TRAVEL with pat and lew

Dublin days

Posted by Lew Weinstein on March 3, 2007

The countryside still retains the old charm that most of us associate with Ireland, although thatched roof houses are few and far between. Dublin, on the other hand, is a cosmopolitan European city, with sophisticated restaurants, transportation, and shopping.

Not to worry, there are still plenty of Irish pubs.

At its center, Dublin encourages walking. Turn any corner for a fresh view of captivating architecture, shops and people.

I take far too many photos of colorful wooden doors. I also take photos of faces, Irish mainly, but others too, as the population is now quite mixed. The character of the doors and the faces, related in some unfathomable way, speaks of Ireland to me.

Early one morning, we sit on a street corner bench near the Connally station, sip coffee (me) and tea (Pat), and watch Dublin come to life. Swarms of people are going to work. Young people. The kind of young people who didn’t use to stay in Ireland. Now they not only stay, but more come from other countries, creating an immigration problem for the first time in Ireland’s long history.

If you don’t count the British.

The Temple Bar area is a magnet for the young. Bars and music, and more bars, opportunities to meet, street entertainment, some quite excellent. An old man sits on a stone seat, a living statue. Clusters of flowers decorate entryways and balustrades.

At Parnell Square is the Dublin Writer’s Museum. Does any other city have a writer’s museum? Tributes to W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce.

An actor provides 45 minutes of literary quotes, Irish humor, and political commentary. “Ireland is now wealthy,” he says. “The EU gives us money. I don’t know why, but we take it.”

Arbour Hill cemetery holds the remains of 14 martyrs from 1916, buried in a single mass grave where the over-confident Brits callously threw them. A tour guide describes the 1920s conflict between those who would compromise (Eamon DeValera) and those who wouldn’t (Michael Collins). He’s still indignant that there’s nothing to mark the spot in County Cork where Collins was murdered, some say at DeValera’s order.

There’s a wedding at a Greek Church near the cemetery. We talk quietly about the modernization of Ireland with the elderly driver who waits in a black limousine for the bride and groom to emerge. He thinks, on balance, the changes are good.

We stop for the obligatory tea and scones at Bewley’s on Grafton Street, for Guinness at O’Donohues, and on Dawson Street we stumble into the opulent Café en Seine, an early 1900s Art Nouveau Paris interior reminiscent of the New York Café in Budapest where we visited the previous month.

On another day, we return to Café en Seine for a late afternoon snack, and a couple from Northern Ireland urges us to visit. “It’s different now,” they say. “Much better. If you’re still leery of Belfast, try Donegal.” Pat, however, was in Belfast during the “Troubles” and has no desire to return.

At the National Gallery of Art near Merrion Square, I’m moved by the simplicity and compassion of paintings of every day Irish life by John Butler Yeats (1839-1922). 

Mr. Yeats had quite a family. Two sons. One, known as J.B. Yeats to distinguish him from his father, is generally recognized as the most famous Irish artist. The other, W.B. Yeats, reigns uncontested as the most famous Irish poet. There was also a daughter, Anne Butler Yeats, a painter sufficiently talented to warrant restrospectives at the Royal Hibernian Academy and the National Gallery.

The Irish Jewish Museum is in an old synagogue, no longer used since the congregants have moved to the suburbs. The museum was opened in 1985 by a former President of Israel, Dr. Chaim Herzog, who was born in Ireland. We learn that the first Jews arrived in Ireland in 1079, and many more came after the expulsions from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century. The Jewish population of Ireland peaked at 5,500 in the 1940s as Jews fled from Nazi Germany, and is now approximately 1800.

The most famous Jew in the history of Ireland is Leopold Bloom, whose long walk one day in 1904 is the basis of James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses. The story is that Joyce was saved from a beating by a passing Jew and subsequently felt indebted to the Jewish race. His repayment is one of the greatest works in world literature. Some day I’ll read it.

Contrasts abound. One gallery features photos of the new Ireland by a returning son, while an archive next door displays photos of Dublin from the early 20th century.

At the Brown Thomas department store on Grafton Street, Pat shops while I speak with the formally attired doorman who was featured in a Samantha Brown’s Passport to Europe program on Dublin, robustly singing the tale of sweet Molly Malone. He is less sanguine about the changes in Ireland that the limo driver. “Too much money for some,” he says, “not enough for others.”

Something called the Street Performance World Championship is held on Merrion Square, one of Dublin’s largest and grandest Georgian spaces, surrounded on 3 sides by elegant town houses and on the fourth by gardens and museums. Four performance venues are organized in the park, and through a steady rain, the acts go on.

The crowds are deep, but we manage to get close enough to see someone who calls himself That Man. At the conclusion of his act, he points out that, without speaking a single word, he has kept his audience smiling and laughing, in the rain, for 35 minutes. He asks the crowd to grade this remarkable performance, from 1 to 20, to put a euro sign before the grade, and to make a corresponding deposit into the hat he suddenly flourishes.  The languages most spoken in Ireland are English, Chinese, Polish, Irish, in that order. We understand the Polish, since 130,000 Poles have recently emigrated to Ireland. But Chinese?

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