Category Archives: irish history


The Green Hen on Wicklow Street in Dublin

Having survived the airborne adventure that is Stobart Air to Dublin, I transited the airport and was lucky enough to find my driver already waiting at the exit. Minutes later, and the black saloon car was swishing its way through the teeming, Saturday afternoon throng of the great city on the Liffey.

My overnight hotel was the Spencer, located literally on the banks of the Liffey, not a stone’s throw from the Town Hall, and all the buzz and bustle of O’Connell Street. Check in was fast, warm and courteous and, with my room being on the first floor, it took no time at all to get there.

The corridors en route are kind of grey and dimly lit; one part submarine, one part Sing Sing. But no complaints about the room at all; great bathroom, with fab toiletries, plus a bed big enough to lose myself in. All things considered, a comfortable, accommodating base that I’d be happy to go back to, as much for it’s convenience as for it’s conviviality.

Dublin’s streets are a happy, teeming mess of bars done out in every style, from baroque to gleaming chrome and glass. Regardless of style, they all have that earthy, irreverent feel that is still ever so slightly anarchic, even in a city that is as much in love with Gucci as it is with Guinness these days. Be advised; Dublin is not a cheap date these days, but there’s no denying the sheer quality of everything on offer here, from beer to freshly baked bread.

Cobbled streets bisect the main roads where traffic barrels through Dublin’s centre like swarms of maddened beetles. They are filled with the sound of everything from accordions to full symphony orchestras, via buskers, sax players and even some raw, raucous old skiffle. This is a city that rocks, rolls and swaggers- also sometimes staggers-through until the small hours. And she does so to a sublime, Celtic rhythm that is uniquely all her own.

For dinner, I went to a French-Irish bistro called the Green Hen on Wicklow Street. Set on two levels, the place has a long bar that sits to the right of the entrance, and all the dark wooden panelling that you could ever want. You can eat at the bar, or in the main dining area at the rear. A filigreed staircase leads to an upper level but, downstairs, it’s all deep red leather chairs and rose coloured lamps on the tables. In some ways, it’s a little too dim to read the menus properly, but then a side order of ‘quirky’ should be an essential element of any good bistro, wherever it is in the world.

There’s no edge or attitude here, but there is excellent food and service proffered up in an informal, expansive setting. I had a carrot and rose soup that was almost spine tingling, and a fillet steak so tender that it crumbled at the touch of a knife. It came with a side order of asparagus the size of a Kansas wheat field.

Dessert- I just managed it- was a comely creme brulee washed down with a feisty cappuccino. Wine wise, I went with the recommendations of a very savvy, and extremely busy waiter that clearly knew his field. All things considered, the Green Hen was a game old bird of a venue, pun wholly intentional.

Later, it was back to the Mercantile Hotel, where a cracking live band had been kicking up a storm outside for most of the night. Drinking, dancing Dublin is a soundtrack all her own, and she’ll twirl you around into the small hours of the morning if you let her. I did.

I hit my hotel bed like a felled tree at some scant remembered small hour of the morning. And, even as I lumbered toward my slumber, a small flotilla of cruise ships was converging on Dublin, intent on an early Sunday morning arrival.

There was the spiffy little Variety Voyager and the vast, looming Mein Schiff 3. The main port also had the pretty little Pacific Princess, the last of the eight, original ‘R’ Class ships now not in service with either Azamara Club Cruises or Oceania. There was also an old friend of mine; the sublime little Silver Wind, so fondly remembered from a cruise around the Mediterranean a few years ago.

And-unmistakable in the slowly rising Sunday morning sun- there was my ship, the magnificent Marina in the outer harbour.I would be joining her later that day and that, as I knew from a previous trip on her, was something else entirely worth salivating over.


Cobh Harbour, with St. Colman’s at centre

It was a bright, sunny morning when the Marina arrived in the small Irish port of Ringaskiddy, just a few miles away from Cobh. Seabirds soared and dived into a sparkling blue sea crowned by sporadically rolling whitecaps. A warm wind whipped across the aft terrace, a gentle reminder that, while this was still high summer, autumn’s chill was not too far off over the horizon, either.

None of which was going to deter me from making the relatively short journey to Cobh. In fact, we could see the place from the edge of the shore. The tall, slender spire of St. Colman’s cathedral resembled some celestial finger, pointing straight up at the heavens. At the main town dock there sat the unmistakable shape of Princess Cruises’ gargantuan Royal Princess. Ironically, that same ship had sat docked ahead of us in Mykonos back in April. A small world, indeed.

Cobh itself is a pretty little town, with pastel coloured houses in shades of red, ochre and blue, crouching along a waterfront packed with small, idly bobbing fishing boats and small tourist craft. Set against a backdrop of gently rolling hills and vast, sun splashed meadows, Cobh has charm and intimacy in spades.

And it has history, too.

Beginning in the late 1800’s, hundreds of thousands of desperate, impoverished Irish people poured through the town-known back then as Queenstown- in a human tidal wave, bound for the promise of a hopefully better life in the New World. For many, the port was the last ever sight of their old lives, and marked for most of them a final, poignant parting from parents, siblings and lifelong friends. Back then, the town had a patina of overwhelming pathos, one kept barely in check by a rising tide of hope for a better life, somewhere just over the horizon. If ever one place was a bittersweet symphony wrought in stone, steam, tears and tide, this was surely it.

During the 20th century, it became customary for those departing hordes to leave from the pier at the back of the local post office. Two tenders- the Ireland and the America- would then take them out to where some huge liner lay waiting for them out in the bay, usually off Roches’ Point. Symbolically and actually, the casting off of their lines to the shore meant, for many, the severing of the last links to their old lives. In so many ways, Queenstown back then was the open wound from which Ireland was bled dry of her best, her brightest and her bravest. It was a blood letting that would take literally decades to staunch.

Queenstown in those days ran to a regular schedule; the great Cunard liners would leave Liverpool on a Saturday each week, embarking at Queenstown on the Sunday. Each Wednesday, one of the crack ships of the rival White Star Line would leave Southampton, and embark from Queenstown on the Thursday. It was a well oiled machine, but it ran in one direction only for the most part. Neither Cunard or White Star were in the habit of calling at Queenstown on the return crossing from New York.

Just after noon on Thursday, April 11th 1912, some 123 Irish migrants huddled together aboard the two tenders, boarding at the quay as usual. They gazed in awe at the shape of the vast, new leviathan waiting for them out in the bay. This was her first ever call into Queenstown and, as events were to prove, it would also be her last.

As the tenders bumbled out across the grey chop of a cold but sunny day, the new ship grew ever more massive and imposing. Seagulls wheeled and dived around her, foraging for scraps of garbage as they were spat out of the waste pipes near the waterline. Aboard the huge liner, idly promenading passengers stopped to study the tenders as they bucked the briny, gazing for a moment at the huddled masses clad in shawls and heavy suits. Those same people in the tenders could by now read the name of their ship, etched in three foot high golden letters on her bow.


The rest, of course, is history. The brief, two hour stop at Queenstown would be the last land that most of those embarked on maritime history’s most infamous maiden voyage would ever see.

Like everywhere else that she touched during her brief but spectacular career, the Titanic left her mark on Queenstown. Today, Cobh’s Museum of Immigration (the town was renamed in 1922, after Southern Ireland gained it’s independence from the British Empire) tells the baleful story of the town’s past, with an obvious emphasis on the vast torrent of humanity that flooded out of it during those turbulent years.

Quite a sobering little stop, Cobh. Pretty for sure, but with undercurrents as deep as the Atlantic rollers that still flail at it’s shores to this day.




Dublin, looking over from the Sixpenny Bridge

Without doubt, Dublin is regarded as one of the great party capitals of Europe, and with very good reason. This stately, graceful city on the Liffey is chock full of bars, clubs and restaurants, all set along and around some of the most spellbinding Georgian architecture anywhere in Europe. And, of course, the locals have a reputation for earthy, honest to goodness carousing that draws people in from all over the world. In short, Dublin is the good time that literally millions of people want to have.

But Dublin is far more than her street entertainers, her outdoor terraces packed with revellers in the long, humid summer nights, and her streets thronged with stag and hen parties from around Europe. Dublin has a subtle undercurrent that is far more nuanced, and it revolves around her place as the pivot on which Ireland’s bid to break free from British rule was wound. In short, the events that led to the infamous 1916 ‘Easter Rising’ that was suppressed at such a high cost in blood on both sides.

The abortive rising was put down in a wave of savage fighting, and the captured leaders of the rebellion were, for the most part, later shot by firing squads in the stark, cobbled stone breaker’s yard at Kilmainham Gaol, in the northern suburbs of the capital. You can still visit the site today and, even in the brilliant light of a warm summer’s afternoon, that brutal, brooding old cul- de- sac exudes an air of solemn finality. I would not even consider visiting the place alone at night.

It was the reaction to the rebellion, rather than the act itself, that really seemed to focus Irish minds at the time. There was little real local support for the original rising; Britain and her Empire was engaged in a life and death struggle with Imperial Germany at that time, and scores of Irish born troops were fighting for King and Country amid the carnage of the western front. The idea of rising up and claiming independence right at that time- though ultimately desirable to many- seemed more than a little wrong.

From the British perspective, it was obvious that the rebellion had to be put down forcibly. Whitehall knew full well that a shipment of German arms was inbound for the rebels- it was intercepted off the southern coast of Ireland, and the German captain was obliged to scuttle his ship. With the threat of German intervention thus very real, the British gave short shrift to the captured leaders of the rebellion, culminating in those final, ghastly scenes in the yard at Kilmainham Gaol.

But those same executions were also seen as excessive by the local populace, which had also been shocked by the rapid and brutal suppression of the original attempt. Public opinion in Ireland began to turn irrevocably towards independence, leading ultimately to the ‘two state’ situation that still exists to the present day.

For a great, dramatic overview of the entire story of the Easter Rising, I definitely recommend visiting Dublin’s stately General Post Office. This was the headquarters of the rebel leaders during that fateful Easter Week back in 1916; it was on the famous steps at the front that the original proclamation of independence was read out in the first place. Though much of the actual fighting and skirmishing took place in the surrounding streets and on the periphery of the Post Office (The GPO as it is always referred to), it’s place at the heart of the rebellion is universally acknowledged on both sides.

Inside, an evocative, sobering display of artefacts from the time combines with modern, audio visual technology to create a slowly unfolding timeline of the events leading up to the rebellion, the act itself as it played out over the course of one long, bloody week, and the inevitable consequences for all concerned, right up to the present day. It’s foolhardy pride tinged with sadness, a sense of frustration mixed with fatalism, and an adrenaline fuelled sense of urgency to force a conclusion, whatever the human and material cost might be.

So yes, enjoy the sense of partying, and the breezy sense of down to earth fun that has long been Dublin’s gift to the rest of the world. But also do her the respect of acknowledging that there is more, far more, to this magical, mercurial city that still sprawls along the banks of the River Liffey. She deserves more.