Dublin and Mystical Side-Trips
Dublin's story is of feast and famine — from its 18th-century Golden Age to its 20th-century struggles for independence to its boomtime today. We explore the town's foreboding castle, patriotic jail, and Trinity College with its Book of Kells — a bright light in the Dark Ages. At night we party in Temple Bar, awash with Celtic music and frothy pints of Guinness. We side-trip to the prehistoric necropolis of Newgrange and the medieval monastery at Glendalough, tucked in the scenic Wicklow Mountains.
The carefully restored house at Number 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street gives an intimate glimpse of middle-class Georgian life (which seems pretty high-class). You'll find storyboards in each room explaining the everyday lives lived here.
The Book of Kells — a 1,200-year-old version of the gospels of the Bible — was elaborately inked and meticulously illustrated by faithful monks. Combining Christian symbols and pagan styles, it's a snapshot of medieval Ireland in transition. Arguably the finest piece of art from what is generally called the Dark Ages, the Book of Kells shows that monastic life in this far fringe of Europe was far from dark.
Lines are longest at midday (roughly 11:00–14:30). Ideally, queue up before the library opens to have the Book of Kells to yourself.
Showing off the treasures of Ireland from the Stone Age to modern times, this branch of the National Museum is itself a national treasure. The soggy marshes and peat bogs of Ireland have proven perfect for preserving old objects. You'll see 4,000-year-old gold jewelry, 2,000-year-old bog mummies, Viking swords, and the collection's superstar — the exquisitely wrought Tara Brooch. Visit here to get an introduction to the rest of Ireland's historic attractions: You'll find a reconstructed passage tomb like Newgrange, Celtic art like the Book of Kells, Viking objects from Dublin, a model of the Hill of Tara, and a sacred cross from the Cong Abbey.
This ruined monastery north of Dublin is visit-worthy for its round tower and its ornately carved high crosses — two of the best such crosses in Ireland. In the Dark Ages, these crosses, illustrated from top to bottom with Bible stories, gave monks a teaching tool as they preached to the illiterate masses. Imagine the crosses in their prime, when they were brightly painted (before years of wind and rain weathered the paint away). Today, Monasterboice is basically an old graveyard.
There are three sights to see at Brú na Bóinne: Newgrange, Knowth, and the state-of-the-art visitors center with its excellent museum. You start at the visitors center — no one is allowed to visit the tombs on their own. These are massive grass-covered burial mounds built atop a hill, with a chamber inside reached by a narrow stone passage. Mysterious, thought-provoking, and mind-bogglingly old, these tombs can give you chills.
The GAA was founded in 1884 as an expression of an Irish cultural awakening. It was created to foster the development of Gaelic sports, specifically Gaelic football and hurling, and to exclude English sports such as cricket and rugby. The GAA played an important part in the fight for independence. This museum, at 82,000-seat Croke Park Stadium in east Dublin, offers a high-tech, interactive introduction to Ireland's favorite games. Relive the greatest moments in hurling and Irish-football history. Then get involved: Pick up a stick and try hurling, kick a football, and test your speed and balance.
Two actors take 40 or so tourists on a walk, stopping at four pubs. Their clever banter introduces the novice to the high craic of James Joyce, Seán O'Casey, and W. B. Yeats. The two-hour tour is punctuated with 20-minute pub breaks (free time). While the beer lubricates the social fun, it dilutes the content of the evening. (If you want straight lit and drama, find a real performance; there are many throughout the summer.) However, the pub crawl is an easygoing excuse to drink beer in busy pubs, hook up with other travelers, and get a dose of Irish witty lit.
The building is open for business and sightseers long hours Mon–Sat (closed Sun); tucked in its ground floor is the small An Post Museum, which stamp collectors and Irish rebels at heart will enjoy.
Built on the spot of the first Viking fortress, this castle was the seat of English rule in Ireland for 700 years. Today, it's used for fancy state and charity functions (which may sporadically close it to the public). The fancy interior is viewable on a 45-minute tour, which offers a fairly boring room-by-room walk through the lavish state apartments of this most English of Irish palaces. (You can also tour on your own using the provided information.) The tour finishes with a look at the foundations of the Norman tower and the best remaining chunk of the 13th-century town wall.
Originally intended as Dublin's county jail and a debtors' prison, Kilmainham was frequently used by the British as a political prison. Many of those who fought for Irish independence were held or executed here, including leaders of the rebellions of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867, and 1916. The last prisoner to be held in the jail was Eamon de Valera, who later became president of Ireland. He was released on July 16, 1924, the day Kilmainham was finally shut down. The buildings, virtually in ruins, were restored in the 1960s. It's touching to tour the cells and places of execution — hearing tales of oppressive colonialism and heroic patriotism — alongside Irish schoolkids who know these names well.
Guinness Storehouse (Brewery)
A visit to the Guinness Storehouse is, for many, a pilgrimage. Although the home of Ireland's national beer welcomes visitors with a sprawling modern museum, there are no tours of the actual working brewery. The museum fills the old fermentation plant used from 1902 through 1988, which reopened in 2000 as a huge shrine to the tradition. Highlights are the cooperage, a display of the brewery's clever ads, and a small exhibit about the beer's connection to the Guinness World Records.
This impressive and entertaining tour visits the upstairs rooms of three pubs; there, you'll listen to two musicians talk about, play, and sing traditional Irish music. While having only two musicians makes the music a bit thin (Irish music aficionados will say you're better off just finding a good session), the evening — though touristy — is not gimmicky. It's an education in traditional Irish music. The musicians clearly enjoy introducing rookies to their art and are very good at it. Humor is their primary educational tool. In the summer, this popular tour frequently sells out — reserve ahead online.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. Get ready to experience Dublin — capital of the youngest and friendliest country in the European Union.
Dublin is Ireland's capital and largest city — with reminders of its stirring history and rich culture on nearly every street corner. In spite of its recent struggles, today it's a boomtown, and locals are enjoying the "Celtic Tiger" economy — one of the hottest in Europe.
In this episode we'll tap our feet to traditional music, admire ancient Irish gold, try a little hurling, remember a bloody civil war, drink Guinness in its birthplace, join poets on a pub crawl, and side-trip to ancient sites near Dublin.
Dublin was founded here on the River Liffey in the ninth century as a Viking trading settlement. It grew to become a center of wealth and commerce second only to London in the British Empire. Dublin was the most "English" of Ireland's cities. It was an "outpost of Englishness" when the rest of the island was rural, Catholic, and very Irish.
The Golden Age of English Dublin was the 18th century, when Britain was colonizing the world and growing very rich. Largely rebuilt during this Georgian era, Dublin became an elegant and cultured capital with its own parliament. The 18th century left Dublin with an air of grandness and sophistication.
Then the ideas of the French Revolution — nationalism, human rights, and so on — got in the way. In 1798 the Irish rebelled against English rule. This ended Dublin's cozy relationship with London and her genteel age was replaced by a century of strife and struggle.
This memorial to the victims of the Great Potato Famine of 1845 is a reminder that good times were replaced by an age when the national costume became bare feet and rags.
In the 19th century, with the Great Hunger, the closing of the Irish Parliament, and several uprisings for independence, the Irish were treated — and felt — more like an English colony than a partner.
The tension culminated in the 1920s with a successful war for independence, followed immediately by a tragic civil war. Finally, Dublin — its once elegant streets in ruins — emerged as the capital of the only former colony within Europe.
While patriotic statues keep memories of Ireland's long fight for independence alive, it's boom time now. Rather than exporting labor, for the first time Ireland is actually importing workers.
Grafton Street is the place to feel the new energy of Dublin. Once filled with noisy traffic, today this is a fun people zone lined with cafés, pubs, and shopping temptations.
Grafton Street leads to St. Stephen's Green. On a sunny afternoon, this lush city park is an inviting world apart from the big city. Once a place for public whippings and hangings, today it's a cheery lunchtime escape for Dubliners. St. Stephen's Green was enclosed in 1664 and gradually surrounded with fine Georgian buildings.
Today, 19th-century Dublin appears as Georgian as any city in Britain. "Georgian" — the English term for "Neo-Classical" — is named for the English kings of that era. Things were stately, uniform, and symmetrical. The streets are a grid plan — with vistas built in.
The only hint of playfulness comes from the fun colors. Locals say that after an English royal died, they were told to paint all the doors black in mourning. This sent the naughty Irish directly to the paint store.
To venture behind the fancy facades, visit Number 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street. Admission to this Dublin home from 1790 — now a museum — comes with tours giving an intimate glimpse at the elegance of Georgian life.
Guide: The word "drawing room" is short for "withdrawing room," so these are the rooms to which the family withdrew when they had finished dining downstairs. Very often near a fireplace they had a polescreen and this is a polescreen here, and it was used to shield people's faces from the heat of the fire because they used heavy wax-based makeup, and that might run or melt close to the fire.
The tour also shows the bedrooms and dressing rooms of this typical well-to-do Georgian family.
The sons of that family likely would have gone to Trinity College — founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I to establish a Protestant way of thinking about God. Trinity has long been Ireland's most prestigious college. While the student body was originally limited to rich Protestant males, today many of its students are women and Catholic.
For tourists, the big draw on campus is a museum containing the precious Book of Kells — a monk-made set of the four Gospels from about the year 800.
Before you view the original, a first-class exhibit prepares you by putting this 680-page illuminated manuscript in its historical and cultural context. Irish monks transcribed and illustrated precious manuscripts like the Book of Kells.
Studying this copy, it's clear this was painstaking work. Cover pages and chapter heads were a chance for the monks to show off their artistic creativity. They went to great lengths — using powders from crushed bugs and precious stones — to get the most vivid pigments. Medieval books were written on vellum — that's calfskin scraped with a knife. It's estimated that it took the skins of 185 darling little calves to make the Book of Kells.
To see the actual Book of Kells, you'll have to come to Dublin. Cameras are not allowed.
Upstairs, Trinity's Old Library is stacked to its towering ceiling with 200,000 of the library's oldest books. Here you'll find a rare original edition of the proclamation of the independent Irish Republic. Starting the Easter Rising in 1916, a rebel leader read these stirring and inclusive words:
Irishmen and Irish women: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.
Each of the seven signatories were arrested and then executed in a nearby prison — now a national memorial that we'll visit later.
The library holds another national icon — Ireland's oldest surviving harp, from the 15th century.
This harp is featured on the back of the Irish euro coin. While the euro — adopted in 2002 — is the accepted currency throughout the countries of euro-land, each country customizes the flip side with its own national symbol.
For more treasures of Ireland from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages, visit the National Museum. Its chalices, jewelry, and brooches give glimpses into Ireland's distant and mysterious past.
Ireland's Bronze Age gold — from centuries before Christ — dazzles visitors, making it clear civilization in Ireland goes way back.
This delicate little boat — modeled after the skin-hulled boats used by people here 2,000 years ago — was an offering, placed into a lake in hopes of gaining blessings from the gods.
The collection's superstar is the Tara Brooch, embellished with gold, enamel, and amber. This early Christian ornamental brooch is 1,200 years old. It's decorated with extremely delicate filigree and Celtic-style figures. The chain on the right is connected to the ring by a snake biting the brooch. The two almost microscopic faces — etched into glass beads — are a marvel.
While the museum pieces are impressive, the place to commune with the ancient soul of Ireland is in its lush countryside. The peaceful Boyne River Valley, just an hour's drive north of Dublin, offers a world-class concentration of historical and spiritual sites.
In one day you can see the capital of ancient Irish kings; some of Ireland's finest high crosses; crawl through burial mounds older than the pyramids; and be back in Dublin in time for dinner and a pub crawl. And that's precisely our plan.
The Hill of Tara was the most important center of political and religious power in pre-Christian Ireland. It was seat of the High Kings of Celtic Ireland.
Jean: And this is the place where you will find the soul of Ireland. Here on this Hill of Tara.
Local guide Jean Thornton is giving us a sample of Tara's prehistoric, medieval, and modern history.
Rick: So for 5,000 years people have come here?
Jean: People have come to Tara and indeed they still come today. We know the Stone Age people were here, we know the Bronze Age people were here, we know the Iron Age people were here. This area was a very sacred place, where ceremony and ritual took place. Now you'll know St. Patrick is our patron saint, and the shamrock is a symbol of Ireland. We are told it all began here, on this Hill of Tara. Now in 432 A.D., Ireland was a pagan country. Now he came here to this Hill of Tara to ask the pagan king's permission to spread Christianity.
Now, this is what St. Patrick used to explain Christianity to the High King. He used this as a symbol. There are three leaves and one stem on this little piece of shamrock — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — and that is how he explained the Trinity, the concept of Christianity, to this pagan king.
The symbolic importance of Tara continued into Ireland's modern history. In 1843 Daniel O'Connell, the great champion of Irish liberty, gathered several hundred thousand people here. They peacefully demanded Irish home rule.
This ruined monastery, Monasterboice, is notable for its round tower — a standard feature in Ireland's early Christian churches — and its ornately carved high crosses. The Cross of Murdock — named after an abbot who ran this place around the year 900 — is considered the finest high cross in all Ireland. These crosses were illustrated with Bible stories carved into the sandstone. Originally, they were brightly painted.
Imagine a thousand years ago, priests used these as visual aids as they taught the people.
The most popular sightseeing attraction near Dublin is Brú na Bóinne, an archaeological site with two amazing ancient burial mounds. Upon arrival, visitors get appointments to tour the tombs, spend waiting time in the state-of-the-art museum, then catch their shuttle bus to one or both of the 5,000-year-old passage tombs: Newgrange and Knowth.
Knowth is a necropolis — or city of the dead — with several grassy mounds around one grand tomb. Being a passage tomb, it has one tunnel facing east and one facing west — aligned so that on both the spring and fall equinoxes, rays from the rising and setting sun shine down the passageways, illuminating its central chamber.
Guide: To give you an idea of the sweep of the history here, these sites were built approximately 5,300 years ago — approximately 3,300 B.C. — which puts them 500 years older than the oldest pyramids in Egypt, 1,000 years older than Stonehenge in Wiltshire in England. So these people put a huge amount of energy and resources, and basically a huge amount of wealth into constructing these monuments. They were probably thinking not just about survival but issues around life, death, the story of their tribe, the story of their ancestors; issues like rebirth, where did they come from, where were they going to.
Another shuttle bus ride drops us at the Newgrange tomb — thought to be even older, dating from 3,200 B.C. While we know almost nothing of the builders, this was most certainly a sacred spot dealing with some kind of sun-god ritual. Imagine the impact — the largest structure ever seen faced with exotic white quartz.
Guide: The farming people who constructed these monuments, these passage tombs, must have been the original hunting-gathering people of this country who came here after the ice melted. This abstract art appeared with them in tandem with farming, as if it was a symbolic language — something to do with their psychological and religious needs.
Your guide actually takes you deep into the tomb — down a narrow passageway, which leads to the cross-shaped central chamber under a 20-foot-high igloo-type stone dome.
Bones and ashes were placed here, under 200,000 tons of stone and dirt, to wait for a special moment. Here, in a replica of the tomb, back in the museum, your guide turns out the light and the sunray ritual is demonstrated: As the sun rises on the shortest day of the year, a ray of light shines into the passageway. For 17 minutes it lights the center of the sacred chamber.
Perhaps this was the moment when the souls of the dead would be transported to the afterlife via that mysterious ray of life-giving and life-taking sunlight.
The Irish countryside holds the secrets of Ireland's first inhabitants and the mysteries of their ancient rituals. Back in today's Dublin, the Temple Bar district has its own seemingly mysterious rituals. We're here around the summer solstice, when it's light until 10 o'clock, and the people are celebrating.
Temple Bar is Dublin's thriving nightlife center. While rundown through most of the 20th century, recent government tax incentives have helped turn Temple Bar into a thriving cultural and beer-drinking hotspot. Today this trendy center feels like the social heart of Dublin. Lots of these people are English who sail over for "stag" and "hen" parties.
With its recent economic boom and the majority of its people under 30 years of age, Dublin is modernizing like a city on fast-forward. While the Irish economy gallops into the 21st century, Irish attitudes on sex and marriage are more traditional. Stephen McPhilemy, who leads tours with me through Ireland, is cluing us in on some changes his country's going through.
Stephen: For the last 10 years our country's changed rapidly.
Stephen: We've now legalized contraception, we have legalized divorce, and we're in the process, probably, of legalizing abortion.
Rick: So with all this youth culture is there still room for a traditional Irish lifestyle?
Stephen: I think very much so. We're becoming the quintessential European cosmopolitan city here. And we're proud to be Europeans in Dublin and in Ireland in general. I think we make good Europeans. I think the more European we become, the more we strive to maintain our Irishness as well. Young people here are still speaking the language, maybe not fluently, maybe not everyday, but still speaking it so it's alive, it's well, we're playing our sports, doing our dancing, and singing our ballads and songs at nighttime. A lot of it under the influence of this, but at least it's being sung.
Rick: Do you say "cheers"?
The strength of Irish culture is particularly evident in the country's love for its national sports. The Gaelic Athletic Association tells why. The GAA was founded in the 19th century as an expression of an Irish cultural awakening. While created to foster the development of Gaelic sports, such as hurling or Irish field hockey, and to ban English sports like cricket, the GAA played an important part in the fight for independence.
Hurling matches are on Sundays — and actually seeing one, surrounded by incredibly spirited Irish fans, is a memorable experience. But you can relive the greatest moments in hurling history here any day of the week. Hurling — like airborne hockey with no injury timeouts — has long been recognized as an Irish national pastime.
After a peek at Ireland's top pitch, you can pick up a stick and give the game a whirl…
For many, the most endearing aspect of Irish culture is their love of language, both oral and written. Whether you're into Yeats or U2, the written gift of gab is an Irish form of high art.
Dublin, around the turn of the 20th century, produced some of the world's great modern writers — like James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, and Oscar Wilde.
Wilde was a Dubliner, attended Trinity College, and walked this park. He wowed Dublin and London alike with his quick wit, outrageous clothes, and flamboyant personality.
In his humorous plays he satirized upper-class Victorian society. His characters spoke very elegantly about the trivial concerns of the idle rich.
James Joyce wandered the back streets of Dublin, observing its seedier side, which he captured in a modern stream-of-consciousness style.
His famous novel, Ulysses, is set in a single day — June 16, 1904. In it, he follows Dubliners on a one-day odyssey through the city's markets, hospitals, brothels, and pubs.
Tourists gather for the Literary Pub Crawl, which leaves almost nightly from the Duke Pub. Tickets are cheap…just show up. Two actors take a gang of tourists on a witty walk, stopping at pubs and historical sites along the way — it's Irish Lit 101 filled with entertaining banter, which introduces the novice to the high craic — that's conversation — of Ireland's great writers. It's the perfect finish to a day in Dublin: Enjoying a pint and the great Irish storytelling tradition.
O'Connell Street — leading from O'Connell Bridge through the heart of north Dublin — is lined by statues celebrating great figures in Ireland's fight for independence. While it's been Dublin's grandest street for 200 years, it was renamed after this man, Daniel O'Connell, only after the Irish won their independence in the 1920s. Daniel O'Connell, known as "the Liberator," was that strong voice for Irish Catholics in the British Parliament back in the 1800s.
Dublin's General Post Office is not just a place to buy stamps. It's a kind of Irish Alamo, still pockmarked with bullet holes. Murals inside tell its story. It was from here that Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of Irish Independence in 1916 — the one we saw earlier. This kicked off the Easter Rising, which ultimately led to Ireland's independence from British rule. This was the rebel headquarters and scene of a five-day bloody siege that followed that proclamation.
After 300 were killed and the rebel leaders realized that no national uprising would follow theirs, they surrendered. While they had little public support at first, after the British tried and executed the leaders, public sympathy rose, and they became martyrs. This stirred the public. British control began collapsing, and by 1921 Ireland was independent.
At Dublin Castle the British formally handed power over to the Irish in a stirring ceremony in this courtyard.
It was from here that the viceroy enforced the will of British royalty. This place was the much-feared and disdained seat of British rule in Ireland for 700 years.
Today, it's used for state functions and tour guides take visitors through this most 'English' of Irish palaces.
Kilmainham Gaol, opened in 1796 and considered a model in its day, was used as a political prison by the British. Many of Ireland's patriots — its Nathan Hales and Patrick Henrys — were held and then executed here.
Guides take visitors through the prison and give it meaning.
Guide: Fourteen of the leaders of the rebellion were to be executed in this very yard. The very first to be executed, Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke, and Thomas MacDonagh, were taken down here separately in the early hours of the third of May. They were taken down there where that cross now stands. Their hands were tied behind their backs, a white marker was placed over their hearts, and they were blindfolded.
The prison museum personalizes the inspirational story of the leaders of the Easter Rising. The "Last Words 1916" hall displays the poignant farewell letters the martyred leaders wrote to loved ones hours before facing the firing squad.
Near the jail, the huge Guinness Brewery fills several city blocks along Dublin's River Liffey. Arthur Guinness began brewing his famous stout here in 1759. A hundred years later, it was the biggest brewery in the world.
The home of Ireland's national beer welcomes visitors — for a price — with a huge exhibit. It fills the old fermentation plant like a shrine. A tall beer-glass-shaped glass atrium — 14 million pints big — leads past several floors of exhibitions to the Gravity Bar, where visitors enjoy a commanding 360-degree view of Dublin with their pint.
Guinness — once the clear leader — is having to adapt to the new prosperous Ireland. Now, as Ireland embraces its new fast-paced economy, drinking pint after heavy pint of this thick-headed stout is no longer your only option. Lighter lagers are the trend. In recent years Guinness has introduced a cold version — Ice Guinness, and a light brew for the ladies — which, to the cheers of the purists, bombed. Still, in Dublin, when you ask for a beer…you get a Guinness.
Which reminds me: We're due back in Temple Bar for another pub crawl. In Ireland, good beer comes with good music. For a toe-tapping introduction to "trad," as traditional music is called, we're taking the Traditional Irish-Music Pub Crawl. You "crawl" to three pubs listening to musicians demonstrate traditional Irish instruments like the bodhrán…and once you have the beat, you can tap your feet to the music.
Whether in the pubs, in its ancient past, in its struggle for independence, or in its lively streets, Dublin is the capital of nation with a rich history and an irrepressible spirit.
And the people of Dublin, with their inspirational love of life, make this city a delight to visit. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Cheers!
Rick: Hi, I'm Rick Steves.
Passerby: Europe Through the Back Door?
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Or, to help ease pagans into Christianity, it could have… Or it may have had a practical function: to support the cross-beam. Nobody knows!