Dublin, Ireland’s largest city, grabs your senses and hangs on tight.
On our first day there, we boarded a hop-on, hop-off double-decker tour bus to get the lay of the land. Tour guide Gerry McDonald stood on the upper deck clutching a microphone, keeping up a comical monologue that broke through the jet lag.
Tongue firmly in cheek, he proclaimed the pint as “the unofficial currency of Dublin.” To punctuate the remark, our coach cruised past the Guinness brewery, where a crowd of tourists waited at the brewery’s gate and a yeasty aroma filled the air. The most common method of suicide, he said, is “drowning in a vat of Guinness.”
McDonald, an Irishman with red hair and impish blue eyes, said religion and the city’s most famous purveyors of whiskey and beer are strangely bound together. Irish whiskey mogul Henry Roe paid to renovate the ornate Christchurch Cathedral. The Guinness family funded a full-scale restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1800s.
The bus rolled past St. Patrick’s Cathedral a few moments later. St. Patrick, he said, was not an Irishman. He was born in Wales, kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave. Legend says the patron saint rid Ireland of snakes by chasing them into the sea. In reality, McDonald said, “Ireland does have snakes, but they have two legs and live in Parliament.”
We disembarked from the bus laughing, ready to explore Dublin. We wandered in and out of museums, bookstores, pubs and Trinity College, which has an Oxford-Cambridge vibe and houses the famed Book of Kells.
Dublin is a city of rebels and writers. Famous residents include the likes of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift and Bram Stoker.
We wandered by the Spire, a pin-like monument that commemorates a pillar blown up by rebels in 1966. Nicknamed the Stiletto in the Ghetto, the Spire rises 398 feet into the sky and has ardent critics and fans.
Nearby a group of protesters gathered with signs and bullhorns to protest out-of-control housing prices, urging residents to take back the city from developers and condo people.
My traveling companions, Brigit Farley and Gabriele Sperling, both history instructors at Washington State University’s Richland campus, were magnets to steel when it came to historical sites such as the prison where leaders of the bloody 1916 Easter Rising were executed by firing squad. That rebellion eventually led to the creation of the Irish Free Republic in 1922, which became Irish Free State. We toured monuments, museums and cemeteries. I soaked in Irish history until filled to the brim.
That evening, we ducked into one of Dublin’s many pubs for dinner. The city’s oldest pub is the Brazen Head, dating back to 1198. Our chosen pub, Doheny & Nesbitt, offered shepherd’s pie, Irish stew, mussels, bangers and mash and an array of Irish beers. A mere youngster compared with the Brazen Head, it opened its doors in the 1840s.
After getting our fill of Dublin, we set out to visit the other Ireland — Northern Ireland. We rented a car and Brigit settled into the driver’s seat, looking nervous about driving on the left, though she’d done it before. I fingered my iPhone where I had downloaded an offline map of Ireland.
“Stay left my friend,” I said, uttering the words that would become our mantra.
Brigit pulled out of the lot and entered a roundabout. You will learn to love traffic circles if you visit Ireland. To our horror, a car, horn blasting, blurred by and exited the roundabout in front of us. When we finally pulled onto a main road, we exhaled as one. Brigit glanced into the rearview mirror at Gabriele in the back seat.
“How are you doing?” Brigit asked.
“I haven’t gotten my rosary out yet,” Gabriel replied.
Brigit navigated the skinny Irish roads like a pro. Shoulders were narrow or nonexistent. We puzzled over signs. “Traffic calming” meant “Reduced speed ahead.” “Overtaking lanes” were passing lanes. Another sign proclaimed, “Oncoming traffic in the middle of the road.” Yikes.
Crossing into Northern Ireland was a non-event. No sign that we noticed proclaimed the crossing. We realized we had arrived, however, when we started seeing Union Jack and Ulster flags. Because of Brexit, the invisible 310-mile meandering borderline may someday become a hard dividing line between the Republic of Ireland and the six counties that comprise Northern Ireland.
My history-and-politics-loving travel companions asked people’s opinions of Brexit wherever we went. Every reply was negative.
“The whole Brexit thing,” said one woman. “It’s mad.”
“We’re in a political wilderness,” said another person.
In Derry, we found a city full of murals depicting the 30-some years dubbed “The Troubles” that started in the late ’60s. The 14 victims of Bloody Sunday looked out from one painting. They died in 1972 when British soldiers opened fire on civil rights marchers protesting treatment by the British military. A man wearing a gas mask holds a petrol bomb in another painting. The images are sobering. The city, which once saw violence between Catholics and Protestants, seems to be forging peace as evidenced by the Peace Bridge that spans the River Foyle, joining Protestant and Catholic sectors of Derry.
Breaking away from history, we took day trips to marinate in Ireland’s natural beauty. We headed to the coast to visit Giant’s Causeway, Malin Head and the Slieve League Cliffs where Gabriele stepped hip deep into a boggy patch. At night, we listened to traditional Irish music in yet another pub.
Before heading home, we drove back south to County Wicklow where we saw pasturelands filled with sheep, Kilkenny Castle, the forests of the Wicklow National Forest and an early medieval settlement called the Glendalough Monastic City.
Our senses were overloaded with emerald green. The lilting Irish language, even the thickest brogue, got easier to understand. I resisted the natural inclination to slip into this enchanting language, remembering a story Gerry McDonald told aboard the tour bus.
“Our worst crime was a murder committed by an American,” McDonald said. “It was committed by Tom Cruise who murdered the Irish language in a movie called “Far Away.”
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 541-966-0810.