Thursday, 25 September 2003
Dublin city, Co. Dublin
Where were we? Oh yes, we’d just left the Chester Beatty Library, at Dublin Castle … and I’ve got a rant in store. 🙂
We got on the bus again … the bus drivers, as you might imagine, have a spiel for the tourists, and some of them really get into it, telling Irish jokes and homilies, and one of them sang quite well too. I, of course, was giggling away (I’m easy), while Gerry was rolling his eyes at some of these antics.
Our next stop was St. Patrick’s Cathedral. One would think—we’re in Ireland, now, the home of St. Patrick, and all that is associated with him—so one would think that this St. Patrick’s Cathedral, would be a Catholic church … but one would be wrong. There is not a major Catholic cathedral in Dublin; the two best known—St. Patrick’s and Christ Church—are both Anglican. They do, however, represent important chapters in Dublin’s history: Christ Church was the original cathedral of Dublin’s Norse heritage, having been founded in 1038 by King Sitric, and St. Patrick’s represents the Anglo-Norman legacy.
Officially the National Cathedral for the Church of Ireland (Anglican) Community in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was built by the first Anglo-Norman Bishop, John Comyn, in 1192, on the site of a little wooden church dedicated to St. Patrick, beside a well where he is said to have baptized converts around AD 450.
Over the centuries the cathedral suffered from desecration and neglect, and was extensively rebuilt toward the end of the fourteenth century after a destructive fire. Following the wars of the seventeenth century, the building fell into disrepair until about 1860, when a complete restoration was carried out through the generosity of Sir Benjamin Guinness, a member of the famous brewery family. (In fact, as I’ve previously noted, the Guinness fortune is responsible for the repair and upkeep of many fine historic buildings and sites throughout the country.) The interior is dotted with memorial busts, brasses and monuments, tombs and battle flags (a little jarring, I must admit). It has Ireland’s largest organ (spectacular!), too. Jonathan Swift—of Gulliver’s Travels fame—was dean of St. Patrick’s from 1713 to 1745 and is buried in the cathedral.
The lovely little park beside the cathedral was also provided by the Guinness family, and we strolled there just to enjoy the beautiful day, before ambling to the bus stop.
Our destination was Kilmainham Gaol, which was, as it turned out, not really on the tour, as we were let out in simply in Kilmainham (the neighborhood), in front of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (housed in what was the Royal Hospital Kilmainham) and then had to walk through the grounds for fifteen minutes before arriving at the Gaol.
There is a sculptured plaque over the door, a black stone, of entwined and writhing angry-looking snake-like creatures with spiked tails, chained at their necks with heavy metal links; the fan-shaped plaque and door below it are framed with carved grey stone that echoes the snake theme: it looks like a roiling mass of snakes. The sight of this doorway is nothing short of arresting, and serves amply to darken one’s mood to match the story that unfolds here.
The huge building is grim and grey. Built in 1789, closed in 1924, and restored in the 1960s, the gaol housed many of those patriots involved in the fight for Irish independence, including the revolts of 1798, 1803, 1848, and 1867, as well as, most famously, the fourteen leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, who were all court-martialed and shot in the prison yard here.
These were not military men, for the most part, but teachers, historians, businessmen, poets and others who’d simply had enough of the Brits. On Easter Monday Patrick Pearse had read the Proclamation of the Republic from the portico of the GPO, which says, in part:
We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of the Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty: six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms. Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.
Ireland belongs to the Irish, they said, and you’ll have to kill us to stop us. Well, the British did kill them. The brutality of those executions—the badly injured James Connolly, unable to stand up, was tied to a chair before being shot—changed public opinion about the abortive Rising, guaranteed their status as martyrs, and ultimately led to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921.
The tour started in the chapel, where one of the group, Joseph Plunkett, married Grace Gifford just a few hours before he faced the firing squad. We passed through dank, dark hallways by cells that literally haven’t been touched since they were last used, past punishment cells and the hanging room, into the central hall, four storeys high, which has been given over to contemporary artists to turn various individual cells into mini museums.
Commencement of Rant: We had this lovely tour guide, I’d put him at about twenty-six or -seven, maybe a grad student in history or possibly political science or something. He had that look, dressed all in black, long ponytail, soft-spoken, and yet quite passionate about the subject, which was nice. And he was nice, and polite, and all along the various stops on the tour this one American man, early sixties (and at probably fix-foot-two or so, several inches taller than the young guide), kept monopolizing him by asking questions which seemed designed to make it look as if he—the tourist—really knew a lot about Irish history (as if the rest of us would be impressed by that). It truly made me wince, probably because he was such a caricature of the loudmouthed Ugly American type that one hears one’s European friends discuss.
So the tour guide patiently continued to answer this big guy’s questions, every one of them, and I (I brushed up on Irish history before I went over; bibliography to follow), I was cringing, and Gerry was sighing, and it was bad enough that the guy called it “the UPrising” in one of his lecture-questions (it’s known as the Rising), but then the guide mentioned the Irish Civil War, and the big dummy said, “What civil war? An Irish civil war?”… and Dear Friends, it would be one thing if that were some obscure corner of history but they made a movie out of it for heaven’s sake, an American movie starring Liam Neeson, so regardless of what you think of Michael Collins the movie (and there was considerable public outcry in some quarters—Britain, actually—when the film was released because it took some minor liberties in order to create an entertaining movie) there is no excuse. This guy wouldn’t have even had to crack a book to know about the Irish civil war, but no! AAAaaaaaaargh. End of Rant.
There are also museum exhibits in the basement, and a small bookshop which sells only books related to the gaol. I picked up Last Words: Letters and Statements of the Leaders Executed after the Rising at Easter 1916 as I’ve always been very taken with first-person accounts of history. The last stop on the tour is the prison yard where the leaders of the Easter Rising were shot, the spot now memorialized by a simple, somber black cross. I found it very moving.
Kilmainham was our last stop, as it was 5:30 and the buses stop running at 6pm. So we caught one of the last ones back to the city centre, had a quick sandwich in a pub, and then strolled over to the Screen Cinema, very near Trinity, where we saw Goldfish Memory, a film we’d heard reviewed on the radio earlier in the trip. It was worth the effort it took to seek it out, and I thoroughly enjoyed “pretending” to be Irish, rather than the tourist I was. After the show we caught a cab back out of town.
It was a very full day! And just to prove my point that there’s no way you could see everything on the City Tour in one twenty-four-hour period, here’s a list of the things we didn’t stop to see:
- Municipal Gallery of Modern Art
- Dublin Writers Museum (a restored eighteenth-century mansion that houses letters, books and other memorabilia of Ireland’s greatest writers, including Shaw, Yeats, Beckett, Swift, Wilde, Joyce and Behan)
- General Post Office (from the portico of which the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was read by Patrick Pearse in 1916; we rode by it, but didn’t go inside)
- Bank of Ireland (across the street from Trinity, as mentioned earlier; used to be the Irish House of Parliament)
- National Wax Museum (not that it had any appeal to me; I find these things creepy)
- National Library of Ireland
- Merrion Square (the largest Georgian square in the city and still surrounded by original Georgian buildings)
- National Gallery (houses over 7000 paintings and drawings)
- Natural History Museum
- Mansion House (has been the official residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin since 1715)
- Dublin Castle (we only went to the Chester Beatty Library; there was much, much more)
- Dublin’s City Hall (a lovely building with an impressive dome)
- Marsh’s Library at St. Patrick’s Close (the oldest public library in Ireland, erected in 1702, it contains over 25,000 volumes and 200 valuable ancient manuscripts)
- Christ Church Cathedral
- Guinness Storehouse (how did I manage to turn down a tour of the brewery which ends with a complimentary pint?)
- Irish Museum of Modern Art (we walked through its courtyard on the way to Kilmainham Gaol but did not have time to tour it)
- Phoenix Park (originally a major deer park, it is now the largest urban park in Europe, covering 1,750 acres—and still has a herd of wild deer; it’s also the home of the Peoples Gardens, the official residence of the President of Ireland, and the Dublin Zoo, the third oldest zoo in the world and renowned for successful breeding of lions [one of our bus drivers said “There are Irish lions all over the world” which gave me a giggle])
- National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks (the satellite location of the main museum we visited on Kildare Street, this branch houses exhibits on the decorative arts, and economic, social and military history)
- Old Jameson Distillery (founded in 1780; this tour also ends with visitors being offered a glass of the ever-so-smooth Jameson Whiskey)
- The Chimney (part of an old distillery, now topped with a viewing platform which offers spectacular views of the city of Dublin)
- The Custom House
I rest my case. Also listed on the tour were Grafton Street, Temple Bar, and the Dublin Tourism Centre … and we came back to these places the very next day.