Further saints

My affection for medieval ecclesiastical architecture and sculpture, an affinity totally unsupported by any actual knowledge of or interest in religion, was one of the motivations behind this trip to Ireland. Even if Cromwell’s effort to destroy Irish churches was, shall we say, a smashing success, I figured the remaining piles of rubble would be worth seeing. Therefore we took an afternoon off from Dublin and boarded the anachronistic St. Kevin’s Bus to Glendalough.

This is one of the most important and frequently visited monastic sites in the country; the bus was full. But the site is large and crowds disperse quickly through it, so it still offers a feeling of seclusion.

There are paths along two lakes, passing a smaller church and going uphill to the site of St. Kevin’s cell.

Kevin was a hermit with an eye for a view.


Local color

It’s easy to see how Dublin could seem drab sometimes, especially on wet days — gray buildings, gray skies, pale people in dark suits and school uniforms. As R’s native colleague S. put it, on fine days Dublin is glorious, but when it rains it sucks. This might be one reason why the city parks seemed so pleasing to us — they inject some color into the environment. We stayed just off the edge of St. Stephen’s Green, and every day joined the commuters walking past the beds of bright flowers.

Even lovelier and less trafficked is Merrion Square, where birds are numerous and vocal, and the shrubbery mercifully obscures the awful polychrome caricature of Oscar Wilde.

What we saw of public art in Dublin was generally distressing. Whose idea was that Wilde monument, or the Molly Malone statue, appropriately known as the Tart with the Cart? Then there are the Hags with the Bags — an official monument to shopping. We didn’t cross paths with the Prick with the Stick but couldn’t escape the Stiffy on the Liffey. At least that last one is abstract.

The coats of saturated color on top of the random architectural aggregation that is Dublin Castle also seem ill advised, but they do catch the eye.

Of course part of the pleasure of visiting older cities is seeing the layered residue of period styles. I think my favorite thing about the National Museum of Archaeology and History was the way prehistoric artifacts are displayed in front of leftover Victorian mantelpieces. (My least favorite thing: the bog bodies.)

Then at the National Gallery I came to understand that my lack of appreciation for Jack Yeats has a lot to do with color: his preferred palette and the way he applies it make me uncomfortable in a visceral way, and the discomfort doesn’t seem particularly interesting. Fortunately the NGI also has a Vermeer that you could stand in front of for an hour with no competition from other visitors, because like so many museums, the NGI seems to have almost no audience. (To be fair, this might be because most of the galleries are closed for renovation.) And it introduced us to Mainie Jellett, Ireland’s first serious abstractionist, whose works on view were happily not serious at all.

Also to be fair, I’ll admit that not everyone we saw in Dublin was wearing a dark suit or a school uniform. For instance, a group of schoolgirls boarding a bus on Leeson St. all had on screaming yellow T-shirts printed with the words I AM HIP HOP. Which reminded me of the time my Norwegian-American coworker bolted out of his chair and yelled “I AM Blaxploitation!” But I digress.

Saints and scholars, not necessarily in that order

The first couple of Dublin days were filled with libraries and churches. Fresh off the plane, we staggered through the Yeats display in the basement of the National Library. My favorite of the many artifacts was a silk embroidered rendering of Innisfree; it seemed to vibrate, although I don’t know if this was an insomniac hallucination or the response of a delicate display case to the rowdy Scandinavian school group passing through.

Upstairs in the lofty exclusive Reading Room — silence please — somebody farted and was enthusiastically mimicked by a couple of strays from the school group, who had been grudgingly let in by the security guard. I presume that will be the last time any students are allowed in the Reading Room.

Later we got lost in Trinity and came upon the Berkeley Library with a Pomodoro sculpture outside, a strangely familiar scene:

This Pomodoro is in better polish than the one that used to sit in front of the Berkeley Art Museum. The museum building next to it is grander too:

Next day brought us to the Marsh Library, silence not required — one of the staff, first day on the job, was a retired Dublin cop with much to say. This is the place where scholars were once locked in cages to protect the books; now, if the employees want something to read, they bring their own newspapers. The exhibition was of medical literature, including an engraving of the most gorgeously flayed arm ever seen. The little garden held its own appeal:

Then there was the Chester Beatty Library with its second-century papyri and its Persian miniatures of heroic horses and C-sections performed by magic birds; and of course, back at Trinity, the Book of Kells (a page of it, featuring catlike and birdlike things) and the Long Room, at the moment full of seventeenth-century propaganda about Catholic atrocities against English innocents.

Not particularly saintly either, but unexpectedly interesting, was Patrick’s cathedral.

I somehow failed to photograph the enormous statues commemorating the conquests of India, Burma, and South Africa, but here is a good cobweb before the Boyle Monument:

And a touching memorial:

And Dr. Swift himself:

And an interesting use for a Guinness keg; would the organ for which funds are needed be a new liver?

Meanwhile, at Christ Church:

The rocky road to Dublin

What I learned on the way to Dublin:

1. It is possible not to have a bad time in the Atlanta airport, provided you consume enough cocktails at the fancy restaurant in Terminal E, a strange amalgam of sushi bar and Southern-upscale-down-home kitchen run by some guy from Top Chef.

2. There is something even worse than sitting in front of a screaming thrashing toddler on a transatlantic flight, and that is listening to the toddler’s mother sing the Barney “I Love You” theme in a futile attempt to suppress the screaming and thrashing.

3. My ability to sleep in a non-horizontal position continues to decline. I might need to skip the dozing-off-in-a-recliner phase of late middle age and go straight to the never-getting-out-of-bed phase.

Despite the banal difficulties of transport, we did eventually arrive in Dublin! It looked like this:

You can tell it’s Ireland because the bottom half of the mist is tinted green.

Some get a kick from craic

We have been listening to a lot of RTÉ podcasts lately and have been repeatedly startled by the word craic. People always seem to be casually referring to which pubs have the best crack, going out looking for some crack, how crack is really all you need. It’s hard not to picture Ireland as a nation of hollow-eyed refugees from an ’80s TV special. Just say no!

Speaking of social ills, R has noted mournfully that it seems wrong for Limerick to have so many problems when the poetic form named after it is so beautiful and uplifting.

Ní thuigim

We imagined it might be amusing to learn a few Irish phrases before making the trip across the water, so we checked out some AV instructional materials from the library. As a result of effortful study, R and I have now mastered the vocabulary required for the following Irish dialogue:



Now, technically the first line of this exchange is in English, but since the word figures in 95 percent of the first-person narratives on the Irish-language immersion DVD, I believe it counts. The second line translates as “Goodbye” and was the one syllable on the Pimsleur Irish CD that both of us could realistically reproduce. (Thankfully the library’s CD was unplayable after Lesson Two. I suspect the scratches on the disc resulted from being thrown across the room rather than from years of devoted use by other citizens of Contra Costa County.)

There are worse words than goodbye. At least we will be well prepared for leaving the country. The parting glass! Slán.