Monday, November 16, 2009

Travel Journal: Dublin, I

If you get an offer for airfare and hotel in Dublin that sounds too good to be true, it ain't necessarily so! Our 4-day-deal-of-a-trip last week was fantastic. We flew from JFK overnight and arrived at Dublin the morning of Nov. 11. Our hotel was the new, Euro-mod 4 & 1/2 star Mauldron hotel, in a developing neighborhood of southeast Dublin, just off the Liffey (Dublin's central river) beside the Grand Canal.

As we walked along the Quays that line the Liffey, we were struck by a bleach-white suspension bridge spanning the river near our destination. The cables connecting to the arch form half a rib-cage, an association reinforced by the blanched-bone whiteness of the structure, but the obvious association must be with one of Ireland's primary symbols, the harp. I guessed this bridge was a Calatrava design, and upon returning home and googling it, found that not only was my hunch correct but the bridge is named after my favorite Irish author, Samuel Beckett. Life is as poetic as one wants it to be.

Anyway, the Samuel Beckett bridge is still being installed, and like this entire corner of Dublin, is in the middle of a gestative birthing process. But the ubiquitous construction in the neighborhood & the added 5' of walk time to the City Centre in no way detracted from our appreciation and enjoyment of one of the world's greatest cities.

After checking in to our spacious and comfortable room (the friendly staff offered us an upgrade since we weren't able to check in as early as we'd requested!) we set out to explore. I'd been to Dublin in 2001 with the Shepherd College Chamber Singers, and loved it. But being a quick choir tour, I did not have nearly enough time to see & appreciate all Dublin has to offer.

My earlier visit, for example, did not offer an opportunity to explore Dublin's rich literary history, and the requisite pub crawl itinerant with it. So our first destination was to be the most literary of pubs, Davy Byrnes, central to James Joyce's Ulysses, and home to the annual celebration of Joyce and his dense, modernist masterpiece.

One of Dublin's legends is that if the city were ever destroyed, all you'd need to reconstruct it would be Ulysses. I won't try to "explain" Joyce, nor is this book easily (if at all) summarized. But on one level, the novel is a day in the life of a city and its inhabitants, telescoping Homer's epic adventure, the Odyssey, into the goings-on and affairs of a handful of everyday, working-class Dubliners, with the central character being the ad-man, Leopold Bloom.

Bloomsday, named after that narrator (if not hero) of Joyce's sui generis version of Homer is celebrated annually on the day Joyce's "narrative" occurs, June 16. Among other Joycean activities the Dubliners recreate are Bloom's fare at Davy Byrne's, a cheese sandwich and a glass of red wine.

Here's a literal (and figurative!) taste of the aforementioned passage from Joyce (which of course I am currently reading):

"Yom Kippur fast spring cleaning of inside. Peace and war depend on some fellow's digestion. Religions. Christmas turkeys and geese. Slaughter of innocents. Eat, drink, and be merry. Then casual wards full after. Heads bandaged. Cheese digests all but itself. Mighty cheese.
--Have you a cheese sandwich?
--Yes, sir.
Like a few olives too if they had them. Italian I prefer. Good glass of burgundy, take away that. Lubricate..."

In that nutshell of a window are contained many of the joys and challenges of making sense of Joyce and his polyphonic web of allusions. One of the chapters is based on an 8-voice fugue, in fact, and Joyce was a devotee of classical music, a lover of Schubert in particular, and an amateur pianist.

Joyce's elder colleague, William Butler Yeats, started out as a painter, in the mould of his father, John B. Yeats. W.B. Yeats' younger brother, Jack, was a great painter, and it was a wing devoted to his works in the National Gallery of Ireland that sidetracked our visit to Davy Byrnes.

The National Gallery ranked further down on my shortlist of museum visits (Trinity Library and the Book of Kells, the Dublin City Gallery and the Writers' Museum were atop the list) but I am so glad we acted on the spontaneous impulse to stop in and visit.

The National Gallery is not as large a museum as its name would imply. Room for room, however, it is an impressive one. The central work of not only the collection's main room but of the entire collection itself is Caravaggio's "The Taking of Christ." The chiaroscuro shadings are among the artist's trademarks, and the vivid images that emerge from so many shadows one of the pleasurable oxymorons of the style--etched detail amidst pervading darkness. This exquisitely crafted composition is characteristically dark, and centered on the awkward embrace of Christ by his mutinous disciple, Judas. The scene has a disturbing and unsettling quality because of the undercurrent of violence vis-a-vis the embrace (and its foreshadowing of Christ's imminent fate). The affect is underscored by the latent sexuality of the scene. Judas' physical grasp is obviously an unwanted advance, and this fact is reinforced by Christ's deferential, downward turned glance, his interlaced fingers crossed passively in front of his submissive frame. Caravaggio has transposed a trope of archetypal roles--masculine/feminine, aggressive/passive, violator/victim--in this masterpiece.

Jack Yeats is one of those artists I know more by reference than experience. Amy and I were both grateful to have the experience of spending time in the triptych of rooms that make up the Yeats Museum wing of the National Gallery. His blend of early twentieth century styles--post impressionism & expressionism, with a nod towards the latter's abstract cousins--make for a series of canvases that are vivid and engaging. I was particularly struck by a pair of paintings from the mid 30's (Yeats lived from 1871-1957) whose deeply rich reds were portentous in their contexts.

"About to write a letter" centers on a gothic, almost vampire-like figure, whose pale face amidst a red-dominated room reminds one of blood. What kind of letter is this creature about to write?!? "Morning in a City" invites similar questions, as the bold-red base of the canvas conjures apocalyptic associations. Such associations, if less vivid and richly drawn as far as color is concerned, linger in his late and more abstract work, "Grief." Here, barely distinguishable figures populate a canvas that feels more barren for its palette of pale blues, greens, and grey.

Another harrowing apocalypse is Bosch's purgatorial depiction of "The Descent into Limbo." 400 years younger than Yeats, its background featuring a burning furnace is an eery (if apt) evocation of post-industrialist society, and the horrors witnessed in the centuries since Bosch's visionary work.

The Gallery also holds one of El Greco's strikingly modern portraits, that of "St Francis receiving the stigmata." If one didn't recognize the name or style of this Spanish iconoclast, one could be forgiven for thinking him a pre-cursor to Dali and modernism, and placing this 16th century painter closer to the 20th!

Other highlights of the Renaissance and surrounding schools include an exquisitely balanced Vermeer, and the always visually surprising & visceral canvases of Brueghel and Cranach.

Though modest in size, the Impressionist & early 20th century rooms are a veritable catalogue of names and representative works. At one end, romantic works that influence the modernists prepare the way. Corot and Delacroix are represented, and the latter's "Demosthenes on the Seashore" a masterpiece in and of itself.

Single paintings by Monet, Signac, Picasso, Modigliani, and a pair by Bonnard, complete the impressive collection of Ireland's National Gallery that I will certainly revisit on the next trip to Dublin.

I would also revisit Davy Byrnes, and not just to relive our own personal Bloomsday. Located on Duke Street, just off the central hub-bub of Grafton street, directly south of Trinity College, the pub pours a great pint of plain (Guinness) and has scrumptious Bangers [sausages] 'n Mash [potatoes]. This Irish staple, like the accompanying Dublin-based stout, is simply not the same outside of Ireland. The herb-seasoned sausages and Guinness-based gravy make the dish better than average pub grub. Dublin--and Ireland in general--gets a bad rap for being culinarily boring. Whatever.

As is our want when traveling, we followed our own path (with occasional reference to the guidebooks) and made our own literary pub crawl. Amy had the best Irish coffee at the Blarney Inn, and I have to say the Lombard Inn on Pearse Street poured the best pint I had (the locations of both, if not the pubs themselves, feature in the Ulysses itinerary).

After stopping back at the hotel and the cool-if-uninspiring Vertigo Bar there, we stopped into a traditional Irish pub on the corner of Cardiff Lane and Sir John Rogerson's Quay, the Ferryman. Though this pub isn't mentioned in Joyce's book, the literary and mythological associations were too ripe. Charon is the mythological ferryman who rows the departed across the river Styx to the underworld, Hades. The fifth chapter of Ulysses is Joyce's analog to Homer's section on Hades. And I think Joyce and Beckett both would approve of the "coincidence" of the location of Beckett's bridge to this particular pub (Dublin has the distinction of being one of the only places in the world to boast two bridges by Santiago Calatrava, and her first such bridge was none other than the James Joyce!)

Anyway, the Ferryman's location just next to the hotel (and the aforementioned associations) was too serendipitous to ignore. We ended our first day in Dublin with the pleasant surprise of sharing a few rounds with a couple of French businessmen who work the weekdays in Dublin. I loved my first experience in the city several years ago because of the balance of culture and history with the comfortable friendliness of the Dubliners themselves. This first day only affirmed that feeling, and augured well for the few days ahead.

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