May 12, 2008
Just a quick note to say that, even though I’m way behind in detailing my recollections of this trip, all of the Ireland pictures are up, along with most of the pictures from the UK and France.
After the trip back down the Connemara coast, we stopped at the Budget rental agency on Eyre Square to pick up our car. I was pleased we were starting the driving portion of the trip in a smaller city and heading off to Dublin rather than the other way around. This would give me a chance to get acquainted with mirroring all of my driving habits without having to navigate the streets of a city. We picked up our Ford Focus and all of our stuff from Libby’s apartment where we had left it, and got under way.
Driving in Ireland was a real pleasure, especially on the west coast. It was also a lot easier to adapt to than I had expected. Mind, I’ve driven a fair number of odd cars with all sorts of configurations, so I’m sure that helped with a quick change. The toughest things were actually inside the car - looking for the rear view mirror or the gear shift in the right place; the road itself was rather easy. I hope I didn’t scare Katie or Libby too badly on the way to the Cliffs, but the roads were outrageous fun. They were all narrow little lanes guarded on each side by either high grass embankments or little stone walls, with only the occasional straightaway and a 100 kph speed limit. Picture an autocross course where the penalty for hitting a cone is a little more than 2 seconds and you’ll have the general idea. The precision required is similar. My only dissatisfaction was having such an underpowered pig (Neil’s Focus ST would have been great), but I didn’t mind the economy when it was time to fill up at 1.20Euro/ltr (that’s somewhere above $7.50/gallon).
We reached the Cliffs of Moher sometime after lunch and walked up the paths to the main views of the cliffs. The tourist facilities are extremely well done, blending in well with the scenery. The safety walls are also embedded into the hillside so as not to break the lines of the cliff tops. The cliffs themselves plunge anywhere from 300 feet to 700 feet directly downwards to the Atlantic. The view includes the Aran Islands we had recently visited, as well as some of County Galway to the far north. There are two towers on the cliffs; both could more aptly be described as follies.
Just as we were about to leave for Dublin, we decided to trek up the other side of the cliffs where there were only dirt trails and no safety barriers. We were held up moving past the enormous “DO NOT PASS THIS POINT” sign by two elderly women just as a large crash and splash could be heard emanating from down the cliffs. By the time we could look down to see there were only waves again, but apparently a portion of the cliff face had fallen off. A nearby ranger, who also seemed to have no qualms moving past the prominent signage into prohibited territory, confirmed that this happens only a couple of times a year. Pity my camera wasn’t ready!
After some obligatory pictures as near to the cliffs as we could (solely to scare our mothers), we set off for Dublin, passing through Limerick and then picking up the M7. Highway driving was a dream and, until we got into Dublin proper, it was actually easier to navigate than in the US. We arrived late at the Kingfisher, checked into our flat, and grabbed a quick dinner at the Belvedere Bar just off Parnell Square before collapsing, exhausted.
We had two full days in Dublin, which I thought was more than enough to see all the most important parts of the city. I rather preferred the countryside and little towns to the big city. First up was a trip down into the heart of the city by way of O’Connell Street, the largest thoroughfare in Ireland. Halfway down to the river Liffey, there is a very tall freestanding metal spire. The official name is unknown to me (and lots of others I think), but it is horribly misplaced in what is otherwise a very beautiful stone and brick city. The residents of Dublin seem to have an inkling of this as well, as the spire has been bestowed with the nickname “Stiffy by the Liffey” among even more imaginative suggestions.
Our first stop in the heart of Dublin was Trinity College and all of it’s treasures. The life of the city seems to center around the college. All the main civil buildings, parks, and commercial districts are huddled in its shadow. Perhaps the most famous attraction at Trinity College is the Book of Kells, an ancient illuminated manuscript of the Gospels. It was written in the 8th century on vellum and has been passed down as a treasure, narrowly avoiding destruction or confiscation several times. Before you actually get to see some pages from the book, you pass through several rooms describing its history. Therein are displayed very large illuminated photographs of pages from the Book of Kells. One would think this to be suitable preparation, but it falls short. The book itself is no more than 12 by 15 inch pages, done in an absolutely remarkably clean and elegant script. Every important word or letter has some sort of filigreed embellishment, and some pages are solely decorative Celtic script and design. It’s breathtaking to stare and consider the countless hours of effort required by monks twelve hundred years ago to study, understand, and write the Gospels, nevermind the time necessary to procure and produce the vellum and inks required. (One particular screen suggests that 185 calfs were used to produce the vellum required.)
After moving on from the Book of Kells, visitors proceed through the Long Room - the oldest and most prestigious part of Trinity College’s vast library. Somewhere in heaven, there’s a library that contains every copy of every book ever written by human hands (as well as others, I’m sure). Obviously, it’s a prestigious place, full of inquisitive minds, smelling of old polished wood and buckram, beautifully made and furnished, and lined with ladders, little reading corners, and books that extend beyond sight. Until I get there and see it, the image in my mind will be the Long Room in Trinity College Library.
The weather was still somehow cooperating with us, so we spent some time lounging on St. Stephen’s Green before heading to Grafton Street to do some shopping. As the primary shopping center of the city, Grafton is lined with all manner of shops and stores. The street itself is filled with acts looking to pick up change from passersby, from musicians to talking statues to limbo routines. I stopped off in an alley as there appeared to be a church just off the main hustle and bustle. It turned out to be a grand old gothic revival church with a Wedding in progress and a beautiful choir. I couldn’t believe it was there tucked down a little alleyway in such close proximity to all these shoppers. That’s the thing about European cities. They’re lived in. There aren’t zoning codes, commercial districts, or convenience stores to get in the way. The cities grew organically over a long history, and that produces all the charm, quaintness, and vitality we associate with them.
The next day we went to Mass at a beautiful old church called St. John and St. Augustin - it turns out that St. Patrick’s Cathedral is Church of Ireland. Then it was on to the Guinness Storehouse. That seems like a fitting Irish Sunday - church and beer. The storehouse sits on the location of the original plant, adjacent to the current facilities. Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000 year lease, so it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Guinness appears to be sort of a religion; I did my best to become a disciple, but I’ve never been a beer drinker, and especially not the darker lagers like Guinness. But it was still worth a trip. That night Katie and Libby headed out to Temple Bar. Being the fuddy-duddy I am, I stayed in to pack and relax, and prepare for the British leg of the trip.