Less than an hour in the country and what was the hot topic of discussion? Booze. Guinness specifically – Guinness predictably. Our cabbie was explaining to us that should the tap at the pub ever run dry of Guinness, the only acceptable substitute is Budweiser. Not Kilkenny as one might assume.
“Budweiser?” I asked incredulously. I’m not beer drinker, but I’d still been raised with a healthy disdain for all American beer, which seems to be shared the world over. Or at least everywhere that’s not America.
“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” he explained, “Budweiser is horse piss. But it’s better than Kilkenny.”
I suspect this is a regional argument, centred around Dublin, home of Guinness (which also makes Kilkenny despite it being named for another town). Much as you don’t come to Montreal extolling the virtues of the Toronto Maple Leafs, you don’t come to Dublin and talk about Kilkenny unless you want to be sipping your Kilkenny through broken teeth. If you have any doubt about the local loyalty to the dark ale in question, just hang around the baggage carousel at the airport for a few minutes and you’ll get the picture. I spent a good deal of time there waiting for the verdict on my travel companions’ lost luggage that had failed to make the Philadelphia switch. In that time I was subjected to the same ad over and over again on a television monitor that was supposed to be offering useful flight information, but was instead telling me, “No trip to Dublin is complete without a visit to the Guinness brewery.”
Seriously. Dublin has buildings that are A THOUSAND YEARS OLD. They’re just sitting there waiting for you to come and explore them. There’s so much history on a block-by-block basis, it can make your head explode. And they want me to run and see where they make the fucking beer?
It was Tuesday morning. Once we were safely checked into our luxury hotel and had a good greasy Irish breakfast in our bellies, it was time to get some rest. This was set aside as a day of relaxation and reorientation to shrug off the jet lag and catch up on our sleep.
I was having none of that.
Fuelled by a fresh pot of strong coffee, and armed with a printout of a wildly inaccurate city map I found on the web, I took to the streets. If I was going to be stuck in a conference room for the next three days arguing the minutiae of a TV show that didn’t even exist yet, I was going to seize my one big chance to take in the sights.
Dublin is a very walkable city. You can cover a lot of ground and see a lot of landmarks in a short period of time because the layout hasn’t changed much in centuries. As other cities might have a clothing district or jewelers district, Dublin has things like a Viking district, because those were the guys who got to shape that end of town over 1200 years ago. Recent buildings date back to the mid 1800’s. Brand new buildings are scarce and you actually have to search for them. This is what a European city looks like when the Germans don’t get a chance to bomb it flat.
The fact that Dubliners seem to care much more passionately about their beer than their history is easily explained once you’ve walked around for a few hours. Beer is an immediate experience. It’s here, it’s now, it’s on demand, and it’s always fresh. The history, however, is tremendously old and all-encompassing. It’s bloody everywhere, and it’s overwhelming. You walk on it, you breathe it, and if you don’t look out, you’ll bump your head on it. There’s simply too much to take in, so you become blasé about it as a defense mechanism. By mid-afternoon I was turning my nose up at two or three hundred year old architecture.
“Two or three hundred years? Bah! Show me something OLD. If it doesn’t predate the discovery of the New World, I’m not interested.”
And there’s more than enough of that stuff to go around, too. Understand, I was born and raised in Canada and live in a house that was built a mere forty-four years ago. If we, as Canadians, see something that’s been around for a century, we think it’s old. We have no concept of ancient whatsoever. There are trees in this country, alive and well today, that pre-date the arrival of our earliest European settlers. Dublin, on the other hand, has books lying around that were written before anyone knew my home continent even existed. So when I walk through the crypt beneath Christchurch Cathedral, or spelunk my way into the remains of Dublin Castle’s original northeast tower (the one where they had to remove all the rotted heads before they could parade the tourists through the area), or walk along the city wall gates that were erected to keep the Vikings from returning to set up shop again…well, it’s hard for my little Canuck mind to grasp the sheer longevity of it all.
By early evening, I’d seen an insane number of landmarks without ever having to hail a cab or hop a bus. I returned to the hotel to shower, change, and hook up with everyone involved with both ends of the proposed production in time to hit the pubs.
I’d been warned there would be drinking involved. This was, after all, Ireland. My ancestors had vacated the premises and hopped over to England generations ago, but judging from some of my relations, the fondness for drink went with them. It’s not something I inherited, however, so I’d been wracked with performance anxiety for weeks. As I struggled through my obligatory pint of Guinness, I was already on my way to drinking myself under the table. It wasn’t drunkenness, it was exhaustion. At this point I’d been up for a good thirty-two hours straight, and there was no way I was going to survive a night of socializing and shots. I wasn’t just nodding off, I was about ready to hit the floor dead to the world.
Excusing myself on the grounds that I wanted to be fresh for the next day when work would actually begin, I returned to the hotel, made a quick supper of the complimentary fruit and chocolates that had been brought up to my room, and then lapsed into a coma.
Exiting Dublin Airport, the first landmark of note is the flying pig statue opposite the taxi pickup lane. The implied message at this bustling airport: You’ll get a cab into town when pigs fly.
The entrance to the grounds of Trinity College where Oscar Wilde (and I suppose a few others) studied. The cobble stones are worn away to a fine polish by centuries of footsteps. The mortar between them has suffered even more wear and tear, making the height difference between it and the stones it binds together painful to walk across. This is, doubtless, an intentional feature to discourage the legions of tourists who come to see the Book of Kells. Although I was not turned back by the uncomfortable courtyard surface, I was driven off by the discouragingly long line of people there to see the day’s four page display.
Dublin Castle, now headless. Note the varying styles of architecture typical of buildings this old. You can tell on a century-by-century basis which parts burned down and when they were rebuilt. The turret is the one remaining tower of the original castle. The cathedral is a much later addition, the interior of which is mostly wood that only looks like marble. The cathedral had to be made very lightweight so as not to collapse into the old moat that still runs beneath it and the adjoining parking lot.
Get famous enough in Ireland and you too might be interred in one of its famous cathedrals. The centuries will just fly by as addle-minded tourists of all faiths rub their grubby little hands over your monument and wear away the finer details of the masonry. The fellow up front has only been around for a century and a half, so his sarcophagus is still in good shape. Not so the chap in the background who, as one of Christchurch’s oldest fixtures, has been worn down to an indistinct nub.
No room in your local cathedral? Well, you can still hope for a statue if you’re a big shot, or a bust if you’re a murdered crusading reporter. Okay, a bust isn’t as cool as a whole statue, but not many of those statue guys get a feature film tossed into the deal.
Once they kicked the Vikings out, it was time to build a city wall to make sure they never came back. This used to be the front door of the city back in 1240.
But don’t go thinking all of Dublin’s monuments and landmarks are ancient. The Spire, erected way back in 2003 and pictured left, is the tallest structure in the city. Surrounded by so many old buildings, its gleaming smooth metal surface makes it look completely unreal from a distance, like a bad cgi effect dropped into a low budget science fiction movie to make an otherwise normal cityscape look all futuristic and Jetsonsesque. Ultimately, it’s just a spike. And it lights up at night. “Yes, but what’s it for?” we asked our cab driver as we passed by. “It’s for wasting our money,” he told us flatly. Four million Euros to be exact.