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Rick Steves: Dublin landmarks recall home power struggle

A walk through the heart of North Dublin recalls Ireland’s long struggle for independence and is a great introduction to the city’s rich history.

A walk through the heart of North Dublin recalls Ireland’s long struggle for independence and is a great introduction to the city’s rich history. I try to take the time for this walk on each visit to reinvigorate my sense of the city as the beating heart of the ever-evolving Irish nation.

I start at the O’Connell Bridge, which spans the River Liffey. The river has long divided the wealthy south side of the city from the north side of the working class. From this bridge, I can see modern Dublin evolving: a forest of cranes marks construction sites throughout the city.

Leading from the bridge into the heart of North Dublin, O’Connell Street echoes history. I like to stroll along its middle tree-lined strip, which brings me closer to many Irish heroes.

The first statue pays homage to Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), who called on the British Parliament for Irish Catholics to have civil rights. He organized thousands of nonviolent protesters in huge “monster meetings”.

The pedestal has many bullet holes, which remain from the Easter Rising of 1916, a week-long rebellion against British rule that was quickly crushed.

The following statue represents William Smith O’Brien (1803-1864), the leader of the nationalist movement Young Ireland. Compared to his predecessors such as O’Connell, O’Brien was more willing to use force to achieve Irish self-determination. After a failed uprising in Tipperary, he was jailed and sentenced to death, then exiled to Australia.

Nearby is a statue of Sir John Gray (1816 -1875), a physician and politician who wanted to abrogate the union with Great Britain. You can also thank him for bringing clean drinking water to Dublin.

Next is James Larkin (1876-1947), the founder of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. The strike he called in 1913 is considered the first shot in the war for independence. He stands where a union rally erupted into a riot after Larkin was arrested for attempting to deliver a speech – resulting in massive police brutality and several deaths.

Shortly after the statue of Larkin is the General Post Office, with pillars still riddled with bullet holes. It was there that nationalist activist Patrick Pearse read the Irish Independence Proclamation in 1916, marking the start of the Easter Rising. The building became the headquarters of the rebels and the scene of a bloody five-day siege. Why fight for a post office? Because it housed the nerve center of the telegraph for the whole country. Today, a captivating exhibit brings the dramatic history of this building to life.

A few blocks away is a statue of Father Theobald Mathew (1790-1856), a leader of the temperance movement of the 1830s. Father Mathew was responsible, according to some historians, for convincing enough Irish peasants to stay sober that O’Connell was able to organize them into a political force. But the onset of the Great Potato Famine crippled his efforts and sent thousands to their graves or on emigration ships – desperation drove Ireland back to whiskey.

Boldly, at the top of O’Connell Street stands a monument to Charles Stewart Parnell. The monument is surrounded by the names of the four ancient provinces of Ireland and the 32 Irish counties (to the north and south, since it was erected before the Irish partition). Parnell (1846-1891) was the Member of Parliament who nearly won home rule for Ireland in the 1880s – and who served prison time for his nationalist activities. Despite his privileged birth, Parnell envisioned a modern, free and united Ireland as a secular democracy.

The momentum seemed to be on Parnell’s side. With the British Prime Minister in favor of a similar form of home rule, it seemed Ireland was on the path to independence as a Commonwealth nation. Then a sex scandal erupted around Parnell and he was kicked out of office.

After that, Ireland got bogged down in the conflicts of the 20th century: awkward independence with a divided island, a bloody civil war and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in the second half of the century. But since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, peace has finally reigned on this troubled island.

Upstream from Parnell, Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance pays homage to the victims of the Easter Rising. This memorial marks the spot where the rebel leaders were held before being transferred to prison for their execution. The Irish flag flies above: green for Catholics, orange for Protestants and white for the hope that they can live together in peace.

One of modern Ireland’s most touching moments occurred here in 2011, when the Queen made it the first stop on her visit to the Republic – the first for a British monarch to reign in 100 years. She laid a wreath and bowed her head out of respect for the Irish rebels who had died trying to free themselves from her kingdom. It was an extremely cathartic moment for both nations.

Brexit brings new challenges as politicians explain what Britain’s break with the EU means for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. While my brief Dublin walk is over, there is still a lot of history to be made on the Emerald Isle.

Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European tourist guides and hosts tourist programs on public television and radio. Email him at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.

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Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera