You won’t find green beer in Ireland during St. Patrick’s Day. This is an American invention practiced only in the Irish American enclaves of cities such as Boston, New York, and Chicago. The preferred libation in Ireland is of course, a pint or 3 of Guinness, a deep-black beer (also known as stout) the color of coal tar but with a creamy golden crown on top. Legend has it that it can put hair on one’s chest and will lubricate your tongue and knee joints so that you will be singing and dancing like a native.
Being married to an Irish person, I have been exposed to Irish culture for more than 25 years and each March we make our annual pilgrimage to Dublin to be at the very heart of the St. Patrick’s festival celebrations. But, a word of warning, if you ever refer to the national holiday as St. Patty’s Day, you will be banished from the country forever, in the same manner that St. Patrick drove out the snakes.
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Arriving in Dublin during the first week of March, the city is not a particularly welcoming sight as it is still the tail end of winter and the signs are obvious: grey skies, barren trees, temperatures into single digits with even the occasional flurry of snow falling. But fear not, as the warmth of the Irish people definitely compensates for any lack of sunshine and heat.
The Irish are not as intense as Filipinos when it comes to food. In the Philippines, we talk about our plans for lunch over breakfast, while at dinner time, we discuss where to shop for food or which restaurants to visit. My partner is usually left bemused when dining with our foodie friends, as the conversation invariably turns to food. I sometimes quip, “It’s because you had famine that food is not as important to you!” Not a comment you should ever consider making in polite Irish society either due to its political connotations.
But, all is changing now as the gastronomic quotient in Dublin, as in other cities such as Cork and Galway, is rising again to levels not seen since the heady, economic boom days of the 90’s when Darina Allen became a household name after she established the Ballymalloe Cooking School and the best-selling cookbooks and television shows that followed. Indeed, to her great credit, Allen was one of the pioneers of farm-to-market-style cooking.
Being one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe, eating in and around Dublin is not really a daunting task. Cuisines such as Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Thai are widely available and stand beside the staple offerings of French, Italian, and even Spanish tapas bars, while familiar names like Marco Pierre White and Antonio Carluccio co-exist with home-grown Irish chefs holding Michelin stars.
One thing that impresses me about the Irish is their love for reading. Bookstores abound in Dublin and you will see people reading in the parks and on public transport. I would consider it a literate and literary city. This is not surprising since, notwithstanding those literary giants such as James Joyce (Ulysses), Oscar Wilde (The Portrait of Dorian Gray), Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) and Bram Stoker (Dracula), all now part of the English literary canon, Ireland has also produced four Nobel laureates in literature, namely, W. B. Yeats in 1923, George Bernard Shaw in 1925, Samuel Beckett in 1969, and Séamus Heaney in 1995. Little wonder then that in 2010, Dublin was designated as the UNESCO City of Literature.
To the uninitiated, the best way to see the city is to take an historical walking tour or a pub crawl led by an actor. One such tour is the James Joyce Ulysses Walking Tour that retraces the footsteps of Leopold Bloom, the novel’s protagonist. To introduce the character, the tour starts with a reading of a passage from the novel, where you then join him in visiting featured historical pubs, restaurants, and other establishments. At every stop during the pub crawl, drink is consumed, punctuated with poetry reading, traditional Irish singing, and set dance music playing jigs and reels that encourage guests to do a step or two, although this may only occur after several pubs and even more pints.
The following day, despite a possible hangover, you should head to the nearest coffee shop like Bewley’s and order the Full Irish. To the unfamiliar, the Full Irish is a fry-up breakfast consisting of rashers of bacon, fried eggs, pork sausages, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, and black and white pudding, accompanied by brown or soda bread and washed down with a mug of steaming Barry’s tea, or a quick brunch of fish and chips from a chipper.
After your Irish breakfast, take a walk in a park. Despite being a major city, Dublin still boasts of good air quality. There are two parks to choose from in the city center, St. Stephen’s Green and the more sedate Merrion Square where you can pose for a selfie with Oscar, or you could lose yourself in the National Gallery or museum. Bear in mind that all galleries and museums in Ireland offer free entry.
Before you leave home, maybe make an Irish playlist on your phone to get you into the spirit of everything Irish. Enya, Clannad, The Chieftains, Christy Moore, The Dubliners, even add a bit of Daniel O’Donnell for good measure. Listening to this music in Dublin lends a unique sensation; suddenly, the lyrics and the music all start to make sense.
All in all, the years of my visits to Ireland have been a blessing. It is culturally enriching and, from food to literature, to its music and theater, friends and family, they have all contributed to what I am today.
Bundle up, keep yourself warm and, and don’t forget your umbrella while waiting for the St. Patrick’s Day parade to pass.
Photos by Ige Ramos