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Surf ‘n Turf Touring

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

“Aaaaaaaarrrrr!”

If you hear someone roaring this at you in Dublin, be prepared to run for cover — or roar back. The Vikings are here.

Aside from their fierce roar, these Vikings are probably nothing like the ones who first settled on the hill that became Dublin in 842 AD. In fact, they’re motorized, thanks to a fleet of the world’s oddest vehicles, the amphibious U.S. military DUKWs.

Already a fixture in Boston, the DUKW guided tours in Dublin have a Viking twist, hence the name: the Viking Splash Tours. The idea is to take visitors on a land and water tour of Dublin, past and present, in the style of marauding Vikings — only conceding to modern times by obeying the traffic laws.

Halfway through the 75-minute tour, these 10-ton vehicles slip into Dublin’s Grand Canal docks with ease, cruising around some of the city’s otherwise inaccessible sites of interest. Sometimes it is possible to spot a latter day crusader also — Bono is reputed to wave at the tours on occasion, from his harbor pad.

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“We often get school kids,” said tour coordinator Aisling Finucane, “but don’t let that put anyone off, we get just as many Dubs as well.”

General manager Angela Richards said that Sinead O’Connor had brought her children on the tour — twice.

On Bull Alley Street, by the fences of St Patrick’s Cathedral, you will see a small crowd of people waiting every hour. A distant roar, the crunch of mighty gears, and shortly, the bow of the six-wheeled DUKW itself will lurch into view.

These boat-like vehicles were made over 60 years ago in the U.S. as amphibious landing craft for the D-Day invasion of Normandy. They were capable of carrying 30 troops or 10 tons of material off ships moored off the French coast and taking the cargo right up on to the beach and beyond. Now they carry Vikings.

“In the water,” explained Viking tour guide and driver Noel Shinners at the start of his route, “you engage six-wheel drive and also a propeller. At least, that’s the theory. If it doesn’t work in the harbor, you can all get out and push.” He was prepared for that eventuality as well — for safety, the DUKW’s overhead racks are loaded with orange life jackets, adult and kid sized.

“So far,” Shinners said, “no one has ever fallen out” in the three years that the tours have been running. “Except me — and her,” he said, nodding at his colleague, Aisling Finucane, with a grin.

Before Shinners took the wheel, he explained the rules of the tour.

“The one important thing to keep in mind is this,” he said. “You’re all Vikings. Those outside are Celts. The Department of Defense won’t let us use our knives and swords to defend ourselves, so the only way to defend ourselves is to roar the Viking roar.”

In order to demonstrate he turned off his head microphone.

“Aaaaaaaarrrrr!” he roared. The passengers roared back weakly. With a bit of practice, he soon got their decibels up to what would intimidate heavily armed Celts — as well as Dublin’s drivers.

The DUKW roared into life and set off. The ride was surprisingly smooth for a vehicle designed for carrying mostly inanimate cargo on to the Normandy beaches. For those with delicate lungs, a seat at the rear was not the best idea, as diesel exhaust occasionally wafted past the back seats.

Vikings are made of strong stuff, so some diesel fumes were little to contend with. Dublin’s notorious traffic problems were another matter.

There are few places more congested than the Quays leading on to O’Connell Street, so the intrepid Viking DUKW took the opposite direction at first, passing St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where it is recorded that St. Patrick converted the first pagans to Christianity in the fourth century.

Part of the Cathedral contains Marsh’s Library, the oldest public lending library in Ireland, dating from 1701 — borrowers were locked into steel cages before the book of their choice was lowered in to them on a chain. Vikings, disdainful of reading, passed Marsh’s library by.

From there, this Viking horde swung by the Liberties, the group of attractive red-brick terraced houses that because of their location outside the city walls, afforded the tenants the liberty of not paying city taxes. Christchurch, the Protestant Cathedral, is across the street, and is believed to be the actual site of the first Viking settlement. From this raised ground, Vikings could look out to sea and inland as well, for trouble on the horizon.

Speeding down hill to the Quays, the trouble manifested itself quickly as a traffic jam — an accident on the Northside of the Liffey reduced the entire area to a standstill, just one of the hazards faced by modern-day Vikings in Dublin.

Shinners took the time to explain the domed building across the street: “that’s the Four Courts, heavily damaged during the Irish Civil War. It was held by anti-treaty forces, and shelled by Free State Troops. Eight hundred years of written records were lost in the fire.”

Once across the Liffey, the DUKW shuddered through the traffic in low gear before finally getting up speed on O’Connell Bridge, and crossing back to the Southside again.

Daniel O’Connell, Shinners said, was a fighter with the Viking spirit, given how much he’d fought to liberate the Irish from the Penal Laws.

Up D’Olier Street, the Vikings passed the Irish Times building, but Shinners noted that the reporters were probably hard at work elsewhere, specifically Doyle’s pub. Because of its location next door to the newspaper’s office, it is referred to as “Next Door.”

After Doyle’s came Trinity College, then down Nassau Street, the DUKW passed a series of Dublin’s most famous buildings: Trinity’s Long Library, where the Book of Kells is kept, Leinster House, home to the Irish parliament, the National Museum, St Stephen’s Green and O’Donoghue’s pub, where the Dubliners got their start. We were headed for the watery part of the adventure.

Before the Vikings reached the harbor, the DUKW sailed through Merrion Square as rain began to fall.

“Vikings always remembered to wrap up well,” said Shinners, “so if you get wet, it’s your own fault.” Future Vikings may want to remember to bring a waterproof coat.

At the Grand Canal docks, the DUKW paused with its nose pointed down a slope into the dark waters. Rain fell, leaving endless ripples spiraling on the calm surface. Shinners killed the engine, and explained that everyone had better don their lifejackets: sometimes even Vikings err on the side of caution.

With a roar, the engine came to life again, as the newly buoyant Vikings prepared for the depths.

The DUKW entered the harbor with hardly a ripple, and quickly left dry land behind. The harbor waters were still, so the sailing was smooth.

“Twenty-two feet deep,” said Shinners, ready with his facts. “This harbor was dug by hand in the 17th century. To your right, a barge known as ’51M,’ the last motorized barge to be used on the Dublin canal system.”

Today, the warehouses and old sheds of Dublin’s harbor area boast some of the city’s most expensive real estate. According to the DUKW tour’s general manager, Angela Richards, Bono often waves to the DUKW Vikings from his Grand Canal pad. Such celebrity is rather new to the area — for many years several centuries ago an island in the docks area boasted nothing more than a leper colony.

The inner harbor contained more converted buildings and a horse’s head statue, memorial to the thousands of horses that spent their working lives tugging barges into Dublin city.

Nearby stood Boland’s Mills, a building with a turbulent past, explained Shinners. It was on the roof of the mill that the last of the 1916 revolutionaries took their last stand, and, in the face of the advancing invaders, finally threw their rifles from the roof into the canal below.

In recent years, divers had scoured the harbor bottom and found many of the German-made weapons. They were placed on display in the National Museum.

Of the rebels, only Eamonn De Valera was not executed, because he held an American passport.

For those with any qualms about seasickness, the unsteady part of the journey is upon exiting the harbor, which only takes a few moments. From the Grand Canal docks, the remainder of the tour follows Pearse Street through Dame Street and back to Bull Alley.

On this occasion, marauding Celts were strangely absent, and the Viking’s newly acquired “Aaaaaaaarrrrr!” went unused. Most Celts seemed intent on scurrying out of the rain.

Or perhaps they really were scared of this motorized blue, red and yellow longship with its marauders heavily armed with maps and cameras. The Viking Splash Tour takes about 75 minutes depending on traffic. Adults, euro 13.50; children, euro 7.50. It departs from Bull Alley Street approximately every half hour from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., February through November. See www.vikingsplashtours.com for details.

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