You have to be lucky being on holiday in Dublin; we were even luckier as we were staying at the Merrion Hotel which was very close to the centre of so many interesting places in this major European city. The hotel and its environs gave us a glimpse of what we would find elsewhere in Dublin. The first opportunity I got I went strolling in the hotel’s garden and who should I meet but James Joyce himself admiring the scenery. He was standing on what could only be called a Sundial that had inscribed on it quotes for every hour of the day from his famous/infamous book, Ulysses. The quote printed above is for reading at Noon!
Today’s tour took us out the front door of our hotel, turning right and turning right again into Merrion Square South. I am not sure if there is a comparable street in the world that contains as many of the homes of truly famous people. The first house we noted was at #82 Merrion Square South which had a plaque that read, “Senator William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), Poet and Playwright, lived here 1922-28”. We will encounter Yeats’ work again when we arrive in O’Connell Street and again when we visit Sligo later when we reached the west coast of Ireland. Further along at 58 Merrion Square South lived the famous Irish politician Daniel O’Connell whose story we would encounter later in the morning when we reached O’Connell Street. Perhaps it says something about Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) that we would find his childhood home at Number 1 Merrion St South; he lived there until 1876 .
Merrion Square was the first landscaped park we visited in Dublin in a district well supplied with beautiful, landscaped areas to escape from the bustle of the city. Before the middle of the 18th century, this area of Dublin was not well populated but became so after the high-end of town folk began moving here and parks like this one were built. There is a famous memorial of Oscar Wilde in one corner of Merrion Square Park with the dramatist lolling about on a large rock amongst the greenery. The park contains many other tributes to famous Irish figures such as Michael Collins in the image to the right below. The area hasn’t always been a site of grace and dignity. The British Embassy was housed at No.39 Merrion Square but after the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings at the Bogside in Derry, Northern Ireland, 20000 people converged here and burnt the embassy down.
From Merrion Square we strolled along Nassau Street on the way to the large complex site that is Trinity College. Opposite the entrance to the Regent House entry to the College is another important building in Irish History being the old Parliament House built in 1729. It was the parliament of the ‘Kingdom of Ireland until 1800 when it was abolished and Ireland became part of the United Kingdom. I am not sure if Dubliners perceived it as a bad omen for independence for their country but this building caught fire in 1792 (see below right) and its beautiful dome was destroyed. After the dissolution of parliament, the building became the home of the Bank of Ireland in 1803.
Passing through the Archway of Regent House, we entered what is called Parliament Square with a great vista in front of us, particular that of the bell-tower, the Campanile, built in 1853, that dominates this huge square. As you would expect, there are many student myths about this tower and its prophetic traits if you stand under it when the bell is tolling.
In the above panorama, the visitor get a view back to the entry way through Regent House and on the left is the Public Theatre. On the right is the Chapel of the College. We turned left and took a short tour of the Old Library, viewed the amazing Book of Kells under glass and had a quick inspection of the overwhelming library stack where the oldest books in the collection are housed.
Turning right after exiting from Trinity College we headed up Westmoreland Street which took us up the Liffey River and its main Dublin crossing, O’Connell Bridge.
Immediately in front of anyone crossing the O’Connell Bridge is the O’Connell Monument with a double life-size statue of Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) on top and various figures representing aspects of Irish society on the tier below. Four angels symbolising Patriotism, Courage, Eloquence and Fidelity sit at the four corners of the monument. Any consideration of the person and character of Daniel ‘Connell, perhaps the most effective figure in gaining nationalistic rights for the Catholic population of Ireland, will explain why the central monument in the middle of Dublin celebrates his achievements.
O’Connell was born into a poor family in County Kerry but was lucky to have a wealthy uncle who sponsored his education. As a young Catholic man, he was ineligible to attend the University of Dublin so was sent to France in 1791 to study at university there. In 1793, due to attacks on the students of his French College by revolutionaries, he went to London where he completed further legal studies. He became a barrister in Dublin in 1798. He used his legal position to promote nationalistic causes, particularly the anti-Catholic laws of the Westminster parliament. He became the first Catholic Irishman to win a seat in the parliament of the United Kingdom and his efforts resulted in the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. Our earlier visit to Trinity College informed us that this enabled Catholics to attend Dublin University (although the Church banned them from doing so). O’Connell became a highly effective and influential member of the Westminster Parliament and worked all his life to dissolve the ‘Anglo-Irish legislative union’; his failure to achieve this was the great disappointment of his life.
The O’Connell Monument was finished in 1883 but as the photo on the right below shows, the monument was blackened and its surrounds in ruins as a result of English shelling of the area at Easter time in 1916. (There is still evidence of bullet damage on two of the angels of victory on the monument.) Ever since the death of O’Connell, Irish nationalists had continued to seek independence from Britain and they decided that two years into World War 1 was a good time to rise up while Britain was having enough troubles in France. The Easter rebellion lasted 6 days; 485 people were killed, 2,600 were wounded, 3500 people were taken prisoner and 1800 were sent to Internment camps in Britain. The General Post Office in O’Connell Street was seized by the rebels and has remained a strong symbol of the Easter Rebellion ever since.
The photo above left shows the smoking ruins of the Post Office. It also shows the the still standing Nelson’s column, built after the famous English Hero won his victory against Napoleon in the Battle of Trafalgar (James Joyce called him “the one-handled adulterer”). It became a symbol of British oppression of Ireland and of course the 1916 rebels tried to blow the column up. They failed but their IRA descendants in 1966 blew off the top half of the column. It was eventually demolished by the city council and replaced by the ‘Spire of Dublin’ that stands outside the Post Office today.
If you are a fan of Irish history, as my companionable brothers were, this was the area of Dublin they most wanted to see. For me, whilst the tour of the Post Office area was very interesting, I was keen to go round the corner on the opposite side of the road and visit James Joyce who was idling away his time in Earl St, probably musing on a few more bon mots for his next account of Dublin life. Perhaps it was here, near the site of the Easter Rebellion that he explained, “History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
Further down O’Connell Street at the intersection with Parnell Street is another grand monument to a 19th century Irish politician, Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891). In many ways he took upon himself the mantle of O’Connell as the most effective politician of his time, having held the balance of power at Westminster from 1885-1890. Some historians believe that if his personal integrity wasn’t fatally flawed in the 1890s, he may have been able to achieve home rule without the bloodshed that our visit to O’Connell Street so starkly illustrated
It was at this point that our legs and our stomach pains decided it was time to turn around and head back to the Liffey and look for food and drink in the Temple Bar area. On the way, I insisted we ducked down Old Abbey Street on the left just before reaching the Liffey and have a look at the Abbey Theatre. This is Ireland’s National and most famous theatre, having been opened in December 1904 with plays written by W.B.Yeats and Lady Gregory. In 1907, J.M.Synge’s ‘Playboy of the Western World’ premiered here and generated riots in the audience. With the Easter rebellion in 1916, the acting company were as much involved in the processes leading to the rebellion as in their theatre work. The actor, Sean Connolly was due on stage when the shooting started and he was the first rebel fatality.
Rather than crossing the O’Connell Bridge, we turned right and strolled along Bachelors Walk beside the river. After a pleasant walk along this riverside area of Dublin, we came upon one of the famous icons of the city, the Liffey Bridge or as it sometimes referred, the Ha’penny bridge. It is a cast iron bridge built in Shropshire in 1816 to take pedestrians across the river, replacing the many ferries being used at that time. When we were there, the practice of hopeful lovers was to buy a padlock, write their names on it and clip it to the cast-iron sides of this bridge. Apart from being a forlorn hope that retaining love involves some process akin to locking it up and throwing the key away, the locks themselves were causing damage to the bridge itself. In 2013 the Council cut off 300kg of locks from the bridge and the practice was banned. I am not sure how many romances ended when couples realised their love-locks had been cut off the bridge and melted down in a furnace to form an amorphous conglomeration of thousands of lovers’ lost hopes and dreams.
After musing on the nature of everlasting love on Liffey Bridge, our group of couples headed to a Temple Bar restaurant for more earthly sustenance.
APPENDIX 1: Some Images from the Book of Kells
APPENDIX 2: ‘Easter 1916’ …W.B.Yeats
When I was studying the poetry of W.B.Yeats back in my student days, I found his ‘Easter 1916’ a very moving work. I wasn’t sure at the time if the names he mentions in the last verse of the poem were people he knew well and were killed in the rebellion or were they just examples of the 455 people killed. I realised in my later life that they weren’t just random patriotic Irishmen. For example, the careful lines in verse 2 about one of these martyrs should have been an indication of a very difficult personal relationship with the man referred to.
This ‘vainglorious lout’ happened to be John MacBride who, while an Irish Nationalist, was only in Dublin on the key morning by accident when he realised a rebellion was brewing and he joined in. The connection to Yeats was that he was the divorced husband of Maud Gonne who was Yeats’ proclaimed ‘Muse’ and a woman who he had proposed marriage to a number of times. It must have been very difficult for Yeats to include in his group of four martyrs who were ‘transformed utterly’ by the events of 1916. It’s a great artist that can get beyond years of jealously and bitterness to proclaim his rival a part of “A terrible Beauty” being born.