September 21, 2013

Dublin "Dia dhuit" - Part II

The weather has become cooler and wetter with a stiff breeze blowing but there is still so much to see!  Let's begin in the southeast quadrant of Dublin, home to many famous sights including Trinity College and its star attraction, the Book of Kells.

Trinity College Dublin was founded by royal charter in 1592 and maintains a reputation as one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the world.  The day of my visit coincided with "Freshers' Week" and the campus green was covered with little tents each representing a university club or society recruiting new members.  The variety was astonishing - everything from the "Trampoline Society" to the "Rifle Society" to the "Metaphysical Society" or "Metafizz" as is was promoted to potential members!  But as my college days were literally 30 years ago I carried on to the main goal - the Old Library.

Appropriately, the Old Library is housed in the oldest surviving building on the university grounds.  Built between 1712-1732 it was a remarkable structure designed to resist the instability of the marshy grounds and protect the books from damp.

We begin in the Treasury where, well protected under glass, is the Book of Kells, a lavishly illustrated manuscript of the four gospels.  Probably produced early in the 9th century by the monks of Iona, the message of the life of Christ was inscribed on vellum in four volumes comprising 340 sheets.  Each page is intricately decorated using colored inks to create an overall illustration often with the text incorporated into the design.  It is indeed a masterpiece of book design with no opportunity for embellishment missed and a powerful proclamation of the New Testament.

Moving upstairs to the actual library and the aptly named Long Room which runs 65 meters (more than 2 football fields) in length and holds over 200,000 books shelved under its barrel-vaulted ceiling (an 1860 alteration).  Walking down the main aisle lined with marble busts of writers and other notables and one cannot help but be impressed both by the architecture and the wealth of knowledge contained within.

It's time to head outside and around the corner to the National Gallery of Ireland.  This is a quick stop as their outstanding collection of Old Master paintings is not open at the moment so we have to make do with a walk through the galleries of Irish art.

A few steps away is the Natural History Museum.  It would not ordinarily be on my "must see" list but it was highly recommended by some erudite friends who smiled knowing smiles as they urged a visit.  One step inside the first gallery and I knew exactly why they loved it - the museum is basically unchanged since it first opened its doors in 1857!  Unlike so many museums that felt the need to modernize, the Natural History Museum retains its original wood and glass display cases showing clearly marked specimens without the aid of video or interactive paraphernalia.  The exhibits speak for themselves.

The ground floor is devoted to animals, birds and marine life indigenous to Ireland with the skeleton of a now extinct Irish elk greeting visitors as they enter.  The upper floor features all manner of creatures from around the world.  Here we find everything from a massive whale suspended from the ceiling to the skeleton of a dodo bird.  The art of taxidermy is alive and well at this institution with countless heads and full body examples on display.  Another claim to fame for this off-beat museum is their important collection of glass models of marine invertebrates made by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka in Dresden during the late 19th century.  These exquisite recreations of delicate sea creatures provided marine biologists with the ability to study, identify and catalogue the organisms with durable and accurate replicas.  But as well as being scientifically important, they are quite beautiful objects in their own right.

After lunch it's time for something completely different.  Crossing through town to what used to be the westernmost outskirts of Dublin and we come to a rather chilling reminder of the City's rebellious history - Kilmainham Gaol.  Opened in 1796 as a state-of-the-art facility, the jail held civil and political prisoners as well as hard core criminals throughout its 130 years of active use.

Now a visit to a prison may not seem like a tourist destination but this was fascinating.  Our guide painted a vivid picture of life within the jail's walls and also explained the history of the Irish fight for independence from England.  Originally intended to incarcerate prisoners only in solitary confinement with hard labor as a respite, it did not take long for the cells to overflow with inmates.  As the Great Famine of 1845-49 worsened, the prison became almost a desirable option for survival and many of the detainees were mere children locked up for begging or stealing food.

 Looking through a peephole into a cell

Although closed in 1910, the jail was re-opened six years later to house rebels captured during the Easter Rising.  This seminal event on the road to Irish independence may not have been successful in its goal but the harsh treatment received by the revolutionaries in the prison actually galvanized many Irish citizens into bearing arms for the fight.  When the partial independence granted by England in 1919 did not satisfy the crusaders, Ireland sank into a Civil War that lasted for nearly two years.  Once again, Kilmainham Gaol was the penitentiary where the anti-government rebels were held and sometimes executed by firing squad.

After years of bloodshed Ireland achieved independence and was recognized as a republic.  The terrible prison was closed and stood empty for 40 years until it was restored and reopened as a grim salute to Irish tenacity and determination.

By this time I think you will agree that I've earned a pint so it's off to the oldest part of Dublin known as Temple Bar.  There are so many pubs and bars here that it's hard to make a choice but finally I opted for the one called simply, The Temple Bar!  Established in 1840 The Temple Bar features live traditional Irish music, an excellent line up of draught beers and boasts the largest collection of whiskeys in Ireland, all in a very friendly atmosphere.

I'll leave you with a photo I took on my last evening while walking to the north side of the the city for dinner.  The rain had stopped and the wind had died down and the historic Ha'Penny Bridge was perfectly reflected in the water of the River Liffey.  It was a magical scene here in the land of leprechaun and a fitting farewell to the Emerald Isle!

No comments: