During this break, I traveled alone for the first time. Dare I say it? I like it better than traveling with other people. It’s so awesome to have a day of possibilities in front of you, to be able to navigate a city all by yourself. It really builds your confidence (cut to me, walking down the same street for the third time that day, because I refuse to pull out the map in my pocket and “look like a tourist”).
I spent five incredible days in Dublin and the surrounding area before I flew home for the holidays. Honestly, I still could have seen more. But I got the main things down.
Day One: Going to Gaol
When I was a preteen, my parents took us to Boise, the capital of our state, for the first time. Because we are all really into history (my sister and I once almost got into a fistfight over which countries were part of the Entente Powers in WWI), my parents thought it would be cool to take us to the old Idaho State Penitentiary. Spoiler alert: it was not. It was soooo not. The tour guide regaled us with horrific, child-traumatizing stories that I’m almost certain she enjoyed telling immensely. So naturally, when I visited Dublin, the first thing I wanted to see was another abandoned prison.
All jokes aside, though, it was fascinating and sad to take a tour of Kilmainham – mostly because so many of its inmates were not criminals. The youngest was a girl of eight years old, imprisoned for stealing food. This became a more and more common “crime” during the years of the Great Famine, when overcrowding was sometimes over 1000%. People would steal so they’d get sent here, because at least it guaranteed food.
The general population area of the prison is huge, and it has been used a number of times in films such as In the Name of the Father, with Daniel Day-Lewis. During the twentieth century, it became most famous for holding political prisoners, such as the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, men and women, most of whom were shot by firing squad in the courtyard below. The main aim of these prisoners was to free Ireland from British rule. Even though that eventually happened for the Republic of Ireland, many people died in this prison along the way. I highly recommend a tour of the prison if you want to learn what life was like under English rule. Book a tour here.
After the prison, I was trying to find nearby Phoenix Park and instead stumbled on the Irish War Memorial Gardens. I talked in another post about how much I loved the grandiose Treptower Park in Berlin. These gardens were a little more sedate, but still very cool.
I did finally find Phoenix Park, the largest park in Dublin. I didn’t really enjoy it as much as I did the smaller and more central St. Stephen’s Green, but I did climb up the Wellington Monument (built in honor of the Duke of Wellington, who was apparently Irish, tallest obelisk in Europe!) in a rainstorm in order to get this dope photo:
On the way back into Dublin proper, there ended up being a mishap with the tram not coming at its scheduled time. Long story short, I ended up having a political discussion with another student on the bus. Ireland is in the midst of deciding whether to repeal its ban on abortion, and she wanted to know my thoughts on that as an American, as well as how America had gotten into its current political situation. One thing I’ve realized since traveling abroad is that other countries follow the American political situation closely, and are usually better informed than a lot of us (which is probably one of the reasons we’re in the position we’re in, to be honest). A lot of them are worried about how the current administration is going to affect relations with their countries. As someone who studies international relations, it’s been interesting, to say the least.
When I finally rolled back into town, I went to the always delicious Queen of Tarts and ordered a sandwich, soup, carrot cake, and some hot chocolate, which don’t normally go together, but whatever. I was freezing.
Day Two: Trinity – The Library to End All Libraries
Many of you know how obsessed I am with looking at churches, so if that bores you, you’d better skip this whole section.
This was hands-down my favorite day in Dublin. I arrived at the world-famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral just in time to hear matins sung. I liked that they gave us a card that told us when to sit down and stand up – otherwise, I’d have looked like a total idiot because I’m not Catholic.
The cathedral has an absolutely gorgeous interior, of course, and a lot of cool history – famous author Jonathan Swift was dean of St. Patrick’s and is buried inside – but the outside is amazing, too, with its peaceful park and view of the exterior. I’ve since been back to St. Patrick’s in the summer, but the frost in the air on this early morning made everything look pristine.
After the cathedral, it was on to Dublin Castle. The Castle is the former home of the British viceroy, or representative of the British crown in Ireland, and is now the place where Irish presidents are sworn in (though not in the throne room, for obvious reasons).
The Castle is built on the site of an ancient ruin made by the Vikings after they first invaded the area, some of which still exists, half-flooded, below ground level, and which you’ll get to see as part of your tour. Some of its most famous visitors include a young Queen Victoria, who also worshiped in the adjacent chapel.
I then decided I’d use the free ticket I got from my university at the beginning of the year to go and see the Book of Kells at the Trinity College Library. This place is exactly what I imagine heaven will be like:
As you can see, the books are cordoned off. I was a little disappointed by that, because I had assumed, for some reason, that it would still be a working library and that you could actually pick up the books and go through them. But the Book of Kells was definitely worth the visit. A lot of people don’t know this, but most of the examples of post-Roman gospel books we have are from Ireland. Each book is hand-sewn, each letter of each word copied painstakingly by hand. And the decorations are amazing:
Those aren’t actual pages of the book, by the way. They’re replications. The caretakers of the manuscript only turn over two pages a day, and they’re stored in a dark room to protect the ink from bright light and damage. I was lucky enough to get an actual illustration page, of John the Baptist. Book your tour here.
After I got done at Trinity, I wandered around looking for a Christmas market (this is the part where I walked that street like three times). On the way back, I noticed this moving sculpture of the Famine:
As you can imagine, the Famine (where Ireland’s potato crop failed) sits very heavy in Irish cultural consciousness. It was a devastating event. Many of us Americans can probably trace our ancestry back to someone who came over during this time period, simply because there was nothing left for them in Ireland. Their population still hasn’t recovered from the mass death and immigration it caused.
The final event of the day was definitely the best. A lot of you who know about my fondness for heavy metal music will be surprised to know that I also really enjoy classical pieces. I got to head back to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to hear Handel’s Messiah performed – one of the perks of being in the city during Christmas.
The coolest thing was that I learned that night that Dublin was where the inaugural performance of the Messiah took place in 1742! I’ve always loved this piece, but it was so completely incredible to be there and hear the amazing singers, even though everyone else in the audience was over 60.
Day Three: Winter Solstice Fun
There are a lot of day trips that you can take outside of Dublin – fishing villages, mountains – you can even make it to Belfast if you leave early. I decided to stay a little closer to home and spend a day exploring the prehistoric side of Ireland.
The first stop was Newgrange, or Bru na Boinne as it’s known in Irish. It’s a Neolithic passage tomb located in the Boyne River Valley. Archaeologists have no idea how the slabs that surround the base were dragged up the hill that they sit on today, because it was constructed before the advent of horses and the wheel, just like Stonehenge (It’s obviously aliens, guys. Come on.).
Newgrange was designed following the pattern of the winter solstice, which probably took a couple decades of very precise measuring. During that time each year, light travels through the passage at the entrance of the tomb. Inside, the ground gradually slopes upward so that when you’re fully inside the main chamber, your feet are at the height of the entrance. This allows the light to shine in a strip across the floor, directly toward a stone basin where the ashes of the dead were kept. The light grows brighter until it fills the whole chamber with light. So many people want to get in to see it during the actual solstice that there’s a lottery going on with about 20,000 names per year. I put mine down, but I’m not too hopeful. Although it looks big from the outside, the room inside has a capacity of maybe 12 people.
Our tour guide had been taking people to the area for a number of years, and he told us that the weirdest things that happened always involve Wiccans or self-professed druids. One of the strangest was that two girls went up to the top of Newgrange and fell asleep, which is a definite no-no. He also had a group leader tell him that he wouldn’t need to explain much about the area, since the group had already lived there in previous incarnations.
The Hill of Tara is the place where the high kings of Ireland used to be crowned. There are remnants of earthworks which may have held a complex at one time, and the hill has spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. Perched atop it is the Stone of Destiny, which would let out a scream if the true High King touched it (awesome!!) It has a lonely, eerie vibe – at least in winter.
I also saw my first holy well. These wells are supposedly pagan in origin and were later converted by Christian priests into sacred shrines honoring a saint. This one is called the Well of the White Cow, which depending on who you ask, may refer to a sacred pagan cow that could heal people, or to the importance of the cow as food to early Irish Christians. Seriously, the famous Ulster Cycle contains an entire epic known as the Tain Bo Cuailnge, which literally means “The Cattle Raid of Cooley.” It’s like a more awesome, cow-centered version of Beowulf. Book your ticket to both Newgrange and the Hill here.
Day Four: Parks and Paintings
After realizing that I had lost both my gloves and my bus pass within ten minutes of each other, I began my wanderings. It was a gray, dismal day, but the color in the National Botanical Gardens brightened it up a bit.
I only really went into the greenhouses, because it was pouring rain (surprise, surprise) and I’m pretty sure everything else was bare. Except the grass. The grass always grows here. It’s lovely, but you should never, ever, sit on it. Ever.
After getting thoroughly soaked and questioning my decision to come to Dublin in winter, I decided to spend some time indoors. I went to the National Gallery, which is free! I know, I know, I didn’t go to the Jameson Distillery or the Guinness Storehouse. I’m the most boring traveler of all time (to be fair, I don’t drink, so it wouldn’t have been much fun for me). But just check out some of these:
The first is an original Picasso, the second an original El Greco, and the last is Perugino’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ. They also had originals by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Rodin.
My final sightseeing stop of the day was at Saint Stephen’s Green, which I’d been meaning to visit since the first day, but somehow never made it to. It was a bit bare in winter, but is absolutely gorgeous during the summer.
I then tried oysters for the first time at Klaw (which came back to haunt me; more on that later), and had a gigantic Kinder sundae at Cloud Nine in Temple Bar, because not even Arctic temperatures can keep me from my ice cream.
Day Five: Snow?!
Up to this point, there was nothing I’d seen in Ireland that remotely reminded me of home. The country around Limerick is mostly gently rolling hills, riverbank, and seashore. Even palm trees grow here, it’s so wet – so you can imagine the Cretaceous-level vegetation they’ve got going on.
At the first glance of the Wicklow Mountains, I wondered for a second if I was back in America:
This is the area immediately behind Glendalough, which is a sixth-century monastery founded by St. Kevin. It’s a peaceful area overlooking a lake, with another lake higher up the mountain – a perfect spot if, like St. Kevin and his monks, you’re trying to get away from the world. Fun fact: I went looking for the higher lake and overshot it by about a mile! I had to run all the way back down, and I probably didn’t smell too stellar when I got back on the bus.
Anyway, here’s some photos of monastery ruins, which include a complete bell tower and a cathedral that was at one time the largest in Ireland. It could probably have fit inside St. Patrick’s ten times.
On the way out of Glendalough and across the mountains, the bus got stuck in the snow. I thought the bus driver did a nice job getting us out, even though it can’t be a common occurrence here. We also passed through the village of Hollywood, which is where the little-known town in California got its name.
Our next stop was Kilkenny, a stunning medieval city. We had almost three hours here, and I used it to look at – you guessed it – churches!
St. Mary’s, where every one of these photos except the bottom left (that one’s from the Dominican Black Abbey) come from, is absolutely enormous. When you look out over the city, it dwarfs every other building. It’s fairly recent (1857), but it’s got one of the loveliest, most ornate sanctuaries I’ve ever seen.
The last church I toured was St. Canice’s. A Church of Ireland cathedral, it dates from the 13th century (except for the tower, which dates from the 9th), and it’s the second longest in Ireland after St. Patrick’s. Best part: I actually got to climb the tower this time! The stairs were so narrow that people climbing up had to literally squeeze past the people coming down, sending me into a claustrophobic tailspin. Was the view worth it? You be the judge:
I also got a little peek at Kilkenny Castle, which is one of the few still-operational castles in Ireland. It was closed by the time we got there, though, but I was able to tour it with my sister later.
And that concludes my adventures in Dublin. The very next day, I was off on a plane to Idaho. I ended up getting violently sick during the flight (likely because of the aforementioned oysters). Throwing up on a plane is probably one of the worst experiences I’ve had, to be honest. But once I got over the food poisoning, I had a great time at home with my family for two weeks. And then promptly got back on a plane, because I really hate myself!