Finally Made It to Dublin Captivated by Culture Born of Resistance
What kind of a country is Ireland? Generations of people migrating to North America, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere since the Potato Famine of the 19th century have earned a place for themselves in societies across the English-speaking world , among them many men of influence (e.g. Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroony, US President John F Kennedy). In song and dance, they excel at all levels from pros to amateurs , and the favorite Irish pastime is swapping jokes over countless drinks at local pubs. She produced such literary giants as Joyce, Swift and Wilde. On St. Patrick’s Day every year, they stage big processions in cities everywhere in the English-speaking realm. The many plaintive songs of longing for home and nostalgia brought to our ears by their singers tug at our heartstrings even if we’re not Irish. Who does not know the melody of Danny Boy? In contemporary pop group U2 led by Bono, among others, are Dublin homeboys.
As a movie fan of many years, I count Peter O’Toole, immortalized by his performance in Lawrence of Arabia among my favourites. A fine actor who also loved his drink, he was Irish, and so is Pierce Brosnan of secret agent James Bond fame. Many famous figures who are considered to be British (or English) outside the English-speaking countries are in fact Irish as their surnames would indicate. At this point in writing, it occurred to me that this was just like many movie stars, pop singers and pro athletes who are thought to be Americans outside North America, being actually Canadian. I even see a common feature shared by the Irish and Japanese Canadians, but more on that later.
Clichés and all, the above more or less used to sum up my notion of Ireland, a place I had long been interested in but never quite had a chance to visit even during the years I used to work in London decades ago. Since we moved to Canada 18 years ago, we’ve had to visit Singapore and Tokyo to see relatives and old friends from time to time, so visiting distant (i.e. more air fare) Ireland had remained something of a “dream for some time in the future.” Then, rather unexpectedly, the daughter of my wife’s older brother in Singapore, was getting married to an English boy in London. We wanted to attend our niece’s wedding for the sake of my brother-in-law, who has done a lot for us over the years. London I had visited only three years earlier, but this time we decided to take the opportunity to visit Dublin. So for the first time in our lives, we made it to Ireland, even though it was only a four-day stay in the capital city. Nevertheless, my longstanding wish of half a century was fulfilled at last, allowing me to get a feel, albeit fleeting, of the spirit of “real Irish people” at home.
Just about everyone we encountered seemed to enjoy a chat. It didn’t take long for the taxi drivers who took us from the airport to our hotel downtown to launch into a discourse about how important stout (such as Guinness) is to the people’s lives. “If you donate blood, you’ll receive a free pint of Guinness…and you know, the parliament is now debating a bill that would allow farmers in sparsely populated rural parts to drink more than the official limit at their pubs, because they can drive home slowly on their tractors.” Where fact turns into joke, we’re not quite sure. Could it be that the “dark ruby beer” (“If you hold up your glass to the clear Dublin sky,” said a tour guide later) eases the pain of, and makes up for, the blood and sweat they shed on their way to independence as a republic in 1922 fighting a two-year war with the British crown, after centuries of harsh rule over farmers and working class citizens? Outsiders can only ponder.
Having checked into an hotel near O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main central boulevard, I looked out the window to behold a low city skyline, allowing a clear view all the way to the horizon. Most new buildings, I found out, were lower than 10-stories in order not to spoil the appearance of the old city of centuries old churches, castles and grand residences For my impression of the city and its people, I had to rely on the old “visiting journalist’s backup sources” – conversations with taxi drivers, tour bus drivers, tourist guides, pub managers, waitresses, shop clerks and so on.
Is it because I happen to enjoy a drink or two that hearing just the word Ireland or Eire makes me think of, depending on the time of day, Guinness stout bearing that famous harp logo? The harp as the nation’s symbol was adopted by the new Republic’s government with the consent of the brewery which had earlier registered it as a trade mark. I heard that during our tour of the famous Guinness brewery, and that, for the sake of national dignity, the harp as the national symbol faces right while that used by Guinness faces left. It also seems entirely apt that it represents a society and culture that cherishes equally all kinds of song and dance. Are there other nations whose national symbols are musical instruments?
The prominent building with six Ionic columns on façade about half way down O’Connell Street is the iconic General Post Office. During the Easter Uprising of 1916, it served as the headquarters of the rebel forces and was severely damaged under attack by the British army. But it was restored after the country became a republic, and remains to this day a symbol of her independence. This we learned right away as the guides or drivers would mention it every time we passed by the building.
Another “must see” is Dublin Castle that began as a fortress commissioned by the England’s Norman King John. Reception chambers, banquet halls, chapels and so on were added on in subsequent years. It was the seat of British government until Ireland achieved independence. Nowadays, the castle is used for the president’s swearing in and other state functions and European Union meetings. It’s also a cultural centre for citizens and tourists. In one of the rooms visitors see during the conducted tour, portraits of seven men who led the Easter Uprising are on display. When British mercilessly executed the seven “ring leaders” they had arrested, the people became united in a groundswell of anti-British sentiments leading to Ireland’s independence six years later.
Trinity College (of the University of Dublin) is Ireland’s oldest university steeped in the tradition of its over 400-year history. Along with Cambridge and Oxford university among others, it is one of the seven so-called “Ancient Universities” that were established in England, Scotland and Ireland about the time the Middle Ages moved on to the enlightenment of the Renaissance. The Book of Kells, on display at a museum at the College, is a colorfully-illuminated parchment manuscript containing the Four Gospels in Latin. Believed to have been created around 800 AD., it is widely regarded as Ireland’s finest national treasure.
One of Dubliners’ not-so-secret sources of pride are the host of literary giants who attended Trinity College. A short list would include the playwright/poet/novelist Samuel Beckett who reached the zenith of his career while in Paris; writer Jonathan Swift, the renowned satirist and author of Gulliver’s Travels; Oscar Wilde, the flag-bearer of the esthetic, degenerate and skeptical late 19th literary scene (one of his lines guides love to quote being: “I can resist anything but temptation”); and Bram Stoker, the original creator of the vampire Count Dracula. Notably, one William Wright, a Catholic missionary who came to Meiji-era Japan was also a graduate of the college.
One national characteristic the guides would mention with a measure of pride is a certain unyielding, defiant spirit against authority. “If we’re asked to do something, we would so it, but if we’re ordered to do something, we resist,” was the gist of what more than one guide said. There is a nice section of town with rows of Georgian era brick apartments, where senior civil servants and the well-to-do used to live in the British days. Many of their doors are painted pink, yellow, sky blue, red and other bright colors. “Those doors go back to the time when Queen Victoria passed away and people were ordered to paint their doors black for national mourning, so they deliberately painted them in bright colors,” said the guide who hastened to add “…at least that’s what we’ve been told.”
Having relied on bus tours (you can get on and off at any spot) and guided tours, my impressions have come out like a history lesson, but one impression stands out. Certainly there are many ancient cities in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, but what captivated me was the small size of Dublin (pop: under one million) enclosed within a circular road and thus concentrating key historical and cultural sites in a relatively small area. History felt more intensely, so to speak
Lastly, on eating and entertainment. The pub lunch fare and burgers and sandwiches at chain outlets are about the same as Canada. There were Italian restaurants everywhere, two of which we tried for dinner. The taste was authentic. There has been a growing influx of immigrants from Europe, and I heard many of them were Italians. Fancy French restaurants or classy Japanese sushi shops we did not come across. As expected in a country known for her musicians and singers, many pubs and restaurants in the central entertainment district feature live music, typically singers belting out blues and folk songs, accompanying themselves on the guitar.
Street musicians working the streets from daylight hours on, nowadays using electric guitars and amps, were generally as good or better than buskers here (in my personal view).
One night, we went to hear live jazz. We heard a four-piece (vibraphone, guitar, bass, drums) combo called the MIQ (Modern Irish Quartet), after the legendary MJQ. Their performance was excellent. The venue itself was a narrow, second floor space with the stage at one end and the bar at the other. To get in, one just hands the 10-Euro cover charge to a scruffy-looking guy standing at the door. When I said we only had British pounds on us, he matter-of-factly accepted 10 pounds per person, not bothering with the official exchange rate of about 1 pound = 1.3 Euros. This is our turf, he seemed to imply.
Incidentally, I had “dragged along” to Dublin the energy of the Beatles’ music from London, our previous stop. We had gone to a West End theatre to see the musical Let It Be that traces the group’s career from their debut in the pop charts to their heyday and breakup through live performance of its many hits.
The raw energy of live performance and clever directing had us jumping up and down and singing along with the jam-packed audience including many European tourists. Members of the Beatles are among many Liverpudlians whose ancestors came over from Ireland in the 19th century. The dialect they speak known as Scouse is said to be influenced by Irish. Likewise their sense of humour. Fifty years ago when they arrived in New York for their first US tour, they gave a press conference which is now legendary. Long hair was a big deal in those days. So an enterprising reporter provoked John Lennon, asking him “Are you wearing a wig?” To which he blithely replied: “Yes, we are…all four of us.” He made the reporter look silly.
Finally, I did find a common feature shared by the Irish and Japanese Canadians. Both think of themselves as “minorities” in a broad sense, who had to overcome adverse conditions. The latter launched a redress movement against the injustice of forced relocation as an enemy race and won an apology and compensation from the government. The former won independence as a Celtic Irish nation through armed struggle from the Anglo-Saxon Britons who had governed them for many years. This “similarity” might be a bit of a stretch given the many differences in the circumstances, historical background and scale. But I believe that both groups have always been aware of their existence as minorities, which in turn served as a powerful motivation for social action and artistic activities.
It was a short stay, but the people we came across were generally very kind. Being an Indian Canadian and a Japanese, we were obviously “foreigners.” That may have had something to do with it. I’ve heard that even today, Englishmen easily recognized as such from their accent are sometimes refused service in a pub or two. To better appreciate the complex cultures and history of “Great Britain” involving the peoples of Scotland and Wales as well, or simply to enjoy the music, fine arts, shopping, the pubs and restaurants, a visit to Dublin is highly recommended. Still wallowing in the after effect of my Dublin experience.