The Importance of Being Irish

My program ended on December 4 in London. It was really hard to say goodbye to everyone. We all went to the ULU (University of London Union) for a last hurrah that Wednesday night with our two lovely program coordinators and surrogate mothers, Erin and Stephanie. We all had a really good time, but it was very bittersweet. On Thursday, Natalie, Soxy, and I left London for Dublin and I returned Monday at midnight, only to fly back to the States early Tuesday morning, so that Wednesday night was not only a goodbye to everyone in my program (most of whom left London either for home or other countries on December 7), but also a goodbye to London itself, which has really become a home for me.

That aside, going to Ireland was a terrific experience, and one of the smoothest trips I’ve had. It was relief to not have any school work to slow me down while I was there, and I’d already dropped all of my luggage off at Soxy’s dorm (her program lasts longer than Natalie and mine) so the only stuff I had to worry about in Ireland was in one backpack. Natalie and I arrived in Dublin a few hours before Soxy, but it was pretty late at night. We checked into our hostel (which was pretty nice for the price. They made us free pancake breakfasts!) and had dinner at a fantastic Asian food place. To our credit, we tried to go to a place with authentic Irish food that night, but the one nearby was booked up for the night and we were starving! After Soxy arrived we went to sleep.

The next morning we started to explore the city. We’d heard from other people that Dublin was small and there wasn’t a ton to do, but this is ridiculous. It is small compared to London, but what isn’t? And we all loved Dublin! The river Laffey which runs straight through the city is really beautiful with arched bridges and cute store fronts. We enjoyed walking along that area on the first day and had lunch at a pub boasting quotes from Irish authors on the wall. For the record, Ireland has a HUGE literary history, and the entire trip felt a bit like a literary pilgrimage to me. This city was my Mecca. Just for reference, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wild, and Yeats were all from Dublin (which means the city produced 4 Nobel Prize winners in literature!). There are little reminders of them all over the city, from plaques with quotations from their novels, literary walks and pub crawls, visitors centers, and statues, they are all well remembered.

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(Dublin by the River Laffey that runs through it.)

The first day we also visited Trinity College in Dublin, which I fell in love with! Despite being right at the heart of the city, it is tucked away behind beautiful Victorian buildings, another world of great green space, historic buildings, and wonderful architecture. We went to the Old Library at Trinity College which was the main stop I wanted to make in Dublin. Here, they have many of the oldest manuscripts and the first printed and bound books in the world, as well as the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts still in existence. We saw many of these and looked at exhibits about the art of book making, ink making, manuscript illumination, and book bindings, as well as the Book of Kells itself. My favorite part, however, was the Long Room, the iconic part of the Old Library that houses many of these wonderful books and is really just stunning. I was in heaven. Later, I told Natalie and Soxy that being in the library really felt spiritual, like being a church for books.

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(Trinity College campus, hidden away in the middle of Dublin.)

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(My favorite place in Dublin, a chapel of books, the Long Room at the Old Library at Trinity.)

We switched gears after exploring the river and shops at lunch and went to a tour of the Guinness factory afterward, Soxy’s must-do activity. In all honesty, I don’t like Guinness. In fact, I’m not much of a beer person at all (which is why I’m going to miss Cider so much in the States!), but I still really enjoyed touring the Guinness factory. We got to have taste testings with professionals and see hands-on exhibits about how beer and Guinness in particular is made. The building itself was in a really historic part of Dublin and is also a giant pint glass, which is really actually very pretty. We finished with free drinks at the Gravity Bar, a bar at the very top of the pint glass and one of the highest points in Dublin. It was all glass windows and provided an amazing view of Dublin at night. Plus, at the factory we learned a lot of history about Dublin in general because Guinness is so intertwined with the city. They have always been one of the largest employers and supported their employees well in hard times, and have also used their money for many important renovations around the city, like renovating St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

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(Me having a Guinness at the Gravity Bar overlooking the city.)

That night we had a really wonderful dinner at a traditional Irish pub called O’Neill’s, which was right off of a beautifully decorated shopping area called Grafton Street, which is worth a visit just on its own. I got lamb stew, which is about as classic as Irish dishes get. Afterward, we went to the Temple Bar neighborhood, a really wonderful cobble-stone streeted cluster of roads and back alleys that really come alive at night. The neighborhood has great pubs, bars, restaurants, and shopping. We went to Temple Bar itself, the most famous of the bars on the street, for a pint. Dublin boasts a lot of great live music in their bars and pubs and Temple Bar didn’t disappoint. It was packed, but we managed to get a space in the main room to listen to live music with our drinks and talk to some local Irish people. It was a really great night.

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(Temple Bar, where we heard some live music and met some nice people.)

The next day we decided to take a day trip to Cork and Blarney, two places outside of Dublin. Cork is about three hours away and Blarney is only a 20 minute bus ride from there. All and all it was pretty cheap. We went through Cork to Blarney. Blarney is a small village but it houses Blarney Castle, a really beautiful castle situated on an even more beautiful estate. The grounds were worth going to see on their own. They had lots of beautiful walking trails as well as gardens, bridges, woods, and babbling brooks. It was very picturesque. They really played on the tales, legends, and fables that surround Blarney as well, telling stories on plaques around the grounds about witches, fairies, and druids that were said to have resided there.

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(The magical Blarney Castle and Grounds.)

The castle itself is a ruins, but you can still walk inside and up into the castle, where there is lots of information about what each room would have been. Then, at the top you get a beautiful view of the countryside, grounds, and Blarney. The top is also home to Blarney Stone, the reason why many people come at all and yet another stop on my literary pilgrimage. Legend goes that if you kiss the Blarney Stone you will be gifted with eloquence in your speech and writing for the rest of your life. Given my career path, I think this would come in handy. The tricky part is the stone is on the side of the castle, meaning you have to be hung down the side off the top in order to kiss it. People attempting it in the Victorian era often fell to their deaths. But no worries – now they have bars to hold onto while you are held upside down and a man who holds tight onto your ankles to make sure you don’t plummet. It was a little tough to let myself hang down the side of the castle, feeling so much like I was about the fall, but I found the stone and gave it a big, smacking kiss. My kiss was so loud that other people in the castle could hear it and laughed. The ankle-holder man told me that was the best kiss the Blarney Stone had seen in a while. I had to make it count, didn’t I?

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(A view from a window in Blarney Castle.)

After seeing the castle and the grounds, we went back to Cork where we had a wonderful lunch and looked around the city a bit. We went to an antique marking, which was fun, and took a walk along the river. Cork is also situated on water and is a port city so we were accompanied by the sound of seagulls the whole way. It also had lots of very quanit buildings and houses with bright colored faces that make it all very cheery. Afterward, we went into the city center were they were having a Christmas fair, not unlike the one in Hyde Park. We looked at the vendors, saw the Ferris Wheel, and walked through a Santa Village they had set up, which was all a lot of fun. After, we took our coach bus back to Dublin.

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(Cork by the river.)

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(Me making a wish by blowing “fairy dust” on the wishing tree at Cork’s Christmas Village.)

Since that was the last night Soxy was with us, we treated ourselves to a nicer dinner at a great Italian restaurant and called it a night pretty early. The next day, Soxy’s flight back to London wasn’t until the afternoon, so we spent the morning doing a self-guided tour of Medieval and Viking Dublin. The city has a really rich history so it’s impossible to see everything but we did go through some great, old cobblestoned streets to see Dublin Caste, ChristChurch Cathedral, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as well as a series of other old government buildings and the old Dublin wall, the one originally built by the Vikings when they settled the city for the first time. We got to go into a few other cathedrals (there are a TON of them in Dublin) but we really wanted to go into St. Patricks, which is said to be built on the site where St. Patrick first baptized pagans into Christianity.

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(In the Dublin Castle courtyard.)

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(Christ Church Cathedral.)

We got a great lunch a family-owned café nearby and then went to the park beside the cathedral which is lovely and has a nice memorial to each individual Dublin author, poet, and playwright to achieve acclaim. Then we went into the cathedral itself which is magnificent. It is home to Ireland’s largest organ, as well as the final resting place of satirical writers and dean of the church, Jonathan Swift. Swift was head of St. Patrick’s right before it fell into disrepair and tried to pump life back into it, to no avail, but he is still celebrated there (I’m a big fan of his writing). It was great to see a church with so much history, but also one so active still in the community. The floors, also, were the prettiest I’ve seen in any cathedral. Many focus on the ceiling in cathedrals, but in St. Patrick’s, it’s worth looking at the floor.

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(The exterior of St. Patricks viewed from the park outside.)

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(St. Patricks interior.)

Soxy left soon after this but Natalie and I weren’t leaving until 10pm the next day. After Soxy left we visited some iconic parks and squares in Dublin which hold the National Library, the National Museum, and the National Gallery, all of which are free! We really enjoyed looking at Irish history, particularly prehistoric artifacts in the National Museum, and reading the stories behind lots of Irish masterpieces in the National Gallery. The National Gallery in particular had a wonderful collection of really great paintings, all of them diverse, but we really liked seeing the Irish collection in particular to see some of the area’s great masters. Also nearby in the St. Stephen’s Green park area, they were having a local artist market, so we saw a huge amount of paintings from local artists today, which was really fun. Afterward we got dinner at a tiny burrito place, the first burrito I’ve had in four months! It was amazing.

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(The outside of the National Museum.)

That night we went to Whelan’s another popular bar with live music, and we heard some great blues music there while we had a pint, and then took a walk down by the river since it was our last night in Dublin. We saw the James Joyce statue, the Post Office (a beautiful building that has become a symbol for the Irish fight for independence after the role in played in uprisings), and other landmarks. It was a nice way to wrap up our time in Dublin.

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(During our walk on our last night we saw this hulahooper performer in front of some of the lovely holiday lights.)

The next day we weren’t leaving until 10pm so we booked a day tour that would take us out into the countryside again, since the countryside of Ireland is so gorgeous. It was a great tour, and really cheap! It took us on hikes through the Glendalough National Park, an amazing place. The air was so fresh there and we saw tons of mountains, moss, old trees, and lakes. It was beautiful. We also got a tour of old monastic ruins there which were picturesque and historic. Afterward we drove through the Wicklow Mountains, which are so picturesque that they have been the site of many movies, like Braveheart. Finally, we got to explore the village of Killkenny, which dates from medieval times and therefore is host to tons of history as well as curious little cobblestoned streets and alleys. It was really quaint and lovely. We explored the Killkenny Castle there, as well as the Black Abbey Church and the little shops in the streets and alleys. It was a really lovely final day with so much packed into it, and all the while we had a fantastic tour guide from the area, telling us about growing up in rural Ireland. She was a great storyteller and guide. While I could go on about this day trip alone forever, I think pictures of it say more, so here are just a few.

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(Me at the upper lake at Glendalough National Park.)

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(The round tower at the monastic settlement we visited. It looks like a Rapunzel tower to me.)

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(Another view from the monastic settlement.)

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(And another…)

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(The view where we stopped in the Warwick Gap.)

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(The cute town of Kilkenny.)

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(Kilkenny Castle)

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(An alley called Butter Slip in Kilkenny. These little curious streets were why I loved Kilkenny.)

I really loved Ireland as a place, but what I loved most about Ireland were the people! Ireland by far had the nicest people I’ve met so far on this trip. They aren’t afraid of coming up to you and starting a conversation, and they remember who you are when they see you later. They are talkative and golly, and always wanting to help. It is so easy to make friends there. I met more people there in four days that I did anywhere else in four months! I cannot say enough nice things about the people of Ireland and how welcome they made us all feel. They are truly what makes Ireland great, but this is true for most places. For me, no matter how amazing a place may be, it’s the people that make is special, which was why it was so important for Ireland to be my last trip. This is true for my time in Santander, where I met and become close with Dylan’s amazing host family, and it’s true for London where I had such an amazing group of people to work with a learn from, but the Irish as a whole were the friendliest, and most joyous people. I could not be more pleased and grateful for the people I have met on this journey, no matter where I met them, and the important difference they have made for me on this trip, and in my life.           

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