Sometimes the planets align for a perfect day during our roving retirement. Without much forethought, we managed to make our first Saturday in Dublin Ireland into a well-rounded experience of history, whiskey, music, and food. Read further if you want to share it with us.
Trinity College Tour
Our first stop for the day was at Trinity College, which is in fact a Top 100 university in the world. It felt like entering another world walking through the main gate into the central quad, Parliament Square. We were met at the Campanile by our tour guide, a chipper girl from New York.
Over the next 90 minutes, we were shown the various buildings and open spaces. We learned of historic clubs and achievements, regaled with stories of past students and staff, blah, blah blah. While all of these tales were interesting and likely true, it wasn’t always higher learning for all.
A Complicated History
Queen Elizabeth I established the royal charter for Trinity College in 1592. Not covered in the tour was some less auspicious aspects of its origin. It was created to consolidate the power of the Tudor monarchy and bore the name the university of the Protestant Ascendancy for much of its history.
It wasn’t until 1873 that Catholics were allowed to receive scholarships or be professors and fellows. Women were first granted full rights in 1904. In this way, Trinity College merely reflected the political realities of the time, much as it does today. I’m simply saying it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns, as one might infer from the tour.
Free Tuition, Room, Board, and Guinness
An intriguing aspect of Trinity College is the ability of a true sophomore student, described as a senior freshman, to test to earn a Foundation Scholarship. “A foundation scholarship is tenured for five years, during which time the Scholar is entitled to free Trinity accommodation, their evening meal free of charge at Commons (including a pint of Guinness), a waiver of their tuition fees or student contribution, and a small annual stipend.”
Obviously, these perquisites are very valuable. Thus, it is a very difficult test and few candidates try, let alone succeed, in any given year. Beyond that, successful candidates have demonstrated such mastery that many doors open for them once they leave college. Intriguing, no?
Samuel Beckett et al
Many notable authors have graced the halls of Trinity College through the centuries. One can only imagine what it would have been like to hang out with a young Oscar Wilde. Bram Stoker (Dracula) studied and worked nearby. Jonathon Swift also comes to mind. Schrödinger both had and did not have a cat while he taught there.
The tour guide did seem particularly enamored with Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett. In addition to a short stop at the eponymous theater on campus, she related an impressive story. Adding to his other accolades, it seems, during his time on campus, Beckett was able to earn the Foundation Scholarship, in French. Purportedly, he is the last student to have done that, nearly a hundred years ago. It should therefore come as no surprise that he resided in Paris most of his life.
The Book of Kells
The most precious item in the Trinity College Library is the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript believed to have been created in the 800s. Its name comes from its location for centuries in the Abbey of Kells in County Meath. Acquired by Trinity College in 1661, it has remained in the library, except for brief loans.
The illustrations in the book are stunning. Some pages have been lost over time, but the images are truly ornate and engaging. The tour presents interesting sections from throughout the work as well as history for context. Consisting of 640 pages, the manuscript is on display and shows two pages at any one time, rotated every 12 weeks. Totally worth a visit.
The Long Room
The Long Room of the Trinity College Library is just that, a long room. In fact, its proportions are truly impressive. Normally housing 200K+ volumes, the university is refurbishing the stacks and was in the process of carefully storing the displayed tomes. By law for centuries, a free copy of all copyrighted material In Ireland must be provided to the library, which houses over three million items in total.
Walking the 65m length of the room, you encounter the busts of many famous historical figures, including Aristotle, Newton, Shakespeare, and Ada Lovelace. I would confirm the state of the room prior to a visit because it will close soon for a couple of years while the restoration is in progress.
Brian Boru’s Harp, Apparently…
Acquired in 1782, Brian Boru’s Harp is placed prominently in the center of the Long Room. Brian Boru is perhaps the greatest figure in Irish history. He was the first feudal Irish lord to conquer all of Ireland, hence becoming the first king of all the land. He ruled from 1002-1014. No Irish-born man since was as successful in military or political theaters. It is this harp that inspired both the Irish flag and the Guinness logo. I should note that Guinness had a trademark on the logo long before the creation of the Irish state and flag. As a compromise, the state chose to use a mirror image of the harp to distinguish it from the logo.
Not long after its acquisition, the provenance of the harp came into question. Most scholars date it to the 14th or 15th century. Not letting the truth stand in the way of a good story, the harp is still referred to as Brian Boru’s Harp. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful specimen and definitely worthy of a place of prominence in the library at Trinity College.
Irish Whiskey Museum
Our next stop on the ideal Dublin day was at the Irish Whiskey Museum. The tour was a treasure trove of facts and legends on the history of whiskey in Ireland. They said “whiskey” comes from the Irish uisce beatha, meaning water of life. The first documented usage of the term in Ireland was in the early 1400s, while the first usage in Scotland doesn’t appear until the late 1400s. The distilling technique was thought to have been brought from the continent where it was used to make perfume. The Irish monks had other ideas in mind, apparently.
One of the tales that was shared was the tradition of the Irish wake. They said that centuries ago, it wasn’t uncommon for people to be buried alive. It seems the locals couldn’t tell if someone was really dead or just unconscious. It happened enough that a tradition of placing the body in a coffin where it could be seen for three days and then memorializing them was enacted in hopes of raising the dead, which it sometimes did. Taking it another step, sometimes a string was placed in the coffin and attached to a bell outside. That way the newly risen could ring the bell and be saved.
Differences in the Process
Although Scottish Whisky is better known and marketed around the world, the Irish claim they have a superior product. By law, Irish whiskey is distilled three times (not two, like Scotch) and must be aged in used bourbon or sherry barrels, resulting in a smoother finish, reportedly.
During our tasting on the tour, we got to sample four, very different Irish whiskeys. Like Scotch, grain malting techniques and the usage of peat had a huge influence on the taste. While there were only four distilleries in Ireland a decade ago, 20 have opened since and another 20 are planned. Thus, you will begin to find in your local store more options than the ubiquitous and heavily marketed Jameson.
I could hardly wait to enjoy some traditional Irish music, in a pub, while in the country. This was the experience I most anticipated as we planned our trip to Ireland. As with many common things in Ireland, the locals shorten the phrase to Trad Music, or sometimes simply Trad.
My prior experience with Trad 35 years ago left me wanting more. I thoroughly enjoyed the festive, joyous, convivial, and heartfelt tunes.
After asking a few tour guides for recommendations of where to go, the consensus was The Cobblestone, which was happily only a 10-minute walk from our hotel. On the heels of our early afternoon whiskey tasting, it only made sense to follow it up with some great tunes and fresh Guinness. I was not disappointed.
Self-described as “a drinking pub with a music problem”, The Cobblestone is an unpretentious magnet for locals and tourists. This Saturday afternoon, the place was packed. The conversations were very loud throughout the venue. Since the musicians don’t use microphones or amplifiers, we had to work hard to get close enough to be able to hear the music over the din. I later found this was true in many other venues. While Trad is certainly a draw, most folks were at the pub simply to meet their mates for a pint and a good time. It can take work to put oneself in a position to hear and enjoy the players.
The Cobblestone has a steady schedule of Trad throughout the week. This is an enjoyable side gig for the musicians, so the quality and variation can vary greatly when a new set of players come in after a couple of hours. I was impressed with how well the players managed what was basically just a big jam session. I felt the Saturday afternoon group at The Cobblestone was the best I experienced during my trip to Ireland this year. Here is a snippet for you to enjoy, too.
Finishing Off with a Fine Meal
Diana and I decided to top off the day with a stop at a nearby well-rated restaurant. The PHXBistro turned out to be one of our favorite dining experiences in Dublin. Beyond the food, I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of the wait staff. Despite being fairly young, they managed to anticipate most of our needs. Sadly, this is all too uncommon. I called the manager over to congratulate her on the experience of the waitstaff. I’m always happy to commend a job well done and it was clear she was very appreciative.
The food itself was very good, too. As part of the 30€ prix-fixe, we had duck liver parfait, smoked mackerel fishcakes, a nice steak frites, and a tasty slice of carrot cake. It was a great finish to a marvelous Saturday in Ireland, one I won’t soon forget.
What well-rounded, unforgettable days have you experienced traveling?