Thursday, July 08, 2004

Dublin Walkabout (2)

Our stay in Ireland was drawing to a close. On Thursday afternoon we would be leaving for London and then travelling straight on to Belgium where we had arranged to stay with friends. There was time for one last day in town.

K. took us in by car, down Philipsburgh Avenue and along Summerhill to the top of O'Connell Street, down along the length of it and over the bridge to D'Olier Street and then a swing around the front of Trinity College to leave us at the foot of Grafton Street. "Now," said she, "out you jump." So we did.

There's a not particularly popular statue there now of an amply-chested Molly Malone "who wheeled her wheelbarrow, through streets broad and narrow, crying Cockles and Mussels alive-alive-O!" The street was chockablock with young people, many of them students who come over every summer to learn English in the growing number of language schools in Dublin. I don't think they come because Ireland is cheaper than Britain -- it isn't -- so it must be for the "crack". Grafton Street, still the most fashionable shopping street in the city, is a pedestrian precinct now with a number of street musicians and flower sellers. You'll see Brown Thomas which has been there since mid-Victorian times and just down Duke Street, when the young lad finishes playing the fiddle, you can see that "moral pub" Davy Byrne's where Leopold Bloom ate a cheese sandwich, smellsipped his cordial juice and was pestered by Nosey Flynn. Across the street is "The Bailey" where the founder of Sinn Fein (and later signatory to the 1921 Treaty), Arthur Griffith could always be found. Just inside "The Bailey" is the door of Number 7 Eccles Street, the home of Molly and Leopold Bloom in "Ulysses. Bewley's, the coffee house, has 3 locations in the city but the one on Grafton Street is probably the best known to Dubliners. The firm was started by a Quaker family in 1842.

There's a large glasshouse of a shopping centre now at the corner of Grafton Street and St. Stephen's Green. At the entrance to the Green itself a Jamaican band had gathered a crowd. Peace and Love is right, boys, we can always do with some. Go sing your hearts out in Belfast. This entrance is marked by a large archway, a memorial to the officers and men of the Dublin Fusiliers that lost their lives in the Boer War. It's known in Dublin as the "Traitor's Gate". Feeling ran high during that war (1899-1902) in favour of the Boers, on the principle that any enemy of England was a friend of Ireland. (I was surprised to find the same thing in 1982 after the Falklands.) Sean MacBride's father even took a troop of cavalry to South Africa to help with the fighting. He was executed later in the aftermath of the Easter Rising although he had had nothing at all to do with it. English memories were long. The mother was Maude Gonne, a famous actress in the Abbey Theatre and a reknowned beauty of the day whom Yeats had fallen hopelessly in love with. Sean MacBride himself went on to become a successful politician and then a diplomat with the United Nations, the founder of Amnesty International and recipient of both the Lenin and Nobel Peace Prizes.

I was born in Earlsfort Terrace near the Green and as a small babby used to be wheeled about here in a pram. God be with the days.

St. Stephen's Green is the largest city square in Europe and efforts to preserve it as an open space date to the reign of Charles II. The "common land" that is now the green was first enclosed in 1663 for the benefit of the residents of the surrounding town houses. It was laid out as a park and opened to the public by Lord Ardilaun, the brewer, in 1880. His statue today seems to be keeping an eye on business, glancing casually in the direction of Guinness's brewery at St. James's Gate. He has little need to worry. The famous black beer of Dublin goes back to 1759 and all efforts to reproduce it elsewhere have met with dismal failure. There's no pint like the pint you get in Dublin and that's a fact: you could stand a spoon on it.

It was a lovely day and the Green was packed with people stretched out on the grass to enjoy the sunshine. And it was a very pleasant stroll I had, just another Dub out taking his ease well away from the traffic and noise of the city. On the way out the statues and fountain you'll see were a gift from the German government for Ireland's help after World War II.

On the northern side of the Green stands the elegant and expensive Shelbourne Hotel with its bronze Nubian princesses holding their lamps aloft. The building was used to billet troops who were brought over to suppress the 1798 rebellion and it's widely believed in Dublin that one of the upper rooms is still haunted by the ghost of one of their victims. Further along is the easily missed Huguenot Cemetery, a small dark plot behind railings where rest some of the Protestant families that fled persecution in France nearly 300 years ago. They engaged in weaving poplin (fabric hand-woven from pure wool and pure silk) with such success that Dublin became famous for it. Across the street in Merrion Row is the well known "singing pub", O'Donoghue's, where Ronnie Drew and The Dubliners got their start in the late 50s. My brother Des and I had a good few pints here when last he was in Ireland. When we asked about the "Holy Hour" (afternoon closing) we were told it was over, thanks be to God, and we could leave by the front door now if we liked instead of slipping out the back. Afternoon closing is a thing of the past these days, not that it was ever paid much attention to.

A left turn brings us to Merrion Square. Arthur Wellesley was born in one of these houses about a minute's walk from O'Donoghue's. As the Duke of Wellington he defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo ("a damned close-run thing"), but he didn't like being reminded of his Irish provenance, the snob, and would say with disdain, "Being born in a stable, Sir, doesn't make me a horse." Around Merrion Square and nearby Fitzwilliam Square lived Yeats and the writer of macabre tales, Sheridan Le Fanu, as did Shaw, George Russell ("AE")30, and the author of "Dracula", Bram Stoker. The houses are 18th century Georgian with distinctively painted doorways graced by fanlights. The windows are smaller with each ascending storey, a trick of perspective. To the left are government buildings, the rear entrance to Leinster House, now the Dáil or Parliament, and the National Gallery. On the northwestern corner of Merrion Square stands the house of Sir William Wilde, father to Oscar. Turning left brings us past the booksellers to Nassau Street and Trinity.

Trinity College is more like a castle than a university. It sits walled and serene amid some of the busiest streets of the city and the snarling traffic has no choice but to make its way around it. The university was founded as a companion college to the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge in the reign of Elizabeth I in 1592. No trace of the earlier buildings survive and most of the grey stone buildings we see today were built in the 1750s. One exception are the redbrick "Rubrics" which can be seen behind the Campanile: these are in the Queen Anne or "Dutch" style and were begun in 1700. The Long Library, to the right, contains one of the oldest and most famous illuminated manuscripts in the world, the Book of Kells. For centuries Trinity was a Protestant college and Catholics even in my day needed a dispensation from the Archbishop of Dublin to enter it. All that has changed. I notice also that the memorial to the college students who fell "for King and Country" in the 1914-18 War has been discreetly removed from the NIKH building.

The south side of the college abuts Nassau Street and I was caught here once climbing in with a friend to crash the Trinity Ball. I was already inside but he was stuck on the top of the railings and I had no choice but to follow when he turned back. The eejit. After a brief palaver on the pavement the cops turned their backs and let us try again. We were over the railings in 5 seconds flat.

The Setanta Centre nearby has a remarkable ceramic mural depicting the exploits of Cuchulainn, leader of the Red Branch knights in Irish mythology. Setanta was his given name and how he got the name Cuchulainn -- the Hound of Cullen -- is a story in itself. But it's a story I won't be telling you here because at this point, alas, I must leave you. There's a commentary on the Setanta wall which is carved on a stone placed next to the mural. Seek it out on your next visit to Dublin. It may apply to what you've just been reading. And with that final thought, fare thee well . . .