Sunday, 29 June 2014

Ireland 1

Saturday, 7th June


The first thing I feel after arriving in Dublin is relief; a much delayed first flight and hurried change of aircraft mean I’m glad just to be where I expected to be. The worries of an alternate universe of expensive last minute hotel nights and rebookings fading and finally vanishing as my suitcase appears on the luggage carousel.

On the bus from the airport a small group of Swiss men complain earnestly, in a barely intelligible dialect of German, about the difficulty of understanding the bus driver's heavily Irish accent. I worry this will set the scene for my short visit to Ireland, mis-conceptions about how similar it is to the UK, the results being hundreds of years of trying to integrate Ireland, much of the time forcibly. From the bus it does look very similar to the UK, the pavements and roads are the same dirty collections of concrete slabs, tarmac patches and filled potholes. The mix of Victorian and new buildings, driving on the left and even similar street furniture.


For my one night in Dublin before heading to Galway I lodge in a vacant summer hall space at Trinity College. A bored looking security guard kindly gives me directions to the accommodation office before I have a chance to ask him, the wheeled suitcase that I pull bouncing behind me probably being the big clue. Before the night is out I've directed three other people to the same office between late crowds of tourists and summer building works. More signage is probably in order, but in case Trinity College doesn’t get round to it: the accommodation office is a black door with a number ten over it, positioned on the inside of the north east side of the first courtyard you enter through the main college gates.

Once I walk up the tiny staircase and through two corridors that are more doors than wall I reach the incredibly 70’s room. It’s comfortable and comes with considerably more built-in storage cupboards than my own first year university accommodation did, something I had to amend with cheap Ikea shelving, some of which I still own. I don't unpack my suitcase fully just for the sake of using the cupboards, but I'm tempted.

Trinity College's old buildings are beautiful, but like universities in the UK, it is blighted by the head-shakingly incomprehensible decision to build some very ugly buildings right next to them. I wander across the cobbles, silent now that I’m not dragging a suitcase behind me, and through the main gate onto Dame Street and then into the famous cluster of pubs in Temple Bar. I’ve not read any James Joyce, but I’m guessing I should. The giant mural on the side of the Blooms Hotel and bronze statues implying heavily that there’s something I’m missing out on.

The corner of Fleet Street and Bedford Row is a cluster of pubs, some trying very hard to be Irish. It seems a bit theme park like from the outside, as the saturday night crowds start to roll in. I carry on to find something to eat as revellers, boisterous and many tottering on heels as they emerge from buses and taxis, arrive. The late sun of almost mid-summer makes them seem too early, as if people have decided to take mid-afternoon drinking very seriously.

Around the centre there’s a huge choice of restaurants, so I decide on something easy and eat an assured all-Irish burger at BoBo's; for being uncomplicated it's delicious all the same. From my seat I can watch the serving staff rushing back and forth from the brightly lit counter to the various guests, their progress only impeded briefly when a short, rumpled looking man with a square head walks in and starts to regal us unrequested with what he believes is opera. It's done with gusto and enthusiasm, but the waitresses are quick to move him on; either they don’t like opera or they have higher standards in tenors.

Over dinner I start reading The Left Hand of Darkness and decide that instead of trying to make some new friends I'll return to the dorm and try to get through the new noun heavy first few chapters, something almost all space opera suffers from. I guess science fiction authors must relish the sense of confusion, exoticism and strangeness they can evoke in their readers by doing this, even if it must feel like the really obvious cheap trick it is.

Sunday, 8th June


I awake in the bright red glow of the sun shining through the brown, red and orange curtains of my room, like some secular 70's stained glass window made of wool. It's pretty in its own way, but makes the entire room seem like the colours you see behind your eyelids if you close them and stare at the sun.

As part of my continental breakfast I pick up an incredibly crumbly scone and fail to eat it with any dignity at a long table in the canteen. Two people preparing for a conference sit at the other end of the table. I listen into their conversation to see if they've noticed the complete hash I'm making of my breakfast. Every touch only causes more bits to fall off the scone, even trying to use butter and jam fail to hold it together, only resulting in more crumbs scattered across the tray and buttery, jammy fingers. At least some of the scone's scattered remains now stick to my fingers so I can try and eat them that way.

The other diners appear oblivious to my growing embarrassment as they talk about what brought them here; one is a translator of Mexican novels, the other an accidental conference organiser after he discovered he didn't want to design computer games for a living. He admits to his guest that he still doesn't know what he wants to do. It's not an uncommon feeling, but one that seems odd so easily admitted to a semi-stranger over breakfast. I leave them to their conversation, trying hard to make sure on the way out I don't get jam and butter on anything else.

Walking to Heuston station for my Galway bound train takes longer than I imagined, on the way I walk past the back of the Diagio/Guinness brewery, the air full of brewing smells, which seem very rustic compared to the complex mass of modern looking pipes and vats. Through the open gates and signs for lorry drivers I can see thousands of steel barrels in racks, waiting to carry their thick black contents far and wide.

Heuston station is typically Victorian in style, with modern barriers, glass walls and convenience shops added over the years. The intercity train leaves punctually and we're soon out of the new suburbs of prefabricated houses, walls already stained with various run off, that lie along the tracks, and into the green fields beyond the city. As we head west, through sudden heavy showers sulking under black clouds, the land gets a little flatter and peat fields become more frequent. After eating the disappointing packed sandwich I had bought in the station I start to doze off.

I wake as the train comes along the north shore of the Galway Bay. To the south a few small sail boats play, far beyond them the hills are shrouded in cloud and the dark blur of rain. The Park House Hotel is very close to the station and I'm soon stood on the flowery red reception carpet along with many other people who've just arrived on the train. The hotel is nice, the many smoked mirrors, polished wood, gold framed pictures and collections of fake Ming vases give everything a yellow sparkle and glow as your eye gets lost in the details, making it feel like someone has tried to recreate the effects of cataracts through interior design. While the decor might not be all to my taste, it's very comfortable and clearly popular. Groups of guests sit in the various collections of seats and sofas, drinking wine while waiting for their rooms to be made ready.

Having had no time to think what I'd do in Galway once I arrive I start by walking through the city, which first takes me down the main shopping streets of Hight Street and William Street. The first impressions being of the touristy worst, buskers of dubious quality and souvenir shops galore. A heavy shower causes me to seek shelter along with others in the entrance of a hotel before I cross the bridge over the river Corrib. I carry on west out of the centre and along the promenade towards Salthill as a thunderstorm flashes and rumbles over the bay, then rush to seek shelter by the aquarium as a downpour makes landfall. When the rain next ceases I walk on, but it's not long before I'm standing in a bus shelter waiting as the next heavy shower lashes down. I make the best of a bad situation and hide in the opportunely placed Creamery teashop.


My second scone of the day is much more successful than the first, mostly because it tastes great, but also because it holds together when I spread butter on it. I peruse a left behind copy of the Sunday Independent while drinking a cup of tea and waiting for the bus. An article laments the unequal nature of the recovery being felt by the Irish people, with many of the poorest only continuing to loose out. Eurosceptic sentiment is also on the rise here, as recent elections have shown across Europe. Most of the blame though still seems to go towards the national government, with the introduction of a very unpopular water charge for almost everyone and various other changes over the last few years hitting the poorest hardest; a situation that seems sadly universal. Other than vague calls to 'ensure that growth is felt by all', without giving any practical ideas how, the article fizzles out in a generally commentary of 'oh dear, how sad'. 

In the evening I walk to the Spanish Arch, one of the few remaining parts of the city walls, and have dinner at Ard Bia at Nimmo's, a tip from some last minute Trip Advisor searching done when I realised how desperate I was to avoid the worst of the tourist traps. It's probably a tourist trap in it's own way, but it's my kind, so that somehow feels better.

Space is tight inside and the food fantastic. After a fried calamari and salad starter I have a main of silver hake on some 'sea spaghetti', a kind of seaweed that tastes pleasantly green and fresh. I decide against wine and drink a Galway Hooker ale; not that I have much chance to see the wine list as a table of four South African retirees snaffles it away before I even sit down with a short ‘Do you mind if we, thank you’, my reply dead on my lips as they’ve already turned away.

The two couples talk loudly, and I try to figure out their relationship. The men don't quite seem to get on, one liking the sound of his one voice as he regales the rest with talk of his former business exploits and successes. When asked about the privilege of his background he claims humble roots and that his father started with nothing after WWII, but the protestations all sound a little too Mr Bounderbry, and neatly skip the fact that while his father may have started with nothing, he didn’t. 

Even with the loud self importance from my neighours I enjoy the food. Through the small window I can glimpse the river below a variety of grey clouds that start to hide the sinking red sun.