Blackrock, Co. Dublin, Ireland, 2005
I'm an American living in Ireland for six months. My wife, Julie, and I arrived in Dublin in July and we plan to stay until the end of the year. The ostensible reason for this visit is a research fellowship at University College, Dublin, but the real reasons, in order of importance, are beer, cycling, and beer after cycling. (Click here for ride journals.) This is indeed a great place to explore by bicycle, especially if you can handle rough streets and a little rain. It's a great place for beer as well, especially if you like Guinness. If you don't, never fear; there are also Murphy's and Beamish. Also, a few red ales and plenty of lagers to see you through.
We have a wonderful, university-owned apartment adjacent to the graduate business school, somewhat separate from the main part of campus. It sits in an idyllic, park-like setting, peaceful when students are gone or at least nominally sober. The apartment is located in a former manor house, built in 1804; the other buildings, built 100 years later, are a former convent and teachers' school.
The first picture below shows the house. Our apartment is on the top floor. The second shows our view of the the grounds around the building. Dublin's bay is visible in the distance. The third is another window view, including the old convent buildings, now dormitories, and the back of the convent's church. The front of the church is in the last picture. According to an architectural model in the business school, the church eventually will be converted into a library. It's a beautiful building; I hope they preserve its charm. Click on any thumbnail on this page to see a larger picture; use the back button of your browser to return to this page.
A few rides of interest. Not all the ones I've taken of course, just a few that were particularly pleasant.
Along the Coast Road
Howth and Dublin Bay
Wicklow Mountains and Sally Gap
Vale of Clara, Glendalough, and the Wicklow Gap
Second Trip Into the Wicklows
In Ireland, bicycles are basic, practical transportation. Here the focus is almost entirely on utilitarian cycling, and the preferred bike is a decent-quality (ca. $400) hybrid. Many people can't afford these, however, so the demand for used ones is much greater than the supply (as we discovered when we tried to buy Julie one). Many people buy new, low-end hybrids. These are around $200, most with Shimano Tourney parts, but are sold complete with racks and fenders. Often the brake levers are reversed (perhaps from careless assembly), and the wheels are bolted; that is, they don't use quick-releases. There are also a fair number of mountain bikes of a similar class. The rest are older clunkers, which we in the US would characterize as early-70s bike-boom bikes. Hoity-toity road bikes, grotesque mountain bikes, carbon composites, and titanium are seen only rarely.
Most bicycles are in execrable condition. They are parked outdoors, ridden in the rain, rarely oiled, and never cleaned. Chains are rusty, paint is faded, and aluminum is peppered with oxide spots. Many bikes, both in city parking areas and on the university campus, are obviously abandoned. Around the university it is easy to see how this happens: students park their bikes over the summer and sometimes don't return in the fall. The bikes sit for months or even years, rusting away, get damaged, and eventually aren't even worth stealing.
College campuses inevitably have a lot of theft, and at UCD, bicycle theft is distressingly common. The picture below shows pretty clearly why you should not lock your bike to the rack by its wheel alone, even if it has no quick-release. Somebody cut the spokes and made off with the remaining parts of the bike. I guess 90% of it was good enough for him.
Cyclists in Ireland are an intrepid lot: like pedestrians, who jaywalk at any opportunity, they have little respect for traffic regulations. Cyclists regularly run red lights and stop signs. The worst offenders are the bicycle messengers, an outlaw crowd in any city, who seem to prefer riding on the wrong side of the street, careening down sidewalks, and weaving recklessly through traffic. Their black bags and black outfits with yellow trim seem especially menacing. Most normal people avoid them, wisely so.
Traffic in Dublin is heavy, but that doesn't bother most cyclists. Many use automobile lanes for right turns, along with the traffic, and often merge into the auto-traffic flow. Cycle paths are plentiful but can be difficult to figure out. Often a sidewalk-level path leads cyclists to intersections in an awkward location, especially at roundabouts (traffic circles to you Amerikanskis). Frankly, in these cases, I prefer the streets.
Many of the bus lanes are marked as shared bus/bicycle lanes. Even if not marked, there is little option but to ride in the bus lanes, where they exist, as they are invariably the curb lane. The alternative is to ride in the middle of the street, which obviously doesn't work.
There is a lot of broken glass in the streets, especially in the bicycle lanes, in Dublin. I suspect the reason is the lack of a bottle-deposit law. Most of the US and the rest of Europe have such laws, which have considerably reduced the number of discarded cans and bottles. So, if you plan to cycle here, bring good, tough tires and tubes. Use tire liners and/or Kevlar.
While we're on the subject, roundabouts are used throughout Ireland for traffic control at intersections. Indeed, it's the best way to handle an intersection that's more complex than a single cross junction. Many intersections are three- or five-way, probably because they were created four hundred years ago, when traffic consisted of nothing worse than the occasional oxcart. Negotiating these on a bicycle can be a lively experience. The trick is to make sure you know how the system operates, and then to trust in the good will and patience of automobile drivers. In the US, that would be suicidal, but here it works.
In spite of the fact that cyclists, frankly, are a pain in the tush to automobile drivers, the latter are surprisingly tolerant of cyclists. I'm repeatedly surprised at how patient they are in waiting behind a cyclist when it is impossible to pass, and when cyclists, (OK, when I) do something dumb. Out in the countryside, the roads are narrow and there is often no shoulder at all, so no place to pull over and let cars pass. On many occasions, I've had lines of cars backed up behind me, creeping along at 15 mph, and not a single horn blast or other manifestation of impatience. Then, when I do pull over, I get a toot of thanks as they go by. In the US, I'd probably be shown an upraised middle finger and get a beer bottle thrown at me.
Ireland's phenomenal economic growth has resulted in a program of infrastructure improvements. These take time, however, so they are still not widespread, and there are a number of dilemmas in implementing them. Many roads, for example, are as narrow as the average American driveway. Hedgerows, perhaps hundreds of years old, often grow right up to the edges of the roads, so many roads cannot be widened without destroying these ecological wonders. The road surfaces are rough because of the large size of the gravel in the asphalt mix, the fact that many older road surfaces appear not to have been rolled, and, often, multiple patches. The general roughness in some cases might be a conscious attempt to maximize tire traction in a country that experiences a lot of rain. It makes cycling a rough ride, though. Most bikes here use 700-32 or 35 tires. These work well at ~75 PSI inflation pressure, and that probably makes for a reasonable ride.
By the way, it's called cycling here, never bicycling. My occasional use of the latter term marks me as an American, for sure, even if I didn't talk funny.
Everyone "knows" that it rains all the time in Ireland. This idea, however, is something of a half-truth: in fact, it rains only about half the time. The west coast probably deserves the stereotype, but, surprisingly to most, the east coast has about the same total rainfall as New Jersey. Many people cycle commute without any rainwear at all. They take their chances and usually win.
Severe weather is rare here. Most rain is in the form of brief showers on days that alternate from sunny to threatening on a time scale of minutes. Clouds roll by, looking threatening. Minutes later, they clear out and sun shines through. In another few minutes, it is threatening again, and we get a few raindrops that could be either (1) the beginning of a brief drenching, or (2) nothing. Heavy rain, continuous rain, and thunderstorms are rare. The winter, I'm told, is pretty mild, rarely dropping below freezing. It does rain a bit more, though, but it's not clear that anyone notices.
One reality of Irish weather is wind. There is always wind, everywhere. Usually it is modest, but it can get pretty strong at times, especially in the fall and spring. I have been in wind, on the west coast, where it would have been impossible to ride a bicycle; in fact, it was difficult to stand. Even here in the east, gale-force, gusty windstorms are not uncommon. Out in the countryside, rows of trees and hedges line the roads, providing a good windbreak, often enough so even strong winds don't affect cycling too badly. By the coast or in open parts of the cities, it's a different story. There, expect to be blown around a bit.
On to the important stuff.
I was surprised to learn that the stereotypical Irish red ale is largely a myth of American creation. I've been able to find only a couple. One is called Smithwick's (pronounced "Smithick's"), which is actually a pretty good beer; another is Kilkenny, which is creamier, has a Guinness-like head, and isn't over-carbonated. A third, Porterhouse Red Ale, is available only at the Porterhouse Pub near Trinity College. Just about everyone drinks stouts, the most famous of which is, of course, Guinness. It's not the only one; Murphy's, which I like very much, and Beamish, which is OK but not my first choice, are two others. Murphy's and Beamish are brewed in Cork, but the brewery is owned by outsiders. Similarly, Guinness, brewed in Dublin, is now owned by the same people as Heineken. Is nothing sacred?
Most pubs have a few lagers to balance out the bill. The best of these, in my opinion, is Harp, but most bars have Heineken and, believe it or not, Carling. I have also seen Coors Light, Miller Genuine Draft, and, God help us, Budweiser. These beers are brewed locally, and I suspect are very different from their counterparts in the US. I don't know for sure, since I have largely been unwilling to risk disappointment by trying them. One exception is canned Budweiser, a couple cans of which I obtained by accident. I found it very different from the insipid pisswater sold under that brand name in the US. It does not have the weak, ricey flavor of the American incarnation, but instead has a strong, reasonably well balanced, hop and malt flavor. Not bad, but I'll take Harp, thank you.
The big question, however, centers on Guinness. In the US, I was told that the Guinness in Ireland is much different from its American incarnation. Bottled Guinness, my only experience of the stuff outside Ireland, is indeed very different from the draft Guinness available in Irish pubs. That's no great surprise, I suppose, but the difference is much greater than just the draft/bottled issue. Here, it is more mellow; in the US, its flavor has a burned edge. I've never liked it much in the US, but here I can drink it until they need to lug me home.
Pubs in Ireland, as in the UK, are not simply drinking establishments. They are a combination of bar, community center, and entertainment complex. You can settle into a chair, order a pint, and sit all afternoon and read. You can talk to the locals; people in pubs tend to be congenial, and a little alcohol certainly helps to lubricate the social machinery. Even an introvert like me has no trouble falling into conversation with the people at the bar.
Many pubs have music. Occasionally it will consist of a singer/songwriter or some such thing, but more often it is a small musical group playing traditional music. During the week, the music starts around 9:30 PM, except in the tourist areas like Temple Bar in Dublin, where they start much earlier. (Otherwise, the American tourists might get impatient and leave, the Italian tourists might get bored and wreck the place just for amusement, and the German tourists might have to leave to get the wheel clamps removed from their illegally parked BMWs.) Some pubs have earlier sets on Sunday afternoon, and this can be a good opportunity for those of us who have to catch a bus home before midnight. In a real pub, there isn't any kind of cover charge; having one is the sign of a tourist trap. You just wander in, order a Guinness, find a seat (if there is one), and listen. Hang around as long as you're willing to drink. No questions, no problems.
I am here officially as a Walton Fellow, recipient of a fellowship granted by the Irish Government to attract foreign scientists to the country. This is a research position; I have no formal teaching responsibilities, but I'm presenting a series of lectures and visiting some academic and commercial establishments. Meanwhile, I do my research and spend the rest of the time traveling, drinking, and bicycling...err...cycling.
The university has a pleasant campus. Unlike many universities, the architectural style of the campus has been kept consistent and the overall appearance pleasant. The accommodations to the weather fit the style nicely; note the concrete overheads above the walkways and the glass cover on the pedestrian bridge between buildings.
The engineering building is one of the largest on campus. It sits proudly out in the middle of a large, grassy lawn. The big machine in the picture below is a steam engine from the Jamison's distillery, built in the late 1800s and removed from service in the 1930s, I think. It is in the lobby of the engineering building. I often try to figure out how its parts were fabricated and assembled, and how the machine itself was aligned and balanced. Other items of interest, on display in the building, are a cutaway four-cylinder automobile engine, an analog computer, another steam engine (much smaller, of course) and a display case full of early electrical instruments. Some nice art on the walls, too.
College campuses everywhere have monuments to their heroes. Below is James Joyce. Monuments to Joyce are plentiful around Dublin; the most famous (and artistically much better, in my opinion) is a bronze statue at the corner of O'Connell and Henry Streets. Occasionally you can see a sign on a building saying something like "Finnegan's Wake, page 241." Similarly, the houses where these guys once lived are clearly marked. Other statue-level writers, are W. B. Yeats, Samuel Becket (who was actually Irish, although he lived in France and wrote in French), Oscar Wilde, Seamus Heaney, G. B. Shaw. There is a street named after John Field, an Irish composer who was a strong influence on Chopin. Various heroes of the Irish resistance to British rule are also statue-level personalities: Collins, Pearse, de Valera, and a few more.
This year, a new president is reorganizing the university programs and management structure. The idea is to be more like the universities in the UK, Europe, and, as much as I hate to say it, the US. This undertaking has been pretty stressful for the faculty and administration and probably has incurred significant costs in terms of redoing software, reprinting catalogs, and so on. Even the university logo has been changed to something more modern looking. In spite of the hassles, though, I can't help but think it's a good thing to do, in the long run. I believe that the resulting programs and structure will eventually enhance the school's reputation and provide an education that is more along the lines of worldwide de facto standards.
Dublin is the largest city in Ireland; no surprises there. The city has a population of only a half million, and the urban area about a million. The second largest city, Cork, has a population just over a hundred thousand. No other Irish cities, even including their urban areas, are over 100,000. It's a small country.
Dublin is an oval only about four miles across. The suburbs stretch a few more miles north and south along the coast, but in any other direction, countryside begins right outside the city limits. It's quite remarkable; you're tooling along city streets, and suddenly you're surrounded by forests or pastures. Not like Zurich, with sheep grazing in the city, but almost. They're close enough.
The river Liffy runs through the center of town in an east-west direction. In town, it looks like a formidable river, but right outside of town, one can see its real nature: a pleasant, shallow, slow-moving stream. In fact, since the time of the Vikings, it has been dredged out to allow ships into the city, so now the wide, deep part is mostly seawater. O'Connell Street, the city's main street, divides the city in the north-south direction. South of the Liffy, it mostly disappears, however, and probably Dame Street qualifies for main-drag honors.
Even well beyond the summer season, Dublin is overrun by tourists. I'm not really sure why; it's not your typical tourist town. Perhaps because it's a staging area for Irish Americans on Holy Pilgrimages to find their Roots. To us, it's more like a root canal. Nothing is more annoying than a bunch of Americans who feel that they are something special and must be dealt with as such. Well, at least they don't insist that the locals speak their language.
During any nice day, summer or winter, the population is swelled by the tourist onslaught, and O'Connell Street is overrun by masses of humanity. Same story for the quays along the Liffy, in part because there are a number of good pubs. Apparently, Americans who have failed to find their roots still succeed in finding the pub culture of their ancestors, and, although they can be loud, intrusive, and annoying, rarely start riots. Go a block away from those areas, however, and it's peaceful, entirely devoid of humanity and Americans. A bizarre situation, as most of the things in Dublin worth seeing are not on O'Connell Street or by the river. St. Patrick's Cathedral, Christ Church, all the museums, Trinity College, the Dublin Castle, St. Stephen's Green and Merrion Square are all outside this area. Not out of the area, however, is Temple Bar, the cutesy restaurant and pub district along the south side of the river. Americans love Temple Bar. The tour busses dump them out by the hundreds. They go into a pub, order a half pint of Guinness, listen to some music, take a couple minutes of video footage, and scramble back onto the bus, expelling a few Guinness-tinctured beer farts, each one smugly convinced that he's had a real Irish pub experience.
Dublin is famous for its traffic congestion. As measured by the time required to get a few miles across town, Dublin is second worst in the world, beat out only by Calcutta. You might think that this would result in frequent incidences of vehicular homicide, but the mild, easygoing Irish personality (which, by comparison, makes New Mexicans seem like stressed-out overachievers) seems to take it all in stride. The lack of road rage is absolutely astonishing. The worst examples of impatience seem to occur when someone doesn't get moving soon enough after a traffic light turns green; invariably, this rates a long horn blast, but not an angry one.
Dublin is also famous for its housing market, which, at this writing, is even more inflated than Los Angeles or San Francisco. It is reminiscent of Tokyo in the 1980s, but without the wide, open spaces. Every available square foot of land in the city is beset by apartment or office-building construction, and the skyline is littered with cranes. Naturally, there is plenty of speculation as to whether this bubble will burst. Plenty of people seem to be betting that it won't, and it seems inevitable that they will lose. The upside of this situation is the complete redevelopment of many old parts of the city, especially the dock areas on the south side of the river, on the east end of town, and the old industrial area in the Smithfield section. These areas were once pretty seedy but now are quite nice. At least the parts that are finished.
In spite of it all, though, it's a fun place to be. A lot is happening here, and that makes it exciting. Now, if they could just get rid of the American tourists...