Leopold Bloom poses a tantalizing puzzle in James Joyce’s epic novel “Ulysses”: “cross Dublin without passing a pub.”
Thanks, I suppose, to computers, GPS, and Google maps, that puzzle has been solved many times over. Why you would want to do it, is a puzzle to me. When in Ireland. …
Here’s a tougher puzzle: Walk across Dublin and not see a reference to James Joyce – be it a photograph, a statue, a quote on a wall, a bookstore window, a mural, a pub name, a simple conversation, or a T-shirt in a tourist shop.
It feels like Joyce is Dublin and Dublin is Joyce, and though he has been dead these many decades, the full ripe glory of his passion for this city is everywhere.
Visiting the Temple Bar district — morning, noon, and night:
We are in Dublin for one last day and have no inclination to pass any Dublin pub if we can help it, but like Leopold Bloom, we have much walking of the city to do first before quenching our thirst.
Our day is bisected by a need to get a Covid test in order to leave the country – or more correctly, to pass through the United States. With a reservation to get our noses swabbed at 11:45 a.m., we’re tethered to the clinic on the River Liffey but that gives us lots of city real estate over which to ramble.
Exploring Irish identity through icons, quips, quotes, murals, and graffiti:
We start with a personal curiosity: What is the pub-a-plenty Temple district like early in the morning after all last night’s revelers have cleared away?
The answer? It is much like the night before, only with more sunlight, trash pickup, street-sweepers, and empty steel Guinness barrels on the sidewalks, gleaming in the sunshine.
Many of the same pubs are open and many of the same revelers are walking in and out of them, posing for selfies in front of them, and seriously thinking of Guinness and bacon for breakfast.
We discover a Temple district non-pub gem missed during the pub crawl the night before: the Icon Walk which is a pair of connected alleys, named Adair and Bedford. The walls are filled with murals, graphics, and cheeky quotations dedicated to writers, poets, sports figures, “oddballs, crackpots & assorted genius,” humorists, actors, musicians, and oh so much more.
A walk down these two blocks is to delve deep into “Irish identity” as filtered through its best known and most public iconic practitioners of the arts – and yes, Celtic football, rugby, horse racing, hurling, and even marathon walking are considered high Irish arts. You can’t just look at the pictures without reading the texts – that’s why this alley probably disappears at night like Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station.
No, it is best consumed in the brisk morning pause, when you actually have to move a trash bin or two to get at the full reading of what it means to be an Irish icon.
For example, a bizarre image of footballer George Best (shirtless, in his underwear with a brolly and billycock) makes sense only when you dive behind a dumpster to read this obscured text: “It was said of George Best that if he could have skipped the bars and nightclubs with the dexterity that he eluded defenders that he would have been the greatest footballer of all time. Pele said that he was anyway.”
Best two alleys I’ve ever walked down in my life.
Just for fun, we roam through the rabbit warren of rooms that comprise the iconic Temple Bar, mostly empty except for a few hearty breakfasters. The night before, you could barely squeeze in the door and the crowd was made rowdy by the joyfully incessant fiddle and guitar onstage, egging all on with their fearless energy to another Guinness or Jameson.
Sure enough, tucked in one corner behind a table for two, is a life-size statue of Joyce, reading from his own book of short stories, “Dubliners,” while holding a Guinness in his left hand. The bar has two walls dedicated to Muhammad Ali, numerous images of Irish literary greats, some fascinating sculpted masks of Irish river gods, a dozen vintage Guinness posters, and so much more that you’ll never see during the busy hours.
Temple Bar – a museum to Irish iconography dressed up as a brew & music house. Visit it in the wee early morning hours. It will not disappoint.
“Ireland sober is Ireland stiff.” – James Joyce
A block away, we take time to read the brief history of Viking influences and brutal warfare on Irish soil, posted in bold gold lettering on the window of The Norseman pub. See? Everywhere in Dublin, you can mine rich history as you tipple.
After that, we just wander from church to church, to elegant old buildings of awe-inspiring architecture, to castles and parks. In a second-hand bookshop, I pick up two more Irish souvenirs, another Kevin Barry book, his short-story collection “That Old Country Music,” and a collection of short stories by Patrick Boyle, “The Port Wine Stain.” Again, so much better than green-and-white socks that say in Celtic “Kiss my ass.” (That is “Póg mo thóin,” for you scholars.)
We land at the corner of Trinity Street and College Green where the beloved city institution The Pen Corner is in its death throes. A stationary shop that has offered to repair fountain pens since 1927 is a delicate remnant of the past. The fatal symptoms are changing technology, COVID, and a staggering 75,000 euro rent.
It officially closes at the end of May, though doors are locked when we arrive.
“One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” – From the short story ‘The Dead,’ in “Dubliners” by James Joyce.
Note that a Montblanc fountain pen from the shop is in the time capsule buried under The Spire on O’Connell Street. So the Pen Corner will live on, in a way. I include a photo or two of the Spire here, which the locals call “the Stiletto in the Ghetto” among many other irreverent names. It is from outer space but awe-inspiring.
In between raindrops, we work our way down past the Molly Malone statue with its breasts buffed shiny by randy tourists, and through the St. Stephens Green area to Trinity College where we happily opt for a dry spot under thick trees next to the rugby pitch, instead of the soggy line awaiting a glimpse of the Book of Kells and the Potteresque library. (One Potteresque library, in Porto, is good enough for now.)
On a long shot, we cross the River Liffey to the EPIC Irish Immigration Museum and the adjoining Irish Family Heritage Centre where I hope I’ll find some help tracking down the offspring of Charles Haughins Sr. who emigrated to Glasgow, Scotland, with his non-Catholic wife in the 1800s. It was his son, Charles Jr. who immigrated to New Bedford, Mass. in 1885 and changed his name to Hawkins. My great-great-grandfather.
The Heritage Centre is booked full for the day so we opt for lunch in the EPIC courtyard before touring the Immigration Museum.
That’s where we meet Jerry, a tour guide aboard the nearby replica sailing ship Jeannie Johnston. Jerry is on lunch break at the adjoining table but he can’t resist telling us about the famine ship that moved immigrants to Canada (15 voyages) and the U.S. (two voyages) over seven years and never lost a soul at sea. Remarkable considering the attrition rate at the time was about 25 percent of the passengers. On return trips, the Jeannie Johnston was filled with lumber.
Jerry, who worked with troubled youths before signing on to the Jeannie Johnston 15 years ago, attributes its remarkable record to limiting the number of passengers, an onboard physician, and a humane captain who put the welfare of the crew and “cargo” first.
Even when the ship sank at sea, says Jerry, it went down so slowly that a passing ship was able to rescue all.
This is us …
Not only did it enjoy 100 percent survivability, but a birth at sea upped the average. The baby was given the first name of every single crew member at the time, some 14 of them.
Jerry loves giving tours and he loves Dublin. “This is not the Dublin of two decades ago,” he says. The food, he notes, is world-class. We agree, from our brief experience. The booming technology industry puts the Irish GPA way ahead of the U.S. and “you’ll not find a harder working people than the Irish.”
“Ireland took a turn for the better when the Catholic Church lost its grip on the country,” he says. “You can look at the charts: Irish prosperity begins to rise exactly at the point where Catholic influence wanes.”
“No one who has any self-respect stays in Ireland, but flees afar as though from a country that has undergone the visitation of an angered Jove.” – James Joyce
We talk about so much more. Jerry was an easy guy to hold a conversation with. He leaves for the ship – a replica, now bookended by low bridges that will forever make it impossible to sail again. (It sailed across the Atlantic once, hitting ports where it once dropped off eager immigrants.)
We leave for the museum which is superbly entertaining and confirms my suspicion that the Irish (70 million strong in the diaspora) conquered the world long, long ago.
Much later, as we stand in front of the EPIC complex, staring at Google maps, a familiar voice rings out.
“Are you lost already, Bob and Rose?”
It is Jerry. Broad grin on his face. He pulls up beside us as his last tour group flows by. Italian students. They shout and salute, as if in a revue, “Goodbye, Captain Jerry! Grazie, Captain Jerry! Arrivederci, Captain Jerry!”
After shopping a bit in Marks and Spencer on pedestrian-friendly Henry Street, we decide to come full circle and walk back to the Temple district for drinks, music, and some dinner.
The Old Storehouse on Crown Alley beckons, if only because it isn’t the very busy Temple Bar – but it too is packed. We float in space, looking for some open seats when a ruddy-cheeked fellow at the end of the bar stands up and offers his stool to Rose.
That’s when we meet Des.
Des opens up The Old Storehouse around 10 a.m. and is now off-duty. He insists that he is just getting ready to leave. Rose takes his seat and in seconds a waitress runs over with an empty stool for Des. They love their Des at the Storehouse.
You’ll not find a friendlier off-duty barman in Dublin. Though we can barely hear each other above the happy crowd and sweet-voiced and well-amplified Sean Coffey on stage, we do our best. Sean is the reason the place is so packed. Most tables close to the stage are filled with adoring middle-aged women, all subtly competing for a smile and coy nod.
Before he leaves, Des suggests we check out a traditional band – “the best you’ll hear in Dublin” – at a bar not far from here. Six times he speaks the name of the bar and six times I totally butcher it. Finally, he asks one of the bartenders if he would draw a map for me before we leave.
“No problem,” says the bartender. “If you step out the door and fall flat on your face, you’re halfway there.”
As we are leaving, I ask the bartender the name one more time. The name is as indecipherable to my ears as when Des spoke it. The bartender adds, “It’s named after the guy who wrote the national anthem.”
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.
It takes a Google second.
So, Peadar Kearney’s Pub.
Google maps does the rest: On Dame Street. Not far, but I would have to fall on my face many times between the two bars.
Sure enough, Des is standing out front enjoying a smoke and gives us a cheery hello. He ushers us inside to his table next to the bar where his friend Martin sits nursing a beer. Des introduces us to the bartenders and a few members of the band – who later give a shout-out to “the couple from California and Mexico.”
Des and Martin like coming here after work.
“Houses are for sleeping in,” says Martin.
“My ex-wife got mine,” says Des with an impish grin.
Behind us is a table with five men who looked vaguely related. They were all brothers of the band’s leader, DJ, and they were all off to England or France or Greece in the morning for the wedding of DJ’s daughter. (I apologize that note-taking grows non-existent as the Guinness and Jameson flows on)
The band, DJ on guitar, an accordion player, a rhythm guitar, and a female lead singer who sometimes thumped on a bodhran are terrific, the real deal – best we’ve heard in all our travels – traditional without the crowd-pandering of the more touristy places.
Des was so right. And as Des rightly notes,, “with a hint of Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac.”
The bar is a mix of tourists and locals but seems closer to a real neighborhood bar than most in the Temple. A guy could make a home here, like Des and Martin.
After the first set, Rose and I say goodbye, hugs all around, and well-wishes for the wedding. It was 9 p.m. and we’ve yet to have dinner.
We walk into The Shack, just across the street from The Temple Bar. It’s contemporary Irish fare, farm-fresh, thoughtful ingredients and presentation. We’d had a great meal there the night before. Why mess with success? The staff recognizes us immediately and sits us down like we are family.
Rose even buys their hefty little cookbook. Let’s see, that makes four books, um, souvenirs I’ll be lugging home in my backpack.
Two orders of fish & chips later, we are a happy couple, strolling O’Connell Street Upper, past the Spire and yet another statue of James Joyce, to the Eccles Townhouse and bed. Too tired to pack tonight but ready for a 5:45 a.m. ride to the airport. (The proprietor has left us two sacks for breakfast with health bars, bananas, and such.)
We are ready, but not ready, if you know what I mean.
“I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” – James Joyce
—————————- ———————– ————————-
The whole Ireland & Burren Way Series: