Saturday, September 29, 2007

Trip to Dublin

Entry for 25 September 2007

In 1963, when I was 13, my grandmother took me on a trip to Europe. We took the boat (the Oriana) from San Francisco, through the Panama Canal, and across the Atlantic. It’s so long ago that I don’t remember many of the details, such as how we got from Southampton to Ireland, but this trip was one of the turning points in my life, in which I developed a more expansive, adventurous sense of myself. Our first major destination was Dublin, where we spent a week while my grandmother researched a novel she was working on at the time. Last weekend we returned to Dublin.

Six years ago, my friend Laco attempted to fly to the US on 11 September, 2001. He was on his way to spend 6 months working with me at the University of Toledo on a Fulbright Fellowship. He ended up along with 15,000 other people at a refugee camp outside of Amsterdam, but eventually, in spite of his airplane phobia, was able to get to the US, where he, his wife Katka and young son Adam, had a fruitful, if somewhat stressful time, in Toledo. Two years ago, they moved to Dublin, where Laco works at Trinity College running the Counselling Psychology course there. He has been anxious for us to come see him since we arrived in Scotland a year ago.

It has taken us a year, but last weekend we finally made it Dublin: We grabbed an early dinner and took the train to Prestwick Airport, where we caught the flight to Dublin on budget airline Ryanair. Our flight was a bit late, and the people on it were in high spirits, talking loudly and excitedly and teasing one another. Laco was waiting for us in the crowd as we came out of international arrivals. By midnight we were at his place in Clontarf, a nice northern suburb on Dublin Bay. It was a delight to see him and Katka again, and we sat around the kitchen table for awhile, reminiscing about their time in Toledo, catching up on families and figuring out what we were going to do for the next couple of days.

The next morning was clear, bright and lovely. Since Katka and Laco had kindly lent us their bedroom, various of their three small children were startled and somewhat disconcerted to discover that their parents had been Replaced by Strangers. By the time we got up, somewhat blearily, there were 5 people crammed into the little bedroom at the end of the hall. Adam looked as he had the last time I saw him, in Bratislava, about 3 years ago, but bigger. The twins Domenika and Natalia, one dressed in blue and the other in pink for easier identification weren’t just walking now but were running busily around intent on various activities. Altogether a really charming set of kids!

Laco and Katka live only about a quarter of the mile from the water, so on Saturday morning we walked out along the northern breakwater of Dublin Bay, as far as the statue of the Virgin Mary. There was a light wind and the tide was out. Away to the north we could see the cliffs above Howth, while across the bay and in the distance to the south we could see another set of cliffs. As we walked, we watched a freighter was coming in from the Irish Sea, past the twin light houses at the ends of the pair of breakwaters that frame the entrance to the inner part of the Bay, passing in front of the stacks and oil refineries on the south side.

The night before, we had agreed on a set of goals for the day, organized around things that I remembered from my previous visit to Dublin in 1963. Like our visit to Sheffield the previous weekend, this trip turned out for me to be partly about recontacting another part of my past.

There were too many of us to fit into their car, and the kids insisted on taking the bus as an adventure, so Laco and I drove in while Katka and Diane and the three kids took the bus. Laco parked at Trinity College, which was full of tourists, and we walked north, across the Liffey River to meet the rest of our families. The city centre was full of people, out on a warm Saturday afternoon. Maybe my sample was biased, but in comparison to Glasgow, the people seemed to me to be less rowdy (there was a buzz of talk but it was more of a murmur); there seemed to be less obesity (a serious cause for concern in Scotland); and finally, people were more modestly dressed than seems often to be the case in Glasgow.

After lunch at one of their favorite places, a patisserie, and a wander over to Saint Stephen’s Green, Laco took us back to Trinity and got us tickets to see the Book of Kells. I remembered having seen this in 1963, in the same building, but there is now a modern style museum, complete with museum shop, built up around the famous illuminated manuscripts, which are now displayed under low light conditions to protect them. The Book of Kells is actually four books, the four Gospels, two of which were on display, open to an illustration from the Book of John and to the parable of the unfaithful steward from the Book of Luke. (I read a little Latin, but know this only because there was like legend next to the latter. However, I was startled as Mass the next morning to discover that the Luke passage was this week's Gospel reading.) One of the things that struck me was the way in which the scribes sometimes drew their illuminations around the naturally-occurring holes in the vellum.

Over the course of the afternoon, we also visited the Shelbourne Hotel, which my grandmother and I had stayed before (parts looked familiar but it had been substantially remodeled over the ensuing years). But the high point of our museum visits was our quick visit to the National Museum, where my grandmother had taken me to see St. Patrick’s Bell. The story is this: Her family, the Mullens, had according to legend been entrusted with the keeping of this bell by St. Patrick, on the condition that they not go to war with other tribes. When they broke this trust, she had told me, the bell was taken from them. So the Bell is both a mark of pride and a symbol of reproach for the Mullen family, my Irish ancestors.

It was almost closing time, but a quick tour around the museum located two bells of St. Patrick (bells were big with medieval Irish saints, because they were used to call people to worship): First, we found the Black Bell of St. Patrick, in the medieval section, but this didn't seem quite right. Then, finally, we found the Iron Bell of St. Patrick, in the Treasury section (a selection of national treasures). I knew that to be the right bell, because of the fancy, jeweled encrusted case for it, also on display. This was The Bell of family legend. It was good to see it again. Another circle connected, past to present.

* * *
By the time we flew back to Glasgow on Monday morning, we had had lovely dinners out at a fine French restaurant and a Japanese noodle place; we had wandered around the city centre for several hours, through pedestrian malls; sat among the crowds sunning themselves on St. Stephens Green; bought Irish chocolate at Butler’s; visited the cliffs on both north and south ends of Dublin Bay, including driving past Howth Castle & Environs (HCE), of Finnegans Wake fame; bought Irish music; and stumbled across the James Joyce Museum in the old Napoleonic-era defensive tower at Sandycove, the scene of the opeing of Ulysses. Diane had visited Ireland for the first time and I had made another connection with my past, both to my visit with my grandmother in 1963 and to my reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses, almost as long ago. As important, we had reconnected and deepened our friendship with Laco and Katka. We plan to return again before another 44 years!

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