Onward to Dublin, and frustration

Ross Castle.

Let us just fast-forward through my Thursday in Ireland, which I spent alternately throwing up and curled up in bed, miserable. The group was going to Cork that day, but instead of Cork, I managed to go downstairs to the kitchen to gag down toast. Not really the way you want to spend your travels.

By Friday I was feeling not great, but good enough to go out and see something. Fortunately, Ross Castle, in Killarney National Park, was just down the road from our house, and so Katie, Min, and I walked down to check it out. The castle itself was beautiful from the outside, and although they didn't allow you to take pictures on the tour inside, it was still a great experience. The main tower of the castle has been completely restored using techniques of the time, so you got a more complete idea of how the family in the castle lived and defended themselves.

For defense, there were the narrow slit windows, first for arrows and then later for muskets, and an even smaller musket hole pointed at the main door. Our guide showed us the workings of one of the doors — double-planked, both horizontally and vertically, and held together with manual metal rivets that would have originally had a far pointier end on the intruders' side, so that they couldn't have thrown their bodies at it. The weakest part of the door was the wooden cylinder that went up into the ceiling and allowed the door to turn, but that portion was hidden from the potential intruders by an archway. I've seen lots of archways before and never realized they had a practical purpose.

The most striking thing about life in the castle was the complete lack of privacy the family and their servants had. The family spent most of their time in one main room, and all slept together in the same bedroom, saving their great hall for entertaining guests. Only the patriarch had a small office, used for managing business and settling disputes. Servants had it even worse, crammed together in one tiny room with a loft-like area to sleep even more people, a space that would have been extraordinarily dim. Still, they would have been warm and protected, which was about as good as they could ask for. Even the toilet — a long stone seat with an opening down to the ground below —was long because multiple people would have used it at the same time. Going through the castle, you really realize what a luxurious "need" privacy is when compared to things like food, shelter, and safety, the main priorities in an era when life expectancy was only 30 to 35 years.

The great hall was most impressive, not surprising since it was designed to impress guests, with its restored high, vaulted wooden ceiling, made of interconnecting planks held together with wooden pins, a key part of the authentic restoration of the castle. Like most castles in Ireland, when a roof tax was applied to any home someone owned that was not their primary home, Ross Castle's roof was burned off, contributing to its rapid deterioration and the need for the extensive restoration that went into the castle. You could see the authenticity as well in the bedroom, where an arch was woven — the weaving still clearly visible in the finished ceiling — then a stone arch placed above it and plastered, the weaving acting as a sort of scaffolding and mold.

Ross Castle felt much more authentic than Leeds Castle, which I'd seen on my last trip to England. Leeds Castle was redecorated in 1926, in a French style featuring lots of ostentatious bits, and while that was interesting to see, you knew it wasn't the way the castle had looked when it was a castle, rather than just a residence that happened to be in a castle. Ross Castle gives you that important context, and I think now any castle I see from here on out, I'll be able to think about how it would have looked.

Ross Castle was all I managed to see on Friday, and on Saturday I had an early train in to Dublin, so that I could spend an afternoon there and at least see a bit of the city before my Sunday morning flight back to London. I'll admit that going in, Dublin was a place I felt like I should see, but there wasn't much there I had a pressing desire to see. As I came in on the train, I was already looking thinking forward to my time in England and Scotland, so I might not have given Dublin a fair shake. But it definitely was not my favorite city on the trip.

Trinity College.

I wanted to swing a couple big tourist attractions in the little time that I had, and I started with Trinity College, which had lovely grounds sided by old buildings (it reminded me of Harvard in that way), and was home to the Book of Kells and its prefacing museum exhibits. I'd read "How the Irish Saved Civilization," and having that background was important in really appreciating what I saw, because the Book of Kells itself isn't super-exciting if you go in with no context. You see a few pages, and get a sense of how exceedingly intricate the work was, with its vivid colors, particularly the shocking lapis blue. If you're like the woman with the obnoxious Boston accent viewing it at the same time as me, though, loudly exclaiming about how small and detailed it was, and pretty clearly trying to talk herself into believing the cost of admission was worth it to see this old book, you're probably going to feel ripped off.

Any qualms I personally had about the cost went away as soon as I stepped in to the college's Long Room, also included in the admission price. I entered and my jaw was literally agape. As the name indicates, the room is long, and tall — a healthy two stories, capped with an arched wooden ceiling that makes it seem even taller. The paneling is dark, rich brown wood, elaborately carved in places, simple in others. As I came in I could see a twisting wrought iron staircase leading up to the second level, but in each U-shaped section of shelves, there were also two rickety-looking ladders leading up to the second level. At the end point of each section of shelves was a bust of a philosopher — some ancient, some relatively modern. And, of course, there were the books. The Long Room houses the college's collection of old books, so very many of them — worn, leather-bound books in various shades of brown, tan, red, navy, in various widths and heights. The whole room smelled of them, a little musty, but a good musty. It's a bibliophile's dream, a place to soak in the atmosphere, the floorboards creaking under the feet of the people around you. Sadly, though, like the Book of Kells, no photos were allowed here.

After Trinity College, I decided to try going to the Museum of Archeology & History. But Dublin's signposting is sporadic at best, the equivalent of someone pointing lazily in a direction and saying, "it's over there." I had maps to get to the museum, but with a large museum, maps can only get you so far before you need signs directing you to an entrance, and there weren't any — there was just a general sign about the museum's exhibits on the fence outside what may or may not have been the museum. Finally, I opened a wooden door along said fence, and was surprised to see an equally surprised guard looking up from his magazine. He recovered to tell me that whatever museum his gate led to was closed. It may or may not have been the Museum of Archeology & History, as there seemed to be some other museum with a similar name that was also in this area.

Flower sales on Grafton Street.

By this point, I had walked quite far on my bum foot and wasn't really in the mood for going to a museum anymore, so I gave up and headed over to Grafton Street instead. I figured I'd go for a tour of the old Jameson distillery later in the afternoon, but first I was going to need some lunch, or the complimentary whiskey on an empty (and still cranky) stomach was going to be bad news. Grafton Street was teeming with people, and by people, I mean the types of slow-walking, gawking tourists known as tourons. It was difficult to walk down the street, with buskers every 50 feet or so, drawing huge crowds, some of them quite talented, some not, like the guy making a marionette dance — badly — to Daft Punk. I took a quick look at St. Stephen's Green — on par with other large cities' public parks and gardens I've seen, and then headed over to Davy Byrnes, of "Ulysses" fame, a pub that owes its success to a book most people I know are either afraid to read, or have read and hated. I guess it works for them, though. My brain really, really wanted oysters, but my stomach opted for steak and chips, and my stomach had absolute veto power at this point. The steak and chips were pretty mediocre, but were also the first non-toast/crackers/eggs/potato chips meal of substance I'd eaten since getting food poisoning, and I kept it down, so I guess it was a success as far as my stomach was concerned.

The Brazen Head.

I took a roundabout route to the old Jameson distillery so that I could stop in to the Brazen Head pub for a half pint, just to check out the pub, which is Ireland's oldest, established in 1198. Incongruously holding out amidst apartment buildings that must have grown up around it, the Brazen Head seems completely out of place, but once you walk into its courtyard, you can definitely feel the history. In the bar room I went into, Spanish men at a table with two built-in taps (Guinness & Carlsburg), were partaking of this beer buffet, watching soccer and eventually belting out "Smoke on de Water," accompanied by some sort of cheap, pointy-80s-hair-band-shaped guitar. The more normal regular clientèle at the bar were nice, though, and I chatted with one guy about his travels in the United States. He really enjoyed the museums of Washington DC, and also liked Boston — not so much New York. I was glad to see my opinion of these three cities validated by someone not from the United States.

(Fake) mash cooking at the old Jameson distillery.

When I finally got there, after once again being mis-directed by the Dublin signposting, the "Jameson Experience," aka the tour of the old Jameson distillery, was pretty much like walking through a Jameson commercial. The actual workings of the distillery have long since been removed, and been replaced by scaled-down replicas just large enough to make tourists feel like they're seeing something. I do feel like I have a better idea of how whiskey is made now, so it was worth going, but I definitely don't feel like I was on a real distillery tour.

After I left the old Jameson distillery, I went back to O'Connell Street to snag my bag from a left luggage place and take a bus to the airport hotel I was staying at for the night. By this point, I'd walked all over the central part of the city, had my bad foot bashed by a stroller, and was feeling pretty exhausted and done with Dublin. I'd done my research on the bus I needed to take, and the stop I needed to get off on, but when I got on the crowded double-decker bus, I had to take a seat up at the top, and realized I couldn't really follow where we were going. After a period of pretty serious agitation, the bus cleared out enough that I could go back downstairs and ask the driver about the stop. He was very kind, and let me know when my stop was.

It was only when I got off the bus that I realized it was not actually my stop. Google maps was either wrong about the location of the hotel, or the location of the bus stop, and as a result, my attempts to match the two up did not work. I'd thought I'd seen the hotel that was supposed to be near mine at the previous stop (in hindsight, I should have just followed my gut and gotten off there), so I trudged back down the street to the previous stop. My foot was pretty well throbbing by the time I got in to my hotel room, and I was definitely done with Dublin.

Now that I'm not in the midst of that "ARGH! Get me OUT of this city!" frustration, I can look back a little more objectively and think about why I was so frustrated with Dublin. A huge part of it was the terrible job the city does of signposting its attractions. But I think an even larger part was the plethora of American tourists everywhere — their big buses spewing exhaust along the streets, their stupid stroller antics, their loud voices in quiet places, their sheer numbers. I deal with enough tourists living near Washington DC, and at home I'm much more patient with them, willing to take a picture or give directions. But when I'm travelling, I want to get away from all of that, and all of them, and Dublin definitely was not the place to do that.

More Dublin pictures are up at my Flickr site.

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