Lunch with the Gentlemen

Day 8 / Tuesday, 18 September 2012

This morning we popped up early for something I’d been anticipating ever since I planned this trip: lunch with the gentlemen of the ESB. Gerry works for the ESB (Electricity Supply Board—in other words, the electric company), I have become friends with his colleagues Brendan and Pat, and we traditionally “do lunch” when I visit.

So Margaret and I drove all the way in to Harold’s Cross, where Gerry’s office (the Archives) is located, and where we would park the car. We had some time, so we snacked on sandwiches (in anticipation of a late lunch), and while Gerry gave Margaret a tour, I had time to check e-mail and so forth. It was good to see Pat, who arrived shortly after we did.

Our first stop would be House 29, the Georgian house museum owned and operated by the ESB. The museum is situated just a half block from Merrion Square—and if you’ve seen the famous photographs of brightly colored Dublin fanlight doors, you’ve seen the Merrion Square neighborhood, which was built over thirty years beginning in 1762. House 29 was completed in 1794 and was first occupied late that year; the house has been refurbished to look as it might have looked at that time. (There is a lot of historical information in the link above, so be sure to check it out.)

Jill and Alli met us as House 29, as did Brendan. And we were greeted like visiting royalty, I must say, even by the museum’s curator, Sandra. (I’ve just sent off all my thank-you notes.) We were in time for a tour, which ranges from the basement to three floors above. I’ve been here before, of course, but I enjoyed this refresher course on how well-off Dubliners lived in those days. (One doesn’t even want to consider how not well-off Dubliners lived in that era; I’m certainly grateful for the conveniences I now take for granted.)

The front door of House 29. Of course, it isn’t used; we entered through the museum entrance and gift shop. (There’s always a gift shop!)

Townhouses along Lower Fitzwilliam Street. You can’t afford one. 🙂 (Margaret took this photo.)

From Lower Fitzwilliam Street, we walked along Baggot Street (which becomes Merrion Row) to the Royal Hibernian Academy, just about three blocks. The RHA is, Brendan told us, is a collective of Irish artists; you have to be nominated in order to join the collective. (RHA’s mission statement says it is dedicated to developing, affirming, and challenging the public’s appreciation and understanding of traditional and innovative approaches to the visual arts. Whew. It was founded in 1823.) It is a lovely building with several galleries; we were there to see the Seán Keating exhibit (officially titled Seán Keating and the ESB: Enlightenment and Legacy), sponsored, of course, by the ESB.

It’s appropriate that the exhibit is here, as Keating—an Irish artist in the romantic-realist style—was elected to the RHA in 1923. Born in 1889, Keating was not quite twenty-seven years old and studying art in London when the Easter Rising began the Irish war for independence from British rule. He returned home and documented on canvas these hostilities and the subsequent civil war; after that he was commissioned (read more about it here) to document the building of Ardnacrusha (1925–1929), a dam on the Shannon near Limerick. This hydroelectric plant (I’ve visited it, and written about it in a previous travelogue, which is not yet posted here; it pains me that I can’t yet link to that information … but I will, I will) belongs to the ESB, of course, and I’ve been hearing about Seán Keating for nearly eleven years—so I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to finally see in person Night’s Candles Are Burnt Out, Keating’s iconic 1929 painting that symbolizes the passing of the old Ireland (see it here).

Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.
—William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, act 3, scene 5

We wandered briefly through some other exhibits, too, also sponsored by the ESB, which offers two art “medals” (prizes) each year to up-and-coming artists.

Gerry and Brendan observing a blow-up version of the Poulnabrone dolmen, which was … interesting.

Jill observing another installation at the RHA.

A close-up of the above.

(As an aside, I was having a lot of trouble with the walking we were doing—next we would walk about a block to the restaurant where we’d have lunch—even though now that I’m looking at it on the map I can see that it was hardly any distance at all. It felt like a hike across town. Less than thirty-six hours later I would be in a doctor’s office, diagnosed with pneumonia, but on this Tuesday all I knew was my legs felt like lead and I was struggling to keep up, constantly out of breath. Aloud, I asked Gerry “How much further?”—it’s a mark of his grace that he simply slowed down to my pace—but inwardly I wondered, “What’s wrong with me?” I’d been fine, energetic, when I’d left Tennessee, but I felt awkward and inappropriate now, like I didn’t belong because I couldn’t keep up. Honestly, it was awful.)

Brendan always chooses great restaurants, and today was no exception. We walked just up the street to Pearl Brasserie, a lovely restaurant that serves traditional French cuisine, where we spent a very leisurely time over a wonderful lunch.

The first time I ever saw photos of friends’ dinners, I thought it was so strange, and I’ve never been one to take photos of meals—but you will see photos of meals henceforth. We ate like royalty everywhere we went; Ireland has a wonderful foodie culture.

At the Pearl Brasserie, Margaret and I had the same thing: aged ribeye steak, fries, and salad. It was an interesting presentation. (Photo by Margaret.)

L–R: Brendan, Pat, me, Gerry, Alli, Jill, Margaret, at the Pearl Brasserie. (Photo by our server.)

Yes, we had dessert! Mine was “Tasting of Lemon”—small servings of lemon sorbet, lemon tart (kind of lemon pie), lemon meringue (exceedingly tart!) and lemon jelly, which was sort of like Jell-O only much, much better. Topping the jelly was a sparkly, clear/white jelly with a slight basil taste to it, in addition to the lemon. Wow. The presentation of everything was exquisite (service too), and sometimes very interesting, as noted above. The jelly, for example, was in a small lidded jar.

After lunch, the gentlemen left our part to return to work. The rest of us walked back to the gift shop at the RHA, shopped, then walked up to the National Gallery.

It rained a little while we were inside the National Gallery. When we came out we saw our second rainbow!

Ireland’s National Gallery was one of my favorite stops last time we were here. I’d read about the lost Caravaggio in Jonathan Harr’s The Lost Painting, and delighted in seeing it in person on a very quiet morning. I loved the whole floor of Irish painters (including a slew of folks from poet W. B. Yeats’s family). I loved, too, the old, old wooden floors that creaked and cracked, as floors in a museum should.

That’s all changed now. They are refurbishing the museum; collections have been rearranged into different configurations. Worse, those lovely floors are gone (or, they weren’t where we were, which was the selection of masterpieces (“Masterpieces from the Collection”) and the Jack Yeats exhibition. I saw the Caravaggio and the Vermeer; but was disappointed not to see “Ireland’s favorite painting” (Frederic William Burton’s The Meeting on the Turret Stairs), which is now shown for very limited hours, and only in the morning. I am sure this remodeling is a good thing, really I am; but I did not see the gallery I was expecting to see. It has been modernized. Along the entire trip I would revisit places that have been refurbished (tarted up) to within what seems like an inch of their lives, so this was just a harbinger of things to come.

Margaret, Gerry, and I cabbed back to his office and had a cup of tea to wait for rush hour traffic to die down; then we drove Gerry home, and then back to Laytown. Tomorrow we leave to go down the country.

Today’s Observation

There are so many foreign nationals in Dublin! In particular, many of the waiters and waitresses we encountered were not Irish. Yesterday at the Shelbourne, our young waitress was an American. Today at the Pearl our two servers were German.

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A Very Big Dam

So … you’ll recall that the weather was lovely in Ireland for this trip, a good 10°F warmer than I was expecting. And other than a little bird poop and a flat tire (spelled tyre in the land of Erin), the holiday was proceeding nicely.

Wednesday, 17 September 2003
Tralee, Co. Kerry – Ennis, Co. Clare
The first order of the day: find a tire store, to replace the damaged one. The proprietress of the townhouse we stayed in directed us to Tony O’Donoghue’s Tyre Service, run, she told us, by a brother and sister. He looked to be about forty, she, probably thirty. We pulled up, and indicated our need for a replacement tire—and thank goodness Gerry was with me: after one conversation, he turned to me and said, as an aside, “I bet you didn’t understand a word he said”—which was absolutely true. Although I was paying close attention, the exchange might as well have been in Greek. “It’s a very thick Kerry accent,” Gerry reassured me, and went on to say he hadn’t caught every single word of it, either.

I want to go back, to hear that Kerry accent again!

The tire store was an interesting place, for a girl used to doing business at American Tire on Broad Street in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It was located in a building dating from, perhaps, the 1930s, and looked like it was originally intended for farm machinery. There was no show-room (I love the smell of new tires!), and no neat waiting room with a television and coffee pot. There were dust-covered tires everywhere, helter-skelter, of all sizes and types. The most visible were all tractor-size, though, so I was relieved to see Tony appear with exactly the size tire we needed. Within thirty minutes, not only did we have a new tire on and balanced, we’d had a screw removed from a second tire (and I still have that screw!). No waiting!

I confess I was shocked by the cost, though: 100 euro (roughly $120) for the new tire and the plug. The Focus is a small car; in the States I would have expected to pay about $50 for a tire for it, and about $15 for the plug. This bill was double what I was expecting—yet when we returned the car to Avis at the end of the trip, I was assured that we actually got a very good deal.

Once we had the tires all sorted we were off to Limerick (the third largest city in the Republic)—and beyond. Leaving Tralee, the countryside became flatter, especially as we got close to Limerick—which makes sense, as it is in the lower Shannon delta. I’d requested a visit to Ardnacrusha, the huge dam built on the River Shannon in 1925–1929, so once we’d skirted the edge of Limerick city, we got off the main road and picked our way through back roads toward the river and the dam that harnesses it.

This actually is O’Brien’s Bridge—built in 1506.

This actually is O’Brien’s Bridge—built in 1506.

At O’Briensbridge village (so named for the charming, arched bridge spanning the Shannon), there was a lay-by right on the river, so we pulled over to take in the view. Across the street, there was a little roadside shrine, and along the river, a park, and—a pleasant surprise—a plaque commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Electricity Supply Board, Gerry’s employer and the operator of the dam we were on our way to see.

The Shannon is beautiful here, and this little park is very quiet.

The Shannon is beautiful here, and this little park is very quiet. 2003.

I’d heard so much about this dam—the project was called the Shannon Scheme—from Gerry: the visionary ESB head who championed the project, the young Irish engineer who’d helped plan it, those who fought against it, the political situation at the time … The naysayers claimed that Ireland would never need the amount of electricity Ardnacrusha was projected to produce, yet now the dam supplies less than 3 percent of the country’s entire consumption. And they were furious when the contract to build the thing was awarded to Siemens-Schuckert of Berlin, feeling the contract should have gone to a British firm (and the Brits weren’t happy about it at all). But the German company had experience in constructing hydro-electric power stations—and because of the economic climate of postwar Germany, Siemens were delighted to get it.

Gerry in the doorway at Ardnacrusha. Note the beautiful wooden door and the brass plaque above it.

Gerry in the doorway at Ardnacrusha. Note the beautiful wooden door and the brass plaque above it, 2003.

Well, the thing was built, in spite of everything. In addition to the dam itself, and the outbuildings, it required the construction of 60 miles of railway and the use of 138 locomotives. Ahead of the opening, four major bridges had to be built, four streams were diverted and seven million cubic meters of earth and 1.2 million cubic meters of rock were shifted.

And in 2002, Ardnacrusha and the Shannon Scheme received two prestigious awards. First, the American Society of Civil Engineers bestowed the Landmark Award—previously won by the Eiffel Tower, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and the Panama Canal—for being a “huge achievement” in civil engineering terms. This award has been presented 225 times.

The Milestone Award is a prize awarded by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., although the organization is most popularly known and referred to by its acronym, IEEE. This award, for electrical engineering, is harder to win than the Nobel Prize or an Oscar, and has only been awarded to forty-five other recipients, including the Japanese Bullet Train and the first Space Shuttle. The IEEE (Eye-triple-E) is a nonprofit technical professional association of more than 380,000 individual members in 150 countries.

Only eight organizations worldwide have won both these awards. Pretty cool, huh!

Turbines at Ardnacrusha, 2003.

Turbines at Ardnacrusha, 2003.

We arrived at midday, and toured the site. Not much had changed here: the original buildings from the ’20s are still in use today.

We walked around outside and had a look. Ardnacrusha, 2003.

We walked around outside and had a look. Ardnacrusha, 2003.

It’s like something from another world. Ardnacrusha, 2003.

It’s like something from another world. Ardnacrusha, 2003.

Ardnacrusha, 2003.

Ardnacrusha, 2003.

A view of the Shannon from Ardnacrusha.

A view of the Shannon from Ardnacrusha.

Note how flat the countryside is here in the Shannon delta.

Note how flat the countryside is here in the Shannon delta.

It was also a thrill so see one of the original paintings done by Sean Keating, the artist who was hired by the ESB to record, in sketches and oils, the building of the dam. This project was chronicled in a lovely book the ESB published a few years ago, one of several books of historic interest that Gerry’s department has had a hand in shepherding to publication.

From Ardnacrusha it was an easy ride into Ennis, and our B&B, the Fountain Court. Almost a week into our adventure, it was time for a splurge, and the Fountain Court was just what we needed: huge rooms, four-poster beds, a bathroom big enough to turn around in … oh yes, this was definitely a luxury wallow! The view—from anywhere on the grounds, as the Fountain Court sits on high ground—was spectacular, and the service we received was excellent.

It was a cool, overcast day and the view was lovely.

It was a cool, overcast day and the view was lovely.

It was not within walking distance of the town centre, however, so once settled we drove back to Ennis, the county seat of County Clare. Ennis takes its name from ‘Inis,’ which is the Gaelic name for island, due to its situation between two streams of the River Fergus. The town dates back to the eleventh century and developed around a Franciscan abbey; some traces of seventeenth-century buildings may be still be seen in the older streets. With a population of just 22,000, Ennis is a perfect little country town, while it is conveniently located near much larger metropolitan centers such as Limerick and Galway cities; also, Shannon International Airport is only twenty miles away.

As had become habit, we strolled around town until we found a place that appealed to us; in this case, it was Brogan’s Pub, on O’Connell Street, where I had roast chicken with stuffing (real bread stuffing like my mother used to make; I’ve never quite adjusted to the South’s cornbread stuffing), cabbage, carrots, chips (fries). I was constantly impressed by the Irish ability to serve a really hot meal: plates always came out of the kitchen steaming hot, carried with a dish towel. Very homey.

Back at the Fountain Court we watched televised soccer, as the Glasgow (Scotland) Celtic played Bayern Munich. Glasgow Celtic are a curious phenomenon: although the team is located in Scotland, its fans are more Irish than Scottish—they fly the Irish tricolor over the stadium, and sing the Irish national anthem during games. There are thousands of season ticket-holders in Ireland, who actually fly in to Glasgow every other week for home games. It’s impossible, Gerry tells me, to explain the culture to the uninitiated.

Oh, To Be in Ireland on a Friday Afternoon …

Friday, 12 September 2003
Dublin, Co. Dublin (Baile atha Cliath)

I was up early for that Big Irish Breakfast before a trip into Dublin. A German couple entered the dining room while I was eating … Had they been American, I believe they would have automatically chosen the other table in the dining room; but instead, they both looked at me, made that raised-eyebrow face I immediately interpreted as May we join you?—and so they did. I had a brief “Yank moment” of feeling they’d invaded my space, but they were very nice and we had an interesting conversation as mutual tourists. Mid-thirties, from near-Munich. Andy and Dachmar, he possessed of a command of English … she, not so much. I was to go on to have many pleasant conversations in this dining room, with a variety of interesting people.

Soon Gerry arrived to take me to the Dublin city centre (you and I know this as downtown); we crossed a little slip-street in front of the B&B to reach the main road, and hailed a cab. There are ten thousand cabs, I’m told, in Dublin, a city with a population of one million people (that’s one cab for every one hundred people). Dublin also has excellent bus and commuter train systems. Gerry and the cabbie carried on an extensive and merry conversation, which seemed out of the ordinary based on my other taxi experiences, but I was to learn that this is not uncommon in this cheerful city.

Our plan was to be at House 29 by 10am. “Number Twenty Nine, Fitzwilliam Street Lower,” the official guidebook says, “was first occupied in 1794, during a time of great change in Ireland’s capital … On the surface at least, Dublin in the 1790s was booming. A relative peace had reigned since the late 1600s and the population grew from approximately 60,000 at that time to nearly 180,000 a century later. Ireland had its own Parliament that sat in College Green in Dublin. The capital was being rebuilt in a modern style.” And, as previously discussed, the prevailing style of architecture was Georgian. Upscale homes were laid out on four sides of a central square, or fenced park; only homeowners had keys to the gate. Many of those townhomes still exist. Some are still homes. Some—because they are in the heart of Dublin—have been converted for other uses.

The Electricity Supply Board, in fact, owned a whole block of these houses on Fitzwilliam Street Lower, in which resided their offices. They’d taken over the rooms one by one; it was a veritable rabbit warren of offices. By the 1960s, more than twenty townhouses on Fitzwilliam Street Lower, a continuation of the east side of the square, were set to be destroyed to make way for a brand-new headquarters of the Electricity Supply Board. (Commonly known as the ESB, this is the charming company that actually maintains an Archives Division, dedicated to preserving the history of the company—and thus, really, of the Republic; Gerry works in the Archives.) The resulting public outcry caused the company to join with the National Museum of Ireland; if the ESB could build a new building on most of the block, they’d keep one house intact.

Thus House 29 (and, technically, number 30 as well: it’s the entrance and gift shop) was reborn in the late 1980s as a Georgian showpiece home, remodeled to look just as it did when its first owner, Mrs. Olivia Beatty, the widow of a prominent Dublin wine merchant and mother of seven, moved in. She was just thirty-three years old at the time.

They were expecting us at the House: Gerry’s colleague Pauline Holland, curator of the museum, bustled out and greeted us warmly. Then we sat down with an English couple who’d arrived just before us and watched the introductory film; afterward we were whisked off on the tour, just ahead of a boisterous group of school kids. (Note also: no photographs allowed. But you can see some lovely shots here.) As we began, we were joined by another Englishwoman, and these three Brits kept our guide on his toes, getting answers to questions that further illuminated the tour. Very cool. Veddy English, right down to the sensible shoes. 🙂

And this was fascinating stuff! I learned, for example, the origins of the phrase counting the silver: in those days, the silver (huge platters, serving dishes, teapots, utensils, and so forth) would have been displayed right in the dining room in a locked cabinet. After dinner, when the family and their guests had moved on to other activities, it was washed right in the room, counted, and locked back up! The housekeeper kept these and other keys on a belt around her waist—everything was kept under lock and key. The lady of the house herself, however, would have kept a particularly special key—to the box of tea leaves—on a chain around her neck, as tea was very, very expensive. (Hence the outrageousness of a certain group of upstart colonials dumping an entire shipload of the stuff into Boston Harbor right around this time.)

And did you know that the real reason the ladies withdrew from the dining room—ostensibly so the men could have their after-dinner port and cigars—was so that the men could (ahem) make use of their after-dinner chamber pots (also kept right in the dining room!)? Enquiring minds want to know!

Gerry, having seen the House many times, lingered in the tearoom with a pot of tea and a plate of cookies while I took the tour. At the end, I joined him there and Pauline bought me some teabrack (tho’ I’m not sure if I’ve spelled it correctly). Teabrack is similar to what we’d call fruitcake, the difference being that the fruit—currants, in this case—is soaked overnight in tea before being baked into a loaf-type cake. Yum.

After a trip through the gift shop (you know I can never resist!), we were back on the street, hailing another cab to travel to Gerry’s office in the Harold’s Cross neighborhood. We had another fun conversation with a much-younger driver (who hailed from the North), who, once he realized I was American, told us a hilarious tale of his visit to the States. It wasn’t until later I realized that, in this nation of storytellers, I’d been sitting at the feet (as it were) of a master—and he had us laughing all the way!

Dublin is just steeped in history, and during the whole ride I pulled the designated-tourist act: mouth open, staring out the window, exclaiming over the window boxes, the Georgian doors, the parks, the bridges … though I confess the frequent BOOKMAKER signs threw me for a loop at first. I’d heard that the Irish are a nation of readers, but … 🙂

On to the Archives, where I met Gerry’s colleagues, Pat Yeates and Brendan Delany. If ever a gal could describe an afternoon that did not involve a massage therapist as being “petted and pampered,” this was it—ladies, I had three men (two of them in suits, and you know what a sucker I am for a man in a suit) giving me the full-on tour of the ESB Archives, a small department in a big company that preserves a history—in paper documents, photographs, oral histories, and objects ranging from old kitchen appliances and telephones to barometers and signs—of the company. All of this is open, free, to researchers. How very Irish this all is: a respect for the past and a willingness to honor it with careful preservation. This is a company, after all, that, before commencing a massive dam project (called the Shannon Scheme, for the river it’s built on) in 1925, commissioned a well-known artist (Seán Keating) to record it.

So I got a tour, and an overview of the task that faced the ESB when Ireland became a Free State in 1922—how to bring electricity to a largely rural nation. (Answer: electrify the population centers first, and move outward, like ripples on the surface of a pond; buy up the local shops, such as the wealthy farmer who might’ve installed a generator to power his equipment, or a mechanic or a machine shop, all of whom probably had run current to close neighbors (for a fee) and thus had a network established; and, finally, build a big ol’ dam.) Most of you know how much I love history, so this was right up my alley.

Pat explained how the Archives started, almost accidentally, as a repository of old records … I saw hundreds of old ledgers, from electric companies around the country (that predated the ESB), where each man’s name and his weekly wages were inscribed in beautiful handwriting. Now the Archives seeks out retired and present members of ESB staff: Pat interviews these old-timers on video, and the material is preserved and edited for presentations made by the ESB (the Archives has its own edit suite to do this), or used by TV documentarians. It has lent antique items to movie producers for use as set dressing. It has thousands of photographs scanned and catalogued. It has made permanent and semipermanent exhibits for local museums scattered around the country (I will visit one of these, later). I also learned about the benefits of mobile shelving over static shelving—and was duly impressed.

All absorbing stuff, but I’d been promised lunch with these gentlemen, and soon Brendan and I decamped to the Burlington Hotel, with Pat and Gerry following. The Burlington is a beautiful, upscale hotel with a lovely buffet lunch; we got there just at 2pm, but the staff patiently waited for us to order drinks (oh, that smooth Irish whiskey) and get settled before urging our meal upon us.

It was a lovely lunch with wonderful company, and when it was over we moved from the dining room into the bar, which was open to the lobby. It was a busy hotel on a Friday afternoon, and the All-Ireland Hurling Championships were to be played in Dublin that Sunday (hurling being Ireland’s national sport, I’m told; if you thought it was football—soccer, to us—you lose 2 points) … well-heeled folks from all over were checking in and the place was jumping. I had my first Irish Guinness (as opposed to what I’ve consumed on this side of the pond), and we played—discreetly—“spot the Yank.” You see, they can tell us by our loud voices, our baseball caps, brightly colored clothing, and our ubiquitous jeans (which we wear much baggier than the rest of the world).

And they’re right.

Later, Brendan, Gerry, and I walked down the block to O’Brien’s Pub—Brendan’s pub from his college days. It was the real thing—not something made up to look like the real thing like you see in Nashville and elsewhere—and it was packed on this Friday afternoon. I had a couple more (half) pints of the black stuff as the noise level rose, not from a TV (there was none) or raised voices, but simply from the good conversation, the craic (pronounce this CRACK). I’ve heard many definitions of the term craic, but the one I like best is merriment. The craic was definitely okay in O’Brien’s Pub that day.

In the end we left around 7pm. If you’ve been keeping score, this is a lunch that began around 1:45 and rolled on nonstop for five hours. (Thank you, Brendan and Pat, for a marvelous time!) Oh, to be in Ireland on a Friday afternoon!

Back at Gerry’s house we had tea and watched a DVD (Cate Blanchett in Heaven) to wind down. Then it was off to the B&B, because we wanted to get an early start in the morning.

Jamie’s Third Travel Tip: Pack a lightweight net bag (what I think of as a beach bag: thirty inches or so deep, twenty-four inches wide, with two strap handles), just in case you might need it (folded up tight it took up no more room in my luggage than a pair of socks). Stick it in your purse and it makes a handy shopping bag if you are making multiple purchases. On the cross-country trip we used it to carry our snacks and keep them easily accessible from the front seat (because God knows drivin’ really works up a girl’s appetite!). Later, when I needed a second piece of carry-on, there it was again! 🙂