I couldn't have chosen a better book to read for the week of my trip to Ireland than Star of the Sea by Joseph O'Connor, with its cast of characters aboard a famine ship en route for New York in 1847; add in the unique narrative structure and a wide range of voices and this made the perfect travelling book for me through last week's Bristol, London and Dublin excursions. Trains and planes reached their destinations long before I was ready to arrive, buses came around the corner too soon. Each time I closed the book I would think ahead to my next reading opportunity... the Piccadilly Line to Finsbury Park, several stops time for a chapter, the 6am train to the airport, time for another one.
The only excuse I can offer for not reading it before might have been the Richard & Judy endorsement which seems to backfire a little here, slap that badge on a book and I'm afraid I don't feel tempted to read it. But in mitigation for that bout of book snobbery I do remember Bob Geldof jumping up and down on the R&J sofa, probably telling us all to $£%&*$ well go and read it, which might not have helped either.
A visit on the afternoon of my arrival to the National Photographic Archive in Dublin proved to be a fascinating introduction to a city and a country I've already confessed I knew little about beyond what I'd read in fiction, and try as I may I can't recall this being part of the school history syllabus either, probably quietly censored back in the 1960s. So Power & Privilege - Photographs of The Big House in Ireland 1858-1922 proved to be a very revealing glimpse into 'how the other half lived', especially bearing in mind that the following day I was deep into the history and distress of the potato famine and the mass emigration that was happening at about the same time.
The contrast could not have been greater and it all added to a slightly uncomfortable sense of collective and inherited national guilt that I felt as I looked at the pictures...to be honest I'm amazed the Irish Republic let the English in, let alone be so warm and welcoming towards them.
Between 1845 and 1851 the population had fallen from 8.5 million to 6.57 million as a result of the famine deaths and the exodus of survivors to the Land of Promise, the US and Canada, and by 1855 two million people are thought to have fled in that direction.
But there was life going on as usual in The Big Houses.
The posed photos of immaculately uniformed household staff, the lavish dinner parties, the hunting, shooting and fishing, with the life of indulgent privilege lived around the big estates which presumably had the wealth to survive the famine, which sadly many did not.
Not surprising to see that so many of the houses no longer existed, a large number seemed to succumb to fire.
So having taken the executive decision on Saturday afternoon not to take the trip out to Sandymount, I trekked along to the Famine Memorial to catch the final tour of the day on the famine ship museum, the Jeanie Johnstone moored alongside, before leaving for the airport and home.
The memorial itself is as bleak and as stark as the event, if ever sculpture can convey history then that happens here. The height and thinness of the figures exaggerated in a way that conveys that hollowness of stomach and absent flesh, the defeated posture and the legs struggling to support the bodies, hands clutching at so little, barely holding onto life.
The Jeanie Johnston is a faithful reconstruction of a famine ship designed and built as a joint project by the Republic and Northern Ireland.
This time round a fully sea-worthy triple-masted tall ship with 21st century safety features, which then recreated the trans-Atlantic famine voyage with young adults from both communities as trainees. The hope is that the ship will be sailing again when the Tall Ships race leaves Dublin in 2012.
And yes, I was the muggins who asked the very informative guide how it got out under the bridges...the Beckett Bridge raises accordingly apparently.
Below decks a waxworks museum recreating some of the stories of those who sailed on this amazing ship... amazing because it is one of the few that sustained no loss of life on the trans-Atlantic voyages, thanks to a compassionate and caring captain and the very unusual presence of a competent ship's doctor.
Conditions below decks still cramped and uncomfortable and it's only as you sit down there that you wonder quite how they coped with this for the two months of the voyage, and with meagre rations and only the hopes and dreams to sustain them, but all tempered with the uncertainties that lay ahead.
Playing in the background a keening lament on the fiddle, the ships renowned for their music, singing and sometimes dancing to help keep the spirits up.
This was an incredibly thought -provoking end to my visit, and as I strolled back across the Beckett Bridge to my hotel I stopped and looked back for a moment at the city I'd done in a day...
and was just happily reflecting on what a wonderful visit this had been and how grateful I was to the Irish Tourist Board for taking such grand care of me when suddenly a sick feeling washed over me...hadn't I just spent all my euros and how was I going to get to the airport?
Never has a passenger watched the meter in a taxi quite so worryingly clutching her last happily discovered 20 euro note.
17.50 euros phew, just enough left to buy the Tinker a little gift.
Some Grow-Your-Own Shamrock.