Heads aching, eyes burning and skin clammy, Iain and I took a bus from Belfast to Dundalk, far too early in the morning. It was ten o’clock, but our agony made the hour feel quite unsuitable for anywhere but bed. Our ailments had arisen from walking down Belfast’s University Road the previous night, and succumbing to the lure of a flyer handed to us on the street. “The Bunker”, it read, “Tuesdays – Student Night: Free Entry”, “Bulmers £1”. Being budget conscious travellers, we were sold.
Bulmers is an Irish cider, to which we had become accustomed in England (at £3 a bottle), where it is known as Magners, under license. A refreshingly crisp apple cider, usually served on ice from its pint sized bottles, it is lethal stuff. Needless to say we had a duty to make use of the give-away price.
So we sat on the bus, regretting our indulgence, on the way to Dundalk. We were to be collected by my dad’s cousin, whom neither of us had ever met, and wondered how we would plod through the day in the state we were in. We arrived at Terence and his wife Mary’s house after the short drive from Dundalk and soon felt it was necessary to explain the cause of our drawn faces and subdued demeanour. Terence immediately offered a solution: another Bulmers which he swiftly opened before we could say a word. If you can stomach it, hair of the dog is often the answer.
Terence and Mary’s house is on the same farm that my father’s mother grew up on, which they have inherited. Although only ten miles from Dundalk, in the Republic of Ireland, the farm falls within Northern Ireland’s borders, excepting a small strip of land which breeches the southern border.
We sat down to a hearty lunch of cold meats, salads galore, home baked soda bread and fresh honeycomb, straight from the farm’s hive. Told to “make ourselves at home”, we did, and, with full bellies, slept off our hangovers with an afternoon nap.
That evening, I met the rest of my distant cousins: Anne-Marie, Jane and Adrian, Terence and Mary’s children, all around 30 years old. Although they all live within a few miles of the family home, their visit was a pleasant surprise. Jane’s friend, Nori, stopped by, but the family wouldn’t hear of her leaving without staying for supper.
We all chattered at full volume throughout the evening, while Terence fuelled our moods, relentlessly topping up our wine glasses. We ate an ample selection of meats and salads, accompanied by every condiment I could desire. I was starting to suspect the source of my sauce obsession, not to mention the roots of my chatterbox ways, for which the Irish are so well known. “It was a great craic”, Mary said the next morning, the true measure of all worthwhile occasions in Ireland, it seems.
Dublin was our next destination. As well as insisting on driving us the hour or so himself, Terence offered us the use of the family’s Dublin apartment for the duration of our visit, much to our delight. Eliminating our accommodation costs, of course, left more Guinness money available.
The apartment is a fifteen minute bus ride from Dublin’s city centre. Because we arrived late that evening, we headed for a nearby pub that Terence had recommended, only a ten minute walk away. We would supposedly find the cheapest pint in Dublin there, but at €3.75, I wasn’t exactly feeling rich. Kavanagh’s Gravediggers is bordered by an enormous cemetery. There are over a million graves, a number equal to Dublin’s current population.
We walked inside the pub and were greeted by creaky wooden floors, once varnished, and tables of men, all with a Guinness in hand. We joined the table of a solitary man, after he proffered the last two seats in the modest establishment. He had been born and bred in Dublin, and proved as chatty as we were warned Dubliners can be.
Although we had intended on an early night, the rain came down outside and our new companion insisted, “Oh well, you’d might as well wait a wee while ‘til the rain stops”. Waiting for the rain to stop in Ireland is about as rational as waiting for a heat wave in England, and before we had emptied our glasses, our new mate appeared with fresh pints, brimming with the black stuff. The rain went on and on, as did the drinking, and the table of people beside us merged with ours. Soon the chatter between us got louder, nobody noticing the amplification of their own voice, as is often the consequence of a few pints. Last rounds were called at half past twelve, and we accepted the offer of a lift from two young guys we’d met, who were headed in the general direction of the apartment.
Sadly, a fantastic introduction to an exceptionally friendly people was slightly dampened the following evening, as when entered the infamous Temple Bar. The area houses Dublin’s busiest and most dense cluster of pubs, mostly with cheerfully painted facades offering “Traditional Irish Music”, “Irish Coffee”, “Irish Stew”, and just about anything Irish. The only thing lacking were the Irish themselves.
The pubs were heaving beyond any level of comfort, and once inside, toward the bar for a drink, I felt like I could have been in any old pub in any old city. In Temple Bar, you’re likely to while away your Dublin evening with Brits, Americans and Germans, at €6 a pint.
Our days in Dublin were mostly spent wandering through pedestrianised Grafton Street, on the south side of the River Liffey. The district is a melting pot of colour and rhythms abound. The bustle carries you along, bobbing in astonishment at the array of activity.
Buskers are stationed at intervals along the length of the cobbled road, each respecting the territory of their neighbouring peers, aware of the distance required for sound to avoid cacophony. The musicians take on every shape and form imaginable. We watched an Asian child torture a violin beside a dreadlocked 20-something strumming a guitar, moaning. Further down the street, a seven part orchestra produced a breathtaking symphony of wind and string. A group of eight or so youths, waving crucifixes above their heads, clapped in time with their naked, unaccompanied voices.
Mimes, reminiscent of those dotted along London’s south bank, frozen in character and faithfully dressed for the part, compete for the shrapnel of the passers by. Raised by a small step, a slender man in shiny black attire, his face and hands pure silver, gracefully swayed his sword upon the chink of a coin below his feet. Across from him, a man who appeared to have large bolts screwed into his neck, clenched his teeth, eyes bulging, and waited for his coin on every day that we passed.
We spent our last day in the city attempting to see some of Dublin’s historical Georgian streets, and made use of an iWalk to do so. A podcast, downloaded from Dublin Tourism at no charge, it guides you through the city, giving you directions and remarking on various points of interest that you pass along the way. We copied the file to a mobile phone and, with some difficulty, the two of us listened through one set of earphones as we followed the route.
The walk took us through Trinity College, the institution from which many of Ireland’s great writers were borne. Dublin has produced several of the greats. William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and Oscar Wilde are among those featured in exhibits at the Dublin Writer’s Museum, which we had visited the day before.
Although he spent most of his life in England, Oscar Wilde is among Trinity College’s graduates. The walk led us to a particularly amusing sculpture of Wilde, depicted in complete repose, sprawled out over a rock in Merrion Square. Beside the sculpture are two granite pilasters, on which some of his finest quotes are scrawled, mocking casually, in ink. “I can resist everything except temptation”, “…my duty is a thing I never do, on principle” and “Work is the curse of the drinking classes” represent an ingenuity that has long since held the world’s respect.
Towards the end of the walk, we noticed the remains of the bygone British era: a post box. Still bearing the royal coat of arms, its form was identical to the post boxes dotted all over Britain. Red, cylindrical and just over a metre high, they resemble oversized fire hydrants. Although this one was painted a bright shamrock green.
It was one symbol of the national spirit evident everywhere. It is found on every signpost in the country, which are painted in Gaelic and English, and at the sold out Croke Park where Gaelic Games are played. This pride is now paired with a growing confidence as the economy soars.
We left Dublin early the next morning, headed for Doolin. We boarded a city bus to the central coach station at six that morning and battled even to find a space to stand. Dublin’s workforce was creaking into gear, the buzz of the city had begun, and the drive behind the country’s boom became more apparent. After years of insignificance, these Dubliners weren’t willing to be left behind.
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