Dublin is making a comeback. The decade-long “Celtic Tiger” boom era was quickly followed by the Great Recession, but The Recovery has finally taken hold. For visitors, this newer and wiser Dublin has become one of western Europe’s most popular and delightful urban destinations. Whether or not you’re out to enjoy the old or new Dublin, you’ll find it a colossally entertaining city, all the more astonishing considering its intimate size.
It is ironic and telling that James Joyce chose Dublin as the setting for his famous Ulysses, Dubliners, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man because it was a “center of paralysis” where nothing much ever changed. Which only proves that even the greats get it wrong sometimes. Indeed, if Joyce were to return to his once-genteel hometown today—disappointed with the city’s provincial outlook, he left it in 1902 at the age of 20—and take a quasi-Homeric odyssey through the city (as he so famously does in Ulysses), would he even recognize Dublin as his “Dear Dirty Dumpling, foostherfather of fingalls and dotthergills”?
For instance, what would he make of Temple Bar—the city’s erstwhile down-at-the-heels neighborhood, now crammed with cafés and trendy hotels and suffused with a nonstop, international-party atmosphere? Or the simple sophistication of the open-air restaurants of the tiny Italian Quarter (named Quartier Bloom after his own creation), complete with sultry tango lessons? Or of the hot–cool Irishness, where every aspect of Celtic culture results in sold-out theaters, from Room, the hit movie, to Riverdance, the old Irish mass-jig recast as a Las Vegas extravaganza? Plus, the resurrected Joyce might be stirred by the songs of Hozier, fired up by the sultry acting of Michael Fassbender, and moved by the award-winning novels of Colum McCann. As for Ireland’s capital, it’s packed with elegant shops and hotels, theaters, galleries, coffeehouses, and a stunning variety of new, creative little restaurants can be found on almost every street in Dublin, transforming the provincial city that suffocated Joyce into a place almost as cosmopolitan as the Paris to which he fled. And the locals are a hell of a lot more fun!
Now that the economy has finally turned a corner, Dublin citizens can cast a cool eye over the last 20 crazy years. Some argue that the boomtown transformation of their heretofore-tranquil city has permanently affected its spirit and character. These skeptics (skepticism long being a favorite pastime in the capital city) await the outcome of “Dublin: The Sequel,” and their greatest fear is the possibility that the tattered old lady on the Liffey has become a little less unique, a little more like everywhere else.
Oh ye of little faith: the rare ole gem that is Dublin is far from buried. The fundamentals—the Georgian elegance of Merrion Square, the Norman drama of Christ Church Cathedral, the foamy pint at an atmospheric pub—are still on hand to gratify. Most of all, there are the locals themselves: the nod and grin when you catch their eye on the street, the eagerness to hear half your life story before they tell you all of theirs, and their paradoxically dark but warm sense of humor.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I to “civilize” (Her Majesty’s word) Dublin, Trinity is Ireland’s oldest and most famous college. The memorably atmospheric campus is a must; here you can track the shadows of some of the noted alumni, such as Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), Bram Stoker (1847–1912), and Samuel Beckett (1906–89). Trinity College, Dublin (familiarly known as Trinity or TCD), was founded on the site of the confiscated Priory of All Hallows. For centuries Trinity was the preserve of the Protestant Church; a free education was offered to Catholics—provided that they accepted the Protestant faith. As a legacy of this condition, until 1966 Catholics who wished to study at Trinity had to obtain a dispensation from their bishop or face ex-communication.
Trinity’s grounds cover 40 acres. Most of its buildings were constructed in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The extensive West Front, with a classical pedimented portico in the Corinthian style, faces College Green and is directly across from the Bank of Ireland; it was built between 1755 and 1759, and is possibly the work of Theodore Jacobsen, architect of London’s Foundling Hospital. The design is repeated on the interior, so the view is the same from outside the gates and from the quadrangle inside. On the lawn in front of the inner facade stand statues of two alumni, orator Edmund Burke (1729–97) and dramatist Oliver Goldsmith (1730–74). On the right side of the cobblestone quadrangle of Parliament Square (commonly known as Front Square) is Sir William Chambers’s theater, or Examination Hall, dating from the mid-1780s, which contains the college’s most splendid Adamesque interior, designed by Michael Stapleton. The hall houses an impressive organ retrieved from an 18th-century Spanish ship and a gilded oak chandelier from the old House of Commons; concerts are sometimes held here. The chapel, left of the quadrangle, has stucco ceilings and fine woodwork. The looming campanile, or bell tower, is the symbolic heart of the college; erected in 1853, it dominates the center of the square.
Created between 1762 and 1764, this tranquil square a few blocks east of St. Stephen’s Green is lined on three sides by some of Dublin’s best-preserved Georgian townhouses, many of which have brightly painted front doors crowned by intricate fanlights. Leinster House, the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Gallery line the west side of the square. It’s on the other sides, however, that the Georgian terrace streetscape comes into its own—the finest houses are on the north border. Even when the flower gardens here are not in bloom, the vibrant, mostly evergreen grounds, dotted with sculpture and threaded with meandering paths, are worth strolling through. Several distinguished Dubliners have lived on the square, including Oscar Wilde’s parents, Sir William and “Speranza” Wilde (No. 1); Irish national leader Daniel O’Connell (No. 58); and authors W. B. Yeats (Nos. 52 and 82) and Sheridan LeFanu (No. 70). Until 50 years ago the square was a fashionable residential area, but today most of the houses serve as offices. At the south end of Merrion Square, on Upper Mount Street, stands the Church of Ireland St. Stephen’s Church. Known locally as the “pepper canister” church because of its cupola, the structure was inspired in part by Wren’s churches in London. An open-air art gallery featuring the works of local artists is held on the square on Sundays.
Along with works by W. B. Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1925), Samuel Beckett (1969), and Seamus Heaney (1995), the National Library contains first editions of every major Irish writer, including books by Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, and James Joyce (who used the library as the scene of the great literary debate in Ulysses). In addition, almost every book ever published in Ireland is kept here, along with an unequaled selection of old maps and an extensive collection of Irish newspapers and magazines—more than 5 million items in all.
The library is housed in a rather stiff Neoclassical building with colonnaded porticoes and an excess of ornamentation—it’s not one of Dublin’s architectural showpieces. But inside, the main Reading Room, opened in 1890 to house the collections of the Royal Dublin Society, has a dramatic dome ceiling, beneath which countless authors have researched and written. The personal papers of greats such as W. B. Yeats are also on display. The library also has a free genealogical consultancy service that can advise you on how to trace your Irish ancestors.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF IRELAND
Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (1602), Van Gogh’s Rooftops of Paris (1886), Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid (circa 1670) . . . you get the picture, or rather, you’ll find the picture here. Established in 1864, and designed by Francis Fowke (who also designed London’s Victoria & Albert Museum), The National Gallery of Ireland is one of Europe’s finest smaller art museums, with “smaller” being a relative term: the collection holds more than 2,500 paintings and some 10,000 other works. But unlike Europe’s largest art museums, the National Gallery can be thoroughly covered in a morning or afternoon without inducing exhaustion.
A highlight of the museum is the major collection of paintings by Irish artists from the 17th through 20th centuries, including works by Roderic O’Conor (1860–1940), Sir William Orpen (1878–1931), and William Leech (1881–1968). The Yeats Museum section contains works by members of the Yeats family, including Jack B. Yeats (1871–1957), the brother of writer W. B. Yeats, and by far the best-known Irish painter of the 20th century.
The collection also claims exceptional paintings from the 17th-century French, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish schools, and works by French impressionists Monet, Sisley, and Renoir. If you are in Dublin in January, catch the sumptuous annual Turner exhibition, with paintings only displayed in the winter light that best enhances their wonders. The amply stocked gift shop is a good place to pick up books on Irish artists. Free guided tours are available on Saturday at 12:30 and on Sunday at 12:30 and 1:30.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF IRELAND – ARCHAEOLOGY
Just south of Leinster House is Ireland’s National Museum of Archaeology, one of four branches of the National Museum of Ireland, and home to a fabled collection of Irish artifacts dating from 7000 BC to the present. Organized around a grand rotunda, the museum is elaborately decorated, with mosaic floors, marble columns, balustrades, and fancy ironwork. It has the largest collection of Celtic antiquities in the world, including gold jewelry, carved stones, bronze tools, and weapons.
The Treasury collection, including some of the museum’s most renowned pieces, is open on a permanent basis. Among the priceless relics on display are the 8th-century Ardagh Chalice, a two-handled silver cup with gold filigree ornamentation; the bronze-coated iron St. Patrick’s Bell, the oldest surviving example (5th–8th century) of Irish metalwork; the 8th-century Tara Brooch, an intricately decorated piece made of white bronze, amber, and glass; and the 12th-century bejeweled oak Cross of Cong, covered with silver and bronze panels.
The “Ór: Ireland’s Gold” exhibition gathers together the most impressive pieces of surprisingly delicate and intricate prehistoric goldwork—including sun disks and the late Bronze Age gold collar known as the Gleninsheen Gorget—that range in dates from 2200 to 500 BC. Upstairs, “Viking Ireland” is a permanent exhibit on the Norsemen, featuring a full-size Viking skeleton, swords, leather works recovered in Dublin and surrounding areas, and a replica of a small Viking boat. A newer attraction is an exhibition entitled “Kinship and Sacrifice,” centering on a number of Iron Age “bog bodies” found along with other objects in Ireland’s peat bogs.
The 18th-century Collins Barracks, near Phoenix Park, houses the National Museum of Decorative Arts and History, a collection of glass, silver, furniture, and other decorative arts, as well as a military history section.
It’s no more than 200 yards long and about 20 feet wide, but Grafton Street, open only to pedestrians, can claim to be the most humming street in the city, if not in all of Ireland. It’s one of Dublin’s vital spines: the most direct route between the front door of Trinity College and St. Stephen’s Green, and the city’s premier shopping street, with Dublin’s most distinguished department store, Brown Thomas, as well as tried and trusted Marks & Spencer. Grafton Street and the smaller alleyways that radiate off it offer independent stores, a dozen or so colorful flower sellers, and some of the Southside’s most popular watering holes. In summer, buskers from all over the world line both sides of the street, pouring out the sounds of drum, whistle, pipe, and string.
Locals complain about the late-night noise, and visitors sometimes say the place has the feel of a Dublin theme park, but a visit to Dublin wouldn’t be complete without spending some time in the city’s most famously vibrant area. More than any other neighborhood in the city, Temple Bar represents the dramatic changes (good and bad) and ascending fortunes of Dublin that came about in the last decade of the 20th century. The area, which takes its name from one of the streets of its central spine, was targeted for redevelopment in 1991–92 after a long period of neglect, having survived widely rumored plans to turn it into a massive bus depot and/or a giant parking lot. Temple Bar took off as Dublin’s version of New York’s SoHo, Paris’s Bastille, or London’s Notting Hill—a thriving mix of high and alternative culture distinct from what you’ll find in any other part of the city. Dotting the area’s narrow cobblestone streets and pedestrian alleyways are apartment buildings (inside they tend to be small and uninspired), vintage-clothing stores, postage-stamp-size boutiques selling overpriced gewgaws, art galleries, roaring traditional-music bars aimed at tourists, a hotel resuscitated by U2, hip restaurants, pubs, clubs, European-style cafés, and a smattering of cultural venues.
Temple Bar’s regeneration was no doubt abetted by that one surefire real-estate asset that appealed to the Viking founders of the area: location. The area is bordered by Dame Street to the south, the Liffey to the north, Fishamble Street to the west, and Westmoreland Street to the east. In fact, Temple Bar is situated so perfectly between everywhere else in Dublin that it’s difficult to believe this neighborhood was once largely forsaken. It’s now sometimes called the “playing ground of young Dublin,” and for good reason: on weekend evenings and daily in summer it teems with young people—not only from Dublin but from all over Europe—drawn by its pubs, clubs, and lively craic (good conversation and fun).
As seat and symbol of the British rule of Ireland for more than seven centuries, Dublin Castle figured largely in Ireland’s turbulent history early in the 20th century. It’s now mainly used for Irish and EU governmental purposes. The sprawling Great Courtyard is the reputed site of the Black Pool (Dubh Linn, pronounced dove-lin) from which Dublin got its name. In the Lower Castle Yard, the Record Tower, the earliest of several towers on the site, is the largest remaining relic of the original Norman buildings, built by King John between 1208 and 1220. The clock-tower building houses the fabulous Chester Beatty Library. The State Apartments (on the southern side of the Upper Castle Yard)—formerly the residence of the English viceroys and now used by the president of Ireland to host visiting heads of state and EU ministers—are lavishly furnished with rich Donegal carpets and illuminated by Waterford glass chandeliers. The largest and most impressive of these chambers, St. Patrick’s Hall, with its gilt pillars and painted ceiling, is used for the inauguration of Irish presidents. The Round Drawing Room, in Bermingham Tower, dates from 1411 and was rebuilt in 1777; numerous Irish leaders were imprisoned in the tower from the 16th century to the early 20th century. The blue oval Wedgwood Room contains Chippendale chairs and a marble fireplace. The Church of the Holy Trinity features carved oak panels, stained glass depicting the viceroy’s coat of arms, and an elaborate array of fan vaults. More than 100 carved heads adorn the walls outside; among them, St. Peter, Jonathan Swift, St. Patrick, and Brian Boru.
Enter the castle through the Cork Hill Gate, just west of City Hall. One-hour guided tours are available throughout the day, but the rooms are closed when in official use, so call ahead. The Castle Vaults hold an elegant little patisserie and bistro.
ST. PATRICK’S CATHEDRAL
The largest cathedral in Dublin and also the national cathedral of the Church of Ireland, St. Patrick’s was built in honor of Ireland’s patron saint, who—according to legend—baptized many converts at a well on this site in the 5th century. The original building, dedicated in 1192 and early English Gothic in style, was an unsuccessful attempt to assert supremacy over the capital’s other Protestant cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral. At 305 feet, this is the longest church in the country, a fact Oliver Cromwell’s troops found useful, as they made the church’s nave into their stable in the 17th century.
While in the shadow of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, head from Patrick Close to Patrick Street; look down the street toward the Liffey for a fine view of Christ Church.
Make sure you see the gloriously heraldic Choir of St. Patrick’s, hung with colorful medieval banners, and find the tomb of the most famous of St. Patrick’s many illustrious deans, Jonathan Swift, immortal author of Gulliver’s Travels, who held office from 1713 to 1745. Swift’s tomb is in the south aisle, not far from that of his beloved “Stella,” Mrs. Esther Johnson. Swift’s epitaph is inscribed over the robing-room door. W. B. Yeats—who translated it thus: “Swift has sailed into his rest; Savage indignation there cannot lacerate his breast”—declared it the greatest epitaph of all time. Other memorials include the 17th-century Boyle Monument, with its numerous painted figures of family members, and the monument to Turlough O’Carolan, the last of the Irish bards and one of the country’s finest harp players. “Living Stones” is the cathedral’s permanent exhibition celebrating St. Patrick’s place in the life of the city. If you’re a music lover, you’re in for a treat; matins (9:40 am) and evensong (5:45 pm) are still sung on many days. A new “Lives Remembered” exhibition looks at the role of the cathedral during World War One.
CHRIST CHURCH CATHEDRAL
From its exterior, you’d never guess that the first Christianized Danish king built a wooden church at this site in 1038; because of the extensive 19th-century renovation of its stonework and trim, the cathedral looks more Victorian than Anglo-Norman. Construction on the present Christ Church—the flagship of the Church of Ireland and one of two Protestant cathedrals in Dublin (the other is St. Patrick’s just to the south)—was begun in 1172 by Strongbow, a Norman baron and conqueror of Dublin for the English Crown, and continued for 50 years. By 1875 the cathedral had deteriorated badly; a major renovation gave it much of the look it has today, including the addition of one of Dublin’s most charming structures: a Bridge of Sighs–like affair that connects the cathedral to the old Synod Hall, which now holds the Viking multimedia exhibition, Dublinia. Strongbow himself is buried in the cathedral, beneath an impressive effigy. The vast, sturdy crypt, with its 12th- and 13th-century vaults, is Dublin’s oldest surviving structure and the building’s most notable feature. The “Treasures of Christ Church” exhibition includes manuscripts, various historic artifacts, and the tabernacle used when James II worshipped here. But the real marvel are the mortified bodies of a cat and rat—they were trapped in an organ pipe in the 1860s—who seem caught in a cartoon chase for all eternity. At 6 pm on Wednesday and Thursday and 3:30 pm on Sunday, you can enjoy the glories of a choral evensong, and the bell ringers usually practice on Fridays at 7 pm.
DUBLINIA AND THE VIKING WORLD
Ever wanted a chance to put your head in the stocks? Dublin’s Medieval Trust has set up an entertaining and informative reconstruction of everyday life in medieval Dublin. The main exhibits use high-tech audiovisual and computer displays; you can also see a scale model of what Dublin was like around 1500, a medieval maze, a life-size reconstruction based on the 13th-century dockside at Wood Quay, and a fine view from the tower. Dublinia is in the old Synod Hall (formerly a meeting place for bishops of the Church of Ireland), joined via a covered stonework Victorian bridge to Christ Church Cathedral. An exhibition on “Viking Dublin” consists of a similar reconstruction of life in even earlier Viking Dublin, including a Viking burial. An exhibition called “History Hunters” puts you in the role of archaeologist with interactive digs and a lab to test your newfound knowledge. There’s a guided tour at 2:30 pm every day.
Ireland’s all-dominating brewery—founded by Arthur Guinness in 1759 and at one time the largest stout-producing brewery in the world—spans a 60-acre spread west of Christ Church Cathedral. Not surprisingly, it’s the most popular tourist destination in town—after all, the Irish national drink is Guinness stout, a dark brew made with roasted malt. The brewery itself is closed to the public, but the Guinness Storehouse is a spectacular attraction, designed to woo—some might say brainwash—you with the wonders of the “dark stuff.” In a 1904 cast-iron-and-brick warehouse, the museum display covers six floors built around a huge, central glass atrium which is shaped like a giant pint glass. Beneath the glass floor of the lobby you can see Arthur Guinness’s original lease on the site, for a whopping 9,000 years. The exhibition elucidates the brewing process and its history, with antique presses and vats, a look at bottle and can design through the ages, a history of the Guinness family, a fascinating archive of Guinness advertisements, and a chance to pull your own perfect pint. The star attraction is undoubtedly the top-floor Gravity Bar, with 360-degree floor-to-ceiling glass walls that offer a nonpareil view out over the city at sunset while you sip your free pint. One of the bar’s first clients was one William Jefferson Clinton. You’ll find the Guinness logo on everything from piggy banks to underpants in the Guinness Store on the ground floor.
The River Liffey provides useful orientation, flowing as it does through the direct middle of Dublin. If you ask a native Dubliner for directions—from under an umbrella, as it will probably be raining in the approved Irish manner—he or she will most likely reply in terms of “up” or “down,” meaning up and away from the river, or down and toward it. Until recently, Dublin’s center of gravity was O’Connell Bridge, a diplomatic landmark in that it avoided locating the center either north or south of the river—strong local loyalties still prevailed among “Northsiders” and “Southsiders,” and neither group would ever accept that the city’s center lay elsewhere than on their own side. The 20th century, however, saw diplomacy fall by the wayside—Dublin’s heart now beats loudest southward across the Liffey, due in part to a large-scale refurbishment and pedestrianization of Grafton Street, which made this already upscale shopping address the main street on which to shop, stop, and be seen. At the top of Grafton Street is the city’s most famous and recognizable landmark, Trinity College; at the foot of it is Dublin’s most popular strolling retreat, St. Stephen’s Green, a 22-acre landscaped park with flowers, lakes, bridges, and Dubliners enjoying their leisure time.
Dublin’s most famous thoroughfare, which is 150 feet wide, was once known as Sackville Street, but its name was changed in 1924, two years after the founding of the Irish Free State. After the devastation of the 1916 Easter Rising, the Northside street had to be almost entirely reconstructed, a task that took until the end of the 1920s. At one time the main attraction of the street was Nelson’s Pillar, a Doric column towering over the city center and a marvelous vantage point, but it was blown up in 1966, on the Rising’s 50th anniversary. A major cleanup and repaving have returned the street to some of its old glory. The large monument at the south end of the street is dedicated to Daniel O’Connell (1775–1847), “The Liberator,” and was erected in 1854 as a tribute to the orator’s achievement in securing Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Look closely and you’ll notice that O’Connell is wearing a glove on one hand, as he did for much of his adult life, a self-imposed penance for shooting a man in a duel. But even the great man himself is dwarfed by the newest addition to O’Connell Street: the 395-foot-high Spire was built in Nelson’s Pillar’s place in 2003, and today this gigantic, stainless-steel monument dominates the street.
Europe’s largest public park, which extends about 5 km (3 miles) along the Liffey’s north bank, encompasses 1,752 acres and holds a lot of verdant green lawns, woods, lakes, and playing fields. Sunday is the best time to visit: games of cricket, football (soccer), polo, baseball, hurling (a traditional Irish sport the resembles a combination of lacrosse, baseball, and field hockey), and Irish football are likely to be in progress. Old-fashioned gas lamps line both sides of Chesterfield Avenue, the main road that bisects the park for 4 km (2½ miles), which was named for Lord Chesterfield, a lord lieutenant of Ireland, who laid out the road in the 1740s. The beautiful, pristine 1896 Victorian Tea Rooms near the Avenue still serve dainty dishes for the park visitors. To the right as you enter the park is the People’s Garden, a colorful flower garden designed in 1864. Rent bikes (including tandems) at the main gate to get the most from the park’s hidden corners.
Within Phoenix Park is a visitor center, in the 17th-century fortified Ashtown Castle; it has information about the park’s history, flora, and fauna. Admission to the center is free, and it runs guided tours of the park throughout the year. They also have the wonderful Phoenix Cafe beside the old walled garden.