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Friday, April 29, 2011

An Irish Ramble
A really long time has passed since I posted anything here. There could be reasons but none will really even begin to cover the spread of it, honestly speaking. A whole patchwork quilt of reasons could perhaps aspire to such lofty heights—or is it spread—but in solo? Ah, you have got another think coming. So we shall pass lightly over this ungainly matter and seek greener pastures.

Which, of course, puts us snugly in line with what I think I will write about here. Green-ness. And while that mystifies you, let that not set you aflutter. All will be revealed in good time, in due season, in the fullness of time, etc., etc. But here I must accord credit where it is rightly due, to the wife. What follows is her idea
Smile

Early in March this year I had the opportunity to spend about 10 days in Ireland, Dublin to be precise. That it was on business goes without saying for the nonce. But the most convenient bit was that the duration afforded me a weekend that I could use to explore the place a bit… only a bit.

There being no direct flights from India to Dublin I had to travel via some hop-over point. I suppose the logical hop-over would be London but for some inexplicable reason(s)—to me, that is—one would need a transit visa to do so. Would it be due to the required change of airlines? Doesn’t quite sound right… but then I’d be the wrongest person to make any sort of judgment. So to avoid this bother I gave Heathrow the big miss—their loss entirely, I assure you—and opted for Abu Dhabi having chosen to fly Etihad… or is it the other way round?

Jet Airways operates the Delhi-Abu Dhabi leg and having spotted a suitable traveller, chose to upgrade me to plusher settings. If you think that was pure luck on my part, why, you’re free to draw that conclusion. No such ‘luck’ came my way, however, for the Abu Dhabi-Dublin leg and there I was, cramped in the cattle-class seat—in harmony, sympathy and full fraternity with all our holy cows. And if that last bit sounds familiar, you can certainly thank a certain ex-central minister who now probably rues that smart-alecky twittering, though I personally appreciated that humour.

I will not dignify the cattle-class-ness any further by any more ranting. Let it suffice to say that we negotiated a safe enough landing and I was out fairly quickly. The first thing that struck was of course the cold. For someone travelling from India—still officially cold in Delhi then by local standards—the difference was startling. I am unashamed though to say I reveled in it but was thankful to get into a cab in very short order. Not too many people milling around obviously helped in this very quick and efficient ‘get away’.

Did I mention it was early morning when I landed? Ah, I missed that. Yes, morning and it was then that I started noticing the green-ness of the greenery around. Lush, varied shades, eyeful… in short, uniformly satisfying. As the car zipped, curved and swished around curvaceous roads, my eyes goggled. The grass seemed to be inviting one to golf there if not directly munch.

Hopping lightly over the next few days, let me land plonk on the weekend I had alluded to earlier, on the Saturday, to be exact per my exacting standards of accuracy.

Saturday dawned bright but grey. When after a hearty breakfast a colleague—my day-trip partner—and I stepped out of our hotel, the windy-ness quite froze the uncovered bits. A later retrospection clarified matters a little: Greenland is the next door neighbour to the west. So any baby wind starting out life and passing over Greenland would blow unrestrictedly and contentedly through to Ireland—a minor detour could cause it to pass over Iceland, and with a name like that I need go no further into it—having collected a degree of coldness that can seldom be rivaled, unless of course a rival wind began life from somewhere to the North, where the granddaddy of them all is, the North Pole. I mean no disrespect to the South Pole but thankfully it is a bit farther than its northern counterpart and takes a markedly less interest in freezing things up in the north.

So there we were, walking briskly across to the nearest tram station—tram, forsooth! our ‘cholbe na’ brigade ought to check these little blitzes out—and fairly whizzed across to the city centre, St. Stephen’s Green—‘Faiche Stiabhna’ in Gaelic, the local language—to then walk across a bit more and board our bus for the day tour we had pre-booked ourselves (with commendable foresight I say even if it is I who say it (well, to be perfectly frank, who else will? So I’m left with me)). Millennium Spire, Dublin

The Irish revel in their good humouredness (noticed the ‘ness-ness’ of things in this post, by the way?). The driver of the bus, who was also our guide, threw out bits and pieces of interesting trivia. Right in the centre of the city, they have the Millennium Spire, which, by the scheme of things, ought to have come up—literally—by January 1, 2001, to commemorate the new millennium and presumably, wish it well. But the Irish, so said the drivide—to coin a new term—being a lazy lot, managed to put it up only in 2003 (or was it 2004, I forget). On that jolly note, let me lead you further.

An hour’s drive fetched us up at the first point in our tour plan, Trim Castle. The drive itself again reestablished the green-ness quotient. Added to this were the sheep grazing in plentiful everywhere some grass raised its head. I guess the munching is really toothsome; the rotundity of the sheep is quite the evidence of that and the many vital minerals—vitamins to you—that burgeon within the grass. The wool these contented creatures offer up for shearing is quite the quality the wool-carvers crave, I am led to believe. Not to leave them out, there were horses about too but both in numbers and rotundity they lose out to their smaller neighbours. Being rather camera-shy, they refused resolutely to pose for my camera and thus I have no option but to deprive you of the sheer pleasure of taking a gander at them and drawing your breath sharply in.

Back to the castle. One racy chap, Hugh de Lacy, when granted the ‘Liberty of Meath’—whatever that may mean but it certainly opened up the vista for him—occupied the site in 1172 upon which the castle stands. That’s quite a few years back, if you haven’t noticed. Some 839 years, to get to the nub of the matter. This gentleman probably possessed a pair of canny eyes and spotted the sense in building his pile here, with the River Boyne flowing swiftly to the north of this spot and marshy grounds to the south. These natural aspects were supposed to afford some security to his home and hearth but not relying entirely upon Nature, he also prudently built a wall around the upcoming castle. Trim Castle

Dilapidated and obviously unoccupied—who in his right mind would now want to live in a literally stone-cold house?—this is now under the loving care of the Irish archaeological society’s equivalent, the National Monuments wing of the OPW (despite the sinister acronym on offer, it merely stands for the most inoffensive ‘Office of Public Works’). They are doing a good job by the looks of it. It opened for visitors at the promised time, the guide came at the appointed hour and things happened in a fairly predictable manner thereafter.

The guide, a comely young lady, very knowledgeable, took us inside and regaled us with the stories. Couple of things stood out. Despite all the protection of the river, the marshes and the wall, poor Hugh and his successors did have to contend with jealous attackers—who probably liked the look of the castle and wanted a piece of it and if that was not forthcoming, then wanted it in pieces—who fired lit arrows to the thatched roof that obligingly then caught fire, causing tears, ruin and maybe a mite more. So what the canny castle denizens did was to put wet pieces of cloth and animal skins on the roof. The other stand-out feature was the attached toilet in one of the bedrooms. Luxury in the 13th century: an attached toilet

Yes, l & g, I kid you not. A veritable toilet within the bedroom. Now, the guide couldn’t be sure of who could be the lucky occupant of that room. It couldn’t be the lord of the manor since this was on the top floor—and I can assure you, the staircase is not the most navigable one you have ever stepped on, so no chance of the big man of the house stomping up and down with a fierce look in his eyes, cursing the day when he had agreed to move to this bedroom—but the clinching argument against that possibility is the fact that it lacks a fireplace. Ah, I can see the light of agreement animating your goggling eyes. Yes, a room, though much equipped with a spot of modern convenience, distinctly lacked a source of heat to defrost the bones of the lord & m. of the castle. So nix that option. Nonetheless, someone fairly well up in the reckoning and in the good books of the l & master of the pile resided there. If you notice closely you can perhaps spot the toilet in the picture alongside. Seriously, that’s the semblance of the convenience.

A full tour of the castle ate up about an hour and a bit. Exiting there we scattered after a teary farewell to our guide. Boyne, I discovered, is a rather frisky river, flowing briskly as if it has urgent business to attend to at some distance. A few steps from the river is a cheery sight, a wooden thingummyjig where your—oh, okay, let’s not be macabre—a poor blighter’s neck is held along with his wrists. What then happens to this said bloke I leave to your vivid imagination. And making allowance for your sensitive souls, am even refraining from uploading the picture of the said frame. You can of course contact me offline for a personalized copy Wink

The next stop was about half an hour away, a beautiful green spread, rolling fields and a few old, old structures and a majestic church. This spot is called the Hill of Tara. Legend and myth intermingle here. The spot dates back to the 4th century BC making it 6,000 years old. Serious, eh? A royal Celtic place, this is one of the largest complexes of Celtic monuments in all Europe. In the then Irish religion—pagan, of course—Tara was believed “to be the dwelling of the Gods, an entrance point for the other world, of eternal joy and plenty, where no mortal ever grew old” (wish you were there, don’t you? ;-))

It is here that St. Patrick chose to preach Christianity in Ireland. The then king, whose name is lost to history (er, my memory you say? Could be, could be but no admissions here of that! Wink), more’s the pity, issued a firm nolle prosequi of course and refused to play any sort of ball. The saint, being a saint, persevered, a gentle smile surely playing a major part in the entire proceedings. Eventually, the king gave the nod, withdrawing the said nolle prosequi and permitted the saint to preach his new-fangled religion but firmly refused to be part of it in any form. He said, rather logically, that if the religion of his birth had got him that far—well, he was getting on in years—he would abide it into his grave. And so he did.

The church that stands there still is St. Patrick’s and there’s his statue too outside in the lush greenness. Jumping a few millennia back from then, there’s a monolith and a few other bits and pieces of ‘monuments’ from that earlier era. Mound of the Hostages

The most intriguing story—history? Maybe—is related to the Mound of the Hostages. Apparently a local chieftain who wanted to have some sway over other chiefs nearby devised a simple yet very effective way of ensuring the sway. He kidnapped a scion of the chief he wanted to subdue and held him hostage so that the targeted chief obeyed his wishes. Seems he kept quite a few of these hostages simultaneously there under that mound you can see for yourself in the picture, handpicked from targeted chiefs nearby and thumbed his nose at them. When a hostage ran out of utility—maybe his chief gave up on him as a bad debt and renewed opposition to our chieftain, the latter simply beheaded—or maybe picked other, more elegant methods of disposing of him—that hostage and nicked another to take his place. And bring that uppity chief—poor fellow, I say—to heel. How long this merry state of affairs lasted one knows not.
Bare trees
The cold, meanwhile, continued unabated. It was windy like billy-o, grey skies lowering, threatening rain. The open, rolling green fields all around was soothing to the eyes, every direction that you cared to swing them. All that exercise of course caused hunger to knock amidships pretty indignantly and heed had to be paid. So we stomped off to a tea shop where they were selling, kind souls that they are, hot scones and hotter drinks. Fortified a bit having sampled their wares, we headed back to the city with the express aim of doing the city centre.

The Christ Church Cathedral and St. Stephen’s Green are the two that we could cover. Again, the overwhelming greenness was the main feature. If I were to upload more pictures, while pleasing your eyes and causing gasps of admiration to spring forth from open mouths, they would stymie the site to a speed akin to driving uphill with your handbrakes on.

On Sunday, the following day, we had a larger group that ventured to explore the city centre. As on the previous day, we headed there on the tram, a serene ride. The weather was better than the day before, sunny but still a bit windy and oh yes, cold.

The first spot we spent time in was a Victorian three storeyed house equipped with a basement floor as well. A 6-Euro fee was needed to be unbelted and then we were treated to a 15-minute short film. It comprised a series of pictures with a lady’s voice-over, walking us through the events of her life. Yes, she was the erstwhile widowed mistress of the very house we were in—hold on to your non-existent hats… they were merely setting the tone for the next hour or so—explaining how she led her daily life right there but only a couple of centuries ago.

The guide, again a comely girl and well-trained, then led us down to the basement which was the executive centre of the household. A kitchen, stores and the chief maid’s accommodation were here. They have pretty much retained the place as it was then including the bells that called the various maids to the upper reaches of the house. The bells no longer ding—the bell pulls from the various rooms above no longer snake their way through in here—but the guide explained that the tone of the bells varied for the maids to know which room, which floor they needed to scurry to; remember, the maids and servants were illiterate those days. So no nifty little plates with rooms written on them were placed with the appropriate bell. If the bell didn’t quite dong the way the maid had learnt it did, well, then, some degree of hell could break loose upstairs. By the way, I wonder if there were professional bell re-tuners…?

No photography was permitted in this house so I cannot quite feed your curiosity, more’s the pity. The other interesting object I noticed was a curiously designed chair that had leather bellows for a seat and sported no backrest. The guide—with that inimitable Irish good humour—explained this was the lady of the house’s exerciser, a stomach flattener, no less. And while you cast about pitiably trying to figure out what on earth am I rambling on about, imagine this: A low-slung chair, with armrests but no backrest and a very intriguing leather bellows seat, the top of which almost reached the armrests. You have to—if you’re a lady wanting to persuade your tummy to reverse-gear—sit astride it and holding on to one armrest—facing this way or in sharp contradistinction, that way—jump up and down on the bellows seat as if riding a rather frisky horse. And voila! your tummy is well on its way back in… how’s that?

Another couple of interesting things I learnt was one, that in those times, owners paid house tax based on the number of windows. Interesting, huh? And two, that ceiling height kept lessening every floor until it reached the top floor—usually the 3rd (Indian/ European)/ 4th (American) floor—where only children and governesses were expected to live?

The next spot was the famous Trinity College. There were a few Henry Moore sculptures, great architecture, piazzas, lovely fields, greenery—again!—and students milling around, lazing on a sunny Sunday. A very interesting sculpture there is one by Arnaldo Pomodoro, the Milan-based Italian sculptor, named the ‘Sphere within sphere’ (see accompanying picture). Pomodoro's Sphere in SphereApparently, the inner sphere represents Earth and the outer, Christianity. A rather ambitious visualization, if I may say so. A little moth-eaten in appearance but impressive nonetheless.

The next stop, Chester Beatty Library, is actually a museum and has been voted the European Museum of the Year in 2002. The Library's collections are displayed in two sections, "Sacred Traditions" and "Artistic Traditions". Both displays exhibit manuscripts, miniature paintings, prints, drawings, rare books and some decorative arts from the Islamic, East Asian and Western Collections. There are 4 (or was it 3? Perhaps I’m over-estimating now?) floors and I did only one. But very engaging and caused many discussions to break out amongst all of us.

Weather forecasting the Irish way!The last thing I will bore you with from this trip is of my visit to a rather famous institution there—Johnnie Fox’s Pub which was established in 1798 to assuage the thirst of dry-throated Irishmen. This yeoman service has stood them in good stead and they still serve a mean beer or two. However, I will not quite rave about the frothing mugs—I have to say I formed a rather deep friendship with Guinness here that I look forward to renewing but only in Ireland… since the Irish brew is unpasteurized and consequently, more tasty—but rather will make mention of the most straight-forward weather forecasting system I have encountered.

And letting the accompanying picture speak the proverbial thousand words, I will withdraw now, letting you cool your straining eyes and fevered brain with some soothing coolant—Shell springs to mind—with the just one rather humble request: If you have found this a tolerably interesting account to read, do let me know by commenting thus encouraging me to inflict another episode of my travelogue… to a different land, a different experience. And on that note, I cease and desist. For now.



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