Two Tales of One City: Dublin

I lost my map of Dublin in the toilet of the restaurant I had breakfast at today.

Or maybe I left it on the bench where I sat in St. Stephen’s Green. Or it could be up in the belfry of Christ Church Cathedral, but I’m not sure.

Magdalen bench, St. Stephen's Green

Magdalen bench

What I am certain of though, is that I had a stellar day in Dublin, my last full day in Ireland before I begin my journey back to Portland, Oregon. Quite a long journey, since I fly first to Copenhagen, then to Oslo for an overnight before catching the cross-Atlantic flight to Newark and then finally, to Portland. All told, it will be nearly 48 hours of travel, nearly all of it uncomfortable, and all of it in the control of somebody else. So I decided this morning to thoroughly savor this day, to appreciate un-recirculated air, to eat only fantastic food that hasn’t been reheating for hours in little plastic trays and to have a pint of Guinness just a couple of hundred feet from where it’s made.

Fifteen years ago, I spent a few days in Dublin with my husband, Brian traveling in a VW camper van loaned to us by English friends who had been guests aboard our charter sail boat, Black Angel. I remember pub-crawling and restaurant-hopping through Dublin’s Temple Bar and the north side; especially a Sunday jazz brunch at Tante Zoë’s, which doesn’t exist anymore. The van also gave us the freedom to seek out places we might not have, had we needed to rely solely on public transport. Places like Mellifont Abbey, near Drogheda, and the neo-lithic passage tombs of Brú na Bóinne, a World Heritage site. We would camp near places like those and watch the sun rise over a landscape that would allow us to pretend, just for a moment, that we were living centuries earlier. Magic.

There were some decidedly unmagical parts, too. Every one of which related to the fact that the VW we had borrowed was a piece of shite, to use the Irish vernacular. Pretty much every one of those mornings in those magical places, just after the sun came up and we congratulated ourselves on being staggeringly brilliant about choosing this place to wake up in, we would pack up our tea cups and cross our fingers. Just hoping that the damn van would start. Magic combined with anxiety to make for one of the weirdest journeys of our lives. For twelve weeks, we explored the crags and crannies of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, always wondering if we would get stuck out on some lonely coastal road or in a field beside a deserted abbey because of engine problems.

We got to know a lot of mechanics. The van was an older model, so the guys in the VW shops would look at us woefully, shake their heads and say things like “Aye, she’s a beauty, but she’s auld.” Too “auld” to repair? No, just older than their knowledge base. The silver lining in every one of those encounters, which happened in every single county we visited, was that the guys at the VW shop would know a guy who knew the auld models and usually worked out of his shed at home. There was Liam, near Waterford, and Noel, in Derry, and countless others that I have forgotten. God bless ’em, every one. We would spend hours in their care, get fed by their wives or their mothers, handing over our traveling cash in exchange for what was always a temporary fix. Invariably, the van would break down again, a few villages away.

The culmination of our mechanical problems came while we were out in the hinterlands of county Clare, driving out on the Burren, (from the Irish word for “rocky place”) searching for an abandoned “famine village”. The inhabitants had been forced to leave their homes in the 1840’s, some through death and starvation, some through emigration. We had read a story about this desolate place—that the ruins remained for those interested in history to explore. On a gray August morning, lashing with rain, we headed out on a search. Miles away from any civilization other than the occasional abandoned cottage, long after any signposts had been passed, we were peering intently through the rain-pelted windscreen looking for signs of the village. And then our engine blew up.

It was spectacular actually, in a way that can only happen when you are miles from anywhere, with no phone, no real idea where you are and it is raining cats and dogs, and sheep and cows. There was an explosion, with a small fire and then billowing smoke, soon extinguished by the rain. Brian and I kept peering through the windscreen as if nothing had happened. It’s called denial. Eventually we stared at each other, instead, until I had a thought.

“I may have seen smoke coming from a chimney in a cottage maybe a mile or so back.” The disbelief was clear on Brian’s face. On the other hand, we had one umbrella and no other choice but to go look. Despite the umbrella, we were completely soaked within a minute as we walked back along the stone and mud road. It was difficult to even follow the track, as it had nearly ceased to exist from disuse. Finally, one lone whitewashed cottage appeared before us. With just the faintest wisp of smoke rising from its chimney. Now that was magical.

We knocked on the door, thinking there was no way anyone would be living out there who could help us. Probably a squatter was staying at the cottage, sheltering from the weather. Soon enough the door creaked open and a perfectly normal appearing bearded young guy gaped at us, mouth open at the specters he must have suspected we were. He probably would have shut the door on us in fear had it not been for the Jack Russell terrier beside him, leaping like a gymnast on a trampoline in pure joy at having company. We ventured to feel a wee bit of joy ourselves as we explained what had happened to our vehicle and wondered if he had a way to get us to a phone somewhere?

“Will a mobile phone do? I have one here.” Sweet baby St. Patrick! We were saved by an English hippie who had decided to live off the land in the Burren; to make a home where, generations before, the people had starved.

Our savior invited us in, made us hot tea and fed us McVitie’s biscuits. We phoned the VW’s owner, who felt all sorts of awful about our predicament, told us to sit tight, that he would get someone to help us. No problem at all. We weren’t going anywhere. The dog was ecstatic to have us there.

Another miracle occurred: based on our flimsy estimate of where we were, a tow truck driver named Tommy Connole found us, hooked up the van and we drove off with him through the rain, waving goodbye to our newest friend and his dog, neither of whom I can recall a name.

We spent a few days in Tommy’s oily junk yard, living in our broken-down van and exploring “windswept and forlorn” Kilfenora. That’s how our guidebook described it. Poking around Kilfenora took about 45 minutes. Add an hour for lunch at the single pub. The village did have a nice chapel ruin with a ancient worn carving of St. Patrick. Brian spent time on the only pay phone in the village, figuring out the details for getting a new engine shipped to Dublin, where our van would be towed for repairs. I spent time talking to the folks who lived there, most of whom were at least 80 years old. I got a marriage proposal within five minutes of talking with an auld fellow who I mistook, at first glance, for a statue, sitting as still as he was on the graveyard wall. He looked to be about four feet tall.

“Are ye married, Darlin’?” he asked, adding “would you like to be?” I pointed to Brian in the phone booth, where he gestured with one finger while arguing with the guy on the other end of the line, who would be shipping the engine.

“That’s my husband there, on the phone.”

“You’re lucky to ‘ave ‘im. Lucky to ‘ave ‘im,” he told me. Lucky came out “looky”, but I heartedly agreed with him as we sat together on the wall, in the clear sunshine of a western Ireland summer day.

The folks in Kilfenora took us in stride, looking after us in a offhand, careless sort of way. Like a relative whose connection you can’t quite figure out but who sticks around anyway, so you just keep inviting him for dinner.

After several days, the engine was shipped from England to Dublin. Tommy Connole hooked up the van to his tow truck again and drove us across the breadth of Ireland from near the Cliffs of Moher to where the Liffey river empties into the Irish Sea. Brian sat in the only other seat in Tommy’s truck, so I perched on the center console, gripping Brian’s arm for 150 miles so as not to fall into Tommy’s lap or grab the wheel in a panic. It turned out Tommy Connole is the only person in Ireland who does not like to talk, so he contented himself with driving, all while rolling his own cigarettes and smoking them in a chain. I have never been happier to get to a destination as I was to drive into Dublin late that afternoon.

For nine days, we explored Dublin a second time, using public transport exclusively this time while our van was in the shop. We visited Kilmainham Gaol, now a museum, where many of Ireland’s rebels were imprisoned and several executed by the British government during the turbulent times before Ireland’s independence. We learned more about making Guinness than we thought possible and remember very little of what we learned, but we had fun drinking it anyway. We stayed at a guesthouse south of the city’s center, ate scones and porridge and sometimes a “full Irish”, which involves eggs and bacon, fried tomato and something called “black pudding” and “white pudding” made from stuff I wasn’t sure I wanted to know about. While we had not planned to revisit Dublin for nine precious days of our trip to Ireland, we had a great time and ended up knowing the city pretty well.

Ha'penny Bridge, Dublin

Ha’penny Bridge, Dublin

Which brings me back to losing my map in the toilet, or wherever. I decided not to use a mapping app on my cell phone, but to have fun and use the muscle memory that my brain might provide from those days in which Dublin was our temporary home. You know what? I had a marvelous day finding my way around after 15 years.

Breakfast of yogurt and granola with stewed fresh berries and a date scone at Hatch & Sons on St. Stephen’s Green was simple and stunningly good. I sat quietly in a corner with my travel journal (thanks again, MJ!), savoring my second cup of cappuccino, and they were kind enough to let me sit as long as I liked.

Afterward I strolled around St. Stephen’s Green, absorbing that oasis of green space in the midst of morning traffic. I sat at the bench dedicated “To the women who worked in the Magdalen laundry institutions and to the children born to some members of those communities” and reflected upon their lives, as the plaque placed there asked me to do.

I wandered west and north to Christ Church Cathedral, where I fed the cathedral’s cat, had a terrific tour guided by a young member of the choir and climbed the 80 or so steps to the belfry to ring the bells. I explored the crypt below the church and learned that at one point in its history, it served as a pub and that scenes from the show The Tudors were filmed there. Not the sex scenes, my host assured me.

At the Brazen Head, officially Ireland’s oldest pub, established in 1198, I admired a perfectly pulled pint of Guinness while listening to laughter in the courtyard and fiddle music in a sunken corner.

With no plans for lunch, I strolled down the Liffey and across the cast iron Ha’penny bridge, built in 1816 and named for the price once charged to cross it. I lucked onto The Woolen Mills restaurant on the north side of the river, and had a leisurely lunch of ham hock-pea soup alongside a couscous salad with grapefruit and feta accompanied by a perfect glass of wine.

Completely stuffed, I waddled down to the tall ship Jeanie Johnston, actually a replica of the original ship which brought timber and goods to Ireland from Canada and the United States in the mid-nineteenth century and on the return voyages, brought Irish immigrants escaping dire poverty and famine. The irony was not lost on me. The guide was passionate about the history of the old ship’s passengers and the stories moved us all, some to tears. At one point during his tour our guide asked who among us had any Irish ancestry. At least half of us raised a hand.

“Welcome home,” he said. And that is exactly how I felt: Welcomed home.

Fare thee well, Dublin.

Barbara Gabriel

Writer. Day Stealer. Chronic Traveler. Raised along Highway 61 in Minnesota, I ran away to sea & messed about in boats. I curse like a sailor and love travel, food, most people, and a well-fitting pair of boots. I try to combine those any chance I can.


  1. I remember it well, but you remember vividly. The difference between disaster and adventure is perspective and attitude. Great fun to read.

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  3. You write beautifully, Barbara, and you know Ireland like the back of your hand now, as they say. Sorry about your ‘auld’ Volkswagen. That was our dream, well not to travel with an oul VW but to just take off and go wherever our heart desires.

    • Thanks so much, Barbara. There are roads (and mechanic shops) in Ireland I can bring back in perfect detail, if I shut my eyes. Particularly if there is a lovely glass of stout in front of me.

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