Conclusion. The last three days in Dublin
The sun started to break through the clouds once we entered the Republic and brightened up the day with what would be the most sunlight we had seen since Kilkenny 8 days earlier. It’s kind of difficult to describe, but even though we wouldn’t be leaving the Emerald Isle for another three days, it seemed that our vacation was winding down as a melancholy feeling was starting to set in the closer we inched towards Dublin.
We returned the rental with about 15 minutes to spare and afterwards set out to find accommodations for our stay. Knowing that it would be relatively expensive to stay in Dublin outright, we flipped a coin to determine in which direction to go: Heads for Howth, tails for Dun Laoghaire. The coin landed heads so we cinched up our packs and headed over to Pearse Station to catch a DART train to its terminus at the far Northeastern edge of Dublin Bay.
It was a pleasant ride. There are several trains a day that will take you in this direction. If you are heading to Howth, just remember to take the train that says Howth and not Howth Junction. That one splits off and takes you in another direction. The station in Howth comes complete with a charming restaurant and pub that we took advantage of on our 2nd night there.
On the way we consulted our Rick Steves guide to see what he had as far as his accommodation suggestions went. We settled on a place called Gleann-na-Smoll and set out to find it. The directions in the book were simple, yet pretty vague: “a five-minute walk uphill along the coast behind the Martello Tower”. No street names along the route were mentioned other than the cross streets, nor were there any alternate directions. And nothing was said about veering off to the left when you come to the fork in the road, but remembering her training from the movie ‘Goonies’ Amy suggested that we should “always stay to the right”, to which we did with the result of winding up a little confused as to where we were (I never admit to being lost. I’m precisely where I should be at all times).
Standing on a corner like a couple of mopes, we tried to over-decipher our guidebook as if it were some sort of Hieroglyphic treasure map, looking for any hint or clue that would give us a glimpse as to where we should be. I noticed a guy come out of his house and get into his car and thought about flagging him down and asking him for directions. He must’ve noticed our confusion because he pulled right up to us and asked if he could help us find something. I told him where we were trying to go and showed him the address in the guidebook. “I know where this is.” He said. “I can take you there if you like. Just put your packs in the boot (trunk)”. So we did. We made small talk on the way (who we were, where we were from, etc.) and in less than 5 minutes we were at our destination. We offered to compensate him for his time and trouble but he politely refused, bolstering our willingness to ‘pay it forward’.
The owner of the B&B, Sean Rickard, is a nice and genuine guy. He was just finishing up business with a couple who were checking out when we arrived but told us to sit tight and he’d show us what he had available. With in minutes we were heading upstairs to a cozy little room that was a tad chilly but he assured us that it didn’t take long to heat up, and he was right. We told him we’d book for three nights and unpacked before deciding that we could use a bite and headed back into the town center the way we should’ve came up, taking note of where we should’ve turned and such.
Howth is a nice little seaside resort town with a wharf that was bustling with a farmer’s market of sorts that Sunday afternoon. We perused the tables and picked up a few snacks that we’d figure we could munch on while sight seeing in the next two days and then headed over to a fish and chips shop for a dinner we would enjoy while sitting on a park bench.
Morning came early and we found ourselves on the DART heading into Dublin for the day. The Book of Kells at Trinity College was first on our list. Wandering through the campus we got caught amongst several people in Cap and gowns - graduation day for a select lucky few - which struck me as weird because it was the middle of November. Different scheduling, I guess.
We made our way over to the Old Library and once inside, paid our admission of €8 apiece. Unfortunately, this exhibit is not covered by the Heritage Card. We were given a brochure on the exhibit and were then directed to a room that showcased giant detailed photos of the artwork and scripture that the book was comprised of. There were even video demonstrations on the scribing and of how the inks were made with egg white and pigments to create the colorful, ornate drawings in the book.
The Book itself, which was held in the next room, is comprised of the first four Gospels of the New Testament and believed written around 800AD by monks in a monastery at Kells, County Meath. It was divided up and bound into 4 volumes almost sixty years ago with two of the volumes on display simultaneously: one opened to show scripture and another to showcase a decorative page. The volumes are rotated regularly and no photography is permitted.
Exiting from the Book Exhibit brings you into the Long Room, the main chamber of the Old Library where stacks of some 200,000 books greet you. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to browse the books in this library and photography is prohibited in here as well. One of the most interesting exhibits in the Long Room – aside from the harp that stands as the national symbol of Ireland - was the display of one of the few remaining copies of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic which was read outside the GPO in April of 1916 by Patrick Pearse at the start of the Easter Rising. Reading the Proclamation that called for the independence of Ireland from the U.K. set us up chronologically for the next two sights on our self-guided tour.
Leaving Trinity we headed back across the Liffey and stopped by the General Post Office on Connolly Street, where the Proclamation was read. The building sustained considerable damage from the 6-day battle that ensued and pockmarks caused by bullets still show on its Ionic columns. Inside it’s a working post office and can be quite busy at times, but still worth a peek. After that, it was on to Kilmainham Gaol. We hopped on the tram at Abbey Street, which is a short ½ block walk from the GPO and took it to St. James Hospital. From there it’s a short walk west over to the prison.
The gaol (pronounced ‘jail’) is right next to a working courthouse and I made the mistake of walking up to the wrong building and asking an armed guard standing outside when the next tour was and do I purchase my ticket from him. After clearing up that misunderstanding, he pointed us in the right direction and I breathed a sigh of relief that I didn’t wind up in a clammy cell for the afternoon after inadvertently offending him.
Klimainham Gaol is not a happy place. It was built in the latter part of the 18th century as a county jail/debtors prison and was considered state of the art back then, but that didn’t necessarily mean comfort for those unfortunate enough to be incarcerated there. People – men, women and children – were often housed together in over crowded small cells with only one candle for heat and light in cold, clammy conditions. It remained opened for about 130 years until it was finally closed in the mid 1920’s, but not after seeing a few historically significant and poignant events in the struggle for Irish independence.
The tour guides at Kilmainham are friendly and very knowledgeable on the history of the gaol. Our tour started with a 15-minute slide show in the prison chapel where Joseph Plunkett married his sweetheart, Grace Gifford, mere hours before he was taken to the yard to face a firing squad for his role in the Easter Rising. Afterward, we were then led through the corridors, stopping at cells that held significant martyrs and heroes of Ireland’s history, before winding up in the Victorian Wing – the vast open area with cells lining the perimeter that may look familiar if you’ve seen movies like ‘In The Name Of The Father’ or ‘Michael Collins’.
We were then led out into the courtyard where our guide set the scene for us about the events of early May 1916 when over the course of ten days, 14 of the leaders of the Easter Rising were tried, convicted and then stood against the courtyard wall and shot. It is said that the Rising was unpopular among the ordinary citizens of Dublin to begin with, but due to the drawn out time it took to execute the prisoners after such a quick court martial and conviction, opinions changed and the British were demonized for their sadistic behavior: James Connolly, still badly wounded from the battle and unable to walk, was carried out in a chair to face his firing squad, Sean MacDermott was crippled from complications of Polio and Willie Pearse was executed just for being Patrick’s brother. Today, black crosses mark the spot in the yard where the prisoners fell.
We ended our tour of Kilmainham browsing in the museum and headed for a much needed pint. A lunch of soup and a sandwich followed shortly there after and then we were off to tour the Guinness Storehouse. At €14 it’s not exactly a bargain as the tour is a self guided one, taking you up several levels with exhibits showing you the process that goes into making Ireland’s national beer as well as past advertising campaigns and other artifacts from Guinness’ long history. There are no tours of the actual working brewery, but one of the more interesting exhibits for me on the tour was the cooperage, complete with black and white video footage of what went into making the wooden kegs to transport the beer.
At the start of the tour, we were given a glass paperweight with a little plastic pull-tab on it. Once the tour ended at the Gravity Bar on the top level, we handed our souvenir to the bartender, who pulled off the plastic tab, and then pulled us a couple of pints of some of the freshest Guinness we had since our night in Inishmore.
Leaving the Storehouse we headed back to Central Dublin and the Touristy Temple Bar district, stopping for a rather expensive pint in its crowded and noisy namesake pub. We decided that it wasn’t quite our scene so we headed out looking for something a bit more quiet, settling on the Dame Tavern not too far away. This little gem was more like it for us with reasonably priced pints and more-locals-than-tourists clientele. And after a full day of being on our feet, this was just what we needed before heading back to Howth.
Tuesday saw another early start as we explored the ruins of St Mary’s Church and its graveyard in Howth before heading back into Dublin where we spent most of the day just wandering the streets and souvenir shopping before hitting the Dame again. We would be leaving in the morning and that melancholy feeling we had when coming into Dublin on Sunday was amped up ten-fold by now. We spent that evening getting our last fill of Guinness and recounting our two-week adventure in one of the coolest countries this side of the Atlantic.
When many people think of Ireland, the obvious and cliché come to mind: Guinness, leprechauns, the Blarney Stone, etc. But it’s much, much more than that. It’s a rich history and proud heritage shared by resilient people. Even though Cork and Kerry were not on our itinerary, we could honestly say we did Ireland. From the first few days wandering about Carlow and traveling into the west before hooking up to the north and back to Dublin, we never met one bad person. That’s not to say there aren’t any, but at times it seemed like we were more welcomed here than in certain parts of our own homeland; almost as if we were being greeted by a relative we haven’t seen in a long time, offering us warm lodgings and a cold pint. And it’s that kind of hospitality that will keep me coming back to Ireland.