On to the Emerald Isle! We hadn’t originally planned to stop in Ireland. Amy had already been here in her twenties, and I was more interested in Scotland. But we had time to kill before we could get back into the Schengen Area, and we were next door in Scotland, so…what the heck!
We spent less than two weeks in Ireland and only really visited two cities, Dublin and Galway, which is hardly enough to get a sense for the country or make any fair judgments. But I’m going to try anyway, because what else is this blog for except for me to spout off like I’m some travel expert with an adoring readership that hangs on my every word? (Move over, Rick Steves!)
What surprised me the most about Ireland? First, that it was the most expensive place we’ve visited on this trip. Ireland is an extremely popular destination for both business and pleasure, and we were visiting at the height of the tourist season. We paid a small fortune for our two Airbnbs in Dublin and Galway. We tried and utterly failed to get a rental car; even a month out, there wasn’t a single vehicle to be had anywhere. Even getting a taxi at the airport required a 1–2 hour wait.
Second, I was astonished at just now not foreign it seemed, less strange and exotic than any other country we’ve visited before or after on this trip. I’ve experienced more culture shock in some parts of the United States. I’m not sure why Ireland seemed so familiar. Perhaps it’s because U.S. culture was profoundly shaped by a huge influx of Irish immigrants over the last two centuries:
It is estimated that as many as 4.5 million Irish arrived in America between 1820 and 1930. Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish constituted over one third of all immigrants to the United States. In the 1840s, they comprised nearly half.Library of Congress
More recently, it might be because Ireland has thrown open its doors to workers and companies from abroad, primarily in the tech sector, luring them in with favorable tax rates and other incentives—and all these newcomers have made Ireland, particularly Dublin, a true melting pot, diluting the Irish culture. Or maybe it’s because the resulting economic boom has caused Dublin to evolve and modernize in a way that few other European cities have—and modern cities tend to feel a lot alike. It could be the fact that Ireland has (according to some sources) the youngest population in geriatric Europe, and those youngsters just aren’t as attached to the old ways as their grandparents. Quite possibly all of those things.
Over the past three decades, Ireland (dubbed the “Celtic Tiger“) has transformed from one of Western Europe’s poorer countries into one of its wealthiest—and it’s most obvious in Dublin, especially in the “Silicon Docks” district where we stayed, a former dock yard set aside for a fast-tracked crop of shiny new business & residential towers. Here you’ll find offices for almost every big tech company you can name, including Google, Apple, Meta, Amazon, Twitter, HP, Intel, Dell, Microsoft, Symantec, LinkedIn, Groupon, PayPal, AirBnB, Uber, and Etsy. Between the buildings, there are nice wide public spaces lined with trees and sculptures, overlooking the city’s waterways; and on the ground floors, you’ll find the sort of shops and eateries that would be completely at home in coastal California. Our first meal was at a light & airy café, Nutbutter, which describes itself as a “flexitarian dream” inspired in “California”. (We loved it.)
We were staying in a building sandwiched between an old gas works converted into luxury condos and the Google campus, a trio of tall glass buildings linked together with a glass skybridge. It felt a little odd that from our fourth-floor flat, we could see everything and everyone in the Google fishbowl across from us, just as they could easily observe us; luckily, we at least had curtains to draw! And we couldn’t help but ogle their ground floor cafeteria as we walked past it each day. But strangely, the place was nearly empty during our stay. Perhaps most employees were still working from home? Maybe even in our building, which seemed to be filled with tech employees!
But just steps beyond the glass towers and upscale juiceries of the Docklands, we quickly found a shabbier version of Dublin. Besides the Google campus, our little road was lined with old brick rowhouses, which once belonged to dock workers. I imagine that many are getting bought up by tech workers and undergoing pricey makeovers, while the rest are filled with old-timers who are either pleased or bewildered by the rapid gentrification of their once humble and affordable neighborhood. Meanwhile, just across the Grand Canal from the the Meta building and the stunning glass-and-steel Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, we discovered a rusting old wreck of a ship, covered in graffiti. A study in contrasts indeed.
But most tourists spend their time in the old city center, which has done a far better job of maintaining its historic charm even as it modernizes. The medieval city center is a warren of narrow lanes filled with quaint brick buildings, shops, cafés, and bars. Especially around the famous pub-lined Temple Bar, it’s a bustling and lively place where you’ll never be hungry, thirsty, or bored. One of the few wide boulevards is pedestrianized Grafton Street, where all the glitzy fashion boutiques from Prada to Dior have set up shop, signaling that Dublin is a world-class city. But overall, there’s something distinctly humble about Dublin, and little you could describe as grand. The river it straddles, the Liffey, is surprisingly small and unimpressive, as are most of the buildings that line it. You won’t find any high rises downtown—most buildings are four stories or less. Amongst all the brick boxes, there are a few noble old buildings here and there that would look right at home in an upscale London borough, which is what old Dublin most reminded me of. I’m sure I heard it called the most English city in Ireland. That’s because England ruled over Ireland for 700 years, and Dublin was their seat of power and center of influence, so they tried to create this provincial capital in their image.
After centuries of bloody insurrections, Ireland finally won self-governance from Britain in 1922—though it remained part of the British Commonwealth and did not became a truly independent nation until 1948. The fight for independence is a sad, violent, and complex story, well told I think in Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins, which revolves around the man that was in the middle of it all. (I re-watched this when we arrived to brush up on my history…it’s great.)
So while Ireland as an island and a culture is very old, Ireland the nation is very young indeed. But it’s a point of considerable pride for the Irish, so please don’t embarrass yourself, as my mom and sister both did, by asking if Ireland is part of the UK—it most certainly is not.
But you could be excused for thinking that, because…it’s confusing. The top portion of the island decided to go a different way, becoming a separate nation called Northern Island and opting to remain in the UK (the full name of which is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland“). Why? It’s complicated, but has a lot to do with religion, culture, and the fact that northern Ireland was colonized by Brits in the 17th century. The partition of Ireland was a rather contentious affair, referred to The Troubles. (Watch Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast for a taste of how it played out in the north’s capital.) I’m old enough to remember the bloody Irish Republican Army (IRA) attacks in the eighties, and things didn’t really settle down until 1998. When I did a college semester in England in 1999, it was still an extremely delicate topic, upon which we were briefed at the start of our trip so we didn’t say something stupid.
Luckily, that all now seems to be in the past, and best I could tell, Ireland now enjoys a good relationship with the UK—and a special affinity. The Irish drive on the same side of the road as the Brits, use the same electrical plugs, enjoy a lot of the same cuisine, and have a similar affection for beer & whiskey. English remains the predominant language in Ireland, though the Irish (Gaelic) language is undergoing a bit of a renaissance. And while Ireland is part of the Eurozone and uses the Euro, it is not part of the Schengen area and instead maintains a special travel zone with the UK…which makes it a lot easier to drive from Dublin to Belfast. I think you could say that Ireland is the bridge between Europe and the UK (even though it’s, um, sorta on the wrong side).
Ireland really is a miraculous success story, because life here in the past has often been pretty grim, rife with violence, poverty, famine, and shame. The potato famine in the mid-19th century, known as the “Great Hunger”, is perhaps the most grievous example:
About one million people died from starvation or from typhus and other famine-related diseases. The number of Irish who emigrated during the famine may have reached two million. By the time Ireland achieved independence in 1921, its population was barely half of what it had been in the early 1840s.Encyclopaedia Britannica
We learned more about this and other hardships, along with the emigration of the Irish to America, at a pair of sobering exhibits in Dublin, which I’ll describe below. I also re-watched a couple of classic films that explore the misery of growing up in Ireland and the hope of leaving for other lands: Angela’s Ashes (which I also read many years ago) and Far & Away. At least one of them had a happy ending.
But while the Irish may be famous for what they’ve endured, they’re also known for their resilience and ability to find joy in the face of it all, and we got a chance to share in some of that famous conviviality in what is now a much more upbeat country.
We enjoyed six days in Dublin, starting off with a small crew and leaving with a much larger one. My mom, Griffin, and I flew in from Glasgow, Scotland, and my sister Shannon joined us two days later. Unfortunately, Amy had to fly home from Scotland to take care of some work, and a week later, after a hellish debacle with Aer Lingus, was finally able to rejoin us in Dublin less than 48 hours before we departed. But she did arrive just in time to celebrate Griffin’s 7th birthday!
The weather was spectacular, unusually hot even (a pattern we’ve experienced nearly everywhere we’ve been), and we made the most of it. Dublin’s center is fairly compact and walkable, so we explored a lot of it on my self-guided walking tours. We also spent a lot of time relaxing at a couple of Dublin’s fantastic parks, particularly the beautiful St. Stephen’s Green, and also following the picturesque Grand Canal, yet another example of the canals built all over Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries that are now just charming relics.
Our first day, my mom, Griffin, and I threaded our way through the campus of Trinity College, Ireland’s oldest and most prestigious university, founded back in 1592. Surprising, the campus didn’t seem especially attractive or historic, except for the grand main quandrangle of Parliament Square. Seems we had shown up on graduation day, because people were wandering around in gowns and mortarboards, snapping photos with their families. One of Trinity’s claims to fame is the Book of Kells, a lavishly decorated and calligraphed copy of the bible created in perhaps 800 AD, which resides in their library…but we decided to skip this.
Ireland is famous for its castles, but Dublin Castle is not especially impressive; except for one round medieval tower, most of it looks a lot more like a British government building, which is precisely what it was until the Irish kicked them out. We could have paid to explore the elegant state apartments, but we’ve seen so much of that sort of thing that we opted just to snap some photos in the courtyard for free.
Just up the road, Christ Church Cathedral is a lot more impressive, the oldest parts dating to the 12th century. It’s actually one of two cathedrals in the city, the other being St. Patrick’s, just half a kilometer away. (Go figure.) But once again, we skipped the admission fee and chose instead to spend our money at the excellent Dublinia Museum across the street, housed in an old stone building connected to the cathedral. Here we spent several hours wandering through the kid-friendly exhibits learning about the Viking origins of the town, the political intrigues that shaped it, the Black Death that clobbered it, and the many medieval trades that flourished in it. Griffin’s favorite exhibit was the life-size model of a Dubliner using a primitive loo—complete with some disgusting sound effects!
We followed the path of the old city walls from the cathedral down to an arguably more important landmark—The Brazen Head, the city’s oldest pub, reputedly established in 1198. Though it was pretty packed inside and out, we managed to get a table inside the bar, where we enjoyed some pints and a halfway decent meal. But the experience just didn’t feel complete without some Irish musicians to liven things up!
A couple days later, we dug into the more sobering history of Ireland at the Jeanie Johnston, a famous sailing vessel built in 1847 that carried some 2,500 Irish emigrants from Ireland to North America on 16 transatlantic voyages during the famine years. What’s unique about the Jeanie Johnston is that not a single one of those emigrants died on board, a remarkable achievement in those days, surely due to the ship’s doctor who insisted on less cramped and more sanitary conditions than most of these ships allowed, and that passengers actually come up to the deck for some sun, fresh air, and exercise at least once each day. The ship bobbing on the River Liffey that we boarded is actually a copy of the original, but they’re tried to recreate the on-board experience, complete with hammocks, a (fake) meal on the table, and some slightly creepy mannequins of real passengers that are known to have sailed on her. (Unfortunately, our guide was not Irish but Finnish, and we had a hard time understanding everything she said!)
Across the street, we explored a companion exhibition called EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum, which occupies the dark, vaulted basement of a larger building. This slightly ominous setting is appropriate for a museum showcases a laundry list of the many hardships that have beset the Irish people and how they’ve coped, particularly through emigration. It’s generally pretty well done and makes good use of creative A/V and interactive elements, which kept us all, even Griffin, pretty well engaged, though it sometimes feels like they’re trying too hard. I was surprised how impartial it was, especially at the end when they celebrated every (fully or marginally) famous person of (full or even partial) Irish blood, which made it feel more like an PR piece than a true museum. But we still learned an awful lot, and darned if it didn’t pull at your heartstrings.
We next walked past a few landmark buildings, including the Custom House and the General Post Office on O’Connell Street. Both figured prominently into the Irish struggle for independence a century ago. The post office still bears many bullet holes from the final standoff of the failed 1916 Easter Rising, when Irish insurrectionists were holed up under a barrage by British artillery, a battle portrayed in the opening scene of Michael Collins.
For something lighter, we next hit up the National Leprechaun Museum, a kitschy little place that is by no means sanctioned by the Irish nation nor is even entirely focused on leprechauns. Rather, it’s a lighthearted, apparently unscripted storytelling gig that touches on many Irish legends and characters as you move between a series of rooms. Our guide was a short, plump, bearded Irishman who bore more than a passing resemblence to a Leprechaun himself and was as wry and witty as he was self-deprecating. I can’t say we learned a whole heck of a lot here, but it was an entertaining way to spend an hour (and one of Griffin’s favorite stops).
We finished up the afternoon learning about another cornerstone of Irish history and culture at Jameson’s whiskey distillery, a vist that my sister Shannon, a bartender, had arranged through her contacts. Irish whiskey has never really been my thing for obvious reasons, but after failing to get into a single distillery in Scotland…why not? Jameson is the most iconic and by far the best-selling Irish whiskey in Ireland and the world, and the sprawling Bow Street distillery was the source of the stuff from their founding in 1780 until 1970, when they finally outgrew the place. Today, it’s been reinvented as a very classy visitors center, complete with a pair of beautiful bars and a series of intimate tasting rooms where they host a very slick and engaging introduction to the whiskey-making process and the Jameson brand, something even whiskey virgins can enjoy. I was impressed, both with our charismatic “guide” and with Jameson’s premium “Crested” line of whiskeys which aren’t available in the U.S. Fun fact: The founder, John Jameson, was actually Scottish!
We were all pretty tipsy after the tasting and the included whiskey cocktail (especially since I had to finish my mom’s!), so we stumbled around the city and a nearby playground for a while to sober up. Because we had more drinking to do at The Stag’s Head, one of Dublin’s most beautiful and storied watering holes, where they host live Irish traditional music on Friday evenings. We arrived just in time and somehow got a table right next to the band, where we passed a very pleasurable hour savoring some pints, chips (fries), and the lively atmosphere, before staggering home.
The next day, Shannon had something else in store: a visit to the Guinness Storehouse. Like Jameson, Ireland’s most iconic beer has created a superlative visitors experience at their St. James’ Gate Brewery in Dublin, now the most visited attraction in the entire country. Far too many people come through here for guided group tastings, so you instead follow a self-guided route through several floors of an converted brewery building, a theatrically lit masterpiece of industrial design. We learned about how Guinness is made, what makes it unique (hint: blackened barley and 3,000,000 nitrogen bubbles), and a lot of interesting tidbits about how the factory was run and even how Guinness was distributed. (Fun facts: the brewery had its own internal railway and several company ships for hauling their stout to thirsty England.) I especially enjoyed learning about the in-house team of coopers who hand-crafted all the beer barrels. There’s also an entire floor and a small theater dedicated to Guinness’s distinctive marketing, with life-size models of some of their famous characters. You end the tour at the top of the building, in a pair of round glass rooftop bars that overlook the city and serve basically one thing: Guinness. The whole experience is top-notch, including (at least on the Saturday that we were there) a brass band that wandered through the building and a flash mob dance & percussion performance that happened right in front of us. It’s said that the quality of Guinness is highly dependent upon where you get it, but here at the source, I found I actually liked the stuff, after insisting for years that I didn’t!
Amy finally arrived that night, a day or two late, but just in time to celebrate Griffin’s 7th birthday. The kid wanted to party at either a waterpark or a bowling alley, but I couldn’t find either in the city center, and we didn’t have a car. I finally did locate a bowling alley in the ‘burbs about twenty minutes away, so we piled into a taxi and rolled in just after it opened Sunday morning, the first ones there. We were delighted to find that it also had an arcade, where I successfully defended my title of family air hockey champion, and an entire kids zone upstairs full of ball pits and climbing tunnels, where Griffin spent well over an hour working up a sweat—and I got into a war pelting some cheeky little kids with balls. The only disappointment, at least to Shannon, was that they didn’t serve alcohol—apparently forbidden in Ireland, as drunk Irishmen and bowling balls are a dangerous combo!
Afterwards, we got a lift back into the city, grabbed some Chinese food (Griffin’s chosen bday lunch), then took Amy for a speedwalking recap of our favorite spots. We ended our day and our stay at the raucous Temple Bar—Dublin’s most famous pub and the name of both the street and the district where it’s located, Dublin’s top nightlife spot and its so-called “cultural” center. Unfortunately, there was no chance of finding a table for five at such a popular tavern, so we settled on the nearby Norsemen pub instead, where we enjoyed some pints while a drunk musician belted out songs at far too high a volume.
Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Dublin, and I get why this is such a popular spot for vacationing Americans, bachelor & bachelorette parties, and tech industry campuses. It’s just such a fun and easy place. But as a cultural experience, we were a bit disappointed. Luckily, we got a much better taste of local Irish color in our next destination, on the opposite side of the island: Galway. Stay tuned!
A rant about Aer Lingus
I need to gripe here about Ireland’s national airline. We used it extensively in July and August, as it offered the cheapest and most direct flights between Scotland, Ireland, and the U.S. My mom and sister flew out to join us on Aer Lingus, and Amy flew home for work on Aer Lingus. Luckily, all went well for Shannon, but my mom and Amy had some of the most miserable airline experiences of their lives. You probably heard this past summer that many airlines were ill prepared for the rebound of international travel, having laid off much of their workforce during the pandemic, and this was certainly true of Aer Lingus. Meanwhile, as restrictions were being lifted, plenty of people were catching COVID.
My mom was at her gate at LAX about to board her flight when they canceled it—one of the crew had called in sick, leaving too few people to staff the plane. Aer Lingus offered no help and no hotel vouchers, and my mom had to find her own accommodations for the night. They tried to put her on an absolutely awful combination of replacement flights through New York the next day. She somehow figured out that there was an unscheduled direct flight to Dublin that afternoon, and managed to get on that. She eventually got herself not to Glasgow, but to Edinburgh, where I had to go pick her up. (Good thing we had a car!)
Amy had a similar experience returning from her hering to meet us in Dublin, with her flights cancelled at the last possible moment, no help from the airport staff, and multi-hour hold times when she called customer service. Amy’s pretty tough, and I’ve almost never seen her cry, but at one point the situation was so impossible that she broke down sobbing in the airport.
No amount of money saved is worth this sort of frustration. We will never fly with Aer Lingus again, and I suggest you don’t take a chance either!