Dublin is not about sightseeing– although there are sights to see. It is about stories. You can find stories everywhere. Often stories are wrapped in songs. As part of the “media package” that came from the radio conference we got free passes to the “hop on hop off” busses. We soon learned to get on the busses labeled “live commentary.” The recorded commentary, on 6 tracks in 6 languages, was probably more informative of dates and historical “facts,” but the stories, Dublin slang, literary references and songs from the “live commentary” made this tour sparkle. During one of those times when there were no “sights” to see, one driver had us singing “No, Nay Never.” She also broke into a song from “My Fair Lady” at the George Bernard Shaw house and sang “Molly Malone” at the statue of “the tart with the cart” or “the trollop with scallop.” She even did a turn at a U2 song. Another “live commentator” went on rants against cabbies and picked up passengers from the Red Line busses which ran every half hour rather than every 15 minutes (our passes were on the tour run by the city bus company). He berated them for making a bad choice of bus companies in such a charming way that they promised to give him a good write up in Trip Advisor. He picked up one couple more than once. “Oh it’s the family from Philly.”
We had city bus passes but sometimes relied on taxies when running late for the conference or going to the airport. Cab drivers told stories as good as the tour bus drivers. One told us about a “Clamper’s Strike” (the people who boot illegally parked cars.) “The strikers were the most popular public servants in all Ireland. We brought them tea on the picket line, told them to stay out as long as they wanted. Good on ya” When I said I was from Alaska they wanted to hear my stories, all about “Sarah” and why Alaska doesn’t break away from America and become “rich like Norway.”
Stacked sandbags line one section of Clontarf Road. Sandbags also sit near shop doors. A cabbie told us why. Dublin has been getting high tides in recent years and low lying parts are having problems. (There were also sandbags in Douglas on the Isle of Man.) The city wanted to build a seawall along the bay at Clontarf, but the residents didn’t want to lose their close connection with the sea. So now they have perhaps too close a connection. Further toward Dublin there is an extension of the stone wall along the Royal Canal. The extension is made of the same stone but is not weathered so forms an odd cap along the wall. Very high tides flood the canals. Clontarf is getting ready for its party of the millennium. 1000 years ago, on April 23 (a good Friday), Brian Boru defeated the Vikings at Clontarf but was killed right after his victory.
As a kid I heard stories about Brian Boru from my grandfather who claimed that his surname “Brew” may have been a corruption of “Boru” (although sons of Brian Boru are O’Brian.) We stayed at the Clontarf Castle, built a century after the battle to guard the approach to Dublin that Brian attacked. When I stayed in Dublin with my grandfather in 1961 we ate at the castle. Now it’s a modern building that ingeniously weaves around the old castle keep. From the top floor you can see the cemetery and church that allegedly marks the spot where Brian was killed. The cemetery has gravestones set at various angles as they sink into the ground. This is where Bram Stoker, another Irish storyteller and author of “Dracula,” grew up. About a block and a half from the castle is “Brian Boru’s Well.”
The bookies at the dog track can tell as good a story as cabbies. You can bet using computer terminals but the old men under the beach umbrellas who set their own odds were my preference. These bookies work both the dog and horse tracks and have their own stories of fabled races. It reminded me of the bookies under the umbrellas at the weekly races in Greencastle, the village in Donegal where my family is from, taking the bets and passing the news.
We caught a few music sessions in different pubs. One pub is in a disused church. The bar is the length of the church, the longest communion rail in Ireland. It was the church where Arthur Guinness was married and where his double digit children were baptized. If any church should become a pub this is it.
We had a night at the Abby, Ireland’s national theater. “Sive” was set in Ireland in 1958, very like the Ireland I first saw in 1961 with my grandfather. The only things different between the thatch family cottage where my kin lived and the stage set was that the stage set was far too big and didn’t have a radio in the corner, a feature of every cottage I saw in Ireland in 1961. Radio is a perfect medium for Ireland. I loved the three hour storytelling workshop sponsored by RTE that I attended as part of Radio Days. There was a lot of advice on structure of stories and on presaging incidents. Although the best advice was “Go to a pub and listen. Old people have a lot of practice telling stories, they’ve listened all their lives and have the experience of telling. Listen to old people.” That is something I’ve done all my life, my great grandfather, grandfathers, grandma, pop and mom. I grew up surrounded with stories.
Dublin is a city where I would love to try community radio. A central studio and an open mic seem made for Dublin. The midday show on RTE 2 was a mix of music, calls, tweets and emails. A surprising number of calls were from Australia, Canada, the UK and the continent. RTE was using radio to keep a hold on the diaspora.
Perhaps because of the returned Irish from the continent, Dublin feels more European now than it did 21 years ago, when I was last here. While Dublin is still beer, there is more wine than I remember. The city is boasting of its Viking heritage. One local webpage wondered whether Dublin should be commemorating the battle of Clontarf and Brian’s victory over the Danes since Dublin was a Viking city. Will Dubliners take the Vikings side to bring them closer to Europe?
But the most striking European thing in Dublin is the bicyclists. According to the cabbies they are a relative new phenomenon, along with new bike lanes. But these cyclists don’t look like their Euro counterparts in Amsterdam or Copenhagen. About half of them are wearing helmets (in Denmark it is more like 1 in a hundred) and all of them are either wearing fluorescent yellow vests or fluorescent yellow backpacks. The vests display various logos, including a radio station logo. The station gave me one as a souvenir at Radio Days.
We did see some sights, like the Book of Kells at Trinity College Library. I got up the courage to go into the library and Suzi took a photo to document it. I am standing there in the stacks looking terrified. It’s on Facebook. At Kilmainham Gaol we saw where the leaders of the 1916 rising were shot (the plaque gives the dates in the month of “Beltane”), where former comrades imprisoned each other during the civil war and finally where they came together to restore this strange example of a Victorian penal institution where “the light of God” coming through skylights, was thought to have redemptive qualities for reforming criminals. Names like Pearce and de Valera are on plaques above some of the cells.
The docklands were redeveloped during the Celtic Tiger days by the likes of Bono and U2, reinvesting in their town. I like the old canals, locks and lift bridges but it is a new bridge that draws attention. The Samuel Beckett Bridge is a cable stay bridge fashioned to look like a harp. Another dockland monument is the Amnesty International flame circled in barbwire. Padlocks hang from the barbed wire. But this is not part of the monument’ design. Both this monument and the Ha’penny Bridge over the River Liffy are festooned with padlocks. It’s a European thing that started in Paris and has spread to Ireland. Couples write their names or initials on padlocks, often with a sharpie, attach their “love locks” to a bridge or monument and throw away the key (often into the river.) The locks allegedly cause corrosion. But I think it’s better than carving initials into a bench or tree. The city has posted signs and hired a guy with bolt cutters to remove them, but the locks just keep on coming.