0705. Woken by the phone ringing. It’s Rebekah, my alarm hasn’t gone off and she’s phoning to wake me up. Not that she needs to, Ian – it turns out – has been awake for some time and has arranged for her to call me to wake me instead. Nice one.
Even for our speedy standards in the hostel of horror, we’re out the door sharpish. Breakfast is in the ‘CafeBar’ of the bus station. True to its name, bottles of WKD sit along bottles of orange juice in the fridge.
Rebekah rocks up with our tickets as I tuck into egg and bacon on soda bread. She hands us our tickets and tells us to hurry up. I’m one of the last on, and have to sit next to a pissed-off looking busisnessman. Ian’s stuck behind me next to an equally aggrieved looking suit. Across the aisle is Rebekah, and next to her is our guide to Dublin.
Just fictional circumnavigator Phileas Fogg had his manservant Passpartout, and Himalayan climbers have Sherpas, we have Rachel. Like Rebekah, she’s from Northern Ireland. Unlike Rebekah, she’s been to Dublin numerous times – so she’s been enlisted to come along with us.
Green rolling hills fill the windows as we head south. It takes around an hour to reach the border, which isn’t signposted – the only indication that we’ve left the United Kingdom and entered the Republic of Ireland is that the road markings change from white to yellow.
Our first introduction to Dublin is that its one-way systems are confusing – we cross the Liffey twice, then double back on ourselves to reach the Bus Aras, the bus station. “Bus Éireann – Official carrier of the Galway Senior Hurling Team.” Ah, we’re definitely in Ireland then.
The city’s busier than Belfast – where the greater Belfast area has over half a million inhabitants, Dublin has almost four times that. You’d never guess that on Abbey Street, however, where it’s far from bustling. The clothes store the four of us end up in is the same. Of course, this is Ireland – one of the handful of EU countries still in recession.
Ian spots a price in sterling on the jacket he’s trying to buy, and tries to pay with Bank of Scotland notes…and gets nowhere. Ireland may be in need of an injection of foreign currency, but it won’t be from Ian, who begrudgingly uses some of his euros instead.
Next stop is McDonald’s, where the wonders of multinational capitalism are displayed before us. The ‘restaurant’ is the same, the menu is the same (bar the awesome addition of curly fries), the evidently low morale of the staff is the same. The prices aren’t, at almost €6 for a meal.
Ask anyone what comes from Ireland and they’ll probably list some of the following: potatoes, beer, leprechauns, beer, and potatoes. And when they say beer, they mean Guinness. Guinness is indeed Irish. It’s from Dublin, in fact. Ian, being his usual self, has convinced the brewing conglomerate to give us free tickets – even Rachel, who isn’t even a journalism student.
Dublin buses are blue and yellow. They’re everywhere, albeit not moving very fast in Dublin’s dense traffic. We know we’re going to St Michael’s Gate, but nobody – even Passpartout Rachel – how to know when we’ve arrived.
As it happens, St Michael’s Gate is distinctive thanks to the prominent Guinness branding on the buildings in the area. Despite this, we nearly end up going the wrong way as we get off the bus. A loud toot on the horn and some exaggerated gestures from the bus driver get us heading the right way.
They say you should never meet your heroes, and if your hero is Diageo PLC, it’s probably best not to visit the Guinness Storehouse. We find ourselves in a crowded exhibit about the ingredients – there’s a big pit full of barley and a giant waterfall. Upstairs is a display of some of the equipment they use. In a small cubby hole we find the Master Brewer addressing us via a number of LCD screens, talking – in very clearly scripted terms – about the different brews. He talks in particular detail about Guinness Extra Stout. Not sure why.
On the other side of the floor is an exhibit on transport of Guinness, from journeys across the factory to journeys across the world. One of the few remaining minute miniature gauge shunting locomotives sits in the centre. It’s all very museum like. We’re told the upstairs is more like an art gallery, with the third floor dedicated to Guinness advertising and the floor above on Guinness’ sponsorship of various sports teams. We give it a miss, instead deciding to skip straight to the booze.
Well, sort of. Here, one of the guides shows us how to pour the ‘perfect’ pint of Guinness. Grab a cool, clean glass. Pour at 45degrees until you reach the harp on the glass. Then leave to settle for two minutes.
I know this for two reasons – my training from the pub, and also the fact that me and Ian are now demonstrating to the rest of the group. As it settles, our guide talks about the range of Guinness beers that aren’t available on draught. Guinness Extra Stout receives a name check.
As I top it up, I receive a round of applause. Nice. Would be nicer if I had it every shift in the pub. We retreat back to our table, I’ve never actually had a pint of the black stuff until now.
I take a sip. Hmm, quite bitter – a bit like a lager…and then, what’s that? Oh! Burnt toast! Eugh! I take another sip. And another. Nope. Not for me. Although I do have a lovely certificate to show that I am competent in the art of pint pouring. It’s clearly cost pennies to make, yet has also clearly cost more than the certificate my employers gave me for the same thing.
Ian isn’t much of a fan either, but at least he manages to finish his. Rachel and Rebekah look on, not exactly jealous of our pints. I am, however, dispatched to obtain a certificate for Rebekah. They give me one without question, thus making Diageo plc slightly less stringent than the Scottish Qualifications Authority.
The only other place of note in the storehouse is the somewhat dynamic-sounding “Gravity Bar” – a reference to pubs of old, where beer was ‘on tap’ rather than ‘on pump’ as casks were placed on shelves above the bar, thus the beer was poured by gravity. It’s also referring to the fact that it’s at the top of a seven-storey high tower.
The views of Dublin are better than the beer, and that’s assuming that most people like Guinness. The docks, Croke Park, flats, and huge silos from the brewery all fill the skyline. This is the capital of a country whose name has connotations with tubers and alcoholism…at least Edinburgh lives up to a handful of Scotland’s stereotypes.
The way out is, of course, via the gift shop. As we queue, Rebekah points to a row of bottles on a shelf before the till. It’s Guinness Extra Stout.
Another yellow and blue bus takes us to Trinity College. Trinity College resembles London. This sounds surprising, but it’s worth remembering that the Republic of Ireland is not even a century old – Dublin was a British city. The guidebooks are quick to point out the similar architecture, adding that some of it was demolished purely for this reason.
They may have demolished some of Dublin’s beautiful Georgian buildings, but most survived. Something that didn’t appear to survive quite as plentifully, however, is the humble post box. We find an example, complete with the “E VII R” insignia of Edward the 7th on it, in the Temple Bar area as we try and find a pub. It’s painted green, naturally.
The similarities even extend to the traffic, the roads are clogged – mainly with minicabs and the ubiquitous blue and yellow buses. It’s just as muggy, too. Time for a drink.
We’ve been warned that drink is expensive in Dublin. So, I’m rather surprised as I managed to get a pint of lager and a coke in a pub for just over five euro. Ian and Rebekah opt for spirits and pay around seven euro each. Ah, I’ll stick to pints.
As we head back to the Busaras, we decide to do a bit of souvenir hunting. I end up buying an Irish tricolour from a tourist tat shop. Other items for sale included a number of shot glasses with Four-leaf Clovers on, a cuddly sheep, cuddly leprechauns, and toy Dublin/Ireland buses. Buses, which I can’t help noticing, are the same type that I work on: AEC Routemasters. The iconic London bus, coated in a shade of deepest sapphire.
Given that the bus back is two and a half hours, we grab supplies in Tesco. I grab a meal deal, and end up getting another two tricolours for 74 cents – English drivers may love flags that fly from their cars but the Irish, clearly, don’t.
There is one small problem with drinking on the bus – there’s nowhere for it to go. The bus has leather seats, wifi, a sound system, but no toilet. The Bus Éireann coaches that operate this route do, but the Northern Irish Ulsterbuses don’t. Maybe the good folk of the north have big bladders.
Two hours later and I don’t care if the Northern Irish have big bladders or not. I don’t.
We eventually get back into Belfast and I’m genuinely relieved (pardon the pun) to get to the free public toilet inside. Ahhh.
I now have a slight problem. My carrier bag from the Guinness brewery is falling apart rapidly. The problem is, as well as the Guinness tat I bought from their shop, I have no less than three tricolours in this bag. I have to buy a bag for life from a supermarket just to hide them, let alone carry the rest of my stuff.
We’ve not encountered any trouble, but as me and Ian walk through the near-desserted streets of Belfast on the way back to the hostel a man walks quickly in front of us, rolls up his sleeves, turns around and then walks straight back towards us very purposefully, only for him to storm past us.
Seconds later we hear a shout – I can’t make it out, but Ian reckons it’s a particularly offensive term for Catholics. We don’t hang around to see who it was aimed at, moving swiftly to the hostel, and then softly across the lobby – hoping not to disturb the passive-aggressive manager.