January 19th, 2005

me: ooh!

Dublin, Day 1, or "Hello friend I love today."

The taxi driver who drops me off on O'Connell Street tries to get me to take the sightseeing bus tour. It's €12.50. Thanks, I have legs. I put up my cheap umbrella because it's drizzling and walk south on O'Connell Street. I see the base of the famous Spire (120 meters of steel plates) and lean my umbrella back to look up and up and up until I can see the little red light at the top. The drizzle fogs my glasses. I wipe them, shake my head at the awesome ugliness before me, and continue along the Liffey, the greenish-brown river that divides Dublin, until I can cut through Temple Bar to get to Dublin Castle. The men I pass in the narrow streets step off the pavement into the soggy gutter to let me by. It's a touching gesture, but I imagine it makes for wet feet. The cobblestone streets have been rather haphazardly paved with asphalt, leaving the gutters exposed to collect rain, bits of rubbish, dog poop and later in the evenings, regurgitated Guinness.

The castle looks patchy. Bits of it have been built over centuries, and the part I'm heading towards, the Chester Beatty Library, wasn't constructed until the 1990s. Sir Chester Beatty, interestingly enough, was American. Born in New York, became a mining engineer and made a fortune in Colorado, which he then spent attempting to satiate his acquisitive instincts. He spent most of his life in London and moved to Dublin, where he became such a champion of the public good that he became the first honorary Irish citizen.

His collection of oriental art is small, but diverse and impressive. The right area on the first floor contains some of the more ornate and well-preserved inro and netsuke that I've seen. The surimono , one-off prints rich people used to give one another on special occasions to display affection and wealth, reflect a variety of individual tastes with quirky subject matter. But the real attraction is the collection of illuminated and ancient manuscripts. The central area displays beautiful copies of the qur'an in a number of Arabic scripts. To the left, there are secular and religious texts from the sixteenth century on, illustrated with engravings from the likes of Dürer. Examples of the evolution of tooled-leather book-binding abound, including Marie-Antoinette's personal library.

On the second floor, housed in cool darkness (I advise keeping your coat with you), you can find pages from the papyrus codices of the New Testament in Greek, ca AD 250. These are breathtaking, whether you're a Christian or not. The entire collection is remarkably well curated. A multitude of objects are presented successfully with succinct descriptions that provide cultural context and an over-arching sense of coherence. Although some of the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain texts lack the awe-inspiring sense of age that the papyrus codices have, the attempt at equal and unbiased coverage is heart-warming.

I spend four hours browsing the collection – so long that by the time I leave, I'm so hungry I can't judge restaurants very well. I end up in an over-priced American joint in Temple Bar. I get a bowl of hot soup and bread, which at €6 is about the only thing I'm willing to conceded might remotely correspond to value for money. Fortunately, I also receive the best pot of tea I've had served to me since crossing the Atlantic. Proper loose-leave, no dust or teabags. I drink the whole pot and scratch out a few postcards from the CBL, although I end up not mailing them from Ireland.

I decide, rather insanely, to walk to Phoenix Park. There is almost no one on the streets, where it is still drizzling, and I spend 45 minutes walking all around the park without seeing another person. The ducks and geese are more skittish of humans than in London, but the approach to the organization of green space is very similar to the English one. It's a relief to spend time there after breathing exhaust fumes on the walk.

I head eastward across the north bank of the Liffey and stop in at the National Museum of Ireland. After looking at more harps and silver goblets than you can shake a stick at, I find their tiny collection of old scientific instruments, mostly cameras and microscopes and sextants. The thing that makes the whole visit worthwhile is a glorious old ornate orrery, It captivates me until Marco calls and tells me he's done with work and I should go to Clontarf Castle, where we're staying.

A shower later, five of us pile into a four-person taxi back to Temple Bar. Being smallest, I wind up on Marco's lap. The taxi driver bungs his sign into the boot so we don't get pulled over. Before dinner, we have a pint at the Porterhouse, a local microbrewery. I actually like their Oyster Stout more than the Guinness we have later. Yes, it is brewed with oysters. We eat traditional Irish fare at Gallagher's Boxty House. I enjoy the fish boxty. The food is all quite good, including starters and dessert, although Marco and I are annoyed at the number of fat loud American tourists around us. We are with a Norwegian, a German, two Dubliners, a French couple and an Italian. Max, the Italian, is annoyed as we are – by the correspondingly high number of thin snotty Italian tourists.

Otto, our Norwegian, decides he wants a picture of the group when we tumble onto the sidewalk after dinner. We bunch together, arms over shoulders, when a drunk interrupted us. "Heyyy!" he said. We think he'll offer to take the picture for us, but no – "Can I get in there with ye?" We say yes. Grinning and giggling, Otto takes several shots of us before he gets one that isn't fuzzy. We shake the drunk's hand and as we're about to part ways, he spreads his arms wide and says, "Oo wants to kiss meh?" Sadly, there are no takers.

We're all exhausted, having been up since 3 AM to get to Heathrow, so we have one quick mediocre pint at The Auld Dubliner across the street before dispersing back to the castle. Marco and I share a taxi with a mad driver who rolls down his window two seconds after we've gotten in to shout, "Get on the pavement, ye fucks!" at some tourists. We endear ourselves to him by making cracks at ourselves, as Americans. He grins and turns up Christy Moore for us, then spends a couple of minutes rapidly explaining various taxi rip-off schemes that we should watch out for. We only catch bits of it because he's forgotten himself and his accent is such that we must concentrate completely on it to understand him.

We sleep like babies.