May 29th was our thirteenth wedding anniversary. Those of you who know us well, know that we love romance and that we love to celebrate in very romantic ways, but this was not to be our most romantic celebration ever. May 29th was our “get away” day, the day we wrapped up our stay in the English countryside and set out for Ireland. We spent most of the day cleaning our English manor house (where are staff when you need them, eh?) then returning our rental car and hanging out at the airport. Our evening flight from East Midlands to Dublin took less than an hour, but it took us more than an hour to collect our things, find the right shuttle bus, wait for the bus to come, get settled in to our rather dingy hotel and head out to find some food. By this time it was 9:30 p.m. In Italy this wouldn’t be a problem, but Irish restaurants and pubs stop serving food at 9:00. The only place that was open was a pizza/kebab fast food sort of arrangement. We swore we would never eat in these places, but seeing the dangerous look in my eye, George hurried us inside. I ordered a veggie burger, George got a slice of pizza, and we shared a Fanta. We couldn’t help laughing at ourselves seated on the tiny little bar stools in front of a big mirror, and toasting to our life on the road.
After our meal, we headed for the nearest pub for a pint and some traditional Irish music. Laid back and casual, this experience helped ease us into life in the country that will be our home for the next month.
Having only two full days in Dublin, we set out the next morning to see the sights. We started with a tour of Trinity College, culminating in the exquisite Book of Kells housed in the university library. Our tour guide, a recent Trinity College graduate got a little nervous when he learned that he had a philosophy professor on the tour because he was about to talk about George Berkeley and was worried he would get it wrong. (He didn’t.)
The Book of Kells itself would have been a little disappointing if they hadn’t had an excellent exhibit helping to explain the history of the famous tome. It turns out that it isn’t actually a book, it’s an illuminated manuscript, and it isn’t from Kells, it’s from Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. It was moved to Kells after Viking raids on Iona. Vikings ended up raiding Kells as well, so eventually it was moved to Trinity College in Dublin for safekeeping
We then went on a walking tour of the city with Mary, who recently completed her Ph.D. in Irish history. There were only three of us on the tour, so we got to ask lots of questions. We learned a lot about the city’s early monastic settlements, Viking raiders who eventually became residents, the conquest by the English and the many, many hundreds of years of struggle for independence from the English. We learned that Ireland only became a separate country (The Republic of Ireland) in 1949. Northern Ireland, like Wales and Scotland, is part of the commonwealth of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. This means that they aren’t separate countries per se, but they have some amount of independent governance.
After an early dinner, we headed over to our third tour of the day – a musical pub crawl in which we learned about traditional Irish music. Our tour guides, Steve and Larry, taught us how to tell a jig from a reel.
As you’re listening to a jig, you can say “rashers and sausages, rashers and sausages” along to the beat. Rashers are slabs of bacon, by the way. This means the song is in 6/8 time. If you can say “Black and Decker, Black and Decker” along to the beat, it is in 4/4 time and therefore it is a reel. In Irish traditional music (called Trad) they refer to instrumental pieces as tunes and songs with words as songs. They encouraged us to “play the boot,” meaning tap or stomp our foot on the wooden floors, along with the tunes and songs. What we would call a jam session they referred to as an acoustic session. They explained that when the musicians are unamplified, people don’t usually clap along to the music because it would be too loud and because it interferes with drinking. They tap their feet along to the music instead, recalling the days when the music was all in the service of dancing. They also encouraged us to have a pint or two along the way to give us the courage necessary for the singing they were going to ask us to do at the end of the evening.
Out in rural Ireland, they said, if you’re in a local pub listening to traditional Irish music and it is getting quite late, you might experience the “Noble Call.” The musicians will take a break and someone will sing an a cappella song from their region, then someone else will sing another, and you will all get “locked in” to the pub, which is illegal but apparently it happens all the time anyway. These sessions tend to last into the wee hours with people singing, drinking, smoking (also illegal inside, but if you’re going to break one law you might as well break others as well), and playing music, not unlike the Strawberry Music Festival or the Kate Wolf Music Festival or other music festivals around the U.S. (and elsewhere, I’m sure.)
As promised, at the end of the tour, they asked people to bring music to the group from their own regions of the world. One guy from Virginia sang a Steve Earle song called “Galway Girl.” Another sang a funny Irish song that made fun of the English. Another woman sang an Irish ballad. We weren’t planning to sing anything, but Steve, the guitar player, knew that George played guitar because of a question he had asked earlier about what tuning they were using, so Steve handed the guitar to George. It was the first time he had played in almost six months. We sang a Wailin’ Jenny’s song called Glory Bound, to rousing applause. (It might not get any better than this for us in Ireland.) People were sort of blown away that we sang in harmony. One woman even asked where we were from to see if she lived close enough to us in California so she could come see some of our performances. I explained that she was welcome in our living room, any time.
After the end of the pub crawl, we chatted with the musicians, bought a CD, and headed out for The Cobblestone, a little hole-in-the-wall pub where they said we would find real Trad. There we found about 15 musicians sitting in a corner playing music. It looked like a bunch of local folks who just showed up with their instruments to play casually together.
Between instrumental pieces, individuals would sing an old a cappella song and if you knew it, you were welcome to join in. They packed up around midnight and we headed back to our hotel.
The next morning, we set out for Kilmainham Gaol (Jail) where we learned the bleak and depressing history of Irish jails from the 1700s through the mid twentieth century.
We saw where Irish revolutionaries were killed by firing squad, where children were jailed for stealing bread, and where a couple was allowed to marry in the jail
and spend 10 minutes (nearly alone) together as husband and wife before he was hauled out and killed.
Exhausted by such stories, we headed over to the Guinness Storehouse and Museum to learn about how the Irish have endured such suffering. The building is seven stories tall and shaped like a giant Guinness glass. The “Guinness Experience” takes you through the history of the Guinness company and the beer making process.
In 1759, Arthur Guinness struck a famous land deal. He signed a 9,000 year lease on some property on the outskirts of Dublin at St. James’s Gate where he began brewing a style of beer that would make Ireland famous around the world. Though ale was the preferred beverage of the time, he took a chance and decided to make a new-fangled, much darker brew enjoyed by dock workers called porters. (The brew was called porter as well.) He made this dark brew even darker and it became known as stout. It is made by combining regular barley, roasted barley (which gives it the dark color), and malted barley. Malting is a process in which the barley is covered with water and allowed to sprout, then removed from the water and dried. The 3 kinds of barley are mashed up, mixed with water, boiled for awhile with hops, yeast is added for fermentation, the solids are removed and it is bottled.
Although the tour makes Arthur Guinness out to be a demi-god, I quite enjoyed this shrine to the dark brew. One of the most amazing parts of the tour is a video of coopers making oak beer casks by hand. By the fourth floor, you are allowed to have a little taste and even try your hand at pouring a perfect pint. The rest of the way up is dotted with little bars, historic advertising, displays on the history of transporting Guinness around the world, but the grand finale is the Gravity Bar at the top where you finally get to have a pint and enjoy 360° views of Dublin.
After that we were feeling quite holy, so we popped in to a couple cathedrals
and later had dinner in a de-consecrated church. There are still memorials and grave markers on the walls, a huge pipe organ, and stained glass, though there is a huge bar where the pews would once have been.
The food was excellent and the ambience even better. This place provided the romantic setting we had missed on our anniversary, so we raised a glass to our enduring love and an ever-deepening compatibility and flexibility that makes us ideal travel partners. We also toasted all our friends, old and new, who have supported our relationship along the way.