Ireland – Day 2

Today was the day I wanted to see the infamous Kilmainham Gaol. It is one of those places everyone says you must see, but by the time I got around to buying tickets, they had already been sold out. I read online that they release a few every morning, so over coffee, I found two tickets for that morning.

Kilmainham Gaol is the center stage for the creation of modern Ireland. It is a prison-turned-museum. The tour teaches you about the prison system and Irish history. I knew about the carcel theory and process of the 1800s because of my many visits to the Eastern State Penitentiary. It was called the Separate system, where convicts were kept in solitary. It was nothing short of psychological torture. 

Because I was familiar with that process, I focused on the Irish history part of the tour. The museum provides an excellent guide. Kilmainham Gaol housed countless political prisoners and revolutionaries. The executions of leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916 at the prison marked a turning point in Ireland’s fight for independence. The jail housed political prisoners throughout the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War. 

The exhibit about Irish history at the end of the museum was excellent. Admittedly, I did not even realize Ireland had a civil war, nor did I understand what it was fought over, so I found that part particularly enlightening. The exhibit has the handwritten letters of those executed in the prison during the civil. They are very touching. Some are very sad and end with “To my Mother I dearly love, Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye. We will meet again in Heaven please God, Mother. God strengthen you in this ordeal Mother. I am to die for Ireland.” Another made me chuckle because he wrote something like, “Can you believe they spelled my name wrong?” Each letter is a portal to these men’s last days, and how everyone handles it is different. I found myself very sad and vulnerable while reading these letters.

That afternoon, we went to high tea. It was at the Shelbourne Hotel, and it was lovely. I did a tea in Philadelphia last year, but this was much nicer. I loved the tiered tray of treats; the chicken salad was a favorite, and the tea was excellent. I did not think Samer would enjoy it, but he liked it. It was delightfully fun and snobby. 

We did finish our tray without realizing you can have things wrapped up to go. We didn’t need the last few desserts, but we were clean platers completely jacked up on caffeine. We stopped at EPIC, The Irish Emigration Museum, on our walk home. It’s about the history of the Irish leaving Ireland. It is the most modern and interactive museum we visited, but I did not love it. I think it’s probably suitable for kids, but I wish I had seen one of the other museums I had missed.

That night, we booked the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl. This is a fun way to see some of Temple Bar and hear about the Irish literary tradition. You meet on the second floor of a pub called The Duke, and your guide is an actor and literary named Colm Quilligan. I know he does it often, but his ability to recite Joyce, Wilde, and others is impressive. There is a dreamlike quality to hear these massive passages recited by an actor in the atmosphere of these old pubs. The plan was to stop at three other pubs and hear more, but Dublin was already turning upside down, and none of us knew what was happening.

There were 20 of us on the tour, and we left the pub to walk to Trinity College, where we were denied entrance. We were all a bit confused, and then our guide said, “There are riots due to the stabbing.” Stabbing? What? The protective veneer of vacation ignorance cracked, and our group walked to the Bank of Ireland to continue the tour. On our walk, I got online to see why we could not get into Trinity College, and that is where I saw the first images of the riots in the Irish Times.

A terrible quality, though not congenital and entirely developed by living in the United States, shone through. I thought, “What’s the big deal?” A stabbing, sure, it’s tragic, but that’s barely a news story in Philadelphia. Street-level violence in the United States is omnipresent, so I didn’t think much of it. 

Our guide finished this section focused on Wilde, leaving all the tourists smiling. How could you not? A pithy Wilde quote like “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination” can make the most cynical person chuckle. Our guide commented about the gardaí (police force) overreacting, which put me at ease, and the vacation venere started to repair itself.

We walked to O’Neills Bar and learned the pub had closed for the night. Our guide knew the owner and convinced him to let our group enter for 20 minutes for a drink. Would you believe it, but this was my first pint in Ireland. That Smithwick’s Red Ale served like contraband was technically a vacation goal accomplished. It was here that someone in our tour group said, “They are burning cars.” That certainly raised the hairs on the back of my neck, but what else to do? Just press on. Everyone in the group, North Americans, English, and one Aussie, carried themselves with invulnerability, so it seemed silly to fret and worry.

By 9 PM, the guide sent us back to the streets to give a speech on the steps of St. Andrew’s Church. He also had his colleague play the guitar; it must have been quite a sight. Twenty tourists were listening to an old Irish ballad while people hurried past us, now I know, looking for shelter.

When we finished this section of the Pub Crawl, the guide told us we would skip one of the pubs and end the night at the Davy Byrnes pub. We walked to the bar, where it was shut down. The final speech and ballad happened in front of the neighboring Nespresso store. He held to his original promise of having a quiz at the end, and as he asked us questions, which felt like force-feeding vacation fun at this point, 10-15 gardaí came down the street yelling for us to “move on and get off the street!” The tour ended as the police pushed us onto the main commercial street (Grafton St).

I was nervous, but I had my wits about me, and I thought everything was fine. It was not until I realized the tour’s balladeer was hurrying away quickly that I knew the situation was more precarious than I understood. More gardaí were walking south on Grafton and turned us in the opposite direction we needed to go. Some other tourists from the group and I needed to return to the north side of the river. One woman asked the garda how we should get to our hotel and got the response, “It’s going to be a while.”

We started to meander west, looking for a street to take us north. It soon became apparent that officials were more interested in protecting the Dior shop and the other high-end boutiques. I found myself with a pack of other East Coast Americans, where we all (I’ll include myself) were complaining about the overreaction of the gardaí. I think all of us thought it was some kids burning trashcans. I aimed for the Millennium Bridge, and the others pushed east, so Sam and I broke away. I was nervous they would start closing bridges. My #1 priority was getting to our hotel on the river’s other side.

At this point, I started to shift from being nervous to scared. It felt like the tension was increasing; it’s weird to say, but you could feel it in the air. The streets were not empty, but they were not full. An unhappy dog barked in the distance, and people threw trash bags from the sidewalk onto Dame Street. We hurriedly turned north on Fownes St, and that is when I noticed the boys with covered faces. A hole had been punched through the Urban Outfitters window, and graffiti said, “Get out of Ireland.”

I turned to see my Arab husband taking a photo, grabbed his arm, and said, “Don’t stop moving.” That graffiti felt like something anti-immigrant, but my mind crossed its fingers, hoping it was an anti-capitalist slogan. Those mental gymnastics were utterly wrong, but it helped focus me.

We got to the river, and the Ha’penny Bridge was open, so we crossed it as soon as possible. There were more boys with covered faces. There were very few police on the streets. In fact, the last gardaí I saw were protecting the expensive boutiques; there were none in Temple Bar as we made our way to the river. Tensions eased once we were on the bridge. One masked man even bumped into me and apologized, “Sorry, mate.” 

We got to our hotel, where I spotted shielded gardaí blocking the road. The doors were locked, but once we got there, they let us in and informed us the bar was at capacity and the kitchen was closed. This left me to do little but fill myself with the news of what was happening. That was when I found out there was a solid racist and anti-immigrant tone to these riots. It’s where I learned that a train and a bus were destroyed, which was scarier and more chaotic than I realized. 

(Image: Stephen Collins/Collins Dublin)

I got on Reddit and saw how sad and scared the Irish were, and it turned my stomach at how callus and desensitized every North American, including myself, had become to violence. I was tired and anxious about what the next day would bring.   I wasn’t scared any longer, but I was worried for Dublin.   After crawling into bed, I thought, “What in the hell just happened?”

Next: Ireland – Day 3

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