From Dublin’s colourful doors, Belfast’s famous inventions, Ireland’s infamous monuments, blending blunders, the Dracula connection to the origins of popular phrases, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY dig out a treasure of Irish secrets
1. Why Dublin has colourful doors
The Emerald Isle may have inspired Johnny Cash to pen the song ‘40 shades of green’ (though the term itself is an older one), but what’s the reason behind Dublin’s colourful doors? Pink, red, green, blue, brown, yellow, white… the traditional Georgian doors at Merrion Square come in myriad shades. But there was a time when all doors in Dublin used to be black. Legend has it that local menfolk would go on all-night drinking binges and often land up the next morning with the excuse that they were so drunk they couldn’t find the door as it was hard to tell them apart! So the clever wives started painting their doors in different colours… and it has remained so, ever since!
2. Bite me! The Dracula was Irish?
Dublin-born Irish writer Bram Stoker found inspiration for his 1897 Gothic novel Dracula from several sources. Hungarian writer and traveler Ármin Vámbéry acted as Stoker’s consultant on Transylvania with dark stories from the Carpathian mountains. Though the Romanian prince Vlad Tepes, the Impaler may be an influence, there is an Ireland connection, too. Old legends talk of Abhartach, an Irish vampire king in 5th-6th century who rose from his grave to drink the blood of his subjects. In the late 1800s Bram Stoker visited Killarney in the Ring of Kerry. It’s believed the vampire chronicles of Dracula were further shaped by his late night wanderings around Ross Castle and stories of hermit John Drake who slept in a coffin in Muckross Abbey. Stoker also visited the crypts of St Michan’s church in Dublin. Interestingly, Gaelic for bad blood is ‘droch fola’. While in Killarney, don’t miss the theatrical Original Ghost Tour of Killarney – ‘a trip to die for’!
3. In Ireland even monuments have nicknames
Notorious for their sharp wit and love for rhyme, the Irish have a penchant for irreverent nicknames given to their statues and monuments. The Spire of Dublin, a 398 ft needle-like monument that replaced Nelson’s Pillar, was dubbed Spike in the Dyke, Stiletto in the Ghetto, The Binge Syringe and other unceremonious tags alluding to its shiny stainless steel form. Legendary fishmonger Molly Malone’s statue is dubbed Tart with the Cart or Flirt in the Skirt. The statue of two women on a park bench with shopping bags near Ha’Penny Bridge is disparagingly called Hags with Bags. The statue of the river Liffey personified as Anna Livia, is the Floozy in the Jacuzzi or Bitch in the Ditch. Even famous Irish authors are not spared. Oscar Wilde’s statue is called The Queer with the Leer and The Fag on the Crag while James Joyce is The Prick with the Stick! In Belfast, when the Albert Clock Tower inclined due to a sinking base, locals deemed it better than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, because ‘not only do we have the inclination, we also have the time!’ The Chandon Steeple in suburban Cork is known as the ‘Four-faced Liar’ since its accuracy is questionable.
4. How a blending blunder created the world’s most popular drink
Guinness folklore contends that Arthur Guinness did not invent stout; he merely perfected it. Though all stouts are made from barley, hops, yeast and water, what distinguishes Guinness from other beers in the secret 5th ingredient – the brewing technique. However the actual reason behind Guinness’s success was not a master blender, but a blunder! The key ingredient Irish ground barley, used in the ratio of 80% unmalted, 10% malted and 10% roasted, was heated too much, resulting in a dark ruby red brew. The rest, as they say, is distillery. Spring water from the Wicklow Mountains, low in minerals like magnesium and calcium, is used so Guinness in Dublin is likely to taste better than anywhere else. The nitrogen head on top of the pint acts as a barrier, sealing the beer’s taste and temperature. Learn to pour the perfect pint and drink using the five senses at the Guinness storehouse and also check out Arthur Guinesss’ 9000-year-old lease for the brewery site at St James Gate and the Director’s Safe with a sample of the original starter yeast!
5. There are no snakes in Ireland
As per legend Ireland’s patron saint St Patrick was on a 40-day fast atop a hill when he was attacked by snakes, so he chased them into the sea. However it’s more a metaphor for him driving out pagan religions and the introduction of Christianity in 4th century. He used the shamrock or three-leaf clover to explain the Divine Trinity of The God, The Father and The Holy Spirit. Despite the myth, there have been no snakes in Ireland from the post-glacial period! Rathlin Island, the northernmost and only inhabited island in Northern Ireland was at the centre of a land dispute with Scotland. After all, it was here in a cave that Robert the Bruce hid after his defeat by the English in 1306 and was inspired by the persistent spider that scaled the roof after several unsuccessful attempts. In a 1617 lawsusit in the Court of King James I, it was claimed that since there were no snakes on Rathlin, it had to be Irish. As the story goes, a snake was released onto the island but did not survive in the marshy wilds and Rathlin remained Irish. Incidentally, this is where Marconi made his first radio broadcast.
6. Built in Belfast
Besides the doomed Titanic, 3500 other ships (like HMS Belfast in London, SS Canberra and INS Vikrant in Mumbai), were also made in Belfast. There was a local joke that you could tell which shipping company’s vessel was being built by the colour of the doors in East Belfast. Union Castle was lavender while P&O was white! Though Harland & Wolff was famous as a shipping company, it made almost anything – including walkways for Heathrow Airport and the Churchill Tank. At the Lagan Legacy barge retrace the story of Belfast’s maritime and industrial past in an exhibition called ‘The Greatest Story Never Told.’ The submarine, ejector seat, pneumatic pump and wind turbine were all Irish inventions as Ireland soon became the largest manufacturer of ropes, lemonade shakers, lawn mowers, flax machinery and shirts. The ‘Back to the Future’ DeLorean DMC-12 cars were also made in the Belfast suburb of Dunmurry.
7. What the Irish gave English
Ireland’s contribution to the English language is pretty varied. A Dublin pub owner allegedly invented the word ‘Quiz’ as a challenge to introduce a new term overnight. During the Irish Land War Captain Charles Boycott, a land agent wanted to evict tenants and was met with organized isolation by workers, hence the word ‘boycott’. The term ‘going beyond the pale’ dates back to 14th century when parts of Ireland that were under English rule were marked by a pale (fence). To venture outside this boundary meant leaving behind all the rules of English society. ‘Birthday bumps’ too originated in Ireland from an old practice of giving knocks on the head for luck. Belfast’s spinning industry gave rise to several terms like flaxen-haired, toe rag and spinster. Women often sat outdoors and had to keep the flax damp with their mouth, so were weather-beaten and had sores on their mouth. Many were left unmarried and continued spinning, from where the term spinster is derived. In the old days, as per Irish taxation laws people paid more for having large windows, as having more light was seen as a luxury. So houses had unusually small windows and half doors, as light was allowed from the top half of the door when needed, which wasn’t taxable. It was this intriguing practice that gave rise to the phrase ‘daylight robbery’.
8. Why a door at St Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin has a hole
In 1492 two Irish families, the Butlers of Ormonde and the FitzGeralds of Kildare were involved in a bloody feud. The Butlers sought refuge in the Chapter House of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin but the FitzGeralds followed them and asked them to come out and make peace. Fearing for their safety, the Butlers refused. As a token of good faith Gerald FitzGerald cut a hole in the door and offered his hand in peace to those on the other side. The Butlers honoured his noble intention, shook hands through the door and the two families were reconciled. FitzGerald had nothing to lose except his hand, which gave rise to the phrase ‘to chance your arm’. The famous Door of Reconciliation is still on display in the Cathedral’s north wing.
9. Snug in a Snug
From Ireland’s highest pub Ponderosa overlooking the Mourne mountains to Crown’s Bar in Belfast, described as ‘the most beautiful bar in the world’, Ireland has several unique and historic pubs. Groucho’s in County Armagh has a well inside the pub and a tunnel that leads to Richhill Castle, the most haunted house in Ulster. Dublin alone has over 800 pubs including one of Ireland’s oldest The Brazen Head (1198). Some pubs have a ‘snug’, a cosy nook next to the bar or entrance, where women could have a pint in relative peace and isolation. Pubs were largely mens’ only turf with loud, aggressive and boisterous patrons. People raised a hue and cry about women’s safety, but such apprehensions were unfounded. As the saying goes ‘An Irishman can crawl over eight naked ladies to get to a pint.’ Have a craic in a snug at O’Neills, Palace Bar, Kehoes and Toners in Dublin or Belfast’s oldest tavern Whites (1630) and Kelly’s Cellars, the oldest licensed pub.
10. Strange places
While nearby Wales may have the longest place name in the world – the 58-letter Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Ireland doesn’t lag too far behind. At 41 characters, Sliabh Phlochóige agus Leadhb Reannach Thuaidh, literally ‘Plughoge and Leabrannagh Mountain North’ is a townland in County Donegal. Ireland’s longest one-word place name is the 22-letters long Muckanaghederdauhaulia (literally ‘Pig-marsh between two saltwaters’). The Irish go to great lengths to display their fondness for verbosity, be it a stone or a river. There are nearly 50 places in Ireland with 20+ names. Most seem as if they were the result of a two-year old left unattended at the computer keyboard. Try asking for directions to Bullaunancheathrairaluinn, Sruffaunoughterluggatoora or Sruffaungolinluggatavhin. Our advice, stick to Cork…
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy.