It’s been a busy week since I got back from Bruges. On Tuesday, I volunteered with Solas, an organization that helps at-risk Ireland youth, for the second time. On Thursday I went on two field trips, one to the National Museum and the other to the Jeanie Johnston Famine Ship. On Friday I went to Kilmainham Gaol, an old prison and museum, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art. On Saturday I went to Marsh Library, the oldest library in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and a book market. On Sunday, I went to the National Gallery and to see the Book of Kells and the Trinity College Long Room. Feeling very accomplished!
I don’t think I’ve actually written anything about my experiences at Solas so far. To be fair, I’ve only been going for two weeks, and I only volunteer for four hours once a week. Solas has several different programs, but I help with the after school care for the sixth class (11-12 year olds). The only children who hang out in the various Solas clubs (divided up by age group) are those deemed at risk, and all children must want to come. These are children who generally have a rough home life with disengaged parents, financial difficulties, or other issues that affect their ability to become well-adapted members of society. Solas tries to help take some of the burden off families and their children by hosting after school clubs where kids get help with their homework, a hot meal, and usually get to do some other activity like swimming or wood-working.
I was warned going into this experience that Irish children swear a lot more than American children; I can confirm that this is true. My mouth probably hung open the first time I heard one of the wee boys, with their stylish haircuts and school-issued tracksuits, talk about “your mom’s vagina” and sexual feats that no eleven year old should even have conception of. But, you get used to it. You get used to the noise and the children who don’t listen. They are genuinely good kids, and I’ve already seen that in my two weeks. But most of them are quite lost, unsure how they should behave, pulled in one direction by their peers and a different direction by society. It’s a lot to ask of children, to know who they are supposed to be.
My first week was much harder than the second. There were twice as many children in the small, falling-apart space than there usually is, most of which were of the male persuasion. There is no lock on the bathroom door, which is terrifying. There are holes in the wall and peeling paint and metal or wood over all the windows (so that no one can shatter them, from inside or outside). I realized that I had nothing to say to these kids while floating uselessly around them. Their complete disinterest in me did not help, though it was sort of nice to slip by unnoticed. Less pressure.
In my second week I threw myself in the crowd and engaged the kids in conversation. I attempted to help one kid with his math homework, but fear I steered him very, very wrong. Sixth grade math was so very long ago, and I never did all that well in it anyway. There were far fewer kids this time around and the noise was more manageable. We played Uno and hosted a cupcake-decorating tea party for the people who’d put in the kitchen the year before. One kid in particular was bright and cheery whereas last week he hadn’t uttered a single word the entire day; it was interesting to see the 180 flip. The whole experience is interesting because it’s showing me the inside of the Irish social welfare system as well as how the government has failed certain people within the community, a failure that Solas seeks to correct. Truly enough, there is only so much you can do when the problem is rooted deeper than our fingers can dig. But we – me included now – try.
My Early Irish History class met up outside the museum around opening time with a plan: we had to slowly sift through the front doors so the museum staff didn’t catch on that we were a group, since they – for some dumb reason – don’t like group visits. What is a museum if not the kind of place where groups of people go??
The National Museum has several branches, but we went to the archaeology section, which has many of Ireland’s greatest treasures from prehistoric times. I’ve never seen so much gold in all my life, nor so many beautiful polished stone axes, spears, and shields. The neat thing about studying in Ireland is that there’s so much more history than in the US because people have inhabited this land for much longer. Not only does Ireland have hundreds-of-years-old churches, but it also has lots of Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age treasures that have been well-preserved because of the extensive bogs, which create the perfect climate for keeping things.
From the bogs, archaeologists pulled out an entire boat used thousands of years ago, one long enough to comfortably seat thirty people. They’ve pulled so many pieces of gold jewelry and stone tools from various sites all over the country, enough to fill up the museum. The real sites at the museum, though, are the “bog bodies.” There are four of these bodies on display, all of which were pulled out of the bog. They all range in age, but they’re quite old and frighteningly well preserved. All of these bodies were sacrifices or murders, as evidenced by the condition of the bodies, details that are still visible thousands of years after the deaths occurred. One body in particular was just a headless torso, but the hands. The hands were so well preserved, right down to the dirt underneath his fingernails. It was amazing and disgusting and I recommend you go and see it if you’re ever in Dublin.
Jeanie Johnston Famine Ship
To the famine ship I went with my Dublin Lit class. The ship itself, sitting in the Liffey, is a replica that’s quite a bit smaller than its original, but was still quite a sight with all its masts and hulking wood frame. The tour lasted about an hour, most of which was spent below deck in the main cabin, which is where the people would have stayed for the trip from Ireland to the US. These ships were commonly used back during the Great Potato Famine starting in 1845. A quarter of the population either left the country of starved during the next five years, since the potato was the bulk of so many Irish diets. Hundreds of people would cram onto these ships, the crew planning on twenty percent to not make it through the voyage. To give you an idea of how bad the conditions were, the ships were commonly called “coffin ships.” If it wasn’t a shortage of food it was disease. If it wasn’t disease it was lack of sanitation, which spawned disease. It cost half a year’s salary to ride one of these ships, some people having to sell themselves as indentured servants in order to do so.
The ship itself was creepy as hell, and this I blame on the mannequins that were everywhere. Not just mannequins, but sad, starving mannequins. There were no smiles or cheeks free of dirt. The cabin was dark, the beds crowded together, into which 5 adults or 10 children would be squeezed. There was only a bucket for a toilet. It was a grim reality, but somehow no one ever died on one of the Jeanie’s voyages, which is extremely rare.
Kilamainham Goal (Jail)
The real story with this experience was our kitty friend, whom I have named Twila. To get to Kilamainham, Jess and Abbie and Courtney and I had to walk about twenty minutes in a direction we’d never gone in before. About half way there, we saw a kitty sun-bathing on a window sill. Now, please understand how rare kitties are in this country. There is dog poo everywhere, but I have only seen two or three kitties so far in the whole of Ireland. So when we spotted Twila, the sunshine came out after a very long cloudy spell. We all stopped and petted her, and she soaked it up, loving the attention. It made the entire trip worth it, we decided, not even knowing what the rest of the day would hold.
The jail itself was amazing. The line wasn’t too long at all because we got there early (when we left, the line was backed up into the street). We first went into the museum portion of the jail while waiting for our tour time. We only had twenty minutes, so we got through the first of three floors in the museum, looking at different artifacts and learning about the jail’s history. Our tour group was pretty big, but it turned out to be fine all the same.
The tour was about an hour long but didn’t feel excessive. We started out in the chapel, where prisoners before us used to spend an hour every week. We watched a slideshow and learned about the history of the jail in brief. Next we moved through the jail, admiring the creepy limestone walls and the cells that had their doors closed but had holes we could peek through. The jail was pretty cold and damp, since there was no heating or insulation, and it was hard to imagine how it must have been for the prisoners who had to live in that all the time. Most people didn’t have beds, but piles of hay to sleep on. Kilmainham operated for a long time under the assumption that darkness and silence was the best way to reform a prisoner, so most cells were very dark and made for only one person, which meant they would be isolated for 23 hours every day.
The prettiest part of the jail (if such thing can exist) was the newer and very open space, which opened up onto three floors of jail cells, all with windows. This part was built after the jail decided maybe light was a better way to encourage reformation, not darkness. The eeriest part of the jail was the stone yard, which was originally where prisoners did hard (and meaningless) labor of breaking up stones. But in the latter part of the jail’s history, the yard was a shooting range, and was the infamous location where the leaders of the 1916 rebellion were executed by firing squad. It was hard to believe that we were standing in the place where the father’s of a free Ireland were killed for their bravery. It’s certainly not somewhere I would want to be by myself late at night.
Irish Museum of Modern Art
This museum was a capital D Disappointment. Modern art is much more difficult to get behind, in my opinion, than the kind of art we saw in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, for example. Art doesn’t need to make sense, but at the same time it does. If I can’t find any meaning behind what I’m looking at, then am I even looking at anything at all?
Half the museum was closed to renovations, so all we could see was one exhibit, all of which included the same artist, Grace Weir. She was not our style, though surely someone somewhere thinks she’s amazing. She had lots of different movies, some of which involved prolonged scenes of concrete walls or a forest. She had lots of exhibits about ink and light and really, the walls were quite bare. The exhibit wasn’t much when spread out over half a museum. I also might have walked in the bathroom while an old man was shooting heroin (with the door unlocked, seriously??).
The real fun was in the gift shop. It seems everywhere I go I can find things related to butter or bathrooms, basically the two most important things to me (or at least what I spend most of my time talking about). I found a beautiful notepad shaped like butter, which encouraged me to slather all my brilliant ideas on it. I also found a book that talked about toilets around the world, with pictures, which seems like a highly practical thing to have for someone like me who travels with bladder issues.
Abbie, Jess, and I visited the oldest library in Ireland on Saturday, even though we didn’t know it was the oldest library until after we got there. Even though we were told by a certain someone that admission would be free due to an Adult Learner’s Festival, we paid 2 euro each to get in. We got the whole spiel from a very nice lady who ended her speech on a rough note: no photography, please. So I had to steal photos from the web to show you the glorious old books. Both James Joyce and Bram Stoker studied here, and they had a cool exhibit about doodles and annotations made in the margins of old books. The exhibit was named The Unicorn and the Fencing Mouse after the two most-loved doodles.
The real neat part of the library was the exhibit they had on cartoons that explored the history of the library. One of the cartoons was so cool I bought my sister a poster of it, since she requested a very non-touristy souvenir from Dublin, “something you can’t tell is from Ireland.” I think I achieved that mission. The story behind the poster, shown below, is that they found a mummy under the library, but aren’t sure who it was. They gave the mummy to Trinity College and they chopped his head off in experiments. Evidently, the mummy still haunts the library.
My favorite part of this exhibit was “The Urine-ator,” because again, I also seem to find things relating to either butter or bathrooms wherever I go. “The Urine-ator” was a cardboard cut-out of a machine that allowed early bookmakers to soak animal skins in urine so that they could use the to bind books. Pee for the literary win.
We also got to make our bookmarks with quill and ink, except the ink wouldn’t dry and I still have it all over my fingers. I tried to make one for my sister, which inducted her into the Sisterhood of the Traveling Ovaries, but I had to throw it away and instead bought her the cool mummy poster. We also got our 2 euro admission fee back once I asked about the Adult Learner’s Festival. Score for us.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
We hadn’t planned on also touring the cathedral, but we were right there and rumor had it admission was also free because of the Adult Learner’s Festival. We dropped the name of the festival at the door and like magic, we were in. The cathedral was not too stunning compared to what we saw in Bruges, but that’s because we’re spoiled brats. It was all very beautiful, regardless of comparison. The floor was probably my favorite part, as it seemed to sparkle in the light. What I love most about churches like these – big and old – is how wide open and hopeful they are, even though they tend to be kept pretty dark. There’s something that seems so uplifting about a ceiling that stretches up towards the sky like that, even to a woman who doesn’t believe in an after-life.
One of my favorite things about the cathedral was a little exhibit they had about writing messages to loved ones affected by war. Jess wrote a message to retired military dad. Abbie wrote a message to Malala. I wrote to the Syrian refugees. When we were all done, we put our messages on the tree of remembrance. It was quite a peaceful experience. The stained glass was also magnificent in the church, though I could have done without all the extra chairs and stuff laying around, waiting to find a new home.
Our last big adventure on Saturday was to go to a book market, held every weekend in Temple Bar. It took us a while of roaming to find it (we had to walk through a food festival to get there – the horror!), and it was much smaller than I expected, but I still walked about with a book called The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which is a fictionalized story of the girl in the famous Vermeer painting by the same name. For my senior Capstone project, I’m considered writing stories inspired by art, so this story seems like a great place to start. It’s always cool to see how other writers have tackled similar projects.
We also stopped in the Winding Stair bookshop, when we realized how far east we’d walked through the maze that is Temple Bar. It was quite dark and small, and I didn’t actually see any windy stairs (or stairs at all), but it was still a lovely little shop. They had a few tables dedicated to kick ass women picture books and a guide to modern Jane Austen and how all of Dinosaur’s friends are dead. I ended up purchasing a book I had my eye on in Bruges, but was cheaper here in Dublin (and sadly, much cheaper than the Kindle version!). The rest of the day was spent reading, writing, doing homework, and looking at pictures of cats.
After the Irish Museum of Modern Art, I have to see my hopes weren’t high. But this museum was beautiful and I can’t wait to take my little sister when she comes to visit, since we bond best over art. This museum has a little of everything including Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer, local boy Jack Yeats, and many others. It was like a star-studded award night at an award show or something. My favorite part of the museum, though, was how many paintings of women there were, especially in the impressionism gallery. The only other big gallery to was a mix of Baroque and Renaissance art, the rest of the museum temporarily out of commission to renovations. Below I’ve included some of my favorite paintings that I saw, plus some from the more well known artists.
Book of Kells and the Trinity College Long Room
Everyone talks about the Book of Kells. It’s an old Irish version of the Bible, written by hand and intricately decorated by monks beginning in the 800s. It has survived viking raids and monk massacres to now sit in Trinity College where people (mostly tourists) can pay 10 euro to look at two pages of it. I enjoyed the history lesson you have to first work your way through to get to the actual Book of Kells, but when I finally got into the room, I realized I was very disappointed. We only go to see two pages from the book, and they were filled with words rather than the elaborate illustrations that are discussed in the previous room. I’ve seen the Saint John’s Bible, which was on display at Champlain College for a while, so I know what some of the illustrations might look like in person, but I thought I would get to see more. I probably should have done more research first.
The Long Room, which is basically an old library turned tourist attraction, made up for the shortcomings of the Kells. None of the books can be read (which made me wonder what it might feel like to be a book that’s so old I’ve become a tourist attraction rather than a means for knowledge I imagine the books are quite sad), but man were there a lot of them. Old, old books stretching across shelves that spread floor to ceiling. I swear I have dreams of the library in Beauty of the Beast and this place brought up similar feelings. For any guys out there who might want to know, the way to my heart is to finance the building of a massive library. This library doesn’t need to be attached to a house because I will sleep on the floor, no problem. I just need books. Lots of them.
I wish I could have been the only person in the Long Room, but I’m sure every other person there was wishing the same thing. I only spent about ten minutes inside, but it was the best ten minutes of my day. How could it not be? I was standing in one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Makes a girl realize how lucky she is…
…but it would have been nice if there had been a bathroom. I almost didn’t make it all the way home before my poor little bladder burst. Such beauty, such bladder.