September 19, 2013

Dublin "Dia dhuit" (Irish Hello) - Part I

As my regular readers have no doubt noticed, I love to visit to new places.  So when the possibility of a quick trip to Ireland came up, it took no longer than a glance at my calendar to say "Sure, let's go!"  And go we did arriving bright and early last Saturday morning to a glorious blue Dublin sky but quite chilly temperatures.

Established as a Viking settlement in the 9th century, Dublin was invaded by the Normans in 1169 and remained under English control until the Irish War of Independence established the Irish State as its own republic in 1919.  Although the economy has slowed down since the "Celtic Tiger" roared in the 1990s, Dublin remains a vibrant capital city with a population of 1.1 million including a large influx of immigrants primarily from China and Nigeria. 

The River Liffey flows through the center of town effectively dividing it into north and south and it is on the north side that I'll begin our tour.  Walking up O'Connell Street, past the 1916 monument to the street's namesake, Daniel O'Connell, a supporter of Catholic emancipation for Ireland; past the General Post Office, the site of a key battle in the fight for Irish Independence with the Easter Rising also of 1916; and past the newest landmark called the "Spire of Dublin", a nearly 400' tall needle made of stainless steel that holds the honor of being the tallest sculpture in the world, if not the prettiest; and we get to our first destination, the Hugh Lane Gallery.

Housed in a stately 1763 townhouse, the Gallery is named after Sir Hugh Lane, a wealthy philanthropist who drowned on board the Lusitania in 1915.  Sir Hugh bequeathed a group of 39 Impressionist paintings which formed the basis for the collection.  These works are beautiful, but the main draw these days is a much later addition - the studio of Irish artist Francis Bacon.

Francis Bacon is considered one of the greatest contemporary artists of the 20th century.  His shocking imagery typically features a distorted head or portrait against a stark, colored background and he often worked in triptych formats.  After his death in 1992, the entire contents of his London studio were catalogued, photographed, and transferred to their new premises in city of his birth.  You might think this is no big deal, but we're talking about 7,000 pieces including 570 books, 1500 photos and 2,000 artist materials, all jumbled up in the biggest mess you've ever seen.  He claimed that it was a "deeply ordered chaos...rather like my mind" and he drew upon this collection of visual sources for his imagery.  It probably won't surprise you to hear that he suffered from acute asthma!

Almost next door to the Hugh Lane Gallery is the Dublin Writers Museum, housed in another elegant townhouse (see above) and dedicated to promoting awareness of the lives of Ireland's most famous writers.  Here one can learn more about some of the greatest authors of the English language, including Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker of "Dracula" fame, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett and George Bernard Shaw to name just a few.  It is a gem of a museum with an informative audio guide that brings the displays of manuscripts and memorabilia to life.

Expanding on the "writers" theme we come to the James Joyce Centre, a beautifully restored townhouse in a row of Georgian redbrick residences and now a temple to Joyceana.  The irony is - though James Joyce was certainly born and raised in Dublin and many of his books are set in Ireland, he did his actual writing in Italy, Switzerland and France.  Here we find period rooms with authentic mementos mixed with high tech video and computer installations.  Though James Joyce never lived in this particular house, the front door of the now demolished No. 7 Eccles Street, Leopold Bloom's address in Joyce's opus "Ulysses", is on long-term loan in the courtyard.

All this culture can work up a powerful thirst and since we're here in Dublin there is no better quencher than a tour of the Guinness Storehouse!  Founded in 1759 by Arthur Guinness and now Ireland's premier tourist attraction, a visit to the brewery is not only educational but restorative.  Following a self-guided video tour of the brewing process we learn that beer contains basically four ingredients - hops, barley, water and yeast - and that Guinness consumes two thirds of all barley grown in the country.  All this knowledge is soon put to the test at the "Guinness Academy" where visitors learn to craft a perfect pint of the "black stuff".  Here we learn the six steps to pour and serve a Guinness draught beer, a process that takes 119.5 seconds allowing for the "surge" to settle.  The reward is a delicious pint of stout to consume on the spot, and a "Certificate of Completion" to take home as a souvenir!

It has been an action packed day here in Dublin.  Time to head off for dinner, and perhaps another pint, before we explore some more of this fascinating city tomorrow.  Cheers!

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