized) replica is licensed to carry 40, including the crew.
Captain Attridge on the Jeanie Johnston, Dublin

Trans-Atlantic passage cost about £4, half the annual pay of an agricultural labourer, so many would-be migrants waited until relatives who had made the journey earlier were well enough established to send money back. Others had been forced off their land by the famine or by avaricious landlords and were reliant on the workhouse. For workhouse guardians it made sense to move their inmates on, funding migrants whether they wanted to go out not.

By 1855 the flood of migrants was abating and the Jeanie Johnston was sold on. In 1858 en route to Hull with a cargo of timber she foundered. After nine days clinging to the rigging of their sinking ship, the crew was picked up by a passing vessel. Again, all survived.
Dr Blennerhasset on the Jeanie Johnston, Dublin

The replica Jeanie Johnston was built in Tralee in 2000. She made a trans-Atlantic tour crewed by trainees and regular trips round Britain and Ireland and to Spain, but is now a full-time museum ship. Unlike the original Jeanie Johnston her lower deck is filled by an engine, she has watertight steel bulkheads, firefighting equipment and an emergency generator. Without these she would never have been allowed to sail. Times have changed

Moving on, we walked west down the south bank, through Temple Bar and on to the Medieval/Viking district where we lunched on soup and Guinness in a café bar opposite Christ Church cathedral. As we ate we noticed passers-by carrying raised umbrellas. By the time we emerged there was a light drizzle, but we continued walking, diverting slightly to pass the longest remaining section of Dublin's old city wall,....
What remains of Dublin's city wall
... followed by the rather strange sight of an 18th century windmill in the city's 'Digital Hub'. The drizzle was becoming steady by the time a sign to the Guinness Storehouse directed us up a cobbled alley.

Windmill in the digital age
The whole St James's Gate area is the domain of Guinness. The Guinness Storehouse was constructed in 1902 as a fermentation plant but is now a seven storey beer museum where a full price ticket costs a hefty €16, though the seniors’ ticket was good value considering it includes a 'free' pint of Guinness at the end. There are some consolations to age.

It is a slick operation and whereas most museum visits finish in the gift shop, this one started there as well. In 1759 Arthur Guinness signed a 9000 year lease on the brewery site and a copy of this lease is set in the floor at the side of the gift shop. At the bottom is the signature of Arthur Guinness, the same signature that appears on every bottle and can.

9000 year lease, Guinness brewery, Dublin
The exhibition starts with the basic ingredients of Guinness, or any other beer, the malt, hops and water. I have done my share of brewery tours over the years, though mostly in smaller breweries where they are keen to tell you the variety of barley, the degree of roasting and the specific hops. Guinness is a big brewery doing large scale tours for a general audience and skips these details. They do, though, make a point of their water, which is not, as legend has it, from the Liffey, but is piped in from the Wicklow Mountains. Having seen and smelled the Liffey I found this reassuring.
The water for Guinness - from the Wicklow Hills, not the Liffey
The next floor or two take you through the brewing process, the head brewer popping up on screens to demonstrate the equipment which is made to work by audio-visual trickery. It is all rather well done. One commemorative plaque that interested me particularly (though possibly few others) was to William Gosset, who was employed in 1908 to apply his statistical expertise to Guinness’ processes. He developed Student’s t-test, one of the basic tests for statistical significance, and a technique I taught many times in my previous incarnation. Guinness would not let him publish under his own name so he used the name Student, as he considered himself a student of statistics.
William Gosset, Brewer and Mathematician
There is, unsurprisingly, a section on Guinness's well-known and distinctive advertising campaigns. Some of the television adverts are minor works of art, and many of the posters are equally memorable - the toucan was always my childhood favourite.
Lynne and that Toucan, Guinness Brewery, Dublin
I am unsure that the slogan ‘Guinness is good for you’ would pass the advertising standards current guidelines, but we all remember it. I also took the opportunity to make a guest appearance in one of their best known posters.
I'm really in the poster, Guinness Brewery, Dublin

The gravity bar on the seventh floor is the best place to claim your 'free' pint. The circular room gives a panoramic view of the city, while the stout is dispensed from a circular bar in the centre. It was noisy and crowded, but the youthful barmaids had the ready charm of all Dublin bar staff. We found somewhere to sit and drink and observe those around us. Every tourist who ever came to Dublin has visited the Guinness Storehouse - the guest photos include Bill Clinton, Barak Obama, David Cameron and Mrs Elizabeth Windsor - and not all of them are regular beer drinkers. I enjoyed watching well-dressed elderly ladies who looked like they had never held a pint glass before cradling a pint of the black stuff and wondering what to do with it.
In the Gravity Bar, Guinness Brewery, Dublin

Our glasses empty, we walked round to take in the view. Dublin does not have the most memorable of skylines at the best of times, and on a dull overcast day with the rain splattering against the glass this was a far from being the best of times.
Dublin's less than memorable skyline

We descended to the gift shop, made a few purchases and headed out into the rain.

Our hotel was a forty minute walk from the Guinness Storehouse. We would have been better advised to take a tram, but we could not immediately locate the St James's tram stop, and we had no idea how persistent - and eventually, hard - the rain would become. We slogged along beside the Liffey, not the sweetest of rivers, as a curtain of mist with rain in it turned into a steady downpour.

Plodding along in the rain beside the Liffey
We were soaked long before we reached O'Connell Street and turned directly into the rain. The Savoy Cinema was hosting the world premiere of Mrs Brown's Boys: D'Movie that evening. We had thought of going to see the stars arrive, and a few die-hard fans were already leaning against the barriers although it was not yet five and the red carpet arrivals were scheduled for 6.30. They looked wet and could only get wetter. We decided to give it a miss*.

We dropped into Londis as we would not have time for a hotel breakfast in the morning. As we stood by the bakery section deliberating what to buy the bottom dropped out of our soaked Guinness bag and deposited our small collection of gifts on the floor. It summed up the last hour.

Continuing rain dissuaded us from going out to eat and we broke our usual rule and ate in the hotel. The restaurant decor had upmarket pretensions, but the food was no more expensive than at a pub. My chicken breast, stuffed with Clonakilty black pudding and roasted en croute, was dry. Served with scoops of mashed potato and plain boiled cauliflower and broccoli it was very dry and crying out for a sauce. Having recently discussed Bury black pudding with a native of Datong, Bury's Chinese twin town, Clonakilty's more herbal version may bear further investigation; the rest of the dish is best forgotten. Lynne's vegetarian pasta was the sort of thing you can throw together yourself for a Euro, but in a restaurant costs 12 and is no better, in fact not as good. The sundried tomatoes had been slipped straight out of a jar and were slimy, there were too many olives for the balance of the dish and the 'crumbled goat's cheese' was more slabbed than crumbled. Feeling we had drunk enough Guinness we washed it down with a very poor bottle of Spanish chardonnay which, at an exorbitant €23, was the cheapest wine on the shortish list. The mark-up policy is generous.

When we had finished we stuck our heads outside the door. The rain looked to have stopped and the streets to have dried, but we only walked a few paces before discovering that rain still hung in the breeze. We could not complain, this is, after all, Ireland, and we had enjoyed a day and a half of sunshine before the clouds arrived, and the Welsh, as I had cause to observe yesterday, are not a nation of moaners (pity nobody told my 'aunty' Edith.)

*We saw the pictures on RTE in the morning. The cast seemed dry enough, but the crowd looked bedraggled. I would not have recognised Brendan O’Carroll wearing trousers.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Dublin (2) From the Book of Kells to Dublin Castle

On a promisingly warm morning we strolled down O'Connell Street, crossed the Liffey and took the short walk to Trinity College. The sensation of encountering one of the great groves of academe - Trinity was founded in 1592 and is one of Europe's oldest seats of learning - was rather spoilt by the extensive road works going on outside. It was originally the university of the Protestant Ascendency, but became open to Catholics and Dissenters in 1793, though professorships, fellowships and scholarships were for Protestants only until 1873. Catholics got a fairer deal than women of all religions - they were not admitted until 1904.

Crossing the Liffey on a promisingly warm morning
 Once through the gate we were in an area of quiet squares, grassy quadrangles and a mixture of sober old buildings and the glass and concrete structures which characterize universities everywhere.

Inside Trinity College, Dublin
Quieter it may have been, but despite the students being absent for the summer we hardly had the place to ourselves; the Book of Kells, housed in a section of the old library, pulls in visitors by the thousand.  The old library opens at 9.30 and when we arrived at 9.25 the queue stretched round two sides of the quadrangle. We had bought tickets online before leaving home, but any thought that this might save us queuing were quickly dashed.

The Old Library, Trinity College, Dublin
(photographed at 10.40 when the queue was much smaller)
The queue moved relatively quickly - we were inside in 20 minutes - but that meant it was crowded. The preliminary exhibition, a general introduction to early illuminated manuscripts, the techniques for their production and specific information about the Book of Kells itself, the Book of Armagh and the Book of Dimma would have been good if it had been better planned. Following the crowd round one side of the room was simple, but to see the other half of the exhibition we had to fight our way back round the other side against the flow. We were also surprised that although audio guides were available in a variety of languages, the written information was in English only.

We almost missed the Book of Dimma, a remarkable 'pocket gospel' produced in the 8th century in Tipperary by a scribe called Dimma. Much of the text has survived and a little of the illumination.

The Book of Kells is in the next room in a cabinet the size of a pool table with a generous flat metal surround so there is somewhere convenient to put your hands.

The Book of Kells is a richly illuminated copy of the four gospels. 'Is it in English?' asked a Japanese tourist next to me, who clearly knew as little about medieval European manuscripts as I know about their Japanese equivalents. In Latin, and based on the Vulgate text, it was produced in the eighth century by at least three scribes, at one or more of the Columban monasteries. It was kept on Iona until Viking raids made its movement to Kells (a small town 65km north of Dublin) advisable where it later survived more attention from the Vikings. In 1654, when Oliver Cromwell’s cavalry were quartered in Kells Church, the town’s governor sent it to Dublin for safe keeping. It found its way to Trinity College in 1661 and has been there ever since.

The book was written on vellum and is bound in four volumes. Two pages were on display; the highly coloured drawing of St John, which is the frontispiece of his gospel, and chapter three of St Luke's gospel. Also in the cabinet was a page from the Book of Armagh - a ninth century manuscript of the gospels also containing information concerning St Patrick and some of the earliest examples of written Old Irish - and its damaged wooden binding.

St John, Book of Kells
(picture Wikipedia)
They are all magnificent, but the Book of Kells with its deep, rich colours, engaging illustrations and masterful calligraphy is a marvel. It is larger than I had expected – roughly A4 size – and designed to be placed on a lectern and used in services.

Sadly, the management of the scrum about around the display table left something to be desired. Various unofficial voices urged clockwise circulation while an Italian tour guide with a sizeable group monopolised pole position for longer than was reasonable.

Once the circulation got going, we cheated and went round twice before heading upstairs to the Long Room of the old library.

The Long Room, Trinity College Library, Dublin
By one of the many quirks that followed the separation of Great Britain and Ireland, Trinity College library is a ‘deposit library’ both for the Republic of Ireland (i.e. it has a copy of every book published in Ireland), and for the United Kingdom.

The Long Room (and, at 65m, it really is long) is a retirement home for 200,000 of the library’s oldest volumes. If I was a book this is where I would choose to spend my declining years, nestled beside the elegant metal library ladders, and guarded by the busts of the great and the good. I doubt if anybody opens these books any more, but somebody has to dust them occasionally, and I am glad that somebody is not me.

The end of the Long Room, Trintiy College library, Dublin
The library also contains the so-called ‘Brian Boru’ Harp, though it was made in the 14th or15th century, while Brian Boru died in 1014. Facing left it is the heraldic symbol of Ireland and appears on the coinage, among other places; facing right it is a trademark of Guinness and adorns their beer bottles and cans.

The Brian Boru Harp
Leaving Trinity College by the Nassau Street exit we crossed the road to the more mundane realm of Costa Coffee. Duly refreshed, we set off south for Merrion Square and ‘Georgian Dublin’, but first we took a short detour to see Molly Malone. Every child knows that sweet Molly Malone pushed a trolley through streets of varying widths vending fresh seafood, but we could not find her. We did, however, spot a sign saying that as she had been in the way of the new tram system, and had been removed and after cleaning she would reappear in mid-June outside the tourist board office in Suffolk Street. We walked to the end of Suffolk Street and although we thought the 24th was past ‘mid’ June all we found was construction work on what may have been a plinth.

Merrion Square, a few blocks south, is a beautifully preserved Georgian square. The house on the first corner – not the finest building - was the childhood home of Oscar Wilde and a plaque commemorates both Oscar and his father, Sir William Wilde, a leading surgeon.
The childhood home of Oscar Wilde, Merrion Square, Dublin

A well wooded park occupies the centre of the square making it difficult to view the whole thing. Inside the park Oscar leans louchly on a boulder opposite his former home.

Lynne and Oscar, Merrion Square Park, Dublin
We walked through the park looking for the memorial to the wonderfully named Bernardo O'Higgins, the liberator of Chile, but instead found a throne commemorating comedian and satirist Dermot Morgan (Father Ted) who died in 1998 at the sadly early age of 45.

'Father Ted's' throne, Merrion Square Park, Dublin
Outside the park I attempted to photograph the Georgian square, but with only partial success, it is too big and there is too much park. St Stephen’s Church, known as ‘The Pepper Canister’ was built in 1834 to serve the Anglo-Irish protestant elite who lived in this area.

'The Pepper Canister' St Stephen's, Dublin 
Walking to the end of the street we passed the house of W B Yeats, who was born into the Protestant Ascendancy and became a nationalist.
The home of WB Yeats, Merrion Square, Dublin

We walked down to St Stephen’s Green before turning up Kildare Street which has Leinster House, home of the Oireachtas – the two houses of parliament and the presidency – on one side…..
Leinster House Kildare Street, Dublin
… and the home of  Bram Stoker on the other – you cannot go far in Dublin without tripping over a major writer.

The home of Bram Stoker, Kildare Street, Dublin
Working our way through the Grafton Street shopping area, we emerged into the Temple Bar district which is full of tourist shops and restaurants.
Temple Bar, Dublin

After a little shopping - including the inevitable fridge magnet – we dropped into The Old Storehouse for lunch. Like every other pub we visited in Dublin the building was interesting, the staff charming and the Guinness excellent. So was the soup which came with the same pleasingly chunky brown bread we had eaten at breakfast. Had this not been a quick lunchtime stop we might have investigated the crab claws or the mussels, but this was, surprisingly, the only seafood we saw on a menu during our whole trip.

Continuing westwards we rather stumbled across Dublin Castle which is set back from the road on the edge of the medieval/Viking area.

The back of the 'Justice' Gate, Dublin Castle
We entered a Georgian courtyard dominated by the Bedford Tower, home of the Irish crown jewels – before they were stolen in 1907. The tower is flanked by two gates surmounted by ‘Fortitude’ on the left and ‘Justice’ on the right

The Bedford Tower, Dublin Castle

Unusually Justice is not blindfolded and instead of looking towards the people she faces inwards to the castle…

The statute of justice, mark well her station,
Face to the castle and arse to the nation.

The fully functioning scales of justice were also usually tilted towards the castle. This was due less to perfidy than to rainwater collecting more in one scale pan than the other and was solved by drilling holes in the pans.

The guided tour started by leaving the state apartments, and the Georgian square. Standing in what had once been the moat we paused to look at the Record Tower, the sole survivor of the four towers of the Norman castle, before disappearing through a door on the other side of the courtyard and descending into the past.
The Record Tower, Dublin Castle
(photograph taken from what was once the moat)

There may have been an earlier Gaelic village, but Dublin first came to prominence as a Viking stronghold. The Vikings built a wooden defensive wall on a stone foundation at the confluence of the Rivers Liffey (now moved north) and Poddy (now underground) beside a black pool (Dubh Linn) which gave the settlement its name. The Normans arrived in the 12th century and King John ordered the construction of a stone castle in 1204.

The base of the Powder Tower perched on Viking foundations, Dublin Castle
Beneath the modern ground level we saw the base of the Norman Powder Tower standing on the Viking foundations. We also saw where the old city wall met the tower while below water still seeped up from the invisible River Poddy.

Where the old city wall meets the Powder Tower, Dublin Castle
The Norman castle was severely damaged by fire in 1673 and was rebuilt as a palace which, at independence, was handed over to the Irish Republic. We returned to the state apartments and made our way upstairs to the State Drawing Room, now used for the receiving visiting dignitaries, but in the absence of anyone dignified they let us in.
State Drawing Room, Dublin Castle
They no longer have much use for Throne Room, but it is still there with the throne built for the visit of George IV and a footstool specially made for the vertically challenged Queen Victoria.

The throne, Dublin Castle
On top of the canopy are gilded heraldic carvings. On the left is the unicorn of England, on the right the lion of Scotland, both are leaning on the harp of Ireland. ‘Perhaps that is what they thought of us,’ the guide suggested. The Irish may grumble, but as a Welshman I might point out that at least the harp is there – leeks and daffodils are entirely absent, but do we ever complain? Well, maybe, sometimes.

The unicorn and the lion leaning on the harp

Irish presidents are inaugurated in St Patrick’s Hall, which is also used for major state dinners. Queen Elizabeth dined here with President Michael Higgins in May 2011. If her maj did creep quietly into the throne room for a regal sit down, just for all times sake, nobody is saying.

St Patrick's Hall, Dublin Castle
An American delegation had just been entertained to lunch, hence the American flag flying with the Irish tricolour
After the guided tour (and thanks to Siobhan for being informative, amusing and even handed) we walked round the back, crossed the gardens - site of the original ‘black pool’ -...

Dublin Castle across the garden

... to the coach house where there is an exhibition of paintings by Seaver Leslie and glass cylinders by Dale Chihuly (who has apparently been stalking us since we first encountered his work in his hometown of Tacoma, Washington back in 1998) based on the events in James Joyce’s Ulysses. It was interesting, but I am sure we would have got more from the exhibition if we had actually read the book – but who has? It is the greatest unread novels of the 20th century.

The Coach House, Dublin Castle
The Chester Beatty collection is in a purpose built museum next door. As much a bibliophile’s delight as the Book of Kells, this collection of ancient manuscripts from all the world’s main religions is absolutely free (donation requested) and contains so much to marvel at.

Leaving the castle and venturing a little deeper into the medieval/Viking quarter we paused beside Christ Church Cathedral. A quirk of history provided Dublin with two medieval cathedrals - the other, St Patrick’s is only a kilometre to the south. When Henry VIII broke with Rome, both cathedrals became Church of Ireland and served the Protestant Ascendancy. Although Dublin is an overwhelmingly Catholic city, it has no Catholic cathedral; the seat of the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin being St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral off O’Connell Street. St Mary’s has not been promoted to a full cathedral as the Vatican still claims Christ Church as its own.

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin
We did not go in as they were charging €6 entrance and Lynne objects to paying to enter a church. Had it been free, we would have made a donation as we did at the Chester Beatty Library.
Norman doorway, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

It was a long but pleasant walk back to the hotel. We made our way down to the Liffey, crossed the Ha’penny Bridge and proceeded back to O’Connell Street. Constructed in 1816, the cast iron Ha’penny Bridge was built at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, (as was the world’s first iron bridge which still spans the Severn Ironbridge - see Cowpat Walk 1). It was officially called the Duke of Wellington Bridge and is now the Liffey Bridge, but has always been known as the Ha’penny Bridge after the original toll. The name stuck even when the toll rose to 1½d before being abolished in 1919.

The Ha'penny Bridge, Dublin
In the evening we toured the north end of O'Connell Street reading menus, before finally arriving back at Madigan's where again the welcome was warm, the Guinness gently chilled and the  steak rare. Actually Lynne had fish and chips which, being classic chip-shop style cannot be considered seafood.

Madigan's 'Drinking Emporium', O'Connell Street, Dublin
We lingered over our dinner and with sunset around 10pm we took a stroll in the last of the daylight before returning to our hotel. Circumambulating a sizeable block we passed substantial Georgian houses, most now converted into offices or split into apartments. A few have become hostels, some frequented by backpackers others having a somewhat ‘rougher’ clientele.

Approaching a pub we saw an old man being decanted into the street to join his swaying friend. As we  passed he slurred 'spare a Euro?' Dublin has many beggars - far too many for a European capital, and Ireland remains relatively prosperous, even after the recent financial dramas. Despite encountering numerous beggars during the day, I was still surprised to be tapped for cash by an elderly man who clearly had ample euros to spend not very long before.

'Sorry, no,' I said as we navigated round them. 'What did he say?' the failed beggar asked his friend. 'He said ‘sorry, no,'’ was the accurate if thick-tongued reply. 'Oh,' said the first man and then, louder 'Why don't you go home?' I waved - there was not much else to do and it is difficult to take offence at anything said in a Dublin accent, however slurred the words.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Dublin (1) First Impressions

We have done more than our fair share of travelling over the last forty odd years, first driving round Europe with a tent in the back of the car, then venturing further afield - North Africa and North America - and more recently we have become fascinated by India and the Far East. In all this wandering we have never taken the short trip to Ireland. Now we have put that right and Ryanair took less than an hour to fly us from Manchester to Dublin for a three day mini-break. 'There are better places to visit in Ireland than Dublin,' the girl sitting next to us on the plane said. She was a Dubliner, and maybe that coloured her judgement, or maybe she was right, but you have to start somewhere and for us Ireland started with a ride into town on the airport bus.

The quality of the light, the short green grass and the wheeling seagulls made it clear that we had landed by the coast. Beyond the airport, and after a short ride on Ireland’s M1, the bus dived into a lengthy tunnel and emerged into the city. The route passed the docks before turning to follow the Liffey into the heart of Dublin and then zig-zagging through streets, some broad and some that appeared far too narrow for a double decker bus.  We hopped off near our hotel at the top of O'Connell Street.

After checking in, we strolled past the Parnell monument. Charles Parnell (1846-1891) was an unusual Irish nationalist in that he was a member of the Anglo-Irish elite, and a land owner and landlord who fought for land reform. A man of great charisma he was politically damaged by a scandalous divorce and died of a heart attack aged only 45. It has been speculated that had he survived, the birth of an independent Ireland might have been a lot less bloody.

The Parnell Monument, Dublin
The rotunda behind the monument dates from 1757 and was the world's first purpose built maternity hospital.

From Parnell Square we turned into Moore Street where the legendary Molly Malone plied her trade. Maybe we were too late in the day but it seemed a rather half-hearted market. We were amazed by how few Irish voices we heard. There were plenty of tourists, and we were adding our non-Irish tones to that, but there were also many non-Irish non-tourists. There were brown and black faces in abundance, the hotel reception staff were south Europeans, Vietnamese and Koreans ran the restaurants round the corner, the Moore Street stall holders seemed to be mostly Chinese, while the street also has a Polish café and supermarket.

Moore Street Market, Dublin
At the end of Moore Street we turned west along Henry Street, a long pedestrian shopping street; much of it looking a little sad and down at heel.

Turning back towards O'Connell Street we found ourselves heading straight for the Spire of Dublin. Had we been here in the early 60s we would have been walking towards Nelson’s Pillar. There had been much rejoicing when the news of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar reached Dublin. The city fathers were quick off the mark and perched the admiral on top of a 40m high pillar over 30 years before London erected his column. Although a third of Nelson’s sailors at Trafalgar had been Irish, the pillar was the brainchild of the Anglo-Irish protestant elite and after independence there was much discussion about whether it was an appropriate monument for the capital of an independent nation. Discussions came to an end in March 1966 when the IRA, with their usual preference for bombs over democratic process, blew Nelson up.

Henry Street pointing straight at the Spire of Dublin
As part of the 1999 redevelopment of O'Connell Street a competition was held to find a suitable replacement, and The Spire was the winning entry. If this was the winner I dread to think what the losers looked like. The architects describe it as having an ‘elegant and dynamic simplicity bridging art and technology.’ It has won several international prizes, but to me it looks like the wrong monument in the wrong place - though the ‘right place’ for a 120m steel knitting needle eludes me.

We continued towards the Liffey, passing the Post Office which played such an important part in the 1916 Easter Rising. The poorly organised rebellion was launched, with German help, while 200,000 Irishmen were voluntarily fighting in British uniforms against Germany. The rising failed to generate momentum and was quickly put down. The British authorities over-reacted, put the leaders in front of firing squads and turned them into folk heroes.

At the end of the street, we crossed the road to the O’Connell Bridge and had a stare at the Liffey. A line of beggars sat on the bridge, crouched on the pavement below the parapet at 10m intervals, each silently holding up a plastic cup. Business seemed poor. Their light brown skin and the women's long dresses suggested they were not Irish, perhaps they were eastern European Roma, but as they are the default whipping boys for all sorts of social ills, I will refrain from jumping to conclusions [and we came across many beggars in the next two days who were genuinely local].
The River Liffey, looking downstream from O'Connell Bridge 
We turned to face the O’Connell monument. Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) trained as a lawyer and became a politician. He fought tirelessly for Catholic emancipation and was an important part of the successful campaign to permit Catholics to sit in the Westminster parliament. His battle against the 1801 Act of Union that merged Great Britain and Ireland was less successful, but he was a man of great principle (he never advocated violence) and charm and he was widely admired on both sides of the Irish Sea.

On the whole I am not keen on nationalists, people who would kill or die for what Kurt Vonegut called a granfalloon, but O’Connell was, by all accounts, an admirable man. It was a shame, then, that a pigeon was semi-permanently stationed on his head, but perhaps he would have seen the funny side.

Daniel O'Connell and his resident pigeon
O'Connell Street is wide, reputedly the widest street in Europe, and has plenty of room for a line of statues, from O’Connell at the bottom to Parnell at the top. Some are of worthy citizens, like the 1879 statue of Sir John Gray who greatly improved Dublin’s water supply, while others, predictably, are of nationalists William Smith O'Brien and Jim Larkin.

William Smith O'Brien (front)
Sir John Gray (behind)
and that wretched spire
There was also Father Matthew, the apostle of temperance. A well-meaning man, no doubt, but fighting an uphill struggle, we thought as we turned into a side street and headed for Branigan's Beer Emporium.

Father Matthew, the apostle of temperance, O'Connell Street
 The world is full of ‘Irish pubs’ and I carefully avoid such folksy fakes whether in Portugal, Laos or anywhere between. The sole exception was PJ Murphy’s in Hong Kong where we were dragged by our daughter with a cry of 'Melted cheese!' Living in mainland China, where cheese is unavailable, she had come to Hong Kong as much for a toasted cheese sandwich as to meet her parents.

Branigan's really was like an ‘Irish pub’, folksy, but for once totally genuine. In the late afternoon it was hardly busy, but the barman greeted us like friends and eventually brought us some Guinness - it does not pay to be in a hurry, the beer needs time to settle.

I have often been told that Guinness is better in Ireland. I was sceptical, but it did not take me long to agree that it is certainly different. The strongly burnt/bitter flavour of highly roasted barley is absent and it is a softer, creamier more approachable brew. And does that make it better? I tend to believe that anything that is easier to eat or drink, anything that panders to the common denominator is dumbed down and hence inferior, but I am not totally consistent - I do not lunch on dung sandwiches, and I prefer honey to beeswax like everybody else. My conclusion? Irish Guinness is rich and creamy and in every way lovely, while Guinness in England in harsher and more bitter, and if that is the general view I will happily go along with it.

Madigan's Drinking Emporium, O'Connell Street
In the evening we walked down O'Connell Street to Madigan's a self-described drinking emporium - Dublin is full of emporia.  It was another typical Irish pub with dark panelling, fancy woodwork and many alcoves. Again the welcome was warm and the Guinness good, but unlike Branigan's, the clientele was cosmopolitan. Our alcove contained three Irishwomen, a Dutch couple and two Germans as well as us. A party of Dutchman sat by the bar in orange football shirts, talking to some English lads and pretending to be sympathetic about their team’s very different fortunes in Brazil.

Madigan's Drinking Emporium, O'Connell Street
The food was not art. My Irish cottage pie differed from its English counterpart by having 'strips of slow cooked Hereford beef’ as well as mince. It was saved from being unpleasantly dry by the pot of gravy served with it. Lynne’s stuffed Gaelic chicken breast gained little from the promised whiskey in the sauce but benefitted greatly from being stuffed with well-flavoured wild mushrooms. It was all comfort food, but none the worse for that and reasonably priced.

And what have we learned from our first venture into Dublin?

1)                  We have always thought of the Irish as being a people who emigrate, and indeed they have made major contributions to the populations of English speaking nations around the world – even the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea is one, Peter O’Neill. But equally Ireland, or at least Dublin, is home to many immigrants.
2)                  Guinness in Ireland really is different – indeed it really is better.
3)                  Irish pubs are extraordinarily welcoming, and the bar staff exude an effortless charm that has to be felt to be believed.
4)                  I am not going to escape from Irish nationalism for the next three days. No resentment is aimed at me personally, so I’ll just have to suck it up.