Thomas "Tommy" Lawlor is one of those people reporters like me love to meet. A gregarious Irish taxi driver with a colorful past, Tommy became a critical transportation linchpin during the last days of a family trip to Ireland -- getting myself, my brother and father through the twisting streets of Dublin (that good nation's capital) to the difficult Portmarnock golf course to the north of the city and back again, and eventually out to the airport for our flights home.
Driving with Tommy gave me an insight into just how important local knowledge is when navigating city streets -- in this case, a city that traces its offical founding all the way back to 988 A.D. As a consequence of that ancient history, Dublin's streets are very narrow in more than a few places, with many one-way boulevards that can confuse and frustrate the average driver if you don't have the all-important mental map in place like Tommy does.
"You've got to know where you're goin' an' ya have to have no fear, lad," he told me. "Many of these streets date from medieval times, so they can be narrow and confusing." It helps that taxi drivers get to use the bus lanes in the city, so they can avoid the long lines at Dublin's many stoplights. It also helps to keep an eye on the weather too, as Dublin -- located on the river Liffey -- is only a stone's throw from the Irish Sea and gets pummeled by rain pretty frequently.
"We had 62 days of straight rain here this summer," Tommy said. "That makes driving interesting. You alss have to keep your eyes on the seagulls, for if you see lots of them gathering in the parks and other open spots, you know a big storm is coming in from the sea."
It's fascinating, too -- rain or shine -- to be driving next to buildings that are hundreds of years old. A village called Eblana once stood here, a place dating back to the 2nd century, until the marauding Vikings came in the 9th century and established modern day Dublin as a raiding base for their longboats. The hill on which Dublin stands provided a good defensive point as well as easy access to the river, making it an ideal base of operations for them.
Though King Henry II of England eventually drove the Vikings out in 1171, the city stayed small -- peopled by only 9,000 -- until the vicious Oliver Cromwell arrived in 1649, turning Dublin into a haven for protestants fleeing the religious wars in Europe.
In 1800, the Act of Union officially joining England and Ireland pushed Dublin into decline, as it suffered (as did the rest of the country) from second-class status imposed by British rule. The city later became a pitched battlefield in 1916 during the Easter Uprising, with the General Post Office being shelled by British artillery to drive out Irish rebels. The subsequent execution of those rebels changed the population's view of those rebels, however, and it gladly became the capital of the Irish Free State in 1922 after the Irish war of independence (fought from 1919 to 1921) freed the south of Ireland from British rule.
Today, Dublin is the political, economic, and cultural capital of the Republic of Ireland, with double decker buses, commuters, freight trucks, and (yes) taxi drivers like Tommy plying its jam packed streets every day. It's a lot more compact than the cities we are so used back here in the U.S., however, making it quite a tough place to drive -- and that's before you throw in driving on the left hand side, of course.
Still, it's beauty and history are something to behold, even if it does make the driving more than a little challenging -- which is what makes drivers like Tommy so valuable. "Once you know your way around, it's a piece of cake," he said. Maybe ... we'll see on my next trip back.