the north face jester Ireland trip blends history
, and Irish countryside prove to be memorable vacation
A political mural decorates a building in a Catholic neighborhood of .(Photo: Photo by Marcia Jacobson)During a period in the 1980s, when I was working on a book on James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and, later, an edition of Joyce’s “The Dead,” I visited twice, but I had never been to other parts of Ireland. This was the first trip to Ireland for my wife, Marcia Jacobson.
Because Irish literature is one of the fields in which I teach and write, going to Ireland is special for me. I wanted to be there June 16, the day when “Ulysses” takes place; this day is now known as Bloomsday because a character named Leopold Bloom is the protagonist of “Ulysses.”
We began with seven days and six nights in the cities four nights in and two in before picking up our rental car in Galway and exploring the countryside. The trip was a history lesson that built on my studying not only Irish literature but also Irish history and culture.
It was a pleasure for us to be in Ireland in June during through the longest days of the year and to experience 18 to 19 hours of daylight. We were lucky to have mild, sunny days because rain and overcast days are common there. The day temperatures were mostly in the 60s.
Ireland uses the euro, currently weak against the dollar, which means good value. Since is part of United Kingdom, it uses the British pound, strong against the dollar, which means you may pay a little more than expected for some items.
Ireland is an easy country to visit. Irish people tend to be very cooperative, friendly, helpful and for the most part understanding of Americans’ driving.
Trains proved an efficient and pleasant way to travel in Ireland. For about $36 each, we bought round trip train tickets between and . Because I wanted to minimize city driving, we also took the train to Galway. While we moved between cities and towns by car and rail, what remains in my memory are wonderful walks in both city and countrySteeped in history, has a population of about half a million and another million in greater . The River Liffey runs through into the Irish Sea and sites can be divided according to which side of the river they are on. Because ‘s major sites are close to one another, walking is easy.
Bloomsday Celebration: June 16
During our days in , we visited many of the venues that Joyce references in “Ulysses.” On our first night, June 14, we had a pub dinner at Davy Byrne’s which Bloom favors as a “moral pub” and the one he chooses for lunch in “Ulysses” because he likes the atmosphere and clientele.
We began June 16 at Trinity College with a visit to the elaborate display of the illuminated manuscript featuring the Four Gospels known as the Book of Kells, which influenced the graphic aspect of “Ulysses.” The informative presentation of this Irish treasure was far different from when I saw it on my first visits to . Then one simply walked past an open page of the Book of Kells, with no charge and few visitors. We then wandered around Trinity College, stopping at the fine zoological museum.
In the afternoon, we stopped at Davy Byrne’s for the Bloomsday celebration before proceeding to a “Ulysses” reading in Meeting Square in the Temple Bar area,
an area with pubs and small shops. The Booker Prize winning Irish novelist Anne Enright gave a wonderful reading of the “Calypso” episode of “Ulysses.” Several people were dressed in costume, notably one man who was a perfectly attired James Joyce with a monocle and several couples dressed as Bloom and his wife, Molly.
South of the Liffey
The Fitzwilliam Hotel, across from St. Stephen’s Green, and near lively Grafton Street, provided a splendid starting point for exploring most of the major sites. St. Stephen’s Green is a well cared for park. During two walks there, we saw swans and a blue heron as well as memorial statues of Irish literary and historical luminaries.
In addition to Trinity College, among the important sites south of the Liffey are the National Library of Ireland (Kildare Street). The library has two permanent literary exhibits, an elaborate one on Yeats with recorded readings of some of his poems, along with a small but fine one on Joyce. The library also offers an historical exhibit on Ireland’s role in World War I when Ireland was still part of the British empire; this exhibit will be on display until 2018.
On the same street is the National Museum of Ireland, which has three locations in and one in County Mayo. The branch on Kildare Street calls itself Archeology but includes some history. The other branches are Decorative Arts and History at Collins Barracks and Natural History at Merrion Street. The County Mayo location at Castlebar features Irish Country Life.
The National Gallery of Ireland (Merrion Square) is under renovation but is displaying some of the collection’s treasures, including its paintings by Vermeer and Caravaggio.
One should not miss the Chester Beatty Library (within the Castle compound, Dame Street), which has an elegant and beautifully displayed collection of rare manuscripts, decorative arts and other treasures from various cultures, including European, Islamic and East Asian.
Also on the south side of the Liffey are two splendid Church of Ireland cathedrals located close to one another. (St. Mary’s, on the north side of the Liffey, serves as the Catholic Cathedral.) St. Patrick’s Cathedral is Ireland’s largest church (St. Patrick’s Close). Equally if not more impressive is Christ Church Cathedral (Christchurch Place), which dates from the 11th century.
North of the Liffey
With statues of Irish luminaries, O’Connell Street is something of a history lesson. Perhaps the major historical site on O’Connell Street is the Irish Post Office (the headquarters of the 1916 Easter rebellion). The now absent Nelson Pillar (similar to the one Trafalgar Square) that stood in front of the post office was blown up by Sinn Fein in 1966 because it represented the presence British imperialism in Ireland. Now the Spire of (sometimes called the Monument of Light), 398 feet high, has replaced the pillar.
Other major sites north of the Liffey are the Hugh Lane Gallery (officially the City Gallery; Charelmont House, Parnell Square), which has a fine collection of European and Irish art. Anyone interested in Irish culture should consider visiting the James Joyce Centre (35 N. Great George’s St.) which features an informative introduction to Joyce’s life and works.
We saw a performance of Sean O’Casey’s “The Shadow of a Gunman” at the historic Abbey Theatre, the Irish National Theatre, which is just north of the Liffey. Set in in the early 1920s, “The Shadow of a Gunman” makes clear how the Irish past anticipated the political violence in Northern Ireland between British Loyalists and the IRA. The production was a bit over stylized for a play that O’Casey intended to be harshly realistic, but was nevertheless compelling theater.