We begin our day early, at 7:30am – it is going to be a long day, but a good, good day. This third day of Maymester, we are scheduled for a tour of Dublin Castle, a group lunch at The Silk Road Café, a tour of the Chester Beatty Library, and a Fulbright reception at the US Ambassador’s Residence in Phoenix Park.
Dublin castle is not a turreted caste – it’s a bit of an architectural mishmash, more of a palace than a castle. The original structure, built by the Anglo-Normans as a 13th-century fortress and commissioned by King John (the first Lord of Ireland), is mostly gone – although part of the southeastern tower (Record Tower, completed in 1258) remains. For 700 years Dublin castle was the seat of English rule.
After the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, the castle complex was ceremonially handed over to the newly formed Provisional Government led by Michael Collins. I love to hear the story about the official handing over of the castle to Michael Collins on behalf of the Free State in 1992 – the British Viceroy is reputed to have scolded Collins on arriving seven minutes late. Collins characteristically replied, “We’ve been waiting for 700 years, you can wait for seven minutes”. The Irish government now uses the castle for meetings of the European Council, conferences and state functions.
We arrive a bit early (our booking time was changed) and I lead students to the beautiful Victorian Chapel Royal – featuring 90 heads of famous Irish people and saints carved from Tullamore limestone. Directly beside this stunning chapel is the Record Tower with its 5-foot thick stone walls – now home to the Garda Museum. In this lovely space Marie sits and happily sketches, Kevie pulls out her journal and writes, Adam sits quietly and contemplates the beautiful windows, Peter stretches out on one of the chorister benches and observes everything – we are all taken with the light and the solitude. We are alone, together. We stay for some time.
Next, I lead the students to the Dubh Linn (Black Pool) Gardens, a beautiful and peaceful retreat in busy, noisy Dublin city centre – formal gardens which double as a helicopter landing pad and which most tourists don’t know about and thus, rarely visit. A warm and gentle morning, the sun is high and the sky is blue – the gardens are quiet and we are the first visitors of the day. The students move across the space, exploring and taking photos. Some lie in the warm grass and talk, some sketch and write, and some take photos and wander. It is a glorious and serendipitous moment and we are all keenly aware of the happy life this little slice of nature offers. There are beautiful, colorful and bold works of art in the garden – brightly colored ceramic tiles in a birdbath (David Lambert’s Birdbath) and a large glass snake (Sarah Daly’s Serpent Pool) – a memorial to the 2003 Special Olympics. There is a sobering and beautiful memorial to An Garda Síochána – the “Guardian of the Peace,” more commonly referred to as the Gardaí “Guardians,” the police force of Ireland – and all those killed in the line of duty.
There is a bust of the murdered journalist and Irish crime reporter Veronica Guerin, portrayed by Cate Blanchett in the film Veronica Guerin. The central area of the gardens feature a Celtic design formed by paving stones winding through the beautiful, soft grass, and wooden benches set in a circular pattern mirroring the shape of this area of the gardens.
The luxurious State Apartments contain a number of rooms. St. Patrick’s Hall – the grandest room in the Apartments, is now used for presidential inaugurations. When Brian and I were back in Ireland in the spring of 2011, the state dinner hosted by the President of Ireland to welcome Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland was held in this hall (May 18, 2011). The Throne Room features a large throne built for the visit of King George IV to Ireland in 1821. The State Drawing Room is used for the reception of foreign dignitaries and the State Dinging Room (also called the Picture Gallery) is the oldest room in the castle and is still used for dining when conferences take place in St. Patrick’s Hall. It was in this room where the wounded James Connolly was tied to a chair, too ill with gangrene suffered from wounds he received during the 1916 Easter Rising to stand, was executed by firing squad. The State Bedrooms are former private quarters, now being used for meeting rooms. President Bill Clinton helped to broker The Good Friday Agreement in the Northern Ireland peace process, and many of these meetings were held in these rooms. The agreement stands as one of the Clinton administration’s major foreign policy successes and includes a devolved, inclusive government, prisoner release, troop reductions, targets for paramilitary decommissioning, provisions for polls on Irish reunification, civil rights measures and “parity of esteem” for the two communities in Northern Ireland. The last dignitary to stay in the royal bedrooms was Margaret Thatcher – who spent a night there with her husband Dennis during one of the European Council meetings held in the 1980s. Our guide told us a very good story about a recommendation being made to the Queen for a full Irish breakfast. She declined and ordered a simple, hard-boiled egg (a very single-minded lady). The castle staff apparently looked high and low for an eggcup; when none was found, someone ran out to the Dunnes Store or some store like that to purchase an eggcup. The Queen was kept waiting for her breakfast while all of this was going on – a good story! The bedrooms were being renovated, so our group was unable to see them. I’ve been in these rooms many times over the years, and am always stirred and sobered to think of the things – good and bad – that have gone on within these walls. The State Corridor features reconstructed vaults and arches. Dublin Castle is maintained by the Office of Public Works, OPW), and also houses the magnificent Chester Beatty Library (in a purpose-built facility) and the Silk Road Café – one of my absolute favorite treasures of a café from my Fulbright year in Ireland.
Students are amazed at this castle and enjoy our tour and our visit to the underground excavation of the old 13th-century castle – discovered purely by accident in 1986 and featuring foundations built by the Vikings and steps leading down to the moat.