Victorian Sensibilities

The Dead Zoo

What do you get when Victorian-era zoologists and amateur collectors go crazy? Evidently Dublin’s Museum of Natural History, affectionately called the Dead Zoo by locals. Since 1857 this museum has been delighting young and old alike, at least those who enjoy walking among lots of dead, stuffed things. The crowded, three-story Victorian-adorned edifice is a treasure trove of animals, insects, and birds from around the world with a heavy concentration of Irish-specific species. The brochure states there are 10,000 specimens on display, selected from 2,000,000 in their collection. The experience of being there shows they couldn’t fit number 10,001.

Even though photography was forbidden, I managed (bad Gary) a quick snap from the third floor, shown above. Gives you some idea of how crowded the place is and the Victorianesque feeling. Visited twice, the first time arriving too close to closing time (5 o’clock prompt) to see much, but the second time arriving early enough to invest an hour sketching a few residents. The two sketches I managed (below) were drawn from ground floor (moose) and the narrow second-floor balcony (whale).

Bullwinkle's ancestor

whale bones

The Dead Zoo isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But if you’re the type that enjoys museum dioramas and zoos, then you’re in for a treat. If you visit Dublin, be sure to save time for this unique flashback to an era that encouraged compulsive collecting.

Look Both Ways

Train signLook both ways, keep an open mind, try something different. Such are the attitudes de riguer when traveling to a different culture, at least, if one wants to grow by going outside the familiar.

When I ventured to Ireland for a horizon-expanding 10 days, I knew I’d experience things different from what I was used to here in the states. To me, part of the joy of travel comes from venturing outside one’s comfort zone, and with an open mind. Too many of us travel expecting all the comforts and conveniences at home, which if so, begs the question:  why not just stay at home?

We weren't the only tourists...I knew that Ireland was a “wrong side” driving experience, that they eat things like black pudding (tried it), and drink black beer. What I didn’t expect was some difficulty in being understood, or in understanding them. Even though English is the base language (some would argue we Americans speak American, not English), the varied accents made interpretation a challenge. I don’t think we ever understood any of the bus drivers, instead smiling and putting money in the till until the receipt printed out.

The highlight of the language wars had to be a visit to Burdock’s, THE fish ‘n chips place near Christ Church. As we ordered, the cook (owner?) asked if I was American, to which I said “Yes.” He then paused, and pronounced, “Texas?” Eerie. I don’t think I have much of an accent, especially since I’ve spent over a year up here in the Midwest. Yet there was proof of my true culture over the steam table of a Dublin Fish ‘n Chips place. Either that, or we stumbled onto an amateur linguist who actively practiced on unwitting tourists.

Heuston Station, Luas train and local transportation

All the differences and subtle twists on familiar things were a constant source of entertainment. From candy bars to kitchen appliances, signs, magazines, book covers, foliage, and oh yes, bathroom “pottys,” it was fun to see other possibilities. I’ll give Irish/British chocolate bars the nod, loved our host’s electric tea kettle (which I’m now the proud owner of one, Americanized of course, although surprisingly difficult to find), Irish stews, Shepard’s Pies, and do I need to re-mention properly “stored and poured” Guinness? But I’ll keep our driving style and bathrooms, thank you. The first pub we went into presented my first loo-dilemma:  what is the proper way to use the trough? With a fronting ledge too narrow to stand on, but too wide to aim over, I was a bit puzzled. Fortunately, as in most things of this sort, someone comes along to show how it’s done. Be grateful I didn’t have my camera with me, although even loos don’t escape the Irish sense of humor.

Galway traffic

When in Dublin…

…do as the Dubliners do, which in our case meant enjoy the pubs! While the Irish generally bemoan their reputation as drinkers, the fact is they have a pub culture that serves them well both as social gathering spots and places to find really “lovely” brews. No doubt much of Ireland’s great literature first flowed from pen to paper in many of these establishments. If I spent more time over there, I’d do a great deal of writing in the cozy comfort of these places. Not sure it would do my liver much good, but most likely my muse would be happy.

Although I never personally liked Guinness before, on this trip I discovered this oversight was due to only tasting Guinness here in the states. Guinness pints poured in Dublin pubs bear little resemblance to what American bars attempt to pass as Guinness. Ostriches love GuinnessThis grave dilemma is not entirely our fault, since Guinness is brewed in Dublin and thus far fresher, and worshiped fanatically via attention to details that make all the difference in the taste. On our return to the states we tried three different places in Keene to see if the black, velvet-headed wonders available locally compared favorably to those we enjoyed in Ireland. Sadly, the American version is weaker, lacks body, and in most cases, has an unsettling metallic taste. In Dublin, a very active Guinness Quality Team, who drives about in snappy black vans (see below), ensures clean keg pipes while no doubt flogging publicans who pour the black improperly. When the love of the brew approaches (nay, rivals) religious fervor, no detail is too small, apparently.

Quality Team

Had a delightful evening one Saturday night in Dublin’s Market Bar visiting with Irish bloggers our host had assembled. While the conversation ranged topically all over the map, one interesting side discussion evolved around the Irish pub culture compared to American bars, clubs, and beer joints. Pub culture seems intrinsic in Irish life, not only evidenced from how many there are, but in how they serve as gathering places on the way to other evening delights (as well as pure destinations). One way or another, a typical Dubliner’s day includes a Pub somehow, somewhere.

dringk11.jpgWe saw plaques festooned with James Joyce’s likeness on quite a few pubs (click to see a larger image to read the text), and laughed at the irony of “A good puzzle would be to cross Ireland without passing a pub.” Fact is, it’s hard to walk down even a Dublin street without seeing at least one pub, and likely two or three in close proximity to each other. I’m not sure what constitutes an “authentic Irish pub” other than being in Ireland and serving Guinness, but some criteria exists since these plaques weren’t bestowed to every pub we passed, just a lot of ’em.

Mind the cliffAn interesting part of traveling into another culture is seeing how they use graphics and signage to inform locals of dangers or provide useful information. Mind the harborSince drinking seems to be a national pastime in Ireland, it’s no wonder some of their signage seems to be intended for those citizens who might have a “wee too much” of their beloved Guinness or whiskey. Mind the stepAlthough non-drinkers certainly can trip, walk off a cliff, or drive into the harbor, it seems more likely the happy pubber needs this extra level of protection from these accidental activities.

And as the rest of the pictures show, we enjoyed the locally brewed Guinness whenever possible, and took advantage of the delightful pub food whenever possible: comfort food at its finest. Whether we enjoyed Irish stews, Shepard’s pies, or beef and Guinness pies, all tasted wonderful and sated our desire to “eat locally” whenever we could. Nothing is quite as depressing as visiting a place like Dublin and bumping into McDonald’s and the like, which I try to avoid like the plague (always prefer to taste local fare whenever possible). But the best part, to me, of pubs in Ireland is that they are now all smoke-free, which made for delightful visits without leaving smelling like an ash tray. Wish our bars here in America followed that same sane approach, although I’ve yet to visit one that had the ambiance and pull that enticed me to come in, sit down, enjoy a few pints of cold, properly poured, Guinness with hot comfort food, and maybe even pen a few pages of that one-day-a-great novel. Such delights are for the having in a good Irish pub.

Pub with Toucan

All empty

Galway pub

Another Galway pub