Always Bring a Pair of Gloves

I woke up well before dawn in my hostel room and couldn’t get out of that uncomfortable bunk bed any quicker. I misjudged the distance to the floor and landed on my ass with a thud, stirring those sharing the room awake. I wasn’t too embarrassed; I warned (most of) them that I’d be leaving early, but I was vague about where exactly I was going. I grabbed my day pack, prepped with everything I would need for the day (or so I thought), shoved my boots on and walked out into the dark Dublin Winter.

Seeing as my breath immediately fogged up and formed frost in my beard, I shoved my hands deep into my jacket pockets. Seeing that this would not be a viable long-term solution, I searched my bag and discovered that I had left my gloves in the room. However, I was not about to go back up, rummage through all my stuff and be ‘that guy.’ Besides, there was already a ‘that guy’ in the room, specifically the type that spreads all his possessions onto every single bunk and then gets mad when you ask him to move his dirty towel from your bed. Anyway, in the -4°c weather and knowing full-well that I’d be outside for at least three hours, I thought to myself, “I’ll be fine.” If you’re new here, this is usually what I say right before I get myself into very avoidable trouble. So, I immediately headed off to the Liffey River, which runs straight through the heart of Dublin, and headed east. However, Dublin’s a coastal city – keep going east and you’ll walk right into the sea! Luckily, the middle of the sea that was precisely my intended destination. Well, sort of…

The Liffey River, running right down the middle of Dublin.

More precisely, my destination was the Poolbeg Lighthouse. This bright red, stumpy lighthouse has a pretty simple and predictable job: to communicate with incoming ships. However, its location is incredibly unique as it’s been sitting at the end of the Great South Wall since the 1760s, although the current iteration is from 1820. This Great South Wall was the longest sea wall in the world when it was finished in the 1700s and was built to combat the perennial problem of silting in the Dublin Bay. For those of you who don’t know, silting is basically when soil, sand, mud, clay, shit etc. builds up in stagnant water, usually at the bottom of rivers, bays and where river meets sea. This can cause blockages and prevent ships from sailing into these waters, so sea walls are built to prevent this from happening. Given how long the Great Sea Wall is, you can probably guess how extreme silting was in Dublin.

I started from the suburb of Smithtown and followed the Liffey on the north side. The streets, although illuminated, were devoid of people, which is not surprising given that only an idiot would be willingly outside in this weather, and those who had to be outside opted to travel in a nice, heated vehicle. But that doesn’t mean the streets were empty. All along the Liffey is amazing architecture, including monuments that commemorate important moments in Irish history. To see the dome of the Four Courts in the pre-dawn light was remarkable and I regret that my camera couldn’t do the view any justice at all. The Four Courts building is the premier court building in Ireland, housing the main courts and an extensive law library. Unfortunately, I hadn’t committed any crimes, nor did I have any plans to do so, therefore I didn’t get a chance to take a peek inside. The wind picked up and nipped at my fingertips, so I shoved them back into my jacket and continued ambulating.

Dublin from the mouth of the Liffey.

I was taken in by the Custom House, which looks like what would happen if I was asked to draw the US Capitol building from memory – very similar, but definitely not the same. But just like its American counterpart, the Custom House was also set on fire, although not by the British – they owned this building! Those responsible were part of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who decided to screw the British over by burning the building in 1921, costing them millions of pounds (in back-then money!). This wasn’t a sudden or unexpected development; Revolutionary sentiments had been brewing in Ireland for a long time and reached a fever pitch in the 1910s-20s. The Irish revolutionary period is such a difficult time to talk about because it’s one of those histories where you have to go through myriad details just to receive a rudimentary understanding of the events that took place. But it’s also one of those “the more you study it, the more confused you become” events because modern politics comes in and muddles everything even further and you get accused of all sorts of things no matter what you say (or what the evidence shows). Oh well, that’s the life of an historian! Anyway, I’ll do my best to give a brief outline of the events…

The British had ruled Ireland, in part or in whole, since the late 1100s, yet they were not always welcome masters. Over the centuries, there have been multiple uprisings and rebellions, but the British always managed to quash dissent. However, The Easter Uprising in 1916 was different – Ireland had declared independence. After the initial uprising, violence was initially infrequent, but became more common after opposition to conscription in 1918. Then, Irish MPs refused to travel to Westminster and instead formed their own government, breaching a centuries-old law that an Irish government could not meet without approval from the monarch. This led straight into the Irish War of Independence, a guerilla war that the newly-founded IRA waged to make the UK unable to govern Ireland effectively (which culminated in the burning of the Custom House which, even if it was a disaster for the IRA militarily, was a massive propaganda success). Ireland’s independence was granted in 1922, but the conclusion of the War actually fanned the flames further.

The Custom House, like the Home-brand version of the US Capitol, but the Brits didn’t burn this one down.

The peace treaty created the Irish Free State, a.k.a. an Independent Irish dominion that was nonetheless still in the UK. This was seen as a betrayal of the declaration of independence in 1916, which specifically proclaimed an independent republic. See, the various interest groups in Ireland, ranging from Catholics to Socialists to Republicans and everyone in between, committed one of the most common of mistakes you’ll find in history, i.e. they shared one goal (Independence from Britain), but disagreed on pretty much everything else. This is a recipe for disaster wherever it happens, and Ireland was no exception. In terms of what independence actually looked like, some wanted nothing to do with the UK, some wanted to maintain good relations despite the brutal conflict, and some Irish actually preferred to be under British rule as a dominion. This naturally tore the country into pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty blocs and things got ridiculously messy incredibly quickly (the British, who had just been fighting against the Irish to prevent any form of Independence, were now supporting the pro-Treaty independence side – see what I mean about how messy this gets?). This has left a lasting impact on Irish history and politics to this day. It’s also the root of messy issues such as the IRA, Northern Ireland, Reunification, relations with Britain and other topics I’ll leave to others braver (and drunker) than myself.

But before I could do a deeper exploration of this fascinating (albeit heartbreaking) era of Irish history, I almost had a heart attack: I saw zombies on the street ahead of me! I stopped dead in my tracks, my foggy breath obscuring my vision. I was a bit bleary-eyed from waking up early (and still under the effects of jetlag), but I knew that zombies didn’t exist. However, I swear I saw one of these figures start to move! I did a double-take and no, these bone-thin, bedraggled, living corpses weren’t moving at all. I bravely walked towards them and, as it turns out, they were made of metal. For a second I was relieved that I wasn’t surrounded by the living dead, but I quickly discovered that, in fact, I was.

Ireland suffered a disastrous famine in the 1840s-50s which began when a disease known as ‘blight’ ravaged potato crops for years on end, upon which many Irish were dependent on for food. This meant that the remaining crop could only fed half of Ireland, so widespread starvation and disease was the natural result. Now, the British, being the overlords of the Irish at the time, initially sent corn and wheat to Ireland, repealing tariffs on grain in the process to drive food prices down. These policies were somewhat successful – people were still hungry, but mass death might well have been averted. But other measures to combat hunger split the British government, leading to a change in government, which significantly worsened the situation.

I was genuinely expecting these statues to move like that ghost in Kairo. Word of warning: Don’t watch that movie unless you want to have nightmares for weeks on end.

This new parliament did begin a soup-kitchen program, but this ended after only six months, which was terrible timing since the famine was reaching its peak. The parliament also charged Irish landowners (who were often British MPs and their relatives) with the responsibility of financial relief for the famine, which made little sense given they were receiving little income from their famine-stricken lands and were suffering from the famine themselves. Now that they were responsible for paying for their own relief, these landowners were facing a financial freefall. So, they kicked out the farmers who lived on their lands, forcing them to be homeless AND hungry. For 500,000 people, this was their fate. The British Government failed to prevent these mass evictions, nor did they try to support the involuntary nomads, who were left to fend for themselves. Even with over a million Irish emigrating overseas during the famine period (some merely to escape, others to find work to send money back to their families so they could afford the high prices for food), there was nowhere near enough food to go around.

What’s worse, the export of food from Ireland was not prohibited, meaning food was leaving the country, including food meant for the worst affected areas. Food prices remained high, simply because of short supply. But this was seen as okay, as the reigning economic ideology was Laissez-Faire, a French term which pretty much means “Let it be.” This meant that the government believed economic intervention should be kept to an absolute minimum, believing the economy would naturally correct itself eventually. Yes, this meant that stopping food exports was the preferable alternative to keeping food in the region. Others played into anti-Irish sentiment that was common in the UK. This was usually due to sectarianism, given Ireland was (and still is) quite Catholic and England was predominantly Protestant. The English believed that the famine was an act of God against their cultural and social ‘inferiors’ and that they should not interfere with God’s will. The guy in charge of famine relief policy, Charles Trevelyan, was even quoted as saying the famine was “the judgement of God…to teach the Irish a lesson.” Hear that? Apparently the Irish deserved it! No wonder one million people died in the richest nation on Earth – those who were in charge didn’t care enough to do anything. The Emerald Isle’s population still hasn’t reached pre-famine levels (8.5 million before the famine, 7 million in 2022!). If I told you that this saga is central to the mythology of Ireland and exacerbated the revolutionary sentiments that would explode in the 1910s, would you believe me? But before you could answer that, an easterly chill slapped me across the face and snapped me out of it. Now concerningly cold, my hands burrowed deeper into my jacket pockets as I continued on my way.

Still a way to go. Be glad you can’t smell this photo…

I had reached the mouth of the Liffey and turned back to appreciate the view of Dublin city. Surprisingly, a lot of things are illuminated with neon green lights, which contrasted well with the encroaching red of the rising sun. I crossed a bridge and crisscrossed the sleepy suburbs, aware of how my heavy boots clomped and splashed the water on the road, sending clumps of ice soaring through the air. Although I wanted to get to my destination quickly, I slowed down – The last thing I wanted to do was rouse an Irishman from his slumber with my heavy footsteps!

I soon found myself in an industrial area which, I didn’t know beforehand, contains the Covanta Plant. This plant converts waste into energy, which means that while it scores points for renewability, the area stinks like shit. I pinched my nose shut, despite my hands becoming sore from the chilling wind, just to avoid the noxious smell. Luckily, it didn’t last very long, and soon I was standing where the Great South Wall and meets peninsula. I could just see the lighthouse on the horizon, where the dull red sky was transforming into bands of brilliant pink, orange and yellow streaks above steel-coloured clouds. I was tired and chilled, but I still had another two kilometres to walk…

The walk along the wall was uneven and slippery, covered as it was with ice and spray from the bay. It’s wide enough for two cars to drive comfortably side by side, but with a lashing sea wind and the potential for tripping with every step, I preferred to stick to the middle of the path. About halfway across you get the feeling that you’re on the never-ending stairs from Super Mario 64: just walking and walking and never making progress, the lighthouse stays the exact same distance away. The difference being, you turn around and you’re struck by how far from the coast you actually are, then you turn back to face the lighthouse and it’s still in the distance. The pictures are misleading; It’s not very close at all!

Finally made it.

I finally reached the lighthouse as the Sun rose above the clouds and sent red ribbons of light across the Irish Sea. Across the waters, about a hundred miles away, lies the English cities of Liverpool and Blackpool, unless you drift a bit further south, in which case you’ll end up in Wales (and in much shorter time). I sat in front of the lighthouse in quiet contemplation. And it’s this little moment that made my efforts to get there worth it; watching the Sun rise over the sea made me nearly forget about the fact that my hands were essentially frozen solid – like, I was beginning to have trouble moving my fingers!

Now that I had completed my objective, I had a new one: Warm my hands up! I headed for the nearest suburbs, which was about 45 minutes away, in a desperate attempt to find some gloves, or buy a coffee, or just chill (no pun intended) in a heated supermarket, anything to solve my current conundrum. I eventually entered a cozy little newsagent in the suburb of Irishtown (yes, that’s a real place in Dublin) and have a lovely conversation with the old Irishman behind the counter, whose accent was so thick that I thought he was speaking Irish (he sounded like that schoolboy talking about frostbite, which is hilarious because we talked about my frozen hands). He allowed me to stay to warm my hands by the heater, and in gratitude I bought some of his wares.

The day eventually got warm enough that I didn’t need gloves anymore, but since visiting the lighthouse, I’ve always brought a pair of gloves wherever I go to protect my hands from the cold, even when there’s hardly a chance of developing frostbite. I had yet to learn about the importance of warm feet, but I would learn that in due time, but that’s half the fun in travelling – making dumb decisions, facing the consequences of your actions and learning how to prepare better in the future. Look, I’m not saying you should tempt fate, but when your inexperience gets you into a sticky situation, don’t beat yourself up – that’s how we get great stories! And my main takeaway from my hike through Irish history and my visit to this iconic lighthouse was: When it’s cold, remember to bring your gloves!

Have I mentioned yet that I might be an idiot?

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