Terry O'Connor

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Grey brick upon brick

Last week saw us in Ireland, Dublin to be precise, where Sonia had a job to do at the National Museum of Ireland and I went along to carry bags and generally get in the way. Being on the loose in Dublin for a few days was a considerable pleasure, even without visiting the Guinness Brewery or Jameson’s Distillery. Here are a few edited highlights.

Dublin Zoo
Zoos are not to everyone’s liking and I admit to finding them a bit ethically ambiguous. Bad zoos should be closed and their owners and management prosecuted: little room for disagreement, I would have thought. But what defines ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Some would argue that there can never be such a thing as a good zoo, because all zoos constitute a form of animal abuse. I would not take that polarised position myself, arguing that a good zoo is one that demonstrably serves an educational and conservation role and in which the animals are clearly in good health, showing no behavioural or other signs of stress and are reproducing successfully given the chance. On those criteria, Dublin Zoo is a good zoo.

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Dublin Zoo: view across one of the lakes

The zoo is located in the north-east corner of the vast and wonderful Phoenix Park, a park that is not so much an ‘urban lung’ as an entire organism in its own right. The various animal enclosures are ranged around two lakes in a setting that would be a pleasant park even without the animals. There is some enterprising mixing of

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Dublin Zoo: overhead orangutan

species: the orangutans share their space with gibbons, and both species have cables high above a public walkway to give them access to a second enclosure. The elephants include young of varied ages, showing successful breeding and giving the herd a structure close to that of wild elephants. Their enclosure is shared with Indian blackbucks, while zebras, giraffes and white rhino share a large ‘savannah’ paddock at one end of the zoo. The comedy

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Dublin Zoo: red river hog waggling its tassels

light relief is provided by an enclosure of red river hogs, basically orange pigs with ludicrous ear-tassels. I arrived at the zoo as it opened and had it much to myself for an hour, then saw more and more young families arrive, the children mostly fully engaged with the animals and their behaviour. For a child to be able to stand a matter of inches from a relaxed gorilla, as it soaks up the early spring sunshine, is worth more than any number of TV wildlife films.

Kilmainham Gaol
Here’s a slight change of tone. To the southwest of Dublin city centre squats the grey bulk of Kilmainham Gaol, the city’s main clink from its construction in the late 1700s to its abandonment in 1924 [http://kilmainhamgaolmuseum.ie/]. The tour guides talk about it as the most significant building in Irish history, and they are not wrong. Here in one rambling, looming building are the room in which Parnell tried to negotiate Home Rule with Gladstone’s government, the cells in which the supposed leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were held, and the cold, gloomy yard in which fourteen of them were summarily executed.

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Kilmainham Gaol: the ‘panopticon’ wing

More than all of that, though, is the fact that the building still stands. Following independence and the brutal, spiteful Civil War in which Kilmainham saw even more arbitrary executions, the building was abandoned – literally so. In the late 1950s, plans were even afoot to demolish it. A group of volunteers (a noun that has a certain resonance in 20th century Irish history) successfully resisted the demolition and set about restoring the building. Between 1960 and 1986, they brought Kilmainham back from ruination, making it a place to visit and an atmospheric film location. In 1986, it passed into the keeping of the Office of Public Works. Best of all, that restoration group included men who had been imprisoned in Kilmainham during the dark days of the Rising and Civil War, men from both and all sides of the conflict and who really understood the significance of the building. Today, it is a fascinating and atmospheric place, not over-tidied and repaired, so that the late-18th century corridor of cells is authentically dark, damp and nasty. I am not particularly over-sensitive to ‘place’, but it was notable that when our small group came into the yard where so many executions had happened, a chatty bunch of people fell very quiet. It is difficult to visit Kilmainham and not be aware that the building has seen the best and the worst of the formation of modern Ireland.

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Kilmainham Gaol: the stone-breakers’ yard, used for executions

National Museum of Ireland
This is not one building, but a constellation scattered across Dublin and further afield. Sonia was working at Collins Barracks, which houses Decorative Arts and Folk Life, I managed a quick visit to Natural History and we both spent an absorbing day in the Archaeology Museum. Spoiler alert: the last-named has a lot of gold on display. Lots and lots of gold. A positive surfeit of bling.

The Natural History Museum knows how to make an impression. Walk through the door and you’re confronted by three giant deer, like the front row of some nightmare Pleistocene scrum.

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National Museum of Ireland: giant deer. Not mis-named.

Get past the deer, particularly upstairs, and the Museum is a fine survival from a time when museums put things on show, lots of things, rather than glitzy interpretation panels and non-functioning touch-screens. Some of the best specimens are amongst the least obvious: marine invertebrates such as sea anemones and sea-slugs rendered in glass. That description doesn’t even begin to do justice to the detail and accuracy of them.

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National Museum of Ireland: glass model sea-slug

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National Museum of Ireland: just some prehistoric gold stuff

The Archaeology Museum is in a magnificent building that has such baffling inter-connecting galleries that some of the supposed bog-bodies on show may well be former visitors who just never made it. Did I mention that there is a lot of gold? And a jaw-droppingly huge log-boat, some superb prehistoric stone working, a rare breeding colony of Bishops’ croziers, and a decent café. Allow a whole day for a visit. You will miss something because of the Rubik’s Cube layout, but never mind. Time only allowed us a quick look at the Collins Barracks galleries, but that was enough to ensure a return visit before too long.

And there were cafes and bars, a quick look at the traffic mayhem that is O’Connell Street, rides on the Luas tram system, ambles through Temple Bar, chats to locals, and a delightful though surreal discussion of reindeer bones at a table in the upmarket bar of the Ashling Hotel with Ruth Carden. What the other customers thought we were doing, I cannot imagine. If only there had been reindeer at Dublin Zoo, our visit would have come full circle.

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Dublin Zoo: red-ruffed lemur sleeping off a terrible hangover

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Dublin: General Post Office, O’Connell Street. Jim Larkin on his plinth, raging at the traffic

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