A holiday journal
I had been looking forward to my Easter holidays in Ireland for a long time. I had been planning it for three months before booking the Bed & Breakfast in Dublin and reading the introduction from the guide book.
My parents had arrived from Italy at the end of March and we had planned to visit Ireland together, all eight of us. My mum and dad spent a few days in Lancaster before we left and surprisingly they liked everything: the area where we live, our house, our garden, the buildings in the centre, the shops, the people. Even the air was better than in Rome, they said. I thought, either we are doing very well or as they get older they become more tolerant.
We left for Ireland on good Friday (is it bad luck?) with two cars. I was driving the Ford Galaxy, my husband the Fiat 500, heading to Holyhead to take the Ferry.
On the M6 my husband forgot that I drive like a snail, and started to go fast. I lost him when a long row of cars and trucks slowed me down after the junction with the M62 for Liverpool. I kept going on the M6 though I did not know if it was the right way. He had the satnav. After half an hour he called me, saying he was slowing down and waiting for me. How kind of him: we were going on holiday together after all. He also warned me to take the M56, North Wales. I caught him up half a mile before the junction, overtaking two huge trucks and lining up behind his Fiat 500, squeezing in the narrow space between him and the second truck. A deafening tooting followed. The trucker was right, but I had no choice. We turned onto the M56 avoiding a grisly accident this time.
In the ferry Valentina, my autistic daughter, opened five Chupa Chups lollies, each a different flavour, and sucked them in turns making each member of the family opening his or her mouth and tasting her Chupa Chups as well. Sweet sharing.
We docked in Dublin at five thirty pm. A pale light filtered the thick layer of grey clouds.
It was chilly when we went out for dinner in O’Connell Street. We stopped at the first pizzeria we met and made our order. No beer. It was Good Friday.
The receptionist at the Bed & Breakfast said that tomorrow, Easter Sunday, everything would be closed. She said Irish people usually spent Easter Sunday in pubs to catch up what they did not drink during Lent. We checked at the tourist information centre. They said some museums would be closed on Sunday and Monday but the shops in the centre and the department stores would be open. We trusted tourist information and walked down O’Connell street.
Our first stop was James Joyce’s statue in Earl Street. We took a photo standing all around him.
In my passion for historic sites I thought we had to go to Trinity college, Christ Church, St Patrick’s and the National Museum before everything shut down for Easter. Then we would leave the shops for Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday, when the museums would be closed. Everybody agreed.
My husband took over the guide book and the map and led us to Trinity College (The Book of Kells is amazing, so perfect I thought it was printed), Christ Church and St Patrick’s (the memorials commemorating Jonathan Swift warmed my heart). I took care of Valentina who couldn’t see the aim of our wandering about but followed us all the same. She settled into the playground near St Patrick’s at lunchtime so we had time to plan for the afternoon.
I said we couldn’t miss the National Museum, which might be closed on Sunday and Monday. I was looking forward to seeing Celtic relics and their famous metalwork, especially the little golden boat with oars and mast I saw reproduced in so many pictures.
My husband got cross. The National Museum of Ireland was near Trinity College. Couldn’t I have mentioned it earlier? Couldn’t I plan any better?
All right, that was my fault. I had a list of the most important sites in each area of Dublin, but it was in my pocket and the fact that most places would be closed for Easter and bank holiday had confused me.
We finally reached the Museum. What struck me was the exhibition of the four mummified bodies killed for rituals or revenge and preserved in bogs since the iron age. Their skin was like leather. One of them had even hair and beard. Another one was only a torso. His head and the hips had been cut off, his hands perfectly preserved. In their frozen stillness I could recognize both the spasm provoked by the violent death and the tranquillity of the final rest.
Valentina was really fed up of the museum. She started banging her head on the marble floor and the glass cabinets, so we had to hurry.
Outside it was pouring from a leaden sky. We took shelter in a Guinness shop and at Carroll’s and started a long series of flying shopping visits to souvenirs and gift shops to buy presents for ourselves, friends and relatives. It was all part of the fun. Carroll’s was definitely our most popular site, a place the children would remember well.
We were on holiday but Easter Mass was a must. We split into two groups as usual because Valentina is not patient enough to attend Mass. My parents did not want to come but were not able to look after her while we were away. My father came up with the idea of attending an Orthodox Mass because he wanted to listen to the beautiful choirs. Apart from the fact that the Orthodox have a different date for Easter I had no idea where to find an Orthodox church in Dublin.
I went to the evening Mass with my daughter at St Mary’s Cathedral. It was full but not bursting. We easily found a seat near a little fellow with a cheerful face and a punk hairstyle. He even lent me the leaflet of the celebration I had forgotten to take at the entrance.
The choir was fantastic. After the Liturgy of the Word, which is pretty long and elaborate in an Easter Vigil Mass, the choir moved away. Where? What a pity, I thought, I was enjoying their singing so much. But at the Gloria an entire orchestra plus choir played the Coronation Mass by W.A. Mozart (I read it in the leaflet). The choir had moved upstairs.
What a surprise, what a glorious way to celebrate the Resurrection of the Saviour of the world. It continued with the Sanctus and the Communion song. The final Hallelujah Chorus was from Messiah by G.F. Handel instead. My critical side thought for a few seconds that such grandeur jarred a bit with the scratched interior of the church and the humble appearance of the people attending. But I loved it all the same. Five people had been christened during the Vigil Mass, all from China.
I must say we had an excellent Irish breakfast at the guest house. I had a full one on the first morning, reduced it to sausages and toast on the second day, toast and beans the third day and only toast the last morning. Valentina stuffed herself with sausages, from four to eight per morning, picking them up from her brothers’ plates as if she hadn’t enough of her own. She also loved the little boxes of marmalade and jam. She took one of each kind, peeled off the tinfoil, scooped the content carefully and gobbled it up. Before going out of the breakfast room she used to fill her pockets with more boxes of jam and keep them for later on in case we did not feed her properly.
On Sunday morning, while my husband and the boys were at Mass, we headed to the department stores, which should be open, as far as we knew. But all the windows looked sinister and dark. We got closer and found out they were closed, barred, shut down, with no hope of getting inside till the next day. In short we found out that all shops in town were closed. My daughter was furious. Of course it wasn’t my fault but she believed it was.
The band playing near the Monument of Light, to celebrate the 94th Anniversary of the Easter Rising, did not cheer her up but entertained my parents for an hour and a half. My two daughters and I went to wait for the rest of the family at the Garden of Remembrance where I took photos of the inspiring Monument to the Children of Lir, wishing for reconciliation, and of the Irish flag waving on top. I had heard one of my children saying it looked like the Italian flag with the red part faded. Joking aside we learned the real meaning of the Irish colours that same day in the afternoon during the visit to Dublin Castle: Green for Republicans, Orange for Unionists, and White for Peace, to keep the two factions together…or at safe distance.
We popped into the James Joyce’s museum to give the children an inkling who this great writer was and what Ulysses was about. In the meantime the Commemoration Ceremony had ended, so we fetched my parents and headed to Temple Bar area. I wanted to find a pub where we could listen to live Irish music. My husband suggested live Irish dancers. The children couldn't care less. We stopped in front of the Auld Dubliner without a clue of what to do and where to go.
There is always a moment of crisis in a journey and that was the climax. My eldest son said he needed a top up urgently to keep in touch with his girlfriend as the £20 put in before leaving Lancaster was fast running out. My daughter was bored to death with churches and museums and all she wanted to do was go shopping, but where? My third son said he wanted to go back to Lancaster and have a walk in Williamson Park. Valentina signed she wanted an ice cream and/or the swings. My dad said he fancied a Guinness so my parents and I went into the Auld Dubliner and had a pint. Valentina followed us and had a coke. There was live music and a man dancing, so we had a few minutes of enjoyment inside, letting the others cool down outside.
Tasting a Guinness was like having a cream pastry, full, smooth and flavoursome, like an apple pie covered with custard.
After that we went to the Castle. We learned that the Romans called Ireland Hibernia (=winter land). I believe them. A chill wind blew all the time we were in Dublin, slightly less chill in the morning and very chill in the evening.
If the shops were closed the museums might be open. The rest of the family paid me the compliment of following me to the National Gallery of Ireland. My favourite: Dinner at Emmaus by Titian, a Romantic landscape by Salvator Rosa and some Dutch Still Life. The children spent their time in the Gallery bookshop. My daughter bought a book with Vogue covers and another one of funny, ironic messages very useful for ending a relationship. A good one: ‘I discovered the hard way that I am allergic to your cat, your laundry detergent, and your deepest beliefs’. If he/she hasn’t a cat, change it for something else.
Thank god Carroll’s was open. We had another stop to relieve our shopping fever. I bought a CD, The Greatest Ever Irish Music Collection, and Valentina had a huge green Leprechaun lollipop. She sucked and chewed it the whole evening, getting everything sticky. Just to give us a good scare and remind us she is autistic, she also ran into the middle of the road, giggling and hopping. I screamed hysterically but luckily no cars were passing by.
Finally we went shopping. My daughter said she wanted to buy only at Pennys’, the Irish Primark, because it was cheaper and she could buy more. We spent two hours there. I took care of Valentina all the time, which was the arrangement on this trip. She got two pairs of sunglasses, three pairs of shoes, a heap of socks (she destroys one or two pairs of socks per week), T-shirts and shorts. She was set up for the whole summer. Before leaving she spotted some brightly coloured shoe laces. I signed ‘only one’. She took one bunch of each kind, in total about a hundred shoe laces.
My parents had a great time at Pennys’ as well. There isn’t something like that in Italy so they thought everything was a bargain. They bought T-shirts for my nephews in Italy, shorts for my father that miraculously fitted and my mother found some shirts and even a bag.
Outside we were all happy to carry heavy bags and have less money. I peeped into my daughter’s bag and saw a pair of very, very high heeled shoes. I hadn’t had the time to check what she had chosen before we paid or I would have stopped her. To my relief my son said that all teenager girls wear this kind of shoes at parties.
Next stop was Kilmainham Gaol, the prison where the Irish patriots were kept and executed. In a way their deeds reminded me of similar risings of Italian patriots in northern Italy, to free Lombardia and Veneto from Austria and form the Italian nation.
Entering the central Hall of the prison one of my children recognized it, not because he was convicted there as he is only thirteen, but because some scenes of The Italian Job (1969, Michael Caine and Noel Coward) were filmed there.
A few yards from the prison there was the Modern Art Museum. I was the only one of the group who entered. Contemporary art always surprises me, it is so disruptive, ironic, original and ridiculous sometimes. Reality is mixed with a subtle will to deceive the viewer. We are such a demanding audience, always expecting something new, that we deserve to be played with, provoked and even deceived. It is a way to survive both for us and for the artist. On a sheet of paper I took from one of the rooms of the exhibition was written: ‘Maus II- a survivor’s tale’.
We couldn’t leave Dublin without visiting the Guinness storehouse and have a pint at the bar at the top of the building. Spectacular views of the whole city, perfect Guinness.
It was time to leave Dublin. We packed and loaded the cars. The whole family went to Pennys’ and Carroll’s again for last minute shopping, except me. I had Dublin Writers Museum (www.writersmuseum.com ) just across the street, Parnell Square North, and did not want to leave without visiting it. I said I would take half an hour but it took me an hour to see only the ground floor and pay a visit to the bookshop. I had forgotten that so many great writers were Irish. I bought Seamus Heaney’s poems feeling I needed a memento of my visit.
We travelled from Dublin to Waterford, stopping at Kilkenny to see the centre and the castle.
It was raining along the way but when we reached Kilkenny the sun was shining. We enjoyed the elegant furnishing of the castle and the busy, cosy streets of the centre. The sky was a reassuring blue with light white flakes here and there. We felt confident enough to go as far as Black Abbey, to admire the stained glass windows of the transept set on fire by the sun's rays. On the way back to the parking place we also stopped at a shopping centre to have a look around. Valentina pointed at a machine dispensing plastic baubles for two Euros. We signed one, she nodded. It started drizzling and the sky was turning grey. She took her bauble and pointed again for another one. I forgot she expected to have one of each colour or of each type.
It was raining now and we had to hurry. The car park was ten minutes walk from where we were. A bit of rain wouldn’t kill us. But Valentina kept on going back to the bauble machine. I grabbed her hand and bid her to come with us. She was screaming and crying, refusing to wear her hood and pulling at the grandparents to persuade them to go back to the shopping centre. We managed to walk half of the way to the parking place when all in a flash hail and heavy rain broke on us. Chilly gusts slashed the icy water onto our trousers and jackets, soaking us from head to toe. Valentina was finally laughing, forgetting the plastic baubles. As soon as we reached the cars the storm stopped.
At Waterford the sun was shining again. Crazy weather.
On our last day in Ireland we decided to see something different. No more churches, abbeys, castles and shops but natural, pure Irish landscape.
We drove to the Burren National Park on the west coast and reached the Cliffs of Moher in the early afternoon.
It was a gorgeous day, the sky was without a speck of cloud, the sea a crystal pool with all shades of blue and the coast astounding. I had never seen such a breath-taking, dramatic view before. It called us to dive in the endless space, to widen the perspectives, to let thoughts fly.
The contrast between the simplicity of the fields, a rural Ireland limited by grey stone walls, and the sudden fall or fly into such an infinity was stunning.
There is a key to understanding the mentality, literature and historical developments of a country in its landscapes.
The following day we had to travel back. We stopped at Galway that night and had dinner in an Italian restaurant. I fancied a pizza margherita. My parents said they had really enjoyed their time in Ireland. Actually they were the only ones who had never complained. Maybe they were just happy to be with us.
I was fascinated by Ireland, secret and beautiful like a delicate flower. Its myths and legends were rooted deeply in the fields, expanding their long thin branches into infinity.
I’ll go back one day and see more.