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! 🙂