Monday, January 29, 2007

Ah, the peat

Late January roasting barley fermenting hops stout hopscotch hopwhiskey stench of coffee but not Irish; cash in fish and chips on the jade lawn of Christ Church / gruel at Gruel, breakfast at Bewley's, Guinness at any pub that would have us have ourselves have we mentioned Dublin?

Yes, we spent the weekend in Dublin, and had all kinds of exciting emerald-tinted adventures, recalled here not in feeble stab at a stream-of-consciousness rant but chronologically...


1. The Irish Museum of Modern Art, whose commitment to brand-new work far outshines any of its English counterparts - no Matisse to be seen there! - is housed in the old Royal Hospital at Kilmainham, built in 1684 to accommodate invalid soldiers. The combination of 17th-century architecture and 21st-century art is striking, and the restored gardens on the side of the building are beautiful. It took some determination to trudge up the hill around the cranes and tractors of an immense construction site, wending our way through a maze of orange fences; but the juxtaposition of old and new - the purple walls against the old stone, the five-foot silver axe leaning casually against a tree - made the trip
more than worthwhile.

2. The Guinness brewery, of course! This Irish landmark occupies a huge chunk of western Dublin, and is surrounded by forbidding 20-foot-high cement walls that put us in mind of a medieval castle more than a repository of alcoholic pleasures. The pilgrim can smell it some distance away, and approaches accompanied by dozens of other dedicated travellers en route to the Canterbury of stout. The caws of apparently giant ravens meet you as you enter the shadows of the towering fermentation tanks, lending a somewhat macabre aspect to the whole experience. This impression is dispelled, however, when you realize that the sounds are actually coming from loudspeakers placed at the top of the tanks; they are there to scare away pigeons, who, we were informed by a temporarily unoccupied hansom cab driver, "ru'n the Guinness."

The inside of the "Storehouse" is the glitziest tour this side of Chocolate World. We were guided by a video version of the master brewer, who walked in and out of giant flat-screen TVs explaining the details of the brewing process and inviting his guests to taste the barley and watch the malting. We gradually made our way upstairs following his instructions, and engaged in a little quality control at the bar at the very top of the building, where you exchange your entrance ticket for a pint of the good stuff and sip it as you look round the glassed-in circular room, which offers unrivaled views of the city and quotes from Joyce embossed on the windows.

3. Lunchtime! - and we had the most fantastic fish and chips of our young lives, bought at the tiny shop Leo Burdock's and messily consumed without benefit of fork, knife or napkin on the green of Christ Church Cathedral.

A wander around Dublin Castle, built by the English after their occupation of Ireland and standing as a reminder of Ireland's colonial past. It was built on the site of Dubh Linn, "Black Pool," after which Dublin is named. We skipped the tour of the state apartments in favor of a trip to the Chester Beatty Library, a truly fabulous collection of Christian, Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu religious manuscripts. But after a lengthy perusal of small print in dark rooms, we began to feel the need for a rejuvenating pint - it had been nearly four hours since our last one, after all - and headed to the Palace, one of Dublin's oldest pubs and a traditional hangout of Irish journalists and writers, among them Yeats and Kavanaugh. We engaged in much pithy conversation, peppered with salty wisdom and Celtic metaphors.

5. Dinner at Gruel. A cheaper offshoot of the renowned Mermaid Cafe, this hipster restaurant specializes in simple but delicious Irish dishes, including a salad of greens with pinto beans, sweet potatoes, radicchio and a blue cheese dressing; smoked haddock fish pie; and shank of lamb - seared, braised, re-seared and served with beans and root vegetables - which Tam reduced to a clean bone.


1. The next morning, we woke relatively early and headed to Grafton Street (Dublin's main shopping area, and the part of town most obviously benefited by the economic assistance of the European Union) for breakfast at the recently reopened Dublin institution Bewley's Oriental Cafe. The building boasts high ceilings and some remarkable art deco glass windows, featuring lots of stylized peacocks; it's just the place to down some eggs and black pudding for breakfast, or to wonder aloud how they manage to make porridge taste like an ice cream sundae (top-quality steel-cut oats - okay, and the giant gob of whipped cream on the top might have something to do with it, too). Dublin is a real coffee city, with loads of cafes and a population that prefers double espressos to Earl Grey tea; Bewley's roasts its own beans, and provided our first cup of genuinely hardcore coffee since we visited Paris last month.

2. Onward, to stroll around Fitzwillam and Merrion Squares and admire the Georgian architecture of Dublin's finest houses, elegant squares and the beautiful landscaped parks of St Stephen's Square and the Iveagh Gardens. Laura was especially enamored of the candy-colored Georgian doors, and took many pictures of them, most of which were inexplicably blurry or deleted as being of no interest whatsoever. This one survived.

We reverently entered the gates of Trinity College, Dublin's most venerable institution of higher education. It was founded in 1592 and for many centuries remained one of the most prominent bastions of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, until the Catholic Church determined that Catholic attendance there would no longer be considered a mortal sin - in 1970. We wandered through the quads and got a close-up of the famous Book of Kells, as well as a look at the aptly named Long Room library, featuring a mini-exhibit on the Irish playwright J.M. Synge and the foundation of the Abbey Theatre under his and Yeats' direction.

(Incidentally, although his talents as a thespian are not widely known or commonly esteemed, Laura's dad once made a memorable one-off appearance in a production of Synge's The Playboy of the Western World for the British Council in Barcelona. His effortless conversion of tragedy to comedy with the delivery of a single line is the stuff of legend.)

4. Definitely time for another pint: an excellent Guinness at the Stag's Head followed by another, this time to wash down Irish rock oysters at Davy Byrne's, where Leopold Bloom eats a Gorgonzola sandwich (rather un-Irish fare, actually) in Ulysses.

5. We finished up the day with a stroll through the grittier neighborhoods of Northern Dublin, where you can see bullet marks from the 1916 Easter Rising in the columns of the General Post Office. You can also take in the much-discussed Spire of Dublin, built to improve the tone of the neighborhood but given various unflattering nicknames by the Celtic Tiger's good citizens (some choice examples: "Stiletto in the Ghetto," "the Rod to God", the "Erection at the Intersection," and the "Stiffy by the Liffey").

And finally, a look at Customs House and a sunset stroll by the river on the way to catch the bus to the airport.

More pictures of our exciting adventure are available here:

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