Forty-Eight hours to Experience Ireland’s Past

August 2012

If your experience is like mine, it will probably be raining when your plane touches down in Dublin.  One moment the sun pierces the cabin’s dark interior after the overnight flight, and next the plane plunges into whiteness and emerges on the gloomy underside of the cloudbank. But don’t get discouraged; this is the way Ireland says hello.

            And Dublin certainly says hello, but not goodnight until very late (or very early, depending on how you look at it).  During the day, Dublin teems with shoppers queuing at crosswalks, street performers seeking spare change, and buses charging down narrow lanes like bulls in heat.  Above this commotion, Herring Gulls with their four-foot wingspan add their own cries and act as garbage men on already clean streets.  And nestled within this activity are pieces of Dublin’s heart—art, literature, music, and most of all, history.  From the Book of Kells, dating from the early medieval period, to the Spire of Dublin, the world’s tallest sculpture, completed in 2003, Dublin has much to offer a curious tourist.  It may not be possible to delve deeply into Dublin’s atmosphere in a short time, but a forty-eight hour bus ticket will allow you to venture to all of Dublin’s key sights and scratch the surface of its culture.

            Most of Dublin’s attractions are located in the City Centre within walking distance of one another, but to save time and energy, a good alternative is the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour (www.dublinsightseeing.ie).  These green, double-decked and open-air buses have a total of twenty-four stops, including sites that may be located too far for visitors who dislike walking.  Commentary is also included during the ride, which tells you about important landmarks such as the statues on O’Connell Street.  A two-day ticket costs only eighteen euros for adults and sixteen euros for students and seniors.  To make things easier, the stops have a picture of the bus on the signs.

            Day One

            The earlier, the better, in respects to both starting the day and exploring Dublin’s history.  Start at Trinity College, which is the third stop on the bus’s route and located at the head of Dame Street at the middle of the City Centre (www.tcd.ie/visitors/).  Surrounded with high stonewalls and wrought-iron fencing, the late sixteenth-century school welcomes you with a massive front gate that opens to a cobblestone courtyard and its oldest architecture.  Queen Elizabeth I chartered Trinity College, and upon entering its gates, you walk with the ghosts of Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and Jonathan Swift, as well as all the students who passed here since 1592.  To emphasize this historic feeling, Trinity houses an old relic—the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels created around 807 AD. (Entry cost of €9, though included if you take the €10 campus tour.)  A museum-style anteroom decorated with Celtic knots and stylized animals precedes a small, dark room with one display case containing the Book of Kells and three other manuscripts of a similar age.  You then climb a staircase and enter the Long Room of the Old Library, where towering bookshelves rise to meet a vaulted ceiling.  Further books and documents from the late medieval period and Enlightenment era look up at the passerby.  Note that no photography is allowed in these exhibits.

            Leave Trinity through the Nassau Gate, located across from the Old Library’s exit.  Either walk or catch the bus to the National Museum of Archaeology, which has free admission (www.museum.ie).  The first exhibition room contains a trove of gold artifacts from between 2200 BC and 500 BC, all excavated on the Emerald Isle. Yet the Treasury exhibit holds some of Ireland’s most prized relics, such as the Cross of Cong, a processional cross from the 1100’s made of oak and laced with bronze metalwork.  It is said that its center once housed a relic of the original cross.  The Viking and Medieval exhibitions on the second floor are also not to be missed.

            Returning from your journey through the time may leave you with an appetite.  Grab a quick lunch at the museum or walk to Grafton Street to eat at one of the many pubs or restaurants.  If the weather is nice, you may buy a sandwich from O’Brien’s and have a picnic in St. Stephen’s Green—that is, if you can find a spot.  The park is crowded even in dreary weather and not just with people.  Seagulls, pigeons, and the occasional duck or swan are glad to take gratuity in the form of breadcrumbs in exchange for sharing their park.

            After lunch, hop back on the bus and ride to Dublin Castle, which today consists of government buildings, gardens, and the Garda and Revenue Museums (www.dublincastle.ie).  Much of the original castle has been destroyed save for one Norman Tower dating from 1226, which now houses the Garda Museum.  The castle has been the site of Presidential inaugurations, the formal establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, and other historical events for the last thousand years, making it a vital portion of Dublin’s history and culture.  Everything except for guided tours through the government buildings (€4.50) is free of charge.

            Return to the bus and travel to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland, which is a branch of the Anglican Church (www.stpatrickcathedral.ie).  The current building was constructed in 1220, and it contains many memorials and tombs of notable figures such as Jonathan Swift, who served as Dean of the Cathedral.  The church invites you to explore its myriad nooks and spectacular architecture, much of which relies on light cascading through the stain glass windows rather than artificial lighting.  Another unique trait is the congregation seating, which, instead of pews, look like school-desk chairs each with unique, hand-stitched kneeling cushions.  Admission costs €5.50, and you may choose to have a guided tour for no extra cost.  Make sure to check service times beforehand because tours are not allowed during ceremonies.

            After a long day of escaping into Ireland’s past, head back down St. Patrick’s Street and turn left onto High Street, following its curve toward the River Liffey until you find the Brazen Head pub, established 1198 (www.brazenhead.com).  Boasting the status of Ireland’s oldest pub, the Brazen Head is unmistakable with its brick construction and Medieval-style parapet crowning its roof.  The pub offers food at the bar and opens its courtyard restaurant in the evenings.  The menu has a wide variety of choices, such as salmon, chicken, stew, steak, and of course, a wide selection of wines and other beverages.  Live music is also a part of each evening’s experience.  Relax and enjoy the rest of the night in a place that entertained the likes of James Joyce, Robert Emmett, and Michael Collins or take an evening stroll down the Liffey.

            Day Two

            Eat a hearty breakfast and then take the bus to the Guinness Storehouse, which opens at 9:30 am (www.guinness-storehouse.com).  Tickets are a bit pricey (€16.50 at the door and €14.85 online) but well worth it, especially since they include a free pint at the end of the tour.  Anyone under eighteen receives a discounted ticket with a complimentary soft drink instead of a beer.  The tour is self-guided, and it begins with the story of transforming barley into beer as you ascend up the pint glass-shaped atrium, which stands seven stories high.  On the fourth floor, you can use your complimentary pint and learn how to pour your own Guinness.  Continue to the top floor where the Gravity Bar resides.  This up-scale bar provides a 360° view of Dublin, and as few buildings are more than three or four stories high, the view is unimpeded.  Spend some time here and have an early lunch in one of the restaurants.

            Next, ride the bus to Kilmainham Gaol, a historic, nineteenth-century jail (www.heritageireland.ie).  In 1916, this jail held many prisoners from the Easter Rising and is also the execution sight of the Rising’s ringleaders, most notably James Connolly, who, due to injury, had to be tied to a chair to face the firing squad.  Kilmainham Gaol, in part because of its unique design, has been the set for many movies such as In the Name of the Father and Michael Collins.  Tours are guided-only and must be booked in advanced (€6.00).

            Return to the bus and spend the afternoon relaxing in Phoenix Park, the largest green space in Dublin (www.phoenixpark.ie).  The park is also home to the Dublin Zoo (€15.50), but the park may be enjoyed for free.  Tearooms are available for snacks, and bike rentals are optional for five euros per hour.  Afterwards, ride the bus back to O’Connell Street for some late afternoon shopping.  Grafton and Nassau Street are about a ten-minute walk from here, and the Trinity Sweaters shop on Nassau should not be missed.  The shop provides frequent sales and friendly service.  Keep in mind that most shops close between six and seven o’clock.

            For dinner, walk up Suffolk Street and dine at O’Neill’s Bar & Restaurant, one of the more popular pubs in Dublin (www.oneillsbar.com).  The pub offers ample seating room with both smoking and non-smoking sections, and the chestnut-colored walls create a warm and intimate atmosphere.  The food is pre-prepared and servers stack your plate with meats, seafood, and vegetables right in front of you.  After your meal, sample the wide array of specialty beers that are always flowing from the spicks.  Return to your room to dream away the night spent in the pub and know you did your best to absorb all of Dublin in forty-eight hours.