September 16, 2013

Capitals in Contrast

A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”   John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States

Carol writes:

DUBLIN:  It was in Dublin, the Republic of Ireland’s capital and largest city, where the echoes of Ireland’s fight for independence could be seen and heard the loudest.

Our guidebook had given such praise for the double-decker hop-on/hop off bus tours that we decided to use that method to visit the historic areas of chief importance. 

From the very start of our bus tour, it was quite apparent that Dublin is very proud of the men who fought for Irish rights while Ireland chaffed under British rule for over 700 years.  Numerous statues of notable Irish heroes were seen everywhere.  The statue of Daniel O’Connell (“The Liberator”), with the controversial Millennium Spire in the background, stated loud and clear that we were unmistakably in Dublin. 

There were statues of many of the brave patriots, such as Michael Collins, who paved the way for Irish independence in 1922.

Along the main street was the General Post Office, one of the most iconic buildings in all of Dublin and the one that played such a big part in the 1916 Easter Uprising.  This was where Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of Irish Independence (from British rule) that kick-started the tragic violent events of Easter Day nearly 100 years ago.  Damage from bullets fired during a fierce gun battle with British troops could still be seen on some of the classic stone columns that graced the front of the Post Office.

The Easter Day Uprising against British rule did not turn out favorably for the Irish.  Sixteen of the leaders of the rebellion were captured and imprisoned at Kilmainham Gaol.  Within a month, fourteen of these men were executed at the gaol (jail) by firing squad.  We took a tour of the jail and found it to be a very sobering experience, especially the area in the courtyard with a simple cross commemorating the spot where some of the executions took place.

One of the sixteen who was not executed was a man named Eamon de Valera who, incredibly, eventually became the president of Ireland and was a dominant political leader for 40 years.  His cell in Kilmainham was commemorated with a name plaque.

One fact became certain during our visit to the jail—imprisonment there was a dreadful experience and no amount of restoring some of the cells with nicely whitewashed walls could change that.

On a lighter note, while we were in Dublin we couldn’t resist a visit to Trinity College.  We took an entertaining, joke-packed tour led by one of Trinity’s graduate students.

The highlight of the tour was viewing the famous Irish medieval illuminated gospel manuscript known as the Book of Kells that was housed inside the extraordinary Trinity Old Library.  The Book of Kells has been regarded as one of the finest works of art from the Dark Ages.  

[Internet photo]
On first entering the library, which was stacked two stories to the ceiling with some of Trinity’s oldest books, both Al and I had what we call one of those rare ‘wow moments.’

While in Dublin, we spent the better part of a whole day tackling the highly-praised Dublin Museum of Archeology which showed off Irish treasures from the Stone Age up to modern times.  We were fascinated by the very old golden necklaces,

along with one of the collection’s most notable pieces, the Tara Brooch (fastener for a cape).

But…to be totally honest, it was the tasteful and excellent display of ‘bog bodies’ that held the most fascination…ghoulish but irresistible.   

These bodies had been preserved for over a millennium in the oxygen-starved environment of a bog.

Dublin lays claim to several of the world’s most well- regarded authors—James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and W.B. Yeats, among others.  During our ramblings, we stumbled on what has become a permanent display on the life and works of W.B Yeats, one of Ireland’s most beloved poets.  As always, it was fascinating to see some of the world’s most famous literature written in the hand of its author, freezing for all time the moment of its creation.

We also made a quick visit to the National Gallery to see Dublin’s fine collection of European masters.  We thought this would also be a great opportunity to get an introduction to some well-regarded Irish painters.  I was especially curious to see a painting called “Meeting on the Turret Stairs” by Frederic Burton, which had been voted Ireland’s favorite painting in 2012.  It was just around the corner at the very end of the Irish exhibition…

What the heck???

BELFAST:  After 19 days of touring the island and two days of strolling through Dublin’s very historic streets, we felt we had learned a lot about Ireland’s stormy history of war and peace, suppression and independence, conflict and calm. 

We had booked a ferry back to Scotland that left at 11:30 p.m., so that left us the day to look around Belfast.  Today, although Belfast enjoys a fragile peace, we detected a feeling of tenseness in the air.  The political sentiment of the Protestant/Unionist areas was displayed loud and clear.  In many towns in Northern Ireland the Union Jack (the British flag), along with a flag displaying the “Red Hand of Ulster,” was prominently displayed along the road on every vertical pole.  Many private residences also flew these flags.  It struck us as sort of an ‘in-your-face’ way of saying that they are happy as a member of the United Kingdom and have no desire to reunite with the largely Catholic majority in the Republic of Ireland.  Or…perhaps the Protestant Unionists in Northern Ireland were just more vocal than the Catholics who long for Irish reunification.  Whatever the case, we always felt a little on edge in Northern Ireland, especially in Belfast, scene of some terrible violence during the ‘Troubles’ not too many years ago.  We saw brick wall murals with militant Unionist symbolism in some of the neighborhoods that we drove through.  We were not tempted to get out and walk in any of these neighborhoods, as some of the Belfast crowd struck us as a bit on the rough side.

Our primary destination in Belfast was a place with no political overtones--the Titanic Belfast, a sparkling new museum that just opened in 2012.

This high-tech museum told an incredibly detailed story of the short life of the Titanic--from planning, through construction by the proud ship workers in Belfast, to the fatal maiden voyage in 1912.  Everything you always wanted to know about the Titanic was in this top-notch modern museum.

BACK TO SCOTLAND:  With their usual efficiency, in a little over two hours Stena Lines had ferried us across the Irish Sea back to Cairnryan, Scotland.  We spent the 2-hour ride in the TV lounge watching “Oblivion” starring Tom Cruise.  After 6 months of no television, a movie appealed to us as a novel diversion to pass the time.  So, along with the rough-and-tumble trucker crowd, we were entertained by the movie and in no time at all were pulling into port.  We felt very happy to be back in Scotland and were eagerly looking forward to some great Scottish ambience in Edinburgh. 
My Ulster blood is my most priceless heritage.” James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States

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