Rishad Saam Mehta soaks in the spirit of Ireland — and not just whiskey

Dublin has its fair share of churches and cathedrals all grand and inspiring. However, on a recent trip I discovered a fantastically fascinating little church. Well off the tourist trail and the city’s oldest parish church on the north side of the River Liffey, St Michan’s Church was founded in 1095.

When I entered, its simple interiors belied its complex history and the legends that are associated with it. The church was originally founded in 1095 though only a few faint traces of the original construction remain. The structure seen today dates from 1685. The church was renovated again in 1825.

The most riveting sight inside the church is the organ. This delightfully decorated instrument was built by John Baptiste Cuvillie between 1723 and 1725 at a cost of Euros 550 which was a fortune in those days. But the organ’s claim to fame is that none other than George Frideric Handel skimmed his fingers over the keyboard of this organ in early 1742 when he was working on ‘Messiah’, his most celebrated work to date which has grown to become a popular Christmas classical piece.

Handel’s Messiah opened to a thunderous response in the the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin, which is just a 7 minute walk from St Michan’s and legend has it that Handel developed and fine tuned the Messiah in St Michan’s using its splendid organ.

As I finished appreciating the organ, the volunteer guide turned up to take me for a tour of the vaults. The 20 minute tour costs Euros 4 and is an absolute Dublin must do if you want a good measure of eeriness and so chills to rush up and down your spine.

Deep underground, below the church are five long burial vaults that are accessed through stout and sinister looking iron doors. In fact when they clang shut behind you they seem to ring with disturbing finality. The constant dry atmosphere has caused the mummification of some of the bodies that lie in open coffins. I felt a mixture of awe and superstitious dread when I walked into the vault where four mummies lie. It is a shocking reminder of mortality and the fact that the clock is ticking away to the final sigh. My guide brilliantly explained what could be perceived from the mummies. One was thought to be a thief since his hand had been cut off as punishment, the other was a nun and the one in the far back was rumored to be a crusader. It is said to bring good luck to rub his finger and when I did that I got goose bumps from the eeriness of it all because the last time that finger must have moved was 800 years ago.

My next stop was just a few blocks away to the old Jameson Distillery at Bow Street where John Jameson acquired a distillery in 1780. In a few years it was producing 30,000 gallons of whiskey annually and by 1805 it had become the world’s number one whiskey. Today the old distillery in Bow Street is no longer operative in active whiskey production as all Jameson whiskey is now manufactured at the distillery in Middleton. But, the tour experience here is educational and interesting telling about the passion and enthusiasm that goes into making a fine whiskey.

John Jameson believed in the starting with the best at source hence he found the best barley growers and bought their entire produce for his whiskey which is produced from a mixture of malted and unmalted or ‘green’ Irish barley. In short the process goes as such. First the barley is dried in a closed kiln that uses clean-burning anthracite coal. This means that unlike some Scottish whiskeys where the smokiness of the peat used to fire the kiln manifests itself into the flavour, Jameson prefers to preserve the pure flavour of the malt. Like most Irish whiskey, Jameson is triple-distilled for optimum smoothness and the end result is a sweet-tasting whiskey.

While Jameson can be enjoyed in a myriad of ways, I like it best in Irish coffee which is another great Irish tradition that started off as a quick shot of coffee and whiskey for passengers flying into Ireland over the Atlantic while the plane was being refuelled for the onwards journey.

Today it is enjoyed in bars and pubs all over Ireland and it often fuels a zest for life which often can be seen on the streets of Dublin.

On Grafton Street for example, Romanian Gypsies were belting away a medley of Tequila and Volare on their accordions, guitars and drums and one couple started dancing to it and it went viral. Soon there were a bunch of people all strangers dancing together on the streets. The dancers must have swelled to about a 100 in a matter of minutes. Now if that isn’t an example of good Irish craic, I don’t know what is.