Before we set foot into Dublin on March 19 of 2017, I knew that Ireland had the following qualities: rich literary history (James Joyce, Samuel Beckett), rich alcoholic history (Guinness, Jameson), rich historical…history (Guinness Factory; joking, but even the $25 t-shirts can’t detract from the cool, dark finish of that black brew) and rich linguistic history (as difficult as Gaelic is, I think it’s still more difficult to understand the Scots!). I wondered about these myths as we stepped off the airport express bus in the heart of Dublin: College Green.
Our First Impressions of Ireland: Dublin
The name Dublin comes from the words Dubh (black) Linn (pool), which together forms “Black Pool.” Funnily enough, there is also an English city called Blackpool, so I wonder which city got their name first. Bonus points for anyone who finds that out.
Initially, we did the touristy thing and busted out our Dublin map and looked for the street where our hotel was located. Almost immediately, a friendly college-aged guy from the city tourism office asked us if we needed any help, and told us where to go. My first sense of Dublin as we walked to the hotel and passed Dublin Castle was a modern, lovely, slightly manic place teeming with pubs, restaurants, convenience shops, gift shops (of course), tourists, and hurried locals.
We were jet-lagged on our first day, but managed to visit Dublin Castle, which isn’t restored to its original state because it only has one tower left and a few things missing. We still learned about its history, and saw a historic chapel used by the royals. We also visited the Chester Beatty Library, which contains some magnificent ancient manuscripts from China, India, Armenia, Britain, and Europe. It’s free to visit, and well worth the time to browse these thousand year old books, some of them as big as a bookshelf.
I won’t do the guide book thing and state that no visit to Dublin is incomplete without seeing the Guinness Factory, but if you’re a fan of beer, then it’s pretty hard to turn down a visit to any brewery, especially one as famous and tasty as Guinness. The tour is self-guided, with some exhibits, and you get to see how they make their brew (hops, barley, all that jazz). The tour takes about an hour and ends with the best part, a chance to not only pour your own Guinness pint from tap, but to also drink that very pint. I was lucky, because the Guinness barman gave me his pint that he showed us how to pour due to the fact that he couldn’t understandably drink his own pint. So I drank two full, fresh pints, along with a nice lunch. Needless to say, it was a good day, no matter the cold and rainy weather outside.
Why do people (ok, I really mean tour books) call the east coast of Ireland, the Ancient East? Probably because the east coast is teeming with a bevy of historic buildings, churches, burial mounds, that sort of thing. One of the biggest burial mounds in Ireland, and one of the few accessible ones, is located in Bru Na Boinne, a tiny farming village. It’s called, very exotically, Newgrange. It’s a large circular structure dating back thousands of years, which was used to bury men, women, and children. Apparently, one day out of the year in December, a special, randomly selected group of tourists gets to view a ray of sunshine enter the tomb and illuminate the blackness inside. At least, we’re told that’s what happens. Maybe they perform Eyes Wide Shut type of rituals in there, who knows.
For those of you who aren’t one of the chosen ones in December, your guide closes all the lights for you inside the tomb and you are left with darkness. Must be fairly creepy to be caught in a blackout there or worse: left inside. You literally can’t see anything in front of you! They do mimic how the sun rises through the gates through lights, which would be great if you were there in person. Anyway, Newgrange is very much a fantastic structure, and worth the trek.
Driving On the ‘Wrong’ Side of the Road
As we settled into our rented Skoda Octavia (designed by a Slovak engineer, mind you) and joined the big highway road M50 out of Dublin, I was surprised to find that the Irish don’t really drive that fast, at least not on the highways. I was regularly passing people just by going the speed limit (120km). In many parts of Europe, the speed limit is merely a suggestion, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that, at least from my limited experience of driving a few days on the highways, the Irish seemed to be more laid-back than other parts of Europa.
Of course, the country roads are a different beast altogether. I didn’t have the misfortune to get stuck behind a huge tractor on these “L” roads (L designates the small country roads, R is like a regional or county road, N is a city road/highway, and M is the big highway). The country roads are pretty narrow, and in many parts it’s basically a one-car road. In those situations, if you encounter a car going toward you, then one of you will need to slow down and pull over to the side and let one car go. There were a few hair raising moments, especially one late in the evening when a car going in the opposite direction drove in the middle of the road and saw me at the last moment as we reached the top of a hill. We both jerked our wheels, and missed each other by a few inches or so.
Ireland has many castles, some of them decrepit, some magnificent, some in the “I-used-to-be-a-castle-but-I’m-sort-of-a-historical-ruin-now” stage. We visited three castles , and each was in a unique sort of shape, each with an interesting history, and each about a thousand years old, give or take a decade. I already mentioned Dublin Castle above, so I will only describe Trim and Kilkenny castles below.
Imposing in its heyday, but more than half of it has crumbled because it had been abandoned for hundreds of years before the Irish state stepped in to salvage its remaining walls. The entrance to the castle and its grounds is inexpensive, and the guided tour is full of interesting backstory. The castle is mostly known, to Western tourists and film buffs, as the filming location of some of the scenes from Mel Gibson’s Braveheart epic in the mid 90’s.
We had lunch at The Castle diner, which had pictures of Aaron Paul (of Breaking Bad fame) on there eating their fish and chips. The town of Trim is more of a village, but it is clean and lovely to stroll around. The Stockhouse is a great place for dinner, with excellent service, but a tad bit pricey. It offers steak dinners (Ruby’s favorite!)
Of the four castles we visited, Kilkenny was by far in the best shape. It was immaculately restored to its original grand state, inside and out. We did a self-guided tour, which took about an hour, and had to dodge a few school groups which also did tours at the same time. One of the nice things about the castle are the castle grounds, which, as you can tell by the below photo, are massive and trimmed to perfection. The walk around the castle is quite nice, and it’s also right in the heart of Kilkenny the town, so there are shops and restaurants all around.
Just the start…
Soaring castles, five-thousand year old burial mounds, rocks the size of a Boeing 777 (literally), excellent beer, funny and friendly locals – for a small country, Ireland has a tremendous amount of things to offer, and we only really explored the east coast. Can’t wait to come back and do the rest of the country!