Ireland, Linda Reynolds, Surrey

Hearing that Dublin has over 1,000 bars made it sound the ideal place in which
to celebrate a 50th birthday! The Irish Tourist Board has an accommodation reservations
service with access to over 11,000 approved properties from hotels, B&Bs,
hostels, farmhouses to self-catering, in all parts of Ireland. They can be contacted
on a freephone number 800 668 668 66.

Our B&B was in the suburb of Clontarf and we reached the city by local
bus. It’s best to buy a three-day bus pass as this gives unlimited use on any
bus and saves you the bother of needing the exact fare. As the small bus was
often at the ‘standing room only’ situation when we joined it we were pleasantly
surprised to be always offered the seats of the young men passengers. Irish
hospitality indeed! Or perhaps it was a sign that we had reached middle-age!

There was plenty to do in the city to fill three days. We spent a morning
looking round Trinity College. Founded in 1591 by Elizabeth I it has a fascinating
old library which contains the Book of Kells, wonderfully decorated copy of
the gospels in Latin and created by the scribes of Kells around 800. Upstairs
is the Long Room, almost 209ft in length and containing 200,000 old books on
two floors of shelves. In another building we watched a 45-minute audiovisual
describing the founding and history of Dublin to the present day.

Hodges Figgis, a book shop established in the 18th Century and which has
a cafe in situ, sounded an ideal venue for lunch. It was an amazing shop, on
three floors plus a basement. Pure paradise for booklovers! The cafe was also
excellent, serving wholesome food in a pleasant setting.

Next day we visited the Viking Museum. We were first taken by “boat”
to a Viking settlement where actors in period dress escorted us around their
encampment showing us how they lived in Viking Dublin. Later, we were shown
some excavations and artefacts from the Viking era.

Time for a Guinness in Davy Byrne’s in Duke Street which was made
famous by James Joyce in

Ulysses when Leopold Bloom stopped there for
a Gorgonzola cheese sandwich with mustard and a glass of Burgundy! Gallagher’s
Boxty House in Temple Bar was a good venue for an evening meal. It’s very popular
so is best to book in advance. A boxty is a traditional Irish potato pancake,
stuffed, crepe-style and served with a variety of savoury fillings. The place
had an olde world decor with recorded traditional Irish music.

Another morning we visited the Botanical Gardens which has free entry –
and nearby is the Prospect Cemetery, a huge area of graves including those of
Irish National Leaders Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell whose grave
is covered by an enormous granite rock. Other graves are those of Michael Collins
the Irish politician and Sinn Fein leader, the English poet Gerard Manly Hopkins
and Sir Roger Casement whose remains were brought here for a State funeral in
1964 nearly 50 years after his execution by the British for treason.

That afternoon we visited the Writers’ Museum. It is in a well preserved
18th Century house containing many splendidly decorated rooms in which are displayed
photographs, paintings, letters, manuscripts, first editions and other memorabilia
and personal items relating to Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats,
James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and other, more modern writers. There is lots to
absorb so we were pleased to then retire to the clean and pleasant cafe for
a coffee and cake before listening to a 50 minute humorous recital by an actor
drawing on the quotations of the writers. Time ran out.

We didn’t get to visit the Guinness Exhibition, Shaw’s Birthplace, the
Irish Whiskey Museum, the James Joyce Museum, Malahide Castle … to say nothing
of the 995 remaining pubs …

Dublin is really booming now, with half the population being under 25.
Joining the EC in 1973 meant Ireland could take advantage of EC funding to help
the country attract international investment. Improvements in education mean
the country is producing exactly what the investing companies need – a young,
well-educated, adaptable workforce with good communication skills. The Irish
standard of living has now overtaken that of Britain and more people are emigrating
to Southern Ireland than are leaving.

We took the train from Heuston mainline station to Killarney. Rain battered
the windows as the train headed southwest. It was lovely to see the old style
signals at the side of the track, and the telegraph poles covered in rampant
ivy! The train stopped several times at sleepy stations but there was little
sign of habitation. However, even the smallest stations were decorated with
window boxes and flowering pots.

the country-side around Killarney
The country-side around Killarney

For
the next week, after enhancing our cholesterol levels by making the most
of the full Irish cooked breakfasts; we then used Ordnance Survey of Ireland’s
Discovery Series map no. 78 to explore the area. Killarney is small and
definitely geared for the tourists, being full of gift shops and pubs
but fun for a week and the pub life was great with live Irish music every
night.

We walked to Muckross Estate and in the House can see a free 20
minute film about the flora and fauna of the area. Our walks took us to the
Torc Falls, Kate Kearney’s cottage and the Gap of Dunloe, and to the Devils
Punch Bowl at 2,000 feet. It was a glorious sight looking back down over the
town of Killarney and beyond for about 50 miles – a landscape of softly rolling
green hills dappled by the sun and clouds. Other walks took us to places named
Tommies Wood and O’Sullivan’s Cascade, and we walked a part of the Kerry Way
which must be beautiful in fine weather but we saw it on a bad day. We could
hear rushing waterfalls but they were out of view in the low cloud; we passed
through woods resembling something from Lord of the Rings with moss and lichens
thickly cladding the tree trunks like overcoats. Amazingly tiny ferns grew out
of clefts of rock and everything was coated in a fine mist.

Armagh Bus
Armagh Bus

We
returned to Dublin where we were met by friends who live in Amagh in Northern
Ireland. They had insisted on driving to Dublin to collect us. “You
know when you have crossed the border,” said our friends, “all
the petrol stations are empty”. With petrol in the UK now being so
expensive, the Northern Irish utilise their visits to the South by filling
up with less expensive gas.

The Northern Irish “problem” was soon manifest. For a mile or
so along one stretch of road the British flag would be fluttering from the lampposts
and from the houses, then in another area the Irish flag would be in evidence.
How difficult to live in an area so politically divided.

Amagh has some very imposing and substantial old buildings and some
attractive side streets. The Tourist Information Office was in a complex
consisting of three listed buildings and a redundant grain store which
had all been restored. Within was St. Patrick’s Trian, an exhibition on
the life and work of St. Patrick who brought Christianity to Ireland during
the 5th century AD, the development of Armagh and the ‘Land of Lilliput’,
the latter celebrating the life and works of Johnathan Swift, author and
clergyman who lived in this district.

Catholic cathederal
Catholic cathederal

We
visited the Catholic cathedral. We had the place to ourselves and were
enchanted to listen to the organist practising. There was a modern, and
rather strange, altar piece which our friends said put the congregation
in mind of a couple of elephant tusks! After looking round the Protestant
Cathedral a short walk away, we sat on the grass outside for the Courtesy
Bus, a 1940’s tiny 16-seater which had been restored and driven by volunteers.
It was free and drove around the town stopping at all the tourist sights
for the benefit of visitors. We asked to be put down at the nearest stop
to our accommodation but the lady driver happily made an unauthorised
stop nearer our destination “I won’t tell anyone, and this old bus
surely won’t!”

We found the people in the North amazingly friendly. In the shops the local
ladies involved us in their conversations and there was much laughter. Maybe
living in such uncertain times makes a population more open. Next day we visited
the Naivan Centre, a mile or two outside the town. We were the only two looking
around. The site was the spiritual, political and cultural centre of its day
and detailed archaeological excavations during the 1960s revealed a wealth of
information including traces of man dating back to 550BC. The was plenty to
occupy us for two hours with exhibitions showing the world of pre-Christian
Ireland and the archaeological discoveries which revealed the ancient settlements
of the place which had its heyday at about 200BC. Quite strange to have the
museum to ourselves. It was modern and informative – such a shame for it to
be so poorly patronised. The young man who took the money for our purchases
in the shop after said he hoped the current Irish “negotiations” (this
was June 1999) would herald an end to the problems and hopefully encourage more
tourists to visit.

All the museums in town were excellent with audio-visual shows and computers
on which to discover information. They had been financed and set up by the EC
but unfortunately because of the lack of visitors they weren’t self-financing
at the moment and the burden was coming back on the local ratepayers. A few
well-established shops in town had closed because of the high rates. Our friends
felt it would better for the EC to encourage businesses to set up in town as
that would create jobs and money to be spent in the area.

Northern Ireland is, understandably, being by-passed by the tourists which
is a shame as it has very friendly people with beautiful countryside, modern
museums, country parks, and castles to explore.