And while I hope that all my travels have taught me something, this most recent trip to Ireland found me learning much more than I ever have before. I'd like to think that's because I'm getting better at learning, but the truth is it's probably because I knew precious little about Ireland to begin with (I was, as they say, the emptiest of empty vessels). As I told my wife, I think I learned more about Ireland in the 25 minutes we spent in the National Gallery Gift Shop than I did in my entire life before then (In all fairness, they had some very good children's books on the Easter Uprising, Vikings and the Battle of Clontarf).
Happily, I know more now than I did then. My wife and I had a terrific time and saw some amazing sites. So, without further adieu (and before I forget them), here's 10 Things I Learned in Ireland.
1. Ireland has artists.
I know you're thinking that Ireland only has writers, poets, and playwrights, but they have artists too; good ones! Jon Lavery, Paul Henry, Sean Scully, and Jack B. Yeats (that would be W.B. Yeats brother) are all terrific artists who claim Ireland as their home.
Jon Lavery's "Japanese Switzerland"
2. Francis Bacon was one of them.
Maybe I knew this at some point, but I sure don't remember. Francis Bacon was born in Dublin to parents of English descent. He eventually moved to London, but his famously messy studio is reconstructed and on view at the Dublin City Museum Hugh Lane Gallery.
Detail of Francis Bacon's Reconstructed Studio
3. The famous Dublin Spire replaced another equally famous tower on O'Connell Street.
Nelson's Pillar once stood on O'Connell street in the same spot currently occupied by the Dublin Spire. That monumental Doric column had originally been erected to honor Admiral Nelson's victory at Trafalgar. After years of quiet (and not so quiet) resentment, the IRA blew it up (well, mostly blew it up) in 1966.
Then: Nelson's Pillar (Post IRA)
And Now: Dublin Spire (Today)
4. You can get "American coffee" in Ireland, but its not made like Americans make it (and that's a good thing).
Let's start with American coffee. If you get it in America there's a good chance it will be brewed by the pot or by the carafe via an automatic drip coffee machine. It's then kept warm/hot until you order a cup. At that point your server pours you a serving, and that's that.
The Irish version of American coffee isn't like that at all. In Ireland an American coffee means someone will brew (to order) two cups of espresso. Then they pour that into a big cup and add hot water so it's diluted down to the strength of our automatic drip version. This method doesn't just approximate the taste of American coffee, it improves it. It's a charming, artisnal kind of process really, but like so much Old World charm (public transit, national healthcare, civility) it would never fly over here in the States. It takes about three minutes longer to serve coffee this way, and time is money you know...
5. Irish history is complicated.
It was, and it still is. Between the Vikings, the Normans, the English, the Scots, and well...the Irish, it's no wonder things were so unsettled for so long. Toss in a little religious intolerance (OK, a lot) and you've got, well, Troubles.
6. Dublin's St. Patrick's Cathedral is an Anglican church.
Herein lies my Catholic bias. Seriously. It never occurred to me that a church called St. Patrick's could be anything but a Catholic church. I was raised Catholic in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood. I spent the grades K-12 in Catholic schools. My middle name is Patrick. Catholics invented St. Patrick's day. They taught us about him in our Catholic schools. I just assumed his church would...well...
St. Patrick's Cathedral
So we walk into the Cathedral and there's all these little clues that start pouring in: why is the gift shop in the church proper? Why does the Bishop in the painting have grandchildren? Why are there regimental flags hanging in here? Why isn't the Papal flag hanging in here? Where's the Holy Water???
My wife eventually figures it out and suddenly it's like were playing an away game. I've lost the home field advantage and I'm starting to get rattled. I'm out of my element. What should I do? Turn myself in? Pray? To who? The Virgin Mary? Well that won't work in here, will it?
St. Patrick's Cathedral (Interior)
Which over-dramatizes things a bit - but not really. It was ultimately a very telling (and personal) lesson not just in what it means to self-identify, but in the strength that self-identification can carry, even when we should know better.
7. The Battle of Clontarf is a big deal.
It's big. Agincourt big. Hasting big. Yorktown big. D-Day big. Irish unity prevails over hostile Viking raiders. Or at least that's the popular version. The reality is much messier than that and much more complicated. One particularly inventive way of telling the story was offered by The Little Museum of Dublin. They engaged artist Fergal McCarthy to narrate the events of the battle in the style of a graphic novel on the walls of the gallery itself.
The Battle of Clontarf as depicted by Fergal McCarthy
8. Ireland was neutral during World War II.
They were! In Ireland World War Two was euphemistically referred to as "The Emergency". While I haven't read too far into this part of Irish history my hunch is that their neutrality was the result of two things, the trepidation of a young republic (you'll recall another young republic that once tried staying neutral too) and a distrust of all things British.
9. The Giant's Causeway and Causeway Coast is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site (and with good reason). It's beautiful.
I'm not even going to try to explain it, any more than I'd try to explain the Grand Canyon. Just trust me, or better yet, go see it for yourself.
10. The people of Ireland are a friendly bunch.
And accommodating too. They really are! Every inquiry involving any element of service anywhere was answered with a prompt, "No problem!". It's like their default setting and one I promised I bring back home with me.