The Muckross House is an eighteenth-century Irish manse set in the middle of a national park and overlooking a beautiful lake. If you're dead and highbrow, this is the place to haunt. When upkeep proved obscene (the proprietors went bankrupt while entertaining Queen Victoria), Mr. and Mrs. Muckross, Jr. donated the house to the Irish government which offers tours to one and all. On these, a chipper guide leads you through room after room of outmoded opulence (leather-bound books, Waterford crystal, majestic stairways, billiard parlors from which women were banned, kitchens from which they weren't). The guide asks those touring not to touch anything, and those touring graciously acquiesce. Their children, however, do not. Our tour group included an eight-year-old boy who was basically North Korea in child form. He'd promise to comply with his parent's demands, but as soon as they turned their backs, he'd run amuck(ross)—darting under velvet ropes, pouncing on furniture, throttling eighteenth-century toys, etc. Mariana and Bob, both psychology pre-hDs, proceeded to diagnose Kim Jong-L'il: bad parenting, infantilization (he still had a pacifier), developmental disabilities. I just imagined ways to kill him.
That evening, we checked into the Killarney Railroad Hostel, so-called because each room is built boxcar-style: a long narrow space with bunk beds on one side and a narrow aisle on the other for luggage or walking, not both. Entering and exiting our quarters was tantamount to human Tetris and led me to wonder how the Boxcar Children didn't ultimately stab each other. For our part, we spent as much time as possible outside the room, often in pursuit of food.
Irish cuisine is bland and bread-filled—soda bread, potato bread, brown bread; I was in heaven. The most exotic part of my meals was usually the fruit cider, and when pushed to veer from my bread-only diet, I found solace in pizza, spaghetti, and other items usually banished to the children's menu. Irish breakfast is similarly glorious with one notable exception: black pudding. Don't let the "pudding" moniker deceive you. There is nothing puddingly about this concoction; it consists of pig's blood and kidney fat. The first half "black pudding," however, is accurate and refers its natural predecessor, Black Death.
To the best of my understanding, the traditional Irish dessert is the 99 Cone, a combination of chocolate tubules and vanilla soft-serve that dates back to either Druids or Supermac's (the Irish version of McDonald's). We first made the acquaintance of 99 cones in Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, which trades in forts (prefixed with "Dun") and cows (postfixed with dung). (At Dun Aengus, I played the where-did-you-live game with a former New Yorker. It turns out she lived in my building, on the same floor. I have now met more of my neighbors in Dun Aengus than I have at home.)
Upon leaving Killarney, we suffered a bit of a setback. We (royal) had wanted to sail to Skellig Michael, an island that's godforsaken yet somehow a monastery. Unfortunately, the ferry company reported that sea conditions were "too rough" and cancelled our booking. When attempting to hike Mount Pacaya in Guatemala, I had faced a similar challenge when the tour company said conditions were "too volcanic." In that case, I simply found a tour company that cared less about my personal safety, rebooked my tickets, and a couple hours later, climbed an active volcano. In Ireland, however, everyone cares about your safety. We called every ferry company in Port McGee, and no one would take us to Skellig Michael despite our assurances that, should we drown, suing them would prove logistically difficult.
In lieu of Skellig Michael, we spent the day driving along the Ring of Kerry, Ireland's version of Highway 1 which has beautiful views of the ocean and the skelligs you aren't visiting. The Ring of Kerry is lined with hedge mazes (yay), llama farms (yay), children's (boo) playgrounds (yay), and ruins. Lots of ruins. You can't throw a dead leprechaun without hitting a ring fort. Ring forts are circular structures where the Celts stored their small circular objects. I say "small" because, although the ring forts have a large footprint, there's not much room inside due to the thickness of the walls. If we use the equation [inner area = π * (inner radius)^2], we can calculate that the usable space in a ring fort is zero. The Killarney Railroad Hostel used a similar design.
Our next (and penultimate) stop was Dublin, Ireland's capital and home to the worst authors of all time. (I'm looking at you, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce.) Because we no longer had a rental car, I led my unwitting companions on a forced march across Dublin to the Kilmainham Gaol (their version of "jail").
Gaols in Ireland incarcerated two types of people: children and political dissidents. Children who stole food (often to save themselves from starvation—no excuse) would serve years of hard labor. Ironically, their cells have since been converted into a café.
Kilmainham dealt with political dissidents less effectively. The prison staff would take these dissidents, often beloved folk heroes, and shoot them in a public square. The public did not take to this kindly. In fact, these shootings contributed to a long series of British injustices, culminating in Cats, which would lead the Irish to rebellion.
Despite the atrocities that occurred there, the main wing of the Kilmainham Goal is a pleasant enough place. Following the Victorians' Panopticon model, three levels of cells line a large circular rotunda. Skylights admit ample sun, and thick walls keep the space delightfully cool even in the dog days of summer. This design was inspired by the Victorian approach to prison management, best summarized by the three S's: "silence, solitude, and supervision." This supplanted the three-B's approach of "beatings, beatings, and beatings."
Before I left for Dublin, my friend JoAnna told me that, no matter what, I had to see the Guinness Storehouse. I was somewhat dubious since (a) I don't like beer and (b) JoAnna's choices can be suspect. (She was (voluntarily) Natalie's roommate at Juilliard for four years, she dated a Canadian, and, by so doing, she inspired Natalie to date a Canadian.) However, I generally do what people tell me (it's a fixed action pattern left over from middle school), so I booked tickets for myself and those whom I wished to join me.
The Guinness Storehouse is ridiculous. Ridiculous. Imagine Willy Wonka's chocolate factory if Willy Wonka were an alcoholic. The building is shaped like a giant pint glass. As you enter, digital murals declare the four ingredients of beer ("Water! Barley! Yeast! Hops!"), and exhibits for each ingredient expand upon these declarations. (Yes, there's an exhibit to show you what water looks like.) Placards on the walls perhaps overestimate Guinness's importance in the history of mankind ("The history of Guinness is the history of transportation") and mankind's knowledge of Guinness ("Contrary to popular belief, the water for Guinness does not come from River Liffey."). Signed statements from the Guinness heirs lead one to ask why the Guinnesses didn't select better names for their children than "Rupert" and "Victoria."
A video inside an keg-shaped auditorium offered the best propaganda I've seen since "Oil and You!" during last year's road trip to Deadhorse, Alaska. In this video, a scientist (you know he's a scientist because he's wearing a lab coat and goggles) describes the good-for-you ingredients that go into Guinness and advises you drink it whenever, wherever, and as often as possible. His lecture is interspersed with clips of football players and cheerleaders who, though they aren't drinking Guinness, certainly appear attractive enough to do so. Yet even the intelligentsia can enjoy Guinness: as the video ends, the scientist removes his goggles, takes a sip, wipes the foam from his mouth, and sighs.
On the top floor of the museum, there are four attractions: three bars and one "Don't Drink and Drive" exhibit. (Guess which one was closed.) Of these, we selected the Gravity Bar, a Panopticon of sorts where the walls are circular and entirely glass. It looks like the revolving restaurant in the Space Needle, but it doesn't revolve, at least until your second Guinness. The glass walls offer a panoramic view of Dublin, and panes overlooking sites significant to Irish literature are emblazoned with quotes from the associated authors. Because if there's anything drunk people want to see, it's James Joyce quotes. (On second thought, sufficient beer might make Ulysses tolerable.)
With your ticket to the Guinness Storehouse, you get a free pint of beer. I was hesitant to redeem mine since, after one sip of (non-alcoholic) beer in July 2001, I concluded that all beer is foul. Some back story: I was visiting my grandparents the summer before my freshman year of college. They noted that, although I wasn't a social butterfly in high school, I could rectify this in college if I learned two skills: beer and bridge. They put an O'Douls and a deck of cards in front of me, and thus proceeded one of the more painful two-hours of my life. At the end of that ordeal, I vowed never to drink beer again. And I had stuck to that. Until I reached the Gravity Bar.
A pint of Guinness is now sitting in front of me. There are several different flavors of Guinness (Crap, Really Crap, Slightly More Alcoholic Crap), and I have no idea which one I'm staring at. The foam bubbles, as if to remind me of the Coke I could be drinking instead, and slowly the caramel suds descend to the bottom of the glass revealing a dark fluid that suggests tar pureed with black pudding. At this point, I'm ready to call it a day and give the beer to someone else (Bob had become my resource for libations I no longer cared to libate). Unfortunately, peer pressure prevails (Mari and Bob know their psychology; Alpana knows argon), and I consent to take a sip.
The foam bubbles against my nose, the dark-dark liquid slowly, viscously makes its way to my pink-pink tongue. Then, suddenly, contact.
I had found the beverage equivalent of James Joyce.