Day Nine: Dublin by Bus
That’s my trusty visitor’s map of Dublin, with about a dozen places of importance marked out for easy reference (I did this before we got to Dublin, in homage to my lousy sense of direction!) We already covered of few of them on the first day in town so today’s plan was to see some of the attractions further out by using Dublin’s fantastic hop-on-hop-off bus system.
A two or three day bus pass is cheap and fun and makes a continuous wide loop past many of the city’s popular stops. It’s impossible to get lost because all the stops are numbered and the worst that can happen is missing one, in which case you hope off and backtrack at the next stop, or just wait until the next loop. The tour buses are color-coded green so you can jump on any one, anywhere, as long as your pass is good.
It would be easy to lose a couple of days this way, especially thanks to the experienced drivers who entertain their passengers with ad lib historical notes and anecdotes about the city and all the interesting sites along the way.
Since my friend and I were up before Dublin, we had some time to wander around Merrion Park before the first bus stopped by (like most of Dublin’s green spaces, it’s a beautiful spot in springtime, with the daffodils and cherry trees in bloom).
After a loop on the bus, our first stop was the Kilmainham Gaol heritage site – a sobering time capsule of Irish history that bears generations of the sad story of famine, oppression, and desperation. The exhibit walks a visitor on a journey from the prison’s early days as a British-built experiment in social justice that sought to redefine the penal system. It recounts the mass deportations of criminals and Irish rebels against British rule, alike exiled to Australia starting in the early 19th century. When the destitution of the Great Famine followed on the heels of the potato blight a generation later, the prison’s population exploded with desperate hungry people (many of them only children). Most famously, Kilmainham was at ground zero during the Easter Rising, where once again Irish resistance fighters were incarcerated and executed, making the prison a national symbol for Irish independence.
After the exhibit, the guests may follow a guided tour that leads through the dark corridors and even darker history of the jail’s levels. Areas of great historical significance marked with plaques are eloquently illustrated by the guide as you walk through the dank passageways. In some places, the broad stone stairs are worn smooth and bowed in the center, trodden down by centuries of heavy shackled footsteps – a poignant symbol of the crushing sorrow and suffering this place has seen.
I had my camera on hand for the famous East Wing, the location of many film sets over the years. Its strange blend of Victorian elegance is portentous and sinister. The Kilmainham tour is a long one, but a powerful experience to connect with the people and events surrounding Ireland’s birth as a modern nation.
National Museum: Archaeology and Ethnography
One of the most important stops on our city tour was Dublin’s great antiquities museum, the second of three Dublin branches of the National Museum (we saw one of these the day before, the Natural History Museum on Merrion Street).
This place is a paradise for ancient history buffs – the building itself is beautiful, and the facilities and exhibits are spacious, appealing and very detailed. (Sorry, no photos from the inside! But you can visit the official museum website of course.) The collection is presented in 5 departments:
- Prehistoric Ireland
- Viking Ireland
- Medieval Ireland
- “The Treasury,” famous treasure hoards and wonders of Celtic craftmanship. The amber beaded jewelry was especially gorgeous.
- “Or – Ireland’s Gold,” a special exhibit dedicated to Ireland’s fantastic ancient goldsmiths
Plus a few special exhibits from elsewhere in the ancient world:
- “Kingship & Sacrifice,” featuring the infamous “bog bodies” and the burial caches of Scandinavia
- “Ancient Egypt,” featuring real live mummies (well, not “live” technically…)
I got an up-close look at the Roman-period encaustic mummies like the ones I wrote about from the Louvre’s collection. The delicately worked turquoise pieces – one of ancient Egypt’s most popular precious stones – were some of the most impressive artifacts.
- Life and Death in the Roman World
- Ceramics from ancient Cyprus
Of course there was too much to recall here. There are things that strike you when seeing famous artifacts in person that never occur to you when seeing them on tv or in books. One thing that struck me most, however, was the elaborate ornamentation on ancient Celtic weapons, implements, and articles of dress. The people of the Bronze Age lived short, brutal lives. Whatever your region, scraping out a living was hard, warfare was an accepted part of life, and standards of living were quite low by most criteria. Yet these craftsmen took considerable time and effort – which otherwise would have been applied towards survival – to carve/engrave/weave the most intricate patterns in places where they served little functional purpose. Simply put, they went out of their way to make something beautiful.
Whether for symbolic or ritual value or marks of identity, their aesthetic sense is a moving example of timeless human creativity. They may have followed templates, but they are all unique, and show a quality that is far beyond what most of us would expect from that period. It’s a moving reminder of art as self-expression and a way of elevating us beyond our everyday lives.