My housesitting experience came to an end Sunday as my second hosts returned home, and I wasted no time putting the midlands of Ireland behind me on Monday morning. Good-bye soggy bogs, grey skies and same-same views. Hello lovely east coast, great coffeeshops and the sparkling waters of the Irish Sea.
Midlands review in a nutshell: It is a nice place to visit, on your way somewhere else. As a tourist, two days with a good list of things to see there would be plenty. My two months of housesitting worked out very well; I feel lucky to have found both of them so quickly and I have no regrets there. But, if I do this again, I think I would look for appointments farther apart. Live and learn. But more on that in another post.
Wicklow Harbor – feels like coming home.
I moved on to Wicklow Town, a six-hour bus trip from Roscommon Town, and a world away. OK, well it is still Ireland, but Wicklow is set on green, rolling countryside running down to the sea, where sailboats mix with fishing boats, and swimmers in wetsuits maneuver around the boats at anchor in the harbor. The Irish have a passion for swimming in the sea all year, often without wetsuits. Keeps them tough I guess.
Dublin is an hour train or bus ride to the north, with plenty of interesting stops along the way. The coastal stretch from Dublin to Greystones (approx. 10 miles north of Wicklow) is historically where the rich from Dublin used to come on holiday — back when 20 miles was a long way to go. The towns are chock-a-block with stately Georgian homes, and it really feels like stepping back in time as you stroll the promenade along the beach.
I’m staying in a historic Georgian house on Bachelor’s Walk, which runs along the Leitrim River, parallel to the shore. It’s now Capt. Halpin’s Hostel. I thought it would be quieter and cheaper than staying in Dublin for the final 10 days. And there is only one other hostel between here and Dublin. The room I’m sitting in, the parlor, has an original marble fireplace, high ceilings, a crystal chandelier and upright piano. It smells musty, but that’s pretty much the smell of Ireland. It used be Leitrim Lodge and it’s claim to fame is that the town’s most famous citizen, Capt. Halpin, once lived here. I had to share a bunk room with three smelly, and I do mean smelly, boys last night, but for the rest of the time I’ll be in an all-girl room.
Hostels are like crossroads where travelers meet, exchanging tips and information which often lead one to change one’s travel plans and head off in a new direction. Galway wasn’t originally in my travel plans, but then, neither was Inishmore. But if I hadn’t stayed at the Kilronan hostel on Inishmore I wouldn’t have met Rachel, who told me about the Galway Sessions, a weeklong extravaganza of music going on throughout Galway. So I shortened my island stay and hopped on the ferry, bound for the mainland.
I was happy to see that many musical events were taking place at my favorite pub in Ireland, The Crane Bar. Most of the pubs in Galway are heavily touristed, but the Crane is still enough off the beaten path to actually be patronized by locals. It’s also difficult to find—as I told one friend, you almost have to be lost to find it. But when you have wandered down the labyrinthine streets of Galway for what seems like hours, the sight of a full-sized Irish whistle player painted on the side of a bright green and white building tells you you’ve found the home of real Irish music.
Unlike the pubs in Doolin, you won’t find a horde of cameras and smart phones fixed on the musicians, with flashes going off at random. I did take a few pictures, but sans flash they aren’t very good. It’s best just to sit back and be in the moment.
The Crane has not one but two levels, both with full bar, both offering live music most nights of the week. When I arrived on Friday night I headed to the upstairs bar, where the audience was awaiting the Northern Irish band, Beoga (Irish for ‘lively’). The pony-tailed bartender was pouring Guinness non-stop, with a few simple mixed drinks and lagers on the side.
A stage lines one wall, with low tables and stools crowded right up to the edge. Even though it’s a small space, it has excellent acoustics and a sound system. I talked to the sound engineer, who said the Crane was the best place for live music in Galway, with phenomenal acoustics for a small room. And unlike the rowdy pubs on Shop Street where the music is just a backdrop for drinking, people come to the Crane to listen. In fact they have christened the upstairs bar “The Listening Room.”
Also unlike many pubs now in Ireland, the Crane doesn’t serve food. I heard a tourist ask if they had food, to which the bartender replied, “No, this is a bar.” Ha! They do serve peanuts though.
I found a stool at the end of the bar and signaled for a Guinness. I watched as the bartender poured the perfect pint—fill it slowly to within two inches of the top (just to the harp logo), let it sit one minute to settle, then slowly top it off, leaving a one inch creamy foam head. Once it’s served you have to wait another minute while it stops roiling and comes to its inky black state of perfection.
I sat there quietly sipping my beer and waiting for the music to start, but when I finally said something to the older Irish gentleman seated next to me he looked surprised, then said, “I thought you were Irish!” Compliment taken. I’ve never seen a solo Irish woman in a bar, and they don’t usually order pints—it’s not considered ladylike. Instead they order by the “glass,” which is a diminutive half pint.
The walls of the Crane are lined with photos of the Irish musicians who have played there, legends in their profession but practically unknown outside of Ireland. I wondered if the band of young musicians taking the stage felt their presence. The band made their own history that night, playing a mix of traditional tunes, new songs and adaptations. Lead singer Niamh Dunne has that winning combination of great voice, killer fiddle playing and cute as a button. Bodhran (Irish drum) player Eamon Murray brought down the house with the penultimate number – a long, long drum solo that would have made Steppenwolf proud. By the end everyone in the room was whooping, whistling and clapping as hard as they could. The energy seemed both condensed and magnified by the small room. It was a night to remember, or, just another night at the Crane.
I took a break Saturday, but spent most of Sunday at the bar, with the set trad session in the afternoon and a Galway Session-ending evening concert by Rue de Canal. No, that doesn’t sound very Irish—the band is a blend of music by Belgian accordionist Serge Desunnay and Irish musicians Kieran Fahy and Ray Barron. The band really brought home how much Celtic music has influenced, and been influenced by, other cultures. Those Celts got around.
And no, I’m not giving you directions to the Crane Bar. You’ll just have to discover it for yourself.
Dublin can be an expensive city to visit. The average breakfast or lunch runs €10 to €15 or more, while a decent dinner will cost around €25, more with drinks. Add in the cost of transportation, lodging, shopping and sight seeing and you can quickly run up a big bill. If you can come to Dublin with a big budget, good for you. You can stop reading now. For the rest of us, spending less can mean staying longer. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up having a good time. You’re on vacation after all. After spending some time in Dublin on numerous trips, I’ve come up with a list of things you can do that are fun and frugal at the same time. Here are my top five in reverse order—I’m sure you can come up with your own list when you visit.
1. Hop-on Hop-off Tours: I’m listing this last because it’s the most expensive item. But with your ticket good for two days and 24 stops, it’s still a good deal. The open top buses take a long route through the city, with a tour guide explaining everything along the way. Stops include Phoenix Park, the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin Castle, Temple Bar and more. For €18 adults, €16 seniors and students, it gives a great overview of the city and makes it easy to get to some sites that are quite a hike from Dublin center.
2. Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART): This is Dublin’s commuter rail system serving towns along the coast north and south of the city. While workers use it for getting to and fro, it’s also a cheap way to see some of the beautiful coast and check out village life outside the big city. Traveling south you can visit the free James Joyce Museum in the Martello Tower at Sandycove, while going north you can check out the magnificent Malahide Castle. Start your trip at the Connolly train station and buy a return (round trip) ticket for the final destination in the direction of your choice. Going south this is Greystones, north it’s Malahide or Howth. You can get off at any stop along the way, look around, grab a bite to eat, then get back on. Trains run every 15 minutes. An adult, return ticket to Greystones is €9.60, while to Malahide it’s €5.25.
3. Grafton Street: While the shops along Grafton Street can be a budget buster, there’s no better place in Dublin to people watch. The pedestrian-only thoroughfare stretches from Trinity College to St. Stephen’s Green, so there’s no worry of getting run over while taking in the sights. Buskers (street musicians and performers) come here to hone their skills, make some money and maybe get discovered. On a recent Saturday the avenue featured a team of jugglers, a full band playing rapid trad tunes, an accordionist and several solo guitarists. If you’re lucky, you can get a seat in the window of Bewley’s Café and enjoy a cup of tea while watching the parade of humanity.
4. The parks of Dublin: While the fast-paced city can be exhilarating, it can also be overwhelming. Fortunately Dublin is studded with parks that offer a cool respite from the madding crowd. At the top of Grafton Street you’ll see the stone arch welcoming you to St. Stephen’s Green, the 22-acre city park enjoyed by Dublin citizens and visitors since the 1800s. It features shaded walking paths, green lawns, flower gardens, duck ponds, fountains, and numerous statues. Look for James Joyce, Yeats and Oscar Wilde. The park is set in what’s known as a Georgian Square, with the buildings surrounding it built in the Georgian style.
It would take days to wander through 1,752 acre Phoenix Park , which features the Dublin Zoo, botanical gardens, tea rooms and a castle. It’s twice the size of Central Park! Start at the Visitor Center, which is housed in Ashtown Castle, a fully restored 17th century tower house. For a short visit check out the 22-acre Victorian People’s Flower Gardens. These gardens were initially established in 1840 as the Promenade Grounds and show Victorian-style horticulture at its best. The rose beds in summer are to die for. The People’s Gardens and Visitor Center are located close to the Parkgate Street entrance, which is accessible by the tram that runs through Dublin, the Luas.
Neo-Celtic silver tea set, circa 1900.
5. The National Museums: And saving the best for last, Dublin boasts not one but three branches of the National Museum. And they are free! It can be a little confusing that they are all called “National Musuem,” so here’s the breakdown: The Archaeology Museum on Kildare Street holds treasures from the Mesolithic through Medieval periods in Ireland, including the Ardagh Chalice, the Tara Brooch and a massive amount of prehistoric gold. If you love Celtic Ireland, this is the place to go. It’s about a five minute walk from Grafton Street. The Natural History Museum is on Merrion Street, a short, well-signed walk from Kildare Street. Also known as “The Dead Zoo,” the museum features the requisite skeletal remains and stuffed specimens, but of particular interest are the ones that are unique to Ireland, such as the giant Irish deer skeleton with a 10-foot antler span. The Decorative Arts and History Museum is housed in the Collins Barracks, once used by the British garrison in Dublin, and contains a comprehensive history of war in Ireland, as well as a large section on decorative arts such as silversmithing and woodworking. A separate building, across a gravel lot, is worth visiting as it houses the 1905 wooden sailing yacht, the Asgard, infamously used on a gun running trip to provision Irish rebels in 1914. It’s easily reached on the Luas Red Line from O’Connell Street.
So there you go, several days worth of sight-seeing that will save you enough money to buy at least a pint or two of the black stuff. It’s all about priorities…
As my funds are extremely, extremely, extremely limited on this trip, I’ve decided to make a game of it called “Ireland on the Cheap” (Look for the book on Amazon soon). I’m starting with Dublin, which is known for being a pricey city. I’ve been compiling a list of things you can do in the city that are free or low cost. Some of those things today included sitting on a bench in Saint Stephen’s Green, watching the gardeners put in the first flowers of spring and the ducks paddling along on one of the many ponds; strolling through the grounds of Trinity College, trying to find the exit, then ending up down in the docklands at the Famine Ship and Memorial—sobering and beautiful; sitting in Bewley’s Oriental Café on Grafton Street, lingering over a pot of tea and reading the real estate ads (or adverts as they say here) while admiring the stained glass; walking some more, and sitting in the lobby of the fancy Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street. That last one, I figure that as long as I look like a tourist no hotel staff is going to harass me for sitting in their lobby, “waiting for my husband.” Hey I could be…
Tomorrow I think I’ll take the Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART) for a ride along the coast south of Dublin to see the James Joyce Museum at the Martello tower featured in the opening of Ulysses. It’s an inexpensive commuter run, and the views over Dublin Bay are stunning. There are also numerous beaches to stroll and hills to walk up with panoramic views over Dublin. Although, I probably won’t feel up to that yet.
Food will be a large part of my budget, as it’s always more expensive to eat out every meal. Today I ate lunch at Subway, and before you say yuck, the tandoori chicken on flatbread with mint raita sauce was pretty darn good. And cheap at €5 including soft drink. Now to find the cheapest Guinness in Dublin…
One reason I chose to stay in Dublin for seven nights is that I found a hostel for €20 a night (about $26), on a quiet street lined with red-brick Georgian houses. Turns out it’s also one block from the Dublin Writers Museum and the same block as the James Joyce Center. And Bloomsday Week starts on Monday. Bloomsday, June 16, marks the day that Joyce’s classic novel Ulysses takes place, as the protagonist Leopold Bloom wanders Dublin with a non-stop stream-of-consciousness narrative. I’ll miss the actual day though, as I’ll be on the west coast at an Irish folk music festival in Doolin.
The hostel is pretty bare bones, and my six-bed all-girl dorm room is on the second floor (that’s the third floor for Americans), so I’ll be getting some much-needed exercise. I already made four trips just getting my laptop set up in the common room where there’s wifi. I would have posted this sooner but I forgot my camera patch cord and couldn’t face another climb. So far there are only two other bunkmates, both young Asian girls who are staying for a month. As long as a party group doesn’t move in this weekend I’ll be good.
One trick I’ve learned for creating some private space in a hostel situation (haha) is to bring a sarong to hang as a curtain from the top bunk (yes, bunks). It’s lightweight, colorful and clearly marks your territory. I’m actually using a kanga that I got in Tanzania in 1995. See, Mom was right: never throw anything away.