Sunday, 20 July 2014

Ireland 3


Wednesday 11th June


When I ask the receptionist for the best public transport route to Connelly Station I get a puzzled look and am told it's a 20 minute walk. Setting off on foot I decide that this means Dublin's public transport is awful.

If a city has good public transport its inhabitants work hard, and with a sense of pride, to avoid walking anywhere, even if that means three convoluted changeovers and waiting for longer than it would have taken to walk. Think London, Hamburg, Paris or Zurich. If the locals mostly prefer to walk then there's a lot of room for improvement. Think Bristol.


At Connelly station I meet Rick and Gil, here from Australia to spend some time in Europe with their friends and families. We used the chance of them being closer to meet up, which is what really brought me to Ireland, combined with the chance for me to see somewhere new.

Again a tourist bus seems the best way of getting around while getting a bit of explanation as to what you’re meant to be looking at, but this time it’s a big red semi-open topped bus, the same franchise you see in all big cities. With a group of friends a sight-seeing bus doesn’t induce the same feeling of failure as joining a group outing, you managed to find friends on your own, you’re not buying company. If the self-doubt kicks in again you can always tell yourself you’d doing it ironically. You can’t do something ironically by yourself, it needs an audience.

We sit at the back of the open upper deck as the bus struggles through the Dublin traffic, dodging building sites, while the guide soundtrack points out famous sites. When the disembodied voices aren't talking a soundtrack of stereotypically Irish music plays through the headphones. I always mean to take a sight seeing bus in the city I live in, but have yet to get round to it; as is often lamented, you never play tourist in your home town.

After drifting vaguely west, via Georgian Dublin, the parliament, museums and the offices of the Taoiseach we arrive at the Victorian Guinness Storehouse. Unspoken peer pressure has brought me here and not a particular love of Guinness; I want to be able answer 'yes' to anyone who asks if I visited the Guinness brewery while in Dublin, so I can avoid having to explain why I didn’t. Also I’ve heard the bar is good.

The tour is nice, dimly lit and a great example of how advertising can make a relatively simple process into a mythical art. The cleverest trick was getting us to pay to be advertised to.


I don’t want to be too cynical about brewery tours, my girlfriend and I did an excellent tour of the Talisker distillery on Skye a few of years ago and enjoyed it. There is good evidence that adding experiences to food and drink improves the taste, or at least the experience of the taste. Taste being determined in the mind as much as on the tongue. As an expensive price tag on a bottle of wine implies it should taste better, we believe it, and it tastes better. So now remembering the distillery in Carbost at the edge of a Loch adds a little more romance to a sip of whisky and a little more enjoyment.

The high-light of the 'self-guided' tour (which sounds fancier than 'walk around on your own and read the signs’ tour) is a drink in the Gravity bar, which gives a 360 degree view over Dublin. From here you can see the Wicklow hills and Dublin bay, beyond which somewhere over the horizon are Wales, England, then all of continental Europe.

Explorers set off and crossed the Atlantic from the East, but imagine coming from the other way. East is the unknown frontier, not west. Ireland and then the UK acting as small floating preludes before hitting Eurasia, a landmass that in the Northern hemisphere covers more than half the circumference of the Earth.

We take the next red bus onwards and eat a Sandwich in Smithtown, while sitting in the sun. In the shadow of Jameson’s brewery and on the edge of an old terrace estate sits a renovated square and shopping centre. A guarda officer in a fluorescent stab vest wakes a drunk lying on the stepped area, and they walk off together. One friendly and unsteadily leaning on the other, an odd couple, but it looks like they’ve done this hundreds of times already.

Gil leaves for an appointment, Rick and I to William South Street and buy a drink in a large craft beer bar called Dakota. We decide unanimously against Guinness. It’s not a bad drink, it just tastes too much of coffee for my liking.

Rick and I are good old friends, so we quickly fall in honest and deep conversation. Nothing too sacred not to make a well meant joke of, nothing said trivially that isn’t taken seriously. Other than meeting in Australia last year Rick and I haven’t seen each other in years, we look older, don’t feel any wiser and can happily admit that to each other.

For out next drink we decide we should probably go to an Irish pub, so we choose a pub called O’Neills at the junction Church Lane and Suffolk Street. The inside is a series of dark wood panelled rooms, bar stools and a brightly lit serving counter that lets rich food smells drift through the other rooms, and have another drink.

With this our stereotype ticking feels complete and the last stop is the more open and airy Peter’s Pub, but the tables are reserved for groups of three or more. Rick persuades the bar maid to let us have a table because we’re the combined height and weight of three people. She’s probably not interested enough to argue and says yes, but we feel this didactic victory based on three pint logic deserves a celebration and order a whiskey after our pints.

Thursday 12th June


I start the morning in the archaeological and historical parts of the Museum of Ireland, set in a grand Victorian building that is as worthy of appreciation as the exhibits inside. For all their stuffiness and reserve, the Victorian’s had an admirable ethic for personal and cultural self-improvement, building grand museums and libraries meant to reflect the importance of their contents.

Recently the focus seems to be more on having a good gift shop, probably another degrading economic necessity, than learning. Trying to sneak the important ideas and details in via a novelty interactive exhibit where the medium wants more attention than the content. The iPod is not the attraction; the music it holds is. I suspect this view is very old fashioned, I certainly feel it thinking this way.

The one thing I miss in most history museums is a kind of overview timeline that connects the different ages or exhibits so you can keep looking back and remembering where it sits in context. I suspect other people are just better at remembering than I am.

Before meeting Rick and Gil for lunch I stop in the Celtic Whiskey Shop, thinking of a souvenir or two. A shop assistant who looks barely over the legal drinking age asks me what I’m looking for. Fifty Euros or less seems like a reasonable answer to me, but the look I get back clearly implies that I’m not going to get anything he’d consider drinking.

Behind me a man is buying a three hundred euro bottle as a fathers’ day gift; the only description he'd given when asked by an assistant what his father liked to drink was 'if it's wet, he'll drink it'.

I don’t think fifty euros a bad limit for something that might end being smashed in the suitcase by a tired ground handler at the next airport. Three hundred euros seems like a very expensive way to possibly perfume my clothes, but at least I’d then smell like a high-class drunk.

I stick to my now embarrassing limit but still overwhelmed by the choice I choose one of the two they have open for tasting. While the cheaper of the two, it tastes a lot smoother and less 'spicy' as the assistant put it. Between the museum and the shop I go from feeling very old fashioned to feeling naïve and inexperience opposite a teenager. It’s not a good day for my ego.

Rick, Gil and I meet for lunch at the same O'Neils as yesterday, the inviting food smells from yesterday having remained in our memory. They have a roast, I a beef baguette. After saying our goodbyes, they need to return to Gils hometown to meet more people before flying to the UK at the weekend, I walk to Pearse Street station and take the train a short distance down the coast.

The harbour walls at Dun Laoghaire curve inwards, like they've trying to embrace the boats between them, a sheltering hug in bad weather. Today the weather is nice, a haze sits on the water, masking the bottom of the mount at Howth that sits on the north side of Dublin bay.

I stroll along the eastern pier to the small fort and lighthouse at the end that guards the harbour. The water below is surprisingly clear and blue-green; sand and seaweed clear to see between the rocks at the bottom of the wall. A few holidaying couples wander along the sea wall, three generations fuss around a pram under an iron framed glass shelter, red rust leaking under the white paint. On a stone platform near the fort are a group of more smartly dressed office workers, either playing truant or sneaking an extended lunch break with an ice-cream and dirty jokes that has them in fits of laughter.

Near the fort I stop, sit down, and look east, a little closer than the Guinness bar this morning, straining to see if there's any sign of Anglesey or the British mainland. From the beach near my parents I would look west out across the Irish see, but Ireland is far too far over the horizon for me to see it in anything other than my imagination. Now I do the reverse, trying to look out of Dublin bay directly east and imaging Wales and then Liverpool, just over that horizon. I can't see even that relatively short distance, but know that it's all there. It takes a lot of faith to go the other way, west, where the next landfall is over many horizons, but millions of Irish have done so over the years, especially during the great hunger in the mid 19th century.


I head into the main street of Dun Laoghaire, but find mostly chain shops and little of interest, so I carry on west following the train tracks to one of the stops further along the line back to Dublin. Ahead of me the twin chimneys of the power station at the edge of the city proper dominate the otherwise low skyline. Part of the way along there’s a bathing beach, but only the children are fearless enough to swim, otherwise it’s paddling parents holding toddlers and groups of teenagers huddled around their smartphones on the paved wall.

At Seapoint my feet are tired enough that I get on the train back into Dublin, the first early commuters beginning to pack out the seats as we pass over the Grand Canal Dock. I rest my feet under the red and white striped awning of the Metro Cafe, joining a few others drinking tea by themselves and reading. The staff appear to be exclusively American students, but they know what a proper cup of tea is, a major advantage compared to their German counterparts. I read and watch the people wander past; groups of tourists, office workers on their way home and a few early drinkers. Two tables over a lass sits down shortly after I do and starts doing her make-up, when I leave about an hour later she’s still working at it, without any noticeable change.

The crowd inside the Cornucopia restaurant window that I walk past seem to be enjoying themselves and wander in to join the queue at their serving counter, behind the plate glass sit various delicious looking vegetarian meals. I pick a selection and sit at one of the fashionably rustic tables to eat and finish The Left Hand of Darkness. In the other side of the cafe a singing guitar player works his way through various protest songs, mostly Bob Dylan, but currently it’s Springsteen’s Atlantic City, sadly sung without the desperate voice of the original.

I finish the last chapter of …Hand of Darkness and mull it over. It’s famous for it’s gender politics, based on the decision that the author wanted to create a world that didn’t have wars. Subdefuge, murder, backstabbing and geo-politics yes, but all-out war no. The only way Ursula Le Guin thought she could explain this was by removing men; so she created the frozen ice world of Winter on which there are only hermaphrodites that become randomly male or female for a few days every month. It’s an interesting idea, even if I don’t feel the most is made of it.

At one point AI, the protagonist male human envoy to the planet, is asked to describe women and how they are different to men. On first reading I was expecting this to be a lead-in for a strong, clear manifesto answer and was disappointed by the response, which meanders and drifts:

“ ‘Tell me, how does the other sex [female] of your race differ from yours?…Do they differ much from your sex in mind behaviour? Are they like a different species?’
     ‘No. Yes. No, of course not, not really. But the difference is very important. I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female. In most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners - almost everything. Vocabulary. Semiotic usages. Clothing. Even food. Women … women tend to eat less … It’s extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones. Even where the women participate equally with men in the society, they still after all do all the childbearing, and so most of the child-rearing…’ 
     'Equality is not the general rule then? Are they mental inferior?’
     ‘I don’t know. They don’t often seem to turn up as mathematicians, or composers of music, or inventors, or abstract thinkers. But it isn’t that they’re stupid. Physically, they’re less muscular, but a little more durable than men. Psychologically-‘

‘I can’t tell you what women are like. I never thought about it much in the abstract, you know, and - God! -by now I’ve practically forgotten. I’ve been here two years'"

I find this an unsatisfying answer because it’s the answer I’d give, I wanted the author to put something more substantial into the character’s mouth, more insightful, more quotable. But, after some thought, it’s a good answer, even if it’s not as succinct as I’d like, because it’s true. The differences are hard to describe, and anything shorter and wittier is a blasé over-simplification. Apart from the few fundamental biological differences it’s almost impossible to say what’s nature and what’s nurture. I can’t speak for the world in 1969 when the book was first published, and I hope we’ve made significant progress since then, but there are still big differences and their real roots are hard to identify.

With these bigger thoughts running around in my mind I wander back out of the restaurant and into the streets of Dublin for the last time before catching tomorrow's flight.