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Liffey Life


Dublin before Dawn 

I sometimes hear travelers lamenting the loss of their body clock after traveling great distances. This phenomenon, I’ve decided over time, is a blessing. 

In late March, I traveled to Dublin, having always wanted to visit this literary city. I found myself wide awake at 4:30 in the morning, because as far as my body was concerned it was early the previous evening. 

I grabbed my camera and went for what turned out to be a wonderful stroll through the skeleton of this city. The streets of Dublin are nearly empty at this hour but streetlights show the way.   

As I walked towards what felt like the center of town, the empty kegs of beer from the night before were joined by the new day’s full milk bottles. 

When I got to the River Liffey I scouted out a picturesque area on the O’Connell Bridge and waited for the sun to rise. 

As it did, I ran around for a half and a hour and got the best photos of my trip: the sun appearing like a grin over the Liffey, peeking through the cobblestone streets of the Temple Bar area, kissing the street lamps goodbye as they flickered out.

The Liffey at dawn

I’ve frequently returned from a trip only to realize that the best photographs I took–the ones that go right into the scrapbook–are the ones I took when I first arrived, when the new and different seized my attention. Often these are the first things that fade into the cityscape in my mind’s eye a day or so later. Only after I see the city blind, so to speak, do I consult the guidebook or take a bus tour to orient myself. 

I strolled around town for awhile afterward. Most of the stores in town are still closed at half seven, so I had to make do with coffee from a vending machine. So I took a seat on a bench and as the people started to appear I watched the flesh make its way back onto this city’s skeleton.
A bit O Irish Humor and Wisdom 

When the sun came up I walked up O’Connell Street north of the Liffey and jumped on one of the many guided tour buses that leave from here. 

These bus trips, which can be so grating in other places, are absolutely wonderful in Dublin. I wound up taking various bus tours several times throughout my week in the city, largely because of the tour guides, who almost seem to be discovering the city along with you. This is considered a very respectable and civic- minded position in Ireland, especially for women. 

A large part of the joy is simply listening to the sing song Irish accent and the uniquely rebellious Dublin sense of humor, from which nothing is immune, especially the nation’s heroes. 

Indeed, the Irish seemed to have historically developed a humorous, teasing affection for everything in their midst, with the notable exception of British rule.    

Tour guides regularly refer to the new Dublin Spire, intended  to inspire civic pride, as the “Stiletto in the Ghetto” and “The Rod to God”, the statue of city mother Molly Mallone as “The Tart With the Cart”, “The Trollop With the Scallops” and the “The Dish With the Fish,” the statue of Ireland’s most famed writer James Joyce is “The Chap with the Cap,” the wobbly Ha’penny Bridge is “The Quiver on the River,” and a sculpture of two folksy ladies shopping is “The Hags With the Bags.”  I soon learned that the whole city uses these nicknames and is anxious to create new rhyming one liners for anything and anyone they come across. 

I later overheard a conversation between two women trying to decide which pub to go for a pint. One of the women suggested a place on Grafton Street, but her friend declined: “That’s where you’ll find a lot of men whose wives don’t understand them,” she said.

Dublin’s people are filled with these gems. Long before psychologists analyzed body language, the Irish were saying: “She tells her own story, just look.” 

As I sat in a coffee shop planning my trip through the Irish countryside, a woman asked me if I was enjoying Ireland. I told her it was wonderful but that I only had a limited amount of time and was afraid I might miss something. She smiled like a sage and said: “Well if you haven’t been there, then you can’t miss it, can you?”  I am still in awe of this comment and have taken it to heart forever, I believe. A Literary City 

People in Dublin like to say the city’s literature has always been constructed out of great jokes. Whatever the impetus, the city has played a role in some the world’s most celebrated writers over the years: James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney to name a few. 

A good place to refresh your memory about it all is the Dublin Writer’s Museum in Parnell Square, an enjoyable if prosaic walk through the city’s literary history. 

Before visiting the museum I hadn’t been aware that Bram Stoker was from Dublin or that Dracula is actually a Gaelic word. Irishman Jonathan Swift, known as the “father of satire,” originally wrote his Gulliver’s Travels as a biting satire on politics, society and humanity in general before he watered it down for a children’s version. 

His wit was even apparent in his philanthropy: “He gave the little wealth he had; to build a home for fools and mad: and shew’d by one satiric touch no nation wanted it so much.”  

This is the epigraph Swift wrote for his own headstone; after he gave money to build an insane asylum in Dublin. 

There is also a funny theme in the museum of writers throwing verbal jabs at each other they way rappers and slam poets do today, such as this one used to describe playwright Oliver Goldsmith: “He’s a lounging, fair-haunting, flute playing Irish buckeen’.”The Celtic Tiger 

The Celtic Tiger is the term reporters used to describe the burgeoning economy in the Republic of Ireland in the 1990s. As Microsoft and other American corporations started major operations in Dublin, along with home grown entrepreneurs, a wave of new money swept over the island like no one had ever seen. It has resulted in a wave of lingering guilt for this still predominately Catholic country. 

Sunday sermons at Mass regularly address such topics as: “Is Ireland losing its soul?” A Eucharistic newsletter I read warned that having a fat wallet is no excuse to be rude and that: “It’s much easier to love things than to love people. That’s the problem!” Poets, who regularly read their work on Irish radio stations, also fear the country may lose its earthy charm, such as this verse by an anonymous poet read on the radio while I was visiting: “Judas, how will I betray? With a kiss? By failing to connect. By willful self-neglect.”

As the country remains a very popular tourist destination, newspaper editorial writers fret over how the famously friendly Irish can avoid becoming like the dreaded French, whose rudeness to visitors the Irish find particularly appalling. 

But perhaps they’re worrying a bit soon. When I was visiting in late March, tales of the Celtic Tiger and its roar were giving way to economic reports about how highly skilled Irish youth found themselves one again having to leave the country to find jobs. Pub Life 

The Guinness Hop Store at the St. James’s Gate Brewery is worthwhile if you’re a big Guinness beer fan, though you don’t actually get to watch beer being made and you may feel like you’ve just paid ten dollars to listen to a long commercial. 

But it’s interesting for other reasons. In Dublin, even people on the street who have no connection to the Guinness corporation seem to take pride in this product, like the way Americans used to feel about Disneyland. It’s almost as if Guinness is exporting the Irish lifestyle along with the beer: specifically the “Craic,” that Gaelic word for going out, laughing and having fun, done mostly at pubs, the centerpiece of Irish social life. 

The Guinness corporate logo is even the same Celtic harp you’ll find on Irish euros and government documents, simply flipped around, and the company has a long history of donating to local parks, churches and hospitals. Senior Irish folk still talk about how the company always had the best job benefits package back in the lean years. People will even seriously tell you they drink the stuff out of civic responsibility.

During the self-guided tour, you learn how an Irish-style pub opens every day somewhere in the world, and that this is a relatively recent phenomenon: the first Irish pub to open outside the country was in 1972. There’s even a pitch aimed at aspiring bar owners–the Guinness corporation will design and build an Irish pub for you to run anywhere on earth, at a profit of course.  

I met some young city planners in Dublin who criticized this practice, saying all the facsimiles degrade the original. But there is something warm about the feel of Irish pubs so you can hardly blame anyone. 

When you visit a local pub and people find out you’re a foreigner they often want to know if the Guinness elsewhere is as good as it is in Dublin. They like to say it doesn’t travel well; that you’ve really got to drink it in Dublin to know what everyone’s talking about. 

This may be true, but I don’t think it’s because the beer itself tastes any different. It’s like how tea tastes so good in London, espresso in Paris, lemon-drenched mango in Mexico City or hot dogs in New York; it’s from some magical mix of place and taste.

It is also a well-known piece of lore that the black stuff that is now called Guinness was originally the waste byproduct of another type of booze, but people came to prefer the chaff to the wheat, so to speak, appealing to the Irish love of an underdog made good. The brewery here now churns out four million pints a day. 

But pub life isn’t just about drinking. It’s about conversation, and getting into heated discussions about all sorts of things and this is truly one of the joys of visiting this country. After all, this is how the Guinness Book of World Records came to be. 

When I was there in March, it was a hot topic among young people to dissect the accent of the newly famous Irish export to Hollywood, actor Colin Farrell. Most seem to think his accent is manufactured in some way: he talks very fast, like someone from Cork in Southern Ireland would, but Farrell is from the new money suburbs of Dublin, where the speech is more relaxed. 

His talk is also guttural and profanity laden, but Farrell went to an exclusive private school near Phoenix Park. As usual, the teasing is done with great affection. 

One night early in my trip, as I sat in a pub next to my hotel, a trio of young men came up to me upon hearing my American accent: which to the ears of European English speakers sounds slow and clear but with a drawl. 

I had already overheard their rambunctious humor as they referred to each other as “Daffy Duck”, “Fat Cunt” and “Big Nose,” and were defying anyone in the bar to tell them that Ireland wasn’t the greatest place in the world. 

“You ever visited Ireland before?” Daffy Duck said to me. “No,” I replied.
“You sure?” he repeated. “Yes,” I said. “Are you sure?” Big Nose joined in.

Perplexed, I riffed: “Yes, I’ve visited Ireland a hundred times before but I’m afraid she’ll play hard to get if she knows how much I like her, so I’m keepin’ it quiet.”

The guys laughed and Daffy Duck said to me:” Now you’re gettin’ it Yank” and bought us each a shot of Jameson Irish Whiskey.

“In Gaelic, Whiskey means ‘water of life’,” Fat Cunt said smiling. “And we spell it with an ‘e’ here.” We tapped our glasses and did our shots. 

This was one of the more entertaining ways I had been pulled into a culture’s way of thinking.   

As I was now feeling a little bit like a Dubliner myself, and closing time was near, I finished my beer, went home and slept soundly until well past dawn the next morning.

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