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…..

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.


  1. David Beauchamp16 July 2014 at 08:41

    How have you missed this jewel on our doorstep? I have to disagree with your girl on the plane - Dublin is a great place to start. I love it, mainly for reasons 2 & 3. But do go back with a car and do a proper tour of the country too (B&B, not hotels); there are /other/ places to visit in Ireland.

    1. Thanks David. Your advice has now been taken (July 2016) - and it was good advice.