Friday, September 25, 2009

Busin' to Blackpool

This morning I'm sitting in a comfy chair in the entrance hall of Highfield House, with a hot cup of coffee and my journal. Irrational as it is, the thought strikes me that any moment now, one of the grandkids will bound down the front stairs, jump onto my lap and ask; "Vovo, what are you writing about?" I would whisper to whichever one was with me, "Well, I'm writing about you, of course. You know you're my favorite grandchild." The older ones laugh it off, the younger ones hug me tighter. Funny that my thoughts go to our family while sitting in this far away land. I feel that much at home, here in our first B&B experience.

Friday - September 25, 2009 - Trim, County Meath, Ireland

I met Eddie (Geraldine's husband) first thing this morning. He is constantly in motion, tending to his extended family, making sure everyone is having the best morning of their trip. I felt pampered, having my coffee brought to me. That's the first time in many years, as I'm always the early bird, and the maker rather than the drinker. I could get used to this.

We are in Trim (a nice, neat, name) only 30 miles northwest of Dublin. We could take the car into the city, but decided to spare the attendant hassles and grab a bus instead. There are twelve a day, and the stop is either right across the street, or down in front of the castle, a short walk away. Hmmm, either, or? Glad we had missed the 8:00 bus, we took a leisurely walk down the road to the nearest stop and found a notice that the next bus would indeed depart from the castle at 9:45. That gave us a chance to explore the area a little and see the castle in the daylight for the first time. It seems everyone in Ireland walks, a lot. There are well worn gated paths that meander through meadows, over bridges and along the river. There are fellow walkers to greet and smile at as you go.
The bus arrived right on time, and we climbed upstairs (yup, just like London buses), found our seats and relaxed for a very pleasant hour long ride through beautiful countryside, small villages, and finally scary, narrow, congested capital city streets. Sitting a few rows from the front we had a TV-eyes view of the road ahead, and great views of the passing scenery.

We felt liberated, with no concerns for parking, fuel, or left side driving. Everything we needed for transportation was represented by the other halves of our round trip tickets. We disembarked a few blocks from our first stop - Trinity College.

If you remember the Dark Ages, not much was going on in most of Europe. They were in a real slump. However, in the late seven hundreds (700s) some Irish monks on a Scottish island transcribed the gospels onto parchment (calfskin) and decorated them with beautiful designs and drawings. These were bound into a book and hidden in a monastery in Kells, Ireland. Later rebound (there are four volumes) it now resides at the library of Trinity College in Dublin. It is difficult to imagine that for hundreds of years this book was the artistic output of Europe.

There are some really neat presentations and videos before you get to see the main attraction. They are interesting and educational. For instance, ink won't erase from parchment, so mistakes were noted by red dots around the incorrect text, and was meant to be ignored. The inks were very difficult to obtain and grinding the ingredients was an art unto itself. Scholars believe there were probably three (or four) editors. The presentations explained some of the symbolism represented by the drawings, and the methods used for binding the volumes. Fascinating.

When I first saw them over 30 years ago, the volumes were in a simple display case and you got the feeling they would let you turn the pages if you asked nicely. Now they are protected like the Constitution in heavy glass cabinets (no doubt filled with some rare gas) and the lighting is awful. Only a limited number of people can be "in the room" with them at any one time, and you have to bend over and squint to make out the writing. I enjoyed watching the people watch the books.

Upstairs was cool. A real old library with dusty old books on floor to very high ceilinged shelves. The spot where I first saw the Book of Kells now has a glass case containing another Irish icon, the 15th century harp that is the symbol of Ireland. You will find it's likeness on all government documents, the back of Irish euros, and of course on Guinness beer bottles - I'll drink to that. At almost 600 years old it's in excellent shape. It is less protected than the manuscript, and perhaps in 30 years it will be in an argon filled cabinet as well.

Leaving the library we headed to the Irish National gallery, and our only "must see" in Ireland - Vermeer's twice stolen, "Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid." It is beautiful, and as in the Hague and the Mauritshuis, we were alone in a room with one of Vermeer's masterpieces. It was a thrilling experience. Your eye is drawn to the brightly lit blue cloth and green chair seat, as the maid patiently waits for her mistress to complete the love letter. The pearl earrings sparkle.

Before leaving the museum we stopped outside the museum cafe where I asked a totally bored (but obviously well fed) guard if he would recommend the cafe, or where we might get some good fish and chips (I admit to being addicted). That's all it took to change his mien from stuffy to Irish. He could hardly wait to recommend Leo Burdock down by Christ Church. If he hadn't been working I imagine he would have taken us there himself and joined us for lunch. Everyone we have met in this country just seems ready to burst with friendliness and enthusiasm.

A short walk away, Christ Church cathedral is next to the Dublin Castle (Before I forget, "dubb linn" is Irish for "black pool" - a reference to the area where the two rivers, Poddle and Liffey, joined). We passed on the church and queued up outside Leo's, self proclaimed as Dublin's oldest chipper. It is take away only, and the board of fame outside lists all the famous people who had stood on line here. It reminded me of the Seinfeld episode with the Soup Nazi. Three people inside at a time, and I had butterflies, concerned that I would blow my overly rehearsed single line - 2 cod, 1 coke, 1 ginger ale, delivered in an unenthusiastic monotone. I had my money ready. I waited without making eye contact, and carefully sidestepped as I moved along the counter. One of the fryers dropped a freshly browned piece on the floor and I prayed it wasn't mine - would I have to take it anyway? It wasn't, I paid, and heavy hot bag in hand we slipped away.

Just to the side of the castle there is a beautiful park with an easily missed, secluded walkway that contained a statue, gardens and park bench. We set up shop and under a wonderfully clear blue sky enjoyed the best fish and chips we've had. The portion was huge, and even had the museum guard joined us there would have been some left. I did feed a hearty portion to one of the local cats, but still had to discard a considerable amount. Sated, we walked back to the main street for a bus ride to jail.

Now experienced with these bus rides we immediately headed upstairs and sat directly above the driver, looking out our own windshield, floating along. It's a little disconcerting at first and you feel like you should be driving. We marveled as he magically navigated his way along, just missing people, cars, and lamp poles. It was like being on an amusement ride at Disney.

Kilmainham Gaol is fascinating from beginning to end. The exhibits in the museum are very well done, and thought provoking. It challenges your viewpoint on the role of a prison; should it be a place to rehabilitate, punish, or simply incarcerate wrongdoers? As in Northern Ireland, most everything is viewed through the Irish/English prism.

The Easter Uprising of 1916 led to the arrest of 16 rebel leaders who were incarcerated here before being executed in the courtyard. The most poignant exhibit was entitled "Their Last Words" that contains the letters both to and from the condemned men hours before they were shot. There are brave stories, and sad stories, and even a love story. It would be difficult to come away unmoved.

Now that our ears had tuned to the Irish accent station, we enjoyed our tour guide's descriptions and explanations of what we were seeing. The main hall (it was once open to the sky, but has since been covered) has a spiral staircase on one end (much easier to control the prisoners) and open walkways above. In winter this must have been brutal with the cold and wind whipping around the yard. Our last stop was the outside recreation yard where the rebellion leaders were executed.

We bused our way back to O'Connell Street, and visited the General Post Office. The columns still bear the bullet holes from the action that sent so many to Kilmainham, and the steps from which the Irish Proclamation of Independence was proclaimed. It was open (almost 7:00 pm) so we took the opportunity to mail our postcards from this very historic site. Dublin is a compact easily navigated city, with cool pubs on many corners. We lingered outside O'Neills pub (Kathy's maternal grandparents name), but decided to eat at O'Shea's because it was closer to the bus station and we wanted to take no chances on getting back to Trim. With full bellies and me one Guinness heavier, we climbed aboard and settled into our comfy second floor seats just as the sun settled itself over the Liffey.

Back at Highfield house, our hosts suggested we take a late night walk around town and by the castle, assuring us that we couldn't get lost and that it was perfectly safe. It was late, and dark and magical, just us with this beautiful little castled town to ourselves.

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