Number 31's Garden
Sunday 01 May 2016

Guinness Hops Store

The best thing? At the tippy-top of the seven story Guinness Hops Store is the Gravity Bar with its gravity defying wall to ceiling windows and the best views in Dublin, and of Dublin. Out to the Dublin mountains, along the Liffey River, looking over the heart of the town - what a righteous spectacle!
The bestest best thing? As part of the admission price, every visitor to Dublin's most visited private attraction gets a pint of Guinness stout. Stout is the Irish national drink, the lubricant which smooths the Irish economy, and the cure for Irish weather. What is Stout? A black beer, smooth as velvet, thickly topped by a creamy head of suds. 
There's a ritual to properly pulling a pint. It's best done slow, with the glass tilted to a 45 degree angle to maximize air contact. Fill it roughly 10-15mm below the rim of the glass, then leave it to settle. Press back on the tap and top up till just proud of the rim. There should be no pouring off or sloshing off of any kind. What goes into the glass stays in the glass. 
Wait some more while the last of the white fizzies separate out from black-bodied drink. When the foam is on the top, and the black beer is undisturbed by bubbles, the preliminaries are done. Finally, the stuff is suitable to taste.
Sit down in front of one of the giant windows and enjoy a quintessential Dublin experience. Dublin outside, Guinness inside. Ahhhh....
Stout is a remarkable drink. The effect on the head is quite unlike an ale or lager beer. For many people, a pint leaves no hangover, no tiredness. Stout in small quantities just calms the nerves and leaves the head clear, and stomach relaxed. 
The Guinness Hops Store was the first steel strut building built in Ireland.The problem is that the seven-floored Hops Store is awash with pubs. You'll be sore tempted to stop at one of these and use up your free pint chit before you reach gravity-ville. 
All the more so because at several levels "classes" are offered where you can learn the fine art of pulling a pint yourself. After your five minutes of instruction, you'll get your chance. Who can resist this educational experience - lesson and guided practice in one black and white foamed package. 
On the way, stop and watch the master craftsmen of yesteryear . The coopers, for instance, used to make the wooden barrels in which the brew was moved. Their remarkable skills, thankfully  captured on film, astonish modern viewers. With only a few hand tools, an adze, axe and fire, the master barrel makers took raw wood planks and transformed them into watertight wooden barrels held together with iron hoops. Amazing. 
This is a museum and demonstration space for all things Guinness. Escalate up the refurbished Hops Store where the company once stored Hops, a key ingredient of Stout. Enjoy the architecture of the steel strutted building, the very first built in Ireland. Look down, look up - even a walk-through is an eye opener. 
And if you can resist all the temptations on the way, top out at the gravity bar to enjoy the view and the Guinness. Worth a visit.
The appropriately named Hop-On, Hop-Off bus stops here. You can pick up discounted tickets for the bus at Number 31. 
Tuesday 12 Apr 2016

Concert Hall Exams

You know The Dream. You're late for a crucial exam. You rush onward but.... 
Details vary. Perhaps you've forgotten your pants. For sure you can't remember a thing about tensor calculus/French romantic novelists/irregular Latin verbs. 
The National Concert Hall. Note the choir. When a choir isn't in attendance, these seats are available to the public at bargain prices. The best seats in the house!And for generations of Dublin students, a visit to The National Concert Hall provoked exactly these nameless fears. For more than a century before it was converted to the nation's premiere music venue, the Concert Hall was University College Dublin's premiere testing facility. That was back in 1874 onward to 1981 when the University moved to a new campus on the outskirts of Dublin and the old exam hall was converted to a music hall. 
Students in their hundreds used to show up with sharpened pencils and exam books at the ready. They took one of the rows and rows of desks. Here under the watchful eyes of exam proctors, they raced the clock to finish the tests set them by their professors. 
James Joyce was one such UCD student. So were future Supreme Court Justices, business leaders, the elite of Ireland. And for all of them, the place was a source of dread. One man actually passed away suddenly just before his own final exam and who can say if it wasn't the stress induced by the place that caused his unexpected passing.  
This poor soul was the Swedish acoustic engineer who redesigned the main auditorium to world class musical standards. His key innovation was to sculpt the wooden seats and wall panels with varying sizes of holes and ridges to prevent reverberation. But, the designer's sudden death came just before sound tests and adjustments. 
The result is a a music hall with a sound issue, quite good but not in the tippy-top league. Many people swear by the cheapest seats in the house, those immediately behind and above the stage. These are the very seats assigned to choir singers, but when no singers are present they are available to the public. Sit here and you're part of the orchestra with great swells of sound all round you - and at a bargain price! The drawback is that soloists face away from these seats. 
Another key person in the Hall's history passed his own test with flying colours. This was the architect Rudolph Maximilian Butler who was chosen in 1914 to create a suitably impressive facade for the University building. Butler was inspired by the 1700's Dublin Customs House design and the iconic frontage that he created was classically Georgian. Having scored an A+ with his plan, Butler impressed the University enough that he was chosen to lead the architecture department from the mid 1920's into the 1940's.
The Irish are a musical race and the National Concert Hall is where the finest musicians and singers, national and international alike, come to perform. For most events, there are usually some seats available on the day. Check out the easy-to-use website at www.nch.ie 
And now here comes the best part. The National Concert Hall is a very short five minute walk from Number 31. You'll find it hard to stay closer! 
Number 31 is the place to be for the best music in Ireland. And there's no fear on that score. 
Thursday 31 Mar 2016

Viking Games

After a few months terrorising the Irish, a Viking needed a bit of relaxation. Something to take the mind off work, the cold, wet sea voyages, the storming of an unprepared village, the killing, the pillage, the slaving. Yes, time to hoist a pint of mead, and remember the triumphant dawn when you got in and got out fast. Especially, the getting out part. 
It would give a Viking indigestion just contemplating what might happen if he outstayed his welcome. As sure as the watch horns sounding in the morning air, men from the nearest villages would come storming in, very impolite. Then there'd be a fight and the numbers were against you. Much better to just slip away, back to the boats, and away to Dublin to sell the swag. 
A Tafl board. The white pieces want to get clean away to the corners, the defenders want to eat the raiders for breakfast.Yes, there was nothing like a clean get-away to make a man happy. Mead in hand, you could sit and recount your exploits to anyone who'd listen. And, likely as not, someone would pull out a Tafl board and you could tell your story over the game.
TAFL
The rules of Tafl were simple. The battlefield was a square board and the raiders' pieces sat in the middle. On all four sides, defenders massed and they were intent on preventing a get-away. But, the four corners of the board were clear and the raiders, usually the white pieces,  won the game by scampering out of harm's way. Simply move the Chieftain, the one tall piece in the middle, into a corner and you were outta there. 
But, nothing was certain when part time warriors went Viking. Trouble could spring out of nowhere. And sure enough, the Tafl game pieces could move from one side of the board to the other as long as they travelled in straight lines, no diagonals allowed. Only north, south, east and west, as it were. Tafl pieces moved exactly like castles in chess. 
There was no jumping. The only way to remove an opponent's piece - or an opponent for that matter - was to surround him, one of your own men to each side. And with "men" sliding all the way from one side of the board to the other in a single move, trouble wasn't easy to avoid. Only the warrior who knew his craft, his Tafl AND his war craft both, could triumph. 
Some warriors preferred to defend, and they took the dark pieces. With nearly double the men, the defenders were often able to block escape. But, there was no telling in war. Best to keep the mind agile and what better way to prepare for the next season's raids than to play the game of raiders - Tafl.
Best of all, the pieces moved the same, no sneaky bishops coming at you from the corners or knights on horseback leaping over your men. No, the pieces moved in straight lines. Even a mind clouded by a pint or seven of Mead could manage this game. Simply acquire a refill from the closest serving wench and play could continue until one opponent or the other toppled onto the rush filled floor. 
DUBLINIA
If you want to try your hand at Tafl head over to Dublinia beside Christ Church, the absolutely brilliant recreation of Viking and Medieval Dublin - http://www.dublinia.ie . As you wander through the dioramas of a boat unloading at the docks or walk beside a busy laneway complete with beggar and children playing their own board game, you'll come upon a reconstructed Viking  home with fire and cooking cauldron in the centre. On one of the two low wooden bed shelves, guide Colm Chan has set up a Tafl game. 
It takes Colm only five minutes to trounce you, but the complexities of Tafl are compelling. A rematch produces the same result, but the game grows on you. When a pair of chess grand masters tried to play Tafl the way scholars think it was played, they pronounced it eminently satisfying. 
THE LOST RULES
The rules of the game were actually lost for hundreds of years, at least to the archaeologists digging up Tafl boards and Tafl playing pieces all over the Viking world. Treatises were written, theories expounded, but no one knew the rules until an archaeologist with botanical interests came across a long forgotten entry by Carl Linnaeus, the great Swedish botanist who invented a procedure for naming and classifying plants, the Linnaean system. 
During a collecting expedition in the depths of Swedish tundra, Linnaeus spent time with a native clan who were still trapping and herding reindeer exactly like their ancient ancestors. At night, they unrolled a hide on which was drawn a square playing board. The number of playing pieces matched the archaeologist's finds and one of the pieces was taller than the rest. 
Linnaeus described the rules of the game which the natives called Muscovites and Swedes after their own experience. And the game Linnaeus described matched the Tafl descriptions recorded in Norse Sagas. 
Play a game of Tafl yourself and there's no question. This is an absolutely absorbing game - AND it can be played while imbibing mead. What more could a successful Viking raider want?
Well, perhaps a night on the lovely Haasten beds at Number 31. Either that or a stuporous sleep amidst the straw and spilled mead and the dogs on the floor. Take your pick. 
Saturday 12 Mar 2016

Antique Quarter

Yes, it's good to have money. Lots of it. Money for the best horses and carriages, money enough to marry off daughters requiring dowries, money for the finest furniture to exhibit your taste and wealth. 
O'Sullivan Antiques is an "Aladdin's Cave" of wonders. Happily, Ireland in the Georgian and Regency Period provided the landed gentry with plenty of the necessary. Big Houses, that's what tenants called the mansions and country homes of the elite, and these were filled with wonders. Finely carved walnut furniture, sparkling silver trays and cutlery, all the accoutrements of refined living were on display. 
The one percent knew how to live back in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. They employed dozens of servants and kept many firms of skilled craftsmen in business. Ignore the dirt poor tenants and the starving victims of famine and Ireland was quite the treasure trove of elegant living. 
Time levels all. Those drafty Big Houses required servants to keep the fireplaces well stocked with timber and the silverware polished. Income from tenants shrank and the servants acquired college educations. Inheritance taxes, income taxes, outright confiscations by twentieth century Land Commissions mounted. 
What to do? Casting about for expedients, later Big House owners began to sell off their family jewels. And their fittings, fixtures, paintings, silver, mirrors, dining room tables - any and everything. This was fine stuff entirely suitable for the homes of the new one percent and lesser mortals wanting to display a unique piece. And just as aristocrats once demonstrated their solid position and wealth, these days corporations buy instant cachet on the antique market. 
Where does all this finery end up? Much of it passes through Dublin's Antique Quarter, a wonderland of antique shops and artisan cottages and spectacular churches. Almost entirely off the tourist trail, this unknown happy hunting ground features some of the most interesting sights in Dublin. Francis Street is the centrepiece of the district and it is the "top antique street in Ireland."
Take O'Sullivan Antiques - www.osullivantantiques.com - with showrooms in Manhattan and Dublin. The place is an "Aladdin's Cave" of treasures. Wander the Dublin store's room after room of wonders. The firm's website claims that "Many who have stepped through the doors of O’Sullivan Antiques have described their experience as 'stepping back in time and not wanting to leave'." True! 

Niall Mullen Antiques features Art Deco antiques.

And while the store caters to deep wallets, there are enough smaller objet's d'art within reach to tempt just about anyone. 
Of course, not everyone who appreciates fine craftsmanship represents a wealthy business firm. In fact, even those who can afford splashing out thousands for a painting or period piece often prefer a different style. Art Deco, the early twentieth century movement that featured both superb workmanship and cleaner lines, is the mainstay of Niall Mullen Antiques. Here's where you'll find the one-of-a-kinds that don't require spinning straw into gold. Merely silver. 
Niall is a second generation antique dealer since his father ran a fine art auction firm for 46 years. The company's website - www.niallmullenantiques.com - makes the point that "A piece of 1920s furniture, glass or sculpture is as at home now... as it was in the years of its conception." Wandering through the showroom, the visitor's eye alights on a vase of Venetian Glass or a wood desk with rounded clean lines. Just the kind of things to Jazz Age up a Dublin apartment. 
Oxfam Home features something for everyone including almost-antiques hidden amongst the stacks.High end, middle end - and across the street is the biggest charity shop in Dublin, the 5,500 square foot Oxfam Home. Here's where you'll find sofas four deep, tables stacked high, bric-a-brac, dishes and unnoticed treasures. Oxfam - www.oxfamireland.org -works in more than 90 countries worldwide " to find solutions to poverty and save lives when disaster strikes." Oxfam was looking for someplace to put a Furniture and Homewares store in order to display the myriad donations made to the highly regarded charity. Back in 2003, Francis Street was relatively affordable and it already was recognised for its antiqueries. 
Paul Houlihan, the shop manager, reflects on the changes he's seen. For years there were empty units in Francis Street, but in the last few years, right in the middle of the Great Recession, Francis Street "definitely came up." Now there are coffee shops and cafes and nearby Meath Street with its street market brings in additional business. 
Oxfam clients include everyone from young couples starting out to film companies looking to rent props for a set. One thing all these customers have in common: "They're all looking for a bargain."
At the very back of Oxfam's huge display space, are two racks of no-hopers, the odds and ends left around that just won't move, the unloved and unwanted bits and bobs that staff want to send to a good home. Set your own price and walk away with anything that catches the eye. 
And look! There sit half a dozen fine china saucers that are elegant and would be entirely fitting in a Georgian or Regency setting. Big House stuff. There are no cups to go with the saucers, but they would make elegant plant trays, soap dishes, paper clip holders, who knows? Price: five cents and you're away with a genuine Dublin almost-an-antique. 
Wednesday 24 Feb 2016

Nelson’s Pillar

Paris has the Arc de Triumph, London has Big Ben and Rome the Colosseum. And for 157 years, Dublin's signature monument rose 134 feet tall and dominated the city's skyline. It was a must-see tourist destination and visitors could climb its 168 steps to stand on a viewing platform and gain an unbeatable view of the town, the Irish Sea and the Dublin Mountains. 
Nelson's Pillar in 1927. Image from Wikimedia, public domainThis towering granite pillar stood on Dublin's busiest street and atop it, surveying the Irish scenery, was a statue of that great Irish hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson. 
Well, he was a hero to the British administration and merchants and lords who governed Ireland in 1805. This was the year the famous English admiral won the great sea battle of Trafalgar and ended Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion plans. Of more immediate concern to Dublin's importers and exporters, Nelson's victory ended the French threat to Ireland's sea trade. It's estimated, incidentally, that up to one third of Nelson's sailors were Irish. 
Tragically, the great man was killed at the moment of victory. All of London, including the Prince of Wales, turned out for his funeral and he was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. In a foretaste of the coming paroxysm of monument building, the admiral was buried in a sarcophagus originally carved for Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII's great chancellor. 
Dublin's cenotaph was to be a great fluted column of granite topped by an ancient Roman galley. Somewhere along the line, the ship was dropped and the committee of worthies chose instead to commission a statue of Lord Nelson himself, standing resolutely against the realm's enemies. A Cork born sculptor, Thomas Kirk, was engaged to carve the figure from Portland stone. It was hoisted into place and the monument dedicated by the Lord Lieutenant and a large crowd on Trafalgar Day, the 21st of October, 1809. This was only four years after the famous victory. For ten pence, the public could ascend the 168 stairs inside the pillar to survey Dublin.
And that's when the trouble began. Almost immediately, there were objections from Irish patriots to this symbol of English domination. Merchants complained that the lines of tourists blocked traffic on Sackville Street, now O'Connell Street, and hurt business. After the founding of the Irish Free State in the 1920's, Dublin's city council called for the pillar's removal and complained about the "shame that the English hero, and adulterer, held pride of place in the capital city".
Nelson's Pillar after it was bombed, but before it was totally removed in 1966. Source - wikimedia public domainThere were defenders of Nelson's Pillar, too. Poet Oliver St. John Gogarty called it "the grandest thing we have in Dublin." Nobel Literature winner William Butler Yeats, said "The life and work of the people who erected it is a part of our tradition. I think we should accept the whole past of this nation, and not pick and choose."
Not everyone shared Yeats' enlightened view. For in 1966, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Easter 1916 Uprising, a group of former Irish Republican Army volunteers dynamited the top of Nelson's Pillar into oblivion. A nearby taxi was shredded, but miraculously, no one was hurt. Six days later, though, the Irish Army brought down the unstable remains with a blast that caused more damage to neighbouring windows than the original bomb.
The rubble was cleared and Nelson's head was stored in a shed from which it was stolen by students from the National College of Arts and Design. After many adventures, the bust ended up in the Gilbert Library, a pubic library on Pearse Street close to Trinity College. There it may be viewed by interested art history lovers. 
The central spot once occupied by Nelson's Pillar is now occupied by the Dublin Spire, the 398 foot high stainless steel needle that a Millennium committee figured would best represent modern Dublin. Stand directly beneath the tall, tall "Tower of Light" and look up. That's as close as you're going to get to the heights since the only access is a bolted hatch and inside ladder for workmen who maintain the bright night-time laser beam which shoots from the Spire's tip. 
How to find it? Just look up and go. Unfortunately, there's no looking down anymore. 

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