My Ireland and Britain Travels 2004

by Marc H. Mehlman

written 20 August 2004

8 August: Dublin, Ireland

Lads and Lassies,

Ireland is quite nice. Dublin takes a short time to get used to, but one gets to like it - a lot. It is not huge - "only" about one million inhabitants. One in four Irishmen lives here. Not being huge, it is not overwhelming. The buildings and streets have a lot a character.

The natives we have encountered are friendly. They talk with a Boston accent. Those who live outside Dublin have a much stronger accent.

Dublin is somewhat like a miniature version of London. The Liffey River (a tidal river - it flows both ways) is smaller than the Thames and the buildings are less grand. The natives are much less pierced and tattooed than the Londoners on my last visit there.

Being Ireland, there are pubs everywhere. Dublin does not seem to suffer from blue laws like Connecticut or Pennsylvania. I asked a tour guide if Ireland ever had a temperance movement or prohibition. He didn't know what I was talking about. When I explained, he was horrified! Despite the Irish love of drink, I have not seen any public drunkenness since being here. The pubs also serve as places where live Irish music is showcased and they all tend to have good restaurants on the second floor. And furthermore, they are all nonsmoking (by law) - this in a country with lots of smokers. In Temple Bar, near where we are staying, the partying starts on Wednesday night and does not let up until the following Wednesday morning.

Wayne had Tuesday off from his conference, so we explored the city together. We took two guided walking tours - one of Trinity College and one of historical Dublin. When I was young I despised the Irish Republican Army for the terrorist bombings in North Ireland and England and tended to side with the Unionists in North Ireland. Knowing more of Irish history (even before this trip), I can say I definitely sympathize with the Republicans (versus the IRA) in the South. Irish history is fascinating. This is a country with half the population it had one hundred and fifty years ago. There is a consistent trend through Irish history of tolerance that is still very much a part of the Irish psyche. There seems to be very little friction between the 10% of Ireland (not including North Ireland) that is Protestant and the Catholic majority. Furthermore, Ireland until recently had a Jewish community that never suffered as other Jewish communities did in Europe (most Jews left due to the harsh economic conditions in the 1800's and 1900's).

The British don't come out smelling too nicely, according to our tour guides. According to these guides, Britain's oppressive, arrogant ways and their callous disregard for the Catholic Irish caught up with them. I do sense that if the British were more enlightened, a much different outcome might have occurred - all of Ireland might now be contently part of the United Kingdom, much as Wales and Scotland supposedly are. However, after visiting Dublin Castle, it appeared that the British cared more about their own comfort and vanity than the welfare of the Irish people. Royal parasites. Of course, we may have a different version of history by the time we get to London.

In fact, the British were monsters. At least the British upper classes. Some buildings here still have no windows because of the British tax on glass. Catholics had no vote and the overwhelming majority was kept from owning land. They kept Irish kids from attending schools. Most of the Irish worked for food (the right to grow potatoes on someone else's land) rather than money. During the potato famine the British were exporting a lot of food from Ireland (the United States filled warships with donated food and delivered it to Ireland).

I visited the Kilmainham Goal (a British jail). In the 1800's it was filled with Irish women and children (over 50% of its prisoners). Six and seven year children served hard time with lashings for such offenses as playing marbles on a train, taking grass from a park or picking a flower that was not theirs. Fifteen prisoners for a cell built for one. With millions starving to death, the British worried that the Irish would commit crimes just to get a prison meal. So they put all the prisoners on starvation diets. Tens of thousands of Irish men were "transported" to the Caribbean and Australia for slave labor.

Of course in London many of these same conditions existed for British citizens. There was a tax on windows and "transport" there too. These were the days of Charles Dickens.

Ireland was very poor until about 20 years ago. Now it is very wealthy. Richer than England on a per capita basis. It is boom time here - cranes and new construction everywhere. And the standard of living (and cost of living) is still climbing. Ireland is a beautiful country and the people are quite nice. It has gorgeous lochs (the way the Irish and Scots misspell lakes). It has glacial curved valleys filled with peat. It has a beautiful coast. Parts of it look like Connecticut if one replaced some of Connecticut's residents with sheep, some of our Stop and Shops with pubs and replaced our forests with peat bogs.

The Irish Art Museum is quite nice - Rembrandt and Vermeers. On the other hand, their Modern Art Museum shows how far the Irish have come. Their economy can now support a narcissistic class of idiots. Seeing my camera, the guards were afraid I might take photos. If I had any matches, they would have had more reason to worry.

The Romans were not interested in Ireland - they called it Hibernia - the land of winter. But even here the Irish have made great strides. Global warming has made the climate much more pleasant. The food is even good here.

Wayne is now done with his conference. He gave a keynote talk. Friday I took a hike and ate with his buddies/colleagues. We are now ready for our invasion of the British homeland. Tomorrow we land in Edinburgh. It is in the middle of their festival time. A perfect cover. From there we begin our march to London. Our mission - capture the Queen and the Spice Girls and bring them back to the States for questioning.

More as it happens,

Marc O'Mehlman

13 August: Edinburgh and York, Britain

Bonnie Blokes,

Did you know that in Scotland they use the term "cellotape", not "scotch tape". Don't know why.

Edinburgh is an extremely impressive city. It is as grand and beautiful as anyplace in all of Europe (with a population under one million). It is all constructed of the same stately gray stone. We didn't get to see other parts of Scotland, but it is clear this is a capital city.

Our visit corresponded with the Edinburgh Festival, the largest and best festival in the world. The city was mobbed. The "Fringe" part of the festival was just getting way. The Fringe is a hundred or more comedy, musical, theatre and acrobat acts, all performing day and night simultaneously at the many venues scattered about Edinburgh. An artist can perform to a small crowd one night and find himself/herself on the teli two weeks later. Performing artists from all over the world come here hoping to be discovered. There are armies of hawkers advertising every show. It is not hard to find free tickets or two for one deals (full price tickets are about $10-20 apiece, depending on the show). Wayne and I saw five shows, all fantastic. My favorite was the Wau Wau Sisters. They were acrobats and did a lot of physical comedy. They were also very pretty and were constantly losing their clothes. Wow! Wow!

Edinburgh is overwhelming. I have blisters on both of my feet from walking everywhere. The area is very hilly, with the city built on several long extinct volcanoes. The "Royal Mile" begins at a large castle and travels one mile and 200 yards to a Palace. Museums, churches, pubs, plaques, statues and monuments tightly line the way.

One quickly learns that unattractive women in plaid skirts are most often men. Does one open doors for men wearing kilts? One also learns the sound of bagpipes. If Mozart were born here, we would have bagpipe quartets and maybe even a bagpipe operetta. What a loss for mankind. Despite these eccentricities and misfortunes, the Scots are bonnie good people.

Scotland doesn't think of itself as part of the United Kingdom as Connecticut thinks of itself as part of the USA. Their relation with England is much more complex. It involves a great deal of history. The famous documentary filmmaker and historian, Mel Gibson, in his epic "Braveheart" (filmed outside Dublin) is highly inaccurate (I'm told - I haven't seen the flick). Scotland is divided between the Highlands and the Lowlands. Both the Lowlands and Highlands went through the Reformation and ended up Protestant (with there own Scottish church), though the Highlanders tended to have remained Catholic for a bit longer. Scotland's relationship with England has been one of competition. Our bed and board manager warned us that Londoners don't always happily accept Scottish pounds (which are legal tender in the UK and worth the same as an English pound). While the English have prevailed, the Scots don't exactly view themselves as defeated people.

The Scots have recently won the right to have a Parliament of their own for the first time since the Treaty of the Union almost two hundred years ago. Their new parliament building is years behind schedule and over ten times over budget. It is a very modern building that is destined to take its architectural place along side such buildings as Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum (the style is completely different). I loved it but Wayne begged to differ.

On Tuesday we left Edinburgh and took a train to York. York, for many years, was London's rival, though London has little to worry about now. York does have an incredible Minster (church), a mostly intact city wall (that we hiked on) and lots of history. Here, Roman Emperor Constantine became emperor of the Roman Empire while traveling with his emperor father, when his father unexpectedly died.

One interesting piece of York history was in 1190 AD - when the good folk of York formed a murderous mob and decided to kill every Jew in their fair town. Many Jews were killed, but 150 escaped to a castle (Clifford's Tower) with the mob at their tails. Rather than be murdered by the mob, the 150 men, women and children committed mass suicide in the tower. A medieval Masada. Of course, such outbreaks as these ceased in England when all Jews were later expelled from these Isles for hundreds of years. Many of these pogroms were instigated by members of the English upper classes after borrowing money from the Jewish community.

Modern day York is a pleasure. It is beautiful and interesting. The restaurants are even good. The old town is a maze of crooked streets and alleyways. Fortunately Wayne always had me near by for navigational advice. Wayne and I are good travel mates as we have similar tastes. We have been giving about the same ratings to each of the sights we've seen. He'd make a great apprentice.

There have been recent sightings of the Rick Steves bloke (Saint Steves is the patron Saint of American travelers to Europe and the author of our guide book). What an honor it would be to have our guide book autographed! I am sure local bed and boards, as well as eating places treat him with proper reverence, as would we.

As I compose this, we are now traveling on a train to London - the belly of the beast. Comparing this train to the one I occasionally take into New York City one is forced to admit that it is ten times nicer and three times faster. As the English countryside screams by,

Marc

19 August: London, Britain

Chaps and Chappettes,

As I view London on my third or fourth visit, I see the same city as in my memory, but also an entirely different city too. I remember London as dirty, but before me is a clean city. I remember London as being relatively cheap, but before me is the second most expensive city in the world (Tokyo is the first). I remember the many monuments as pretentious, but now they seem fitting for the capital city of the world's greatest modern empire. I remember the food as awful, but now it is quite edible. I imagine some men feel may feel the same as I do about London when, after divorcing an unexciting wife, they run into her again years later, but now she is a fox.

The buildings of London are relatively recent, by European standards. In 1666 a fire, started accidentally, destroyed over 80% of London's buildings (London Tower was spared). As it happens this was good fortune for London. Under the cloud of the black plague, London often lost over a thousand of its citizens a day to this disease. The fire, besides killing nine people, killed millions of rats and ended the plague's siege.

London is obvious prospering and doing well, but many of its natives complain about taxes. Historically, the citizens of London have been highly taxed. Like Dublin, there are buildings with few windows because there was a tax on windows. One of the reasons there are many monuments, such as Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, about the city with giant time pieces built into them is there was a tax on wristwatches!

London definitely is expensive. The printed prices of everything are about right for New York City. That would be tolerable, but for the fact all the prices are in pounds, not dollars (one pound is approximately 1.86 dollars). A modest day on a hop-on hop-off double-decker bus with stops (and visits) at Westminster Abbey, Parliament, St. Paul's Cathedral and the Tower of London set us back about $100 apiece. And then there were hotel and food expenses, which are similarly high. At one pub, I noticed coca cola was considerable cheaper than other pubs, so I ordered two glasses. Later I figured out that I had spent about eight dollars on coke. The cheapest one way ticket on the London underground (subway) is $3.70. Housing prices are amazing. We asked a college age student how she survives. She shares a one bedroom apartment in a "so-so" part of London with three roommates. The rent (total) is $2,200 a month. Public museums, however, are free.

If I were laboring under the impression that English royalty has not always included the most splendid specimens of our species, a trip to the Tower of London would confirm this. Excavations at one corner of the Tower's church revealed 1,500 headless bodies. Public beheadings (complete with staking the heads on the local bridges) and torture did not detract a bit from royal life. It is clear that the allegiance of the regal class was first to themselves and then to their class. Like new hatchling birds in a nest, they murder off their siblings to ensure a better inheritance. Being trans-European in origin, British royalty hasn't even had strong loyalty to their adopted country, as seen, for example, during the last century when King George VI befriended Hitler. While the British royalty has had most of its feathers clipped, the present Queen still was able to stop the completion of a Hilton Hotel on the grounds that one could view her gardens from the top floors. Did I mention that the Queen, with multiple palaces and 76 servants, has a higher standard of living than you or I?

One thing that is quite reasonably priced in London is the theater. And there is lots of it here. Wayne and I saw "Chicago", starring David Hasselhoff. We had center seats in the very first row. It was great. We both liked it.

The British Museum is in the same class (or better) than New York's Met. Britain looted the world during the many years they were on top, and there is a lot of good stuff here (such as the Egyptian mummies and the Rosetta stone). With the British Museum, one need not travel the world to see its splendors.

Another splendor of the world is Harrods, the famous British department store. It is for the super rich. The quality of the goods is superb and they are all displayed marvelously. The prices are also spectacular. Little collectible plates, the type you find in a flea market for under a dollar, went for $500. Wayne and I visited the toy department. They had model cars (that a kid can sit in and drive) for up to $75,000 (a miniature Hummer for only $40,000).

There were two types of people in the store. Gawkers, like Wayne and I (we even took photos), and customers. And the customers were in the majority. In the basement there is a shrine to Princess Diana (and her Egyptian boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, the son of Harrods' owner Mohamed Fayed). What a loss her death was to wealthy playboys everywhere! Wayne and I had a good cry.

One of the most interesting aspects of our visit was noticing how many more Moslems there are now than I remembered being here before. There are major transformations in population taking place in our own country, of course, but we don't usually think of England as being the land of immigrants.

Our last day in London, Wayne and I visited Brick Lane, a street filled with mostly immigrants from Bangladesh. The hawkers were quite friendly, but when we went in to eat we were given a different menu with higher prices than advertised. And there was no more friendliness after we had paid. I have been "taken" when in Italy and Israel too. However, the Italians and Israelis are friendly before, during and even after cheating you. And, strangely, one senses their friendliness is sincere. It was somewhat different here.

It is sad to see our trip come to an end. Wayne is a great friend and good to travel with. He has an even further journey ahead of him - all the way back to Hawaii.

As you know, both the British and Irish drive on the left side of the road. It has been a hard, dangerous process to learn to look left when crossing roads. We've been traveling just long enough so that we now have the hang of it. The real danger will be when we get back to the Colonies and look left for traffic as if we were in still in the Motherland.

See you stateside,

Marc


Copyright 2004 Marc Mehlman
Last revised: 7 October 2004


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