We had half a day in Dublin- that was it. A single, paltry half-day.
Our first stop was Pheonix Park. We clamored out onto the sprawling green which was populated with herds of Fallow Deer over 1752 acres. I cracked a joke with the couple ahead of me. “Oh, sorry,” she responded. “We aren’t here to make friends. We just do these trips to re-connect.” She squeezed her husband’s shoulder as they gazed into each other’s blue eyes.
Oooo-kaaay. My general advice to any would-be tour goers is this: Don’t go on a tour if you flat out refuse to interact with anyone. DIY your trips. I’m not saying you have to make lifelong friends but you do have to….you know…be open to the possibility. Otherwise, what’s the point?
We made our way through city traffic to the Guinness Storehouse at the St. James Factory where we pared up into small groups to tour the facility. Primarily, the tour covers the history and production of beer in general. At the top of the factory was the Gravity Bar with 360 degree views of the city. As part of the tour, we were all granted an enormous pint of heavily frothed, coffee colored bitter brew, expertly poured by a team of bartenders. With beers in hand, Hannah and I meandered to the various wide view windows, taking in the city scape.
Next up was Trinity College’s wonderful Old Library (where no photos were allowed) and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. We filed into the library and, as if by command, fell almost silent. 6,000,000 books towered over us, their spines clad in gilded leathers. The collection houses some of the most rare and beloved texts included the famed Book of Kells illuminated manuscripts. Between the rows of books were small tables with little lamps yet all were rowed off. We were to do no in-depth research, no flipping of pages, no grubbing of precious books. The illuminated manuscripts were held a dark room and were encapsulated by plexiglass. In groups of two or three, we were syphoned into the room for a minute or two before being shooed out by library staff. The Book of Kells’ text are the sort of thing you want hours to look at, not minutes. In college, and even before, they had always fascinated me. Lovingly etched onto animal hide parchment (a process in and of itself to be created) with far-flung, hand ground and mixed mineral pigments, each page was a meditation as much as it was a practice in patience and skill. The colors, centuries old, still popped on the tan page. Emerald greens and blood red glowed next to swatches of glittering gold. “Next!” the guard shouted. We were ushered into the gift shop for copies of various texts and illuminated scenes printed on everything from paper napkins to scarves before being spat onto the green.
With free time to spare, I had three things to check off: The Chester Beatty Library, Georgian Doors, and Queen of Tarts. Georgian doors I would knock off on my way to the other two. Hannah and I lumbered off for Chester Beatty, a little gallery full of gems- in particular an incredible display of Japanese ink paintings. We hiked back to meet up with the others to head off for Queen of Tarts.
Queen of Tarts was across town but I was determined. I make a semi-bad habit of researching every worthwhile shop and restaurant prior to every trip. I say semi-bad because it’s a good way to get my priorities straight per each town but it’s an easy way to be disappointed on a tour. There’s a good chance where I want to be is across town or not open on a particular day but I still look- afterall, what if miss something? And so, with a crew tagging along behind me, we marched through Dublin’s streets.
“This is too faaaar,” someone whined. Two of our team dropped off for a McDonald’s along the way.
“Queen of Tarts is just about the highest reviewed bakery in town,” I started. “Pies, quiches, sandwiches, soups, salads, macarons, little brownies, big brownies, cookies, cakes. MULTI LAYERED CAKES. And nearby is a community market.”
At Queen of Tarts, I literally ordered one of every dessert. I ate three for lunch and took the rest to go. Again, I was determined. What if I never came back? What if I didn’t taste the blackberry thyme pie? Or the four flavors of macaron? While I mostly try to eat a healthy diet, I firmly fall in the camp that says “I will never find myself on my deathbed thinking, ‘I sure wish I tasted fewer cakes.’ “ I’m not saying eat them all in one day…but if you’re on vacation and you want dessert, order the damn dessert.
After lunch, we hustled back to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. There are two cathedrals in Dublin, which is apparently unusual, but St. Patrick’s is considered the national cathedral. Founded in 1191, St. Patrick’s has the tallest spire at 141 feet and is the largest cathedral in all of Ireland. Its interior features vaulted ceilings, richly tiled floors, and ornately carved seats. Overhead, dozens of flags waved gently in the soft breeze, representing the various phases of Irish politics. The phrase “chance your arm” is said to originate here when the 8th Earl of Kildare cut a whole in the door to shake hands with his enemy as a sign of truce.
“You’re on your own for the evening,” our guide stated. He pointed the majority to Temple Bar and we strolled along for a bit. My front seat rival shot me a death stare. We talked about his childhood growing up on the edge of Dublin, his teenage years hanging around Temple Bar before heading west to learn Gaelic. He told me about visiting Howth every time he came in town, how he liked to walk the shore line, swim in the cold ocean, and watch the waves from the rocks. His family had property in the northwest and he visited several times a year. He had studied at Trinity- politics- before transferring to Bristol for theatre. Since then, he had made his home in London as an actor and guide. I asked him if he ever tired of dragging silly Americans around. He laughed and said each trip was different. Each trip had its highlights, its best people, and when things got low it was best to remember at max, it was only ten to fifteen days.
“Does it ever bother you that nobody seems all that interested in the history or the grit of anything? Nobody wants reality, they just gear towards the caricature.”
“A bit. But Ireland is small. And if people just want to come here and get drunk and sing Sweet Home Alabama at the pub, well, all my favorite bars remain secret. All the more for me.”
We opted for a bar crawl of his favorites- a little shanty with a rocking band, a hole-in-the-wall place with mournful folk singers, an expansive pub with windows overlooking the street. The wood floors were worn to a gloss. Its window boxes overflowed with pansies. I sat down at a table as he went up to the bar for two whiskeys. A Portugese man slid beside me.
“This seat is taken, no?” He was flat-out wasted. Before I could answer, he was leaning against me with his head on my shoulder. “You are new in this town?” he said, slipping a hand on my knee. I picked it up and dropped it back in his lap. The guide looped back and set the drinks on the table before sitting down beside me. My Portugese friend blinked his dark brown eyes slowly, lifted his curly head, and stumbled off.
As we loaded on to the bus to return to the hotel, Stephen, our driver called for our attention. He began to sing a self-written tune:
“Have you ever done a tour to Ireland? / The students from the States both near and far
They don’t care much for the history or the culture / They just want directions to the lively bar
They go out at night to soak up local flavor / To meet the natives and to see what’s what
Some may witness ancient relics on their travels / When flashed at by a 60 year old Scot
But we hope that you will have an early night now / And by half past 9 be tucked up in their beds / ‘Cause it won’t be too much fun tomorrow morning if you show up bleary eyed with thumping heads
‘Cause here our trip must come to its conclusion / And presently we say goodbye my friends
‘Til we see you with your baggage in the morning / When you’re rolling up the coach at 4 am.”
Stephen wiped a lone tear from his eye as we filed off the bus. The guide slipped me his number with a note “If ever in London” as I passed and I went to bed carefree and euphoric.