When you live in a walkable city for nearly four months, without a car or bike, you tend to pay attention to certain subtle urban details and learn a great deal about the place at hand.
Perhaps you even feel like you are a part of that city’s permanence, or at least you feel the beginnings of a sense of belonging. The credo: Walk without a map, know how to find exactly what you need exactly when you need it, start to live like a local. But when the experience has an expiration date, you also tend to look backwards, towards what you still call home.
I know that well. I recently spent four months in Ireland. When I reached my junior year of college, a bit of a daunting decision confronted me: Should I follow family tradition and spend my junior year abroad? And additionally, and perhaps more importantly, where should I go? I decided to spend the fall of 2010 at Trinity College.
Having been a PlanPhilly intern over two summers, I could not help but pay attention to the built environment during my semester abroad in Dublin.
Being given the rare opportunity to live on the main campus of the institution where I studied, every day I walked to class surrounded by beautifully preserved historic buildings. The campus is in many ways comparable to my home institution, Bryn Mawr College. The campuses are close in size -- there’s a mere two-acre difference. The majority of the structures at both Trinity and Bryn Mawr sport a Gothic Revival style, modeled after Oxford and Cambridge in England. Additionally, both campuses have what many consider concrete eyesores (Louis Kahn designed Bryn Mawr’s Erdman dormitory and dining hall) and have a tendency to make you feel walled in, and in Trinity’s case, a physical wall encloses the entire campus.
When I stepped outside the college walls, I subconsciously took note of the surrounding structures, infrastructure, transportation, and everything else I have become familiar with through my PlanPhilly experience. So naturally I felt compelled to write a postcard.
Dublin, or Baile Átha Cliath as they call it in Irish, has a long and complicated history. The Vikings first established a town there in 841, although the area had been settled as early as the first century BC. It remained under Viking control until 1171, when it was taken over as a part of the Norman Invasion of Ireland. The English established themselves in Dublin and the surrounding area, calling this region “The Pale.” The term “Beyond the Pale” refers to the rest of the country, occupied by the Native Irish who refused to be fully conquered by the invaders.
Dublin today is known most for its perpetually rainy weather, which thankfully pays off in vivid green vegetation, rightfully giving Ireland its nickname of “the Emerald Isle.” But this city in particular is also known for its arts, particularly its numerous theaters. Dublin also regularly celebrates its rich literary history, as exemplified by Bloomsday, a day in which citizens follow the June 16 journey around Dublin executed by the protagonist of Irish author James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. This day is also celebrated in Philadelphia.
This is only one example of Dublin’s striking amount of similarities to my home, our home, Philadelphia.
Both cities are extremely navigable by foot, the major sites of significance concentrated in one area with everything else an easy distance away. They are comparable in size and population, in spite of the fact that Dublin is the capital of the Republic.
Every time I took a walk around the streets of the city, I would be struck by something that reminded me of Philadelphia. Historical buildings surrounded by modern development, cobblestone streets, a Georgian section, a riverfront surrounded by busy roadways.
The population of Dublin has that same pocket sized international feel as Philly, with small ethnic areas that are present without overwhelming the overall feel of the city. Both have a strong ethnic character that readily asserts itself to the visitor. They are both highly unlike New York and London, cities that you visit to see the sights or go to the shows more than you actually spend a day in just wandering around.
But when walking the streets of Dublin, you perceive more than just architectural structures and neighborhood identities. Signs of economic hardship are everywhere you go. A stroll on the street will take you past cracked windows and closed storefronts, past public works that progress so slowly that change is nearly imperceptible.
Compared to the other nations of Europe, Ireland is one of the most afflicted by the current recession, to the point where they accepted over 85 billion Euros from the European Union and International Monetary Fund, a circumstance strongly resented as a relinquishing of hard won freedoms.
In spite of the physical presence of this economic frailty in Dublin, the actual prices of commodities in the city are remarkably inflated. The city holds a place in Europe’s top ten most expensive cities and prices remain steep. Dubliners doing their Christmas shopping on Grafton Street surrounded by cheery lights and jolly music pass darkened windows and stumble over Irish beggars with the ubiquitous pubs serving shoppers their pint of Guinness at a minimum of 4.50 Euros.
The good thing is that public transportation manages to serve the city at an affordable price. But perhaps that low price comes at a higher cost. Yes, you can get a 2.30 Euro bus fare to take you from one end of the 115 square kilometers (44 square miles) general city area to the other. Yet you may frequently spend 40 minutes waiting for a bus that comes every ten, watching a number of buses marked “out of service” pass you by without so much as a pause.
The city has a system of trams, known as the LUAS, and trains, known as the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit), serving the rest of the county with reasonably priced fares. And while these methods of transportation run according to schedule, they all together amount to only six lines, two being trams and four being train lines.
In addition, the city suffers from a total lack of a subterranean transportation system: no subways, no trolleys, no nothing. Additionally, the only ways to get to the airport, which is only 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) away, is by car or bus. SEPTA may be overpriced in comparison to most other transportation organizations, particularly outside the US, but we do rather well contrasted with a European capital of comparable size.
So, as I settle in on this holiest of holy nights night to watch yet another screening of "The Quiet Man" the long story of the Irish reminds me of the movie's famous fight scene between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen. It was a tooth-spitting, roundhouse-throwing brawl that crawls all over the countryside for what seems like forever.
It is an apt metaphor for the country and reminds me that there is a prosperous future in store for Dublin and the rest of Ireland. The “Celtic Tiger” may have been caged temporarily, but the Irish are a “fighting people”and will not allow their country to crumble after centuries of struggles to achieve their complete independence.