Friday, June 5, 2015

Ireland: Dublin - Off the Beaten Path

Once we had visited all the "must-see" sights in Dublin, we wanted to check out more obscure attractions that were off the beaten path.  To help find them, I borrowed the book "Secret Dublin - An Unusual Guide" from the library.  The best tip that we picked up from this guide was to visit the Tivoli Car Park, an outdoor parking lot located on Francis Street, several blocks west of Dublin Castle.  Frequently called the"Graffiti Car Park", this lot has become a Mecca for graffiti artists who use the walls as their personal canvas. An annual "Graffiti Jam" has been held here each spring since 2008, calling for local artists to gather and repaint the walls.  The colourful and whimsical drawings made this my favourite spot in Dublin.

The Secret Dublin book also pointed us in the direction of the lovely ceramic friezes on the 1902 Sunlight Chambers office building, situated on the south side of the River Liffey (note that the Irish say "River Liffey" instead of "Liffey River").  This building is near another historical highlight, the Ha'Penny Bridge, a cast iron pedestrian footbridge built in 1816, featuring decorative arches topped by lanterns.  Although officially called the Liffey Bridge, the term Ha'Penny refers to the half penny toll that originally had to be paid in order to cross the bridge.  The book also recommended looking at the beautiful Art Deco façade of the government office building at 23 Kildare St.  On our own, we stumbled upon several other lovely structures including the Olympia Theatre with its cast-iron and stained glass canopy and St. Stephen's Mall, which from afar looks like the Roman Coliseum decorated with flower boxes.

We spent a few days touring some of the museums in Dublin, including two of the three branches of the National Museum of Ireland.  We missed the Natural History Museum but did visit the Museum of Archaeology and the Museum of Decorative Arts.  Not being that interested in archaeology, I was more impressed with the beautiful decor of the building than most of its contents.  But I was fascinated by the set of human remains dating back from 400BC to 300 AD which were discovered in various bogs throughout Ireland.  Several of them show signs of having been killed via stabbing or strangulation or blows to the head.  It was amazing to learn that despite all this time, examination of the bodies revealed what their diets were like.

The Museum of Decorative Arts is situated in an old military barracks which housed British troops for over three centuries until it was handed over to the Irish Free State in 1922.  At that time, it was renamed to Collins Barracks in honour of the Irish Revolutionary Leader Michael Collins.  The museum's permanent exhibits include sections on Irish Silver, Pottery, Coins, Period Clothing and Furniture, and a special collection of Asian Art.  Our favourite section dealt with the furniture designs of Eileen Grey, one of the most influential Irish designers and architects of the 20th Century with a vision well ahead of her times.  Her adjustable chrome side table, one-armed "non-conformist" chair and Bibendum Michelin Tire Man chair seem modern even by today's standards, let alone back in the 1920s.  She also experimented with lacquered works and different architectural forms, incorporating art styles including cubism, fauvism and De Stijl (used by Piet Mondrian).  A temporary exhibit featured clothing by Danish-born Irish fashion designer IB Jorgensen, whose works were described as "haute culture".  Maybe we were not sophisticated enough to appreciate them,  but in many cases, they just looked goofy to us.  We were amused by the puffy shirt (reminiscent of a Seinfeld sketch), the Quaker dress and the hat that looked like it belonged to Napoleon.

The Little Museum of Dublin contained a collection of memorabilia that described the history of Dublin in the 20th Century.  Over 5000 items were displayed over three floors, all donated by the people of Ireland.  We saw photographs of historic and cultural figures including Mary Robinson, first female President of Ireland and artifacts such as the death mask of James Joyce and a cardboard cut out of the TV character Mrs. Browne.  A fascinating letter from the head clergyman of the Dublin Catholic Church in 1922 illustrated the religious divide that continued to be prevalent in Ireland at that time.  Asked if it would be proper for Catholics to attend Trinity College, he tersely replied that "doing so would risk your eternal soul".  There was a special exhibit featuring Irish writer and painter Christy Brown, whose life was represented in the movie My Left Foot.  A room on the top floor was dedicated to the Irish band U2 with photos, posters, sculptures and a timeline charting the band's rise to fame.

The Museum of Modern Art is located in the buildings of the old 17th Century Royal Hospital Kilmainham, across from the Kilmainham Goal.  The highlight of this museum was the giant rabbit sculpture in the courtyard.  The permanent collection was not very impressive, with few notable artists on display.  I did like one large bronze sculptural piece called "The Gate" by Deborah Brown. The open gate with a key in the keyhole, and the individual sculptural scenes attached to the rods are meant to symbolize human freedom.  The museum would have been disappointing had it not been for the excellent temporary exhibition of the photographic works of Vancouver photographer Stan Douglas.  Douglas stages historical scenes for his photographs, by creating set locations, casting and dressing his subjects in period clothing, and posing them to present visual narratives.  His series of "Crowds & Riots" photos depict important gatherings in Vancouver history including ones that involve clashes with police, often related to union protests.  It's sad that we had to go all the way to Dublin to discover this fascinating Canadian artist.  We will definitely look out for him when we get home.

Usually when we are ushered through the gift shop before being allowed to leave a museum, the items don't interest us.  However at the Museum of Modern Art, we came across a little book that really tickled my funny bone.  Titled "All My Friends Are Dead" by Avery Monsen and Jory John, this hilarious picture book looks like a children's book at first glance, but contains some wickedly dark humour that would not be appropriate for small children.  I especially liked the earnest, deadpan delivery of the old man lamenting that his friends were dying off.  This became one of my treasured souvenirs of our trip.

For each new city that we visit, if the opportunity arises, we try to rent bicycles for a ride through their major parklands or bike trails.  We rode in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris and in Vondelpark in Amsterdam.  In Dublin, we chose Phoenix Park, one of the largest public recreational spaces in Europe at 1752 acres.  Dedicated bicycle trails traverse throughout the park, although the large painted "No walking" symbols did little to deter pedestrians.  Major attractions in the park included the Dublin Zoo and a monument to the Duke of Wellington, with four bronze plaques created from melted down cannons captured at the Battle of Waterloo.  We passed by another monument where only the pedestal remained.  There was no plaque to indicate who it was originally dedicated to, but probably it was probably some British dignitary whose sculpture was toppled during one of the many Irish rebellions.  The bicycles that we rented were really uncomfortable, especially compared to the excellent ones we found in Amsterdam, so this curtailed our ride to some degree.

We arrived in Ireland just shortly after the Irish had voted in favour of legalizing gay marriage.  The referendum results were overwhelming at 62% yes and 38% no.  While traversing through the streets of Dublin, we saw many signs urging for a "Yes" vote.  Only when we traveled out into the countryside did we spot one lone "No" advocate.  Our rough sampling of the campaigning on this issue reflected the final tally.  It must have been a proud day in Ireland when this historic vote took place.

We ate all of our breakfasts and many of our dinners at our home swap accommodations in Ranelagh and were frequent shoppers at the Supervalu and Mortons grocery stores.  Supervalu was our source for breakfast fare including freshly squeezed juices at very reasonable prices and the most amazing house-brand orange yogurt that we ate multiple tubs of during our stay.  Mortons had excellent prepared foods like chicken tikka, beef stroganoff and zucchini soup, as well as great cheeses and deli meats.  We mostly ate lunch on the go while touring the various sights.  Our most memorable meal was the flavourable Guinness beef stew that we ate at the Hatch & Sons café under the Little Dublin Museum.  Towards the end of our trip, after almost 4 weeks in Ireland, we were getting a bit tired of Irish food and were looking for some variety.  To our delight, we stumbled across "The Duck" on Fade St which offered authentic Hong Kong style barbeque duck.  I had been lamenting to Rich that I was missing Chinese food!  Even though we just finished eating lunch, we had to stop in for a quick peek and perhaps a snack.  We found the perfect duck spring rolls that were bursting with duck meat.  Too bad we didn't find this sooner or we would have made a repeat visit.

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