Expedition Ireland: Dublin

Rarely have I felt the desire to refer to the ordeal of traversing customs and immigration at a large airport as “delightful,” but the process as practiced at Dublin International consisted of nothing more than a smiling woman waving at me and welcoming me to Ireland. The agent who stamped my passport actually seemed to enjoy having people visit his country. I was, naturally, suspicious from the get-go. I’m always slightly on edge after a long flight into such time as I can have a shower and decompress from the hours filed away in the confines of economy class. Ever conscious of traveling on the budget of a writer, I eschewed the luxury of a cab and boarded one of the many double-decker busses that make the journey between airport and hotels. It was a crisp, invigorating, sunny day as seems to be my odd luck when traveling in the UK at times when everyone expects it to be cold and miserable. I settled into a seat with a good view on the top deck of the bus and quickly discovered that the motion of a large vehicle is decidedly more pronounced at that height.

Still, it afforded me lovely views of Dublin as we crept through its winding streets en route to my hotel, which true to form, was on the outskirts of town. James Bond once commented that he enjoys the anonymous convenience of train station hotels. I cannot say I agree with him entirely, and frankly, other than a couple of instances, his own choice of hostelries doesn’t seem to support this claim. But a train station hotel is where I found myself, the Hilton Dublin Kilmainham, right across the street from the famous Kilmainham Gaol. I am not a fan of Hilton Hotel’s anonymous competence, but when one is trading on points and has found that, for some reason, the whole of Dublin seems full up, you take what you can get. In that respect, it was a perfectly acceptable and nicely styled hotel that, while not exactly convenient to the city center, was not more than a healthy, easy walk to just about everything I’d want to see and do, eat and drink. I arrived early in the day and found my room as yet unavailable, which was not unexpected. After discreetly refreshing myself in the lobby restroom, I sat about passing the time until I could check in. And the nearest place to pass the time, besides the Gaol, was the Guinness Storehouse, an attraction that came highly recommended by people I trust. I have since learned to suspect the opinions of the people who told me this attraction was a must-do.

Drinking Dublin

The approach to the Guinness Storehouse is by far the best part of visiting the thing. The attraction itself, though massive, is curiously empty. They brew no beer here, so those interesting in witnessing the process of Guinness being made will be out of luck. Most of it is a series of dioramas and videos, which one pays €20 for the privilege of viewing. The primary draw of the entire place seems to be the taproom in which one is permitted to pour oneself the “perfect pint” of Guinness. As a man who counts many a bartender and public house proprietor among his friends and acquaintances, more than a few of whom would be more than willing to let me pour myself a pint (for which I would pay, obviously), it hardly seemed worth the steep price of admission. What’s more, though Guinness makes several varieties of their beer, only the basic “Extra Stout” is available anywhere in the Storehouse, including all of its bars and restaurants. the only way one is permitted to sample anything other than the baseline is by paying an additional €35 to schedule a special classroom session. I will say, to be at least somewhat positive, that the steak and Guinness stew consumed at one of the restaurants inside the building was quite good indeed, especially after a steady diet of unpalatable airline food. But in every regard, one would be better off saving the money spent to visit this unsatisfying behemoth and spending it at a pub.

Speaking of pubs, as is my way, most of the ones I visited boasted some tie-in to history, literature, or the supernatural. Usually, this being Ireland, it was all three at once. An account of the pubs I visited and the beers I sampled at each can be found in the article Bride of Booooozy Tales, which I wrote for Alcohol Professor. By way of summarizing here, I will say that Darkey Kelly’s provided me with both the best haunted pub story and the best overall pub experience — and not just because I visited immediately after Whisky Live Dublin and, full as I was of whiskey and beer and stew, might have found myself caught up in a rousing rendition of “The Irish Rover” involving the live band that night. That said, none of the pubs in which I chose to imbibe provided me with a bad experience. I do admit, however, that I skipped the most famous (and most over-crowded) Dublin pub, Temple Bar. Instead, I opted to slip next door to it, in their much less populated whiskey shop annex. There, a bartender and shopkeep overjoyed to have a dedicated whiskey nerd in his midst, and one excited by the prospect of finally getting to try some Irish whiskey unavailable in the United States, proceeded to ply me with far more than I ordered. In the end, I walked happily, of somewhat uncertainly, onto the cobblestone streets of the Temple Bar District, my head swimming with drams of (deep breath) Jameson Caskmates Stout Finish, Locke’s 8-year-old, Dunville, Tyrconnell, Knappogue Castle 12-year-old, Crested 10, Connemara, and Temple Bar’s own single malt from the Cooley Distillery.

The absence in that flurry of Dublin’s Teeling was rectified the next morning by a fantastic visit to their distillery in the quasi-industrial Liberties neighborhood, which is a bit like Brooklyn’s Bushwick or Manhattan’s Meatpacking District before Sex and the City turned it into what it is today. Teeling is, it turns out, the only tour of a working distillery in the whole of Ireland (Bushmills is, technically, in another country), and in a conversation with Stephen Teeling, he recounted how, after the collapse of the Irish whiskey industry, Ireland abandoned the idea of distilleries as tourist destinations. It’s something they still have not embraced. The most popular Irish whiskey tourism destinations — Jamesons’ two facilities and Tullamore DEW — are museums and visitors’ centers set up in historic old facilities in which no whiskey is currently made. Ireland’s much-beloved Cooley Distillery isn’t open for tours at all. Kilbegan is the most interesting of the bunch, a sort of stabilized ruin that gives you a glimpse at how whiskey distilleries used to look. In this regard, Teeling is an exceptional tour, not just because they actually make the whiskey there, but because they have a great story (and exceptional whiskey) and have only just finished building the distillery.

Which is not to say that the other distilleries should be dismissed. Jameson has two giant, state-of-the-art museums, one in Cork and the Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin. As with Guinness, they don’t actually make Jameson whiskey at the distillery (that all takes place down in Cork). But unlike the Guinness Storehouse, the guided tour through the Jameson experience is worth the time and money. The guide was engaging, knowledgable, and funny; and the exhibits are complex and informative. Despite not seeing the whiskey made, one comes away from it all feeling that one has learned quite a bit.

The other big whiskey indulgence in Dublin, because of course I needed at least one more, came at a Japanese restaurant called Yamamori, which I went to specifically because the whiskey bar nestled behind a door in the rear of the restaurant came highly recommended. This is Tengu, and unlike the Guinness experience, this one lived up to the promise. Again, I found a bartender (and bar manager) who seemed genuinely happy to have a whiskey aficionado in the place, and once again, what was served far exceeded what was ordered (in fact, effusive generosity and warmth was pretty much the defining characteristic of most everyone I met in Ireland, with the sole exception being the dour chap at the Avis Rent-a-Car in Dublin). Being a Japanese restaurant, the whiskey bar boasted more than a few Japanese whiskies unavailable to me in the United States. an 18-year old Kirin whiskey kicked off the evening, and from there it was a parade including White Oak 14, Mars Maltage Komagatake 10-year-old, and at least one additional Suntory whiskey, the name of which is noted in my journal as a series of illegible scribbles.

Shaking Hands with a Mummy

Despite the evidence so far presented, Dublin was more than just a non-stop tour of whiskey and bars. The city was in the midst of its annual Bram Stoker Festival, which included storytelling, art, and roving packs of vampires handing out penny dreadfuls. It had been my intention since the beginning that my sojourn to Ireland should coincide with Samhain, and so forays into the esoteric, supernatural, Pagan, and profane comprised even more of my to-do list than pubs and distilleries. And top of that list in Dublin were the St. Michan’s Mummies. Located in the subterranean crypts beneath historic St. Michan’s (and across the street from the Old Jameson Distillery), the mummies are a product of unique conditions in rock and air that resulted in the corpses interred within the crypts becoming strikingly well-preserved.

Descent into the crypt was conducted for us by an attendant who took his reverent and holy duty with all the dry seriousness of…well, someone prone to frequently doing zombie staggers and Frankenstein monster stomps while making “dead guy face.” Into the cramped tunnel we went, flanked on either side by crumbling coffins and grinning human skulls, until finally we reached the back of the tombs, at which time one is invited to step and meet the most famous of the church’s mummies. Sharing the room with a nun and a man who, for one reason or another, had his hands chopped off before he was buried, is the preserved corpse of a Crusader, placed in the crypt some 900 years ago. He looks remarkably spry for his age, and after a solemn promise not to damage him, I and those with me were allowed to shake his hand, an act that legendarily bestows upon one good fortune. It also bestows upon one the tendency to antagonize others by threatening to touch them with your “mummy fingers.”

Dublin’s other ancient attraction is the Book of Kells, a lavishly illuminated book of the Christian Gospels created sometime around 800 A.D. and now housed in one of the library buildings at Trinity College. I will admit to small degree of disappointment that so little of the actual Book is on display — being and book and all, it is bound, and so you can really only show off a couple of pages without tearing the thing apart. But it is a thing of great beauty, and the rest of one’s visit to the library is filled out with extensive displays on the process of creating illuminated manuscripts during the Middle Ages, followed by a display in the impressive Long Room about the publishing history of children’s fairy tales and adventure stories, which covered everything from Táin Bó Cúailnge to Marvel’s Thor comic books.

Although the Book of Kells was on the list of things I wanted to do, the real priority in that neighborhood was the location of some stone monkeys shooting billiards. I can proudly say that the mission was accomplished. For much of the rest of my time in Dublin, the plan was to simply wander around aimlessly, to walk far and wide, and see what presented itself. Desserts were gorged upon at Queen of Tarts. Burgers were devoured at Bobo’s. I stumbled across an exhibit at the Dublin Castle’s Chester Beatty Library called “Wicked Wit,” dedicated to the humorous political cartoons of Mary and Matthew Darly. I admit that a good deal of referential 18th century humor went over my head, but making fun of women with exceptionally large wigs and men in exceptionally tight pants seem a cultural universal.

This Wicked Den

After four days of exploration, the time came to make my egress from Dublin, a city I’d quickly come to adore. My departure toward the wild western coast of Ireland was made by way of a slight detour to the south of Dublin, where I sought out Montpelier Hill, atop which sit the ruins of Dublin’s infamous Hell Fire Club. According to some, it was a secret society dedicated to affording the richest society men a place were they could indulge the wickedest and most perverse of tastes, from orgies to Satanic Black Masses to human sacrifice to the sipping of fine brandies. According to others, it’s just where rich snobs went to get drunk, play bridge, and fondle prostitutes, though whichever version of their history you accept, it involves at least the prostitutes and the brandy.

The line of vehicles spilling out of the car park and lining the narrow road leading to it warned us that this would be no solitary excursion to one of the great monuments to decadence and human wickedness. Still, I was unprepared for what awaited me at the end of the steep hike up the hill despite years of visiting sinister but well-known locations having conditioned me to expect less than eerie experiences. The hilltop was awash in day-glo performance fleece. The shrieking that greeted me as I emerged from the woods and onto the grassy top was not the forlorn howl of a banshee keening portents of my doom, nor were they the screams of bound sex partners being whipped by some pantless local magistrate. Instead, they were coming from dozens of children who had made the hike alongside their parents on what I discovered was a bank holiday. Families are one thing, but the utter lack of consideration for others or for a historic ruin was appalling. Fathers would punt soccer balls against the side of the ruins, or kick them through the windows to send them bouncing wildly around inside while their beastly little fiends ran willy nilly. The Hell Fire Club is hardly a place that demands reverent silence or good behavior, but using it as a soccer goal seemed a big excessive. Getting drunk and setting yourself on fire seems a far more historically appropriate revel.

Still, if one was patient — and one can be — the throngs of uncouth holiday makers more interested in kicking around the soccer ball than exploring the ruin would wander off, leaving little eddies of quiet time in which one could enjoy the macabre remains of the Club without needing to dodge pre-teens in sweatpants. My first reaction upon entering this storied house of sin was, “this room seems rather small for conducting an orgy.” Stripped entirely of its finery, one is hard-pressed to imagine what it was like in its heyday. One also is often overly concerned with the sheer logistics of orgies when one should, perhaps, just be enjoying the orgies. Is there enough space? Is the floor comfortable? Will there be hors d’oeuvres? If there is a gang bang, what entertainment to we have for the Hell Fire Club members who are “on deck”? As I have discovered in visiting a number of castles over the years, the scale of the rooms within these impressive stone constructs is always much smaller than I expect. But, after pacing off the room, I reckoned it was indeed large enough for an orgy, though not one involving a high degree of Caligula-esque finery.

Even amongst the squalling progeny of the 21st century, one can lose oneself in the ghoulish history of the Hell Fire Club ruins. A hunting lodge built around 1725 by William Conolly, the ruin sits at the summit of Montpelier, on a site once occupied by an ancient Neolithic passage tomb. A nearby standing stone was uprooted and used as a mantle over the fireplace. Stones from the burial cairn were used in the construction of the lodge. Shen a vicious storm collapsed the roof of the newly finished building, it was regarded by many as retribution visited upon it by the ancient gods for desecrating the tomb. After it fell out of disuse as a hunting lodge, the Hell Fire Club claimed it as their Dublin headquarters. It is even said that one night, the members were engaged in a card game when they were visited by a stranger. They invited him in and dealt him in, but when one member dropped something and bent to retrieve it from under the table, he noticed that the mysterious visitor had cloven hoofs instead of feet. The remnants of an ancient Pagan earthen-works burial cairn remain in the lodge’s back yard. The evil purported to have been practiced by the members has resulted in more than a few tales of terror related to the ruin. The ghost of a young woman who wanders the grounds and old stone hallways. The ghostly sound of whipping and screaming echoing across the wind-swept hilltop. The phantom of a farmer’s daughter who was supposedly kidnapped by Hell Fire Club leader Thomas “Buck” Whaley and eaten during a horrifying cannibalistic ritual. A glowing pink spectre menacingly waving its arms in front of itself. Oh wait, that’s just someone taking a selfie.

Even amid the sea of holiday makers, there is a spooky atmosphere to be extracted from that grassy, windy hilltop with a commanding view of Dublin far below. The Hell Fire Club members themselves managed to set the place on fire back in the 1700s, though whether that was God’s vengeance, the Devil’s prank, or just what happens when a bunch of drunk old rich guys get together and light candles, who can say? But by the time the crowd had thinned and I had the ruined stone hallways to myself, it was indeed possible to conjure up a bit of that ghoulish history. Having properly communed with the debauched and defiled, it was back down the hill to the Stewards House (the temporary HQ of the Hell Fire Club after the fire), and then into the car and on to Wild West, where awaited the green hills and white stone fences of Galway.