Set beside the shores of curving Dublin Bay, Ireland’s capital city, Dublin, is a thrusting, dynamic place, which despite its size remains utterly beguiling and an essential part of any visit to the country. Much of Dublin’s centre has been redeveloped over the last few decades, leaving a wag to comment that “the city’s only sights are building sites”. So, alongside the city’s historic buildings – its cathedrals and churches, Georgian squares and townhouses, castles, monuments and pubs – you’ll discover grand new hotels and shopping centres, stunning new street architecture and a state-of-the-art tramway system.
More than a third of the Republic of Ireland’s population of almost four and a half million lives within the Greater Dublin area. Intensely proud of their city, Dubliners seem to possess an innate sense of its heritage and powerful literary culture, and can at times exhibit a certain snobbishness towards those living in Ireland’s rural backwaters (people often termed “culchies”). Locals are noted for their often caustic, but engaging, brand of humour, as shown in the numerous and sometimes bawdy nicknames given to many of the city’s landmarks (the Millennium Spire, for instance, has all manner of sobriquets including “the eyeful tower” and “the stiffy by the Liffey”), but there is also a warmth in their welcome – it’s easy to find yourself drawn into conversation or debates in bars and cafés (or, if you smoke, outside them). Dubliners are also increasingly style-conscious; where once the city looked inwards for inspiration, today it glances both east and west, to Europe and America, catching new trends and bringing a decidedly Irish slant to bear upon them.
Most of Dublin’s attractions are contained within a relatively compact area, spreading either side of the many-bridged River Liffey, which divides the city between its Northside and Southside. These have very distinct characters, defined over the city’s historical development: stereotypically, the south is viewed in terms of its gentility while the north is seen as brash and working class, home of the true Dub accent. Pre-eminent among the city’s historic sights is Trinity College, whose main draw for visitors is the glorious Book of Kells. From here, the city’s main commercial street, Grafton Street, marches off towards St Stephen’s Green, home to the rococo splendours of Newman House. Among the stylish Georgian streets to the east of Grafton Street, meanwhile, you’ll find the compelling displays of the National Gallery and the National Museum. On the west side of Trinity begins Temple Bar, which somehow manages to remain the city’s hub for both carousing and art, overlooked sternly by Dublin Castle, British headquarters in Ireland until 1921 and now home to the glorious collections of the Chester Beatty Library. Dublin’s two historic cathedrals, Christ Church and St Patrick’s, stand to the west of here.
North of the river runs the wide boulevard of O’Connell Street, where the GPO, resonant site of the 1916 Easter Rising, is now complemented by the soaring modern beauty of the Spike. At the top of the street, Parnell Square is home to the Dublin Writers Museum and the Hugh Lane Municipal Art Gallery, while to the west lie the Old Jameson Distillery, in the historic Smithfield area, and Collins Barracks, home to the National Museum’s collection of decorative arts.
West of the centre is the green expanse of Phoenix Park, while across the river to the south lie the grim memorial of Kilmainham Gaol and, to the east, the more obviously appealing Guinness Brewery and Storehouse. In the city’s suburbs, the attractions of the Northside have a definite edge over those to the south of the river: most compelling are the national cemetery at Glasnevin; the splendid stadium home of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Croke Park, containing a fine museum; and the architectural wonders of the Casino at Marino. For a scenic breather from the city, take the southerly branch of the DART to panoramic Dalkey and Killiney Hills.
Dublin’s origins date back to ninth-century Viking times when the Norsemen saw the strategic potential of Dublin Bay and established a trading post on the Liffey’s southern bank at the point where the ancient royal road from Tara to Wicklow forded the river. They adopted the location’s Irish name, Dubh Linn (“dark pool”), for their new home, soon amalgamating with an Irish settlement on the northern bank called Baile Atha Cliath (“place of the hurdle ford”), which remains the Irish name for the city.
The twelfth century saw Dublin conquered by the Anglo-Normans when Dermot McMurrough, the deposed King of Leinster, sought help from Henry II to regain his crown. In return for Dermot’s fealty, Henry sent Strongbow and a contingent of Welsh knights to restore MacMurrough’s power. Strongbow conquered Dublin in the process and, concerned at this threat to his authority, Henry came over to Ireland to assert control, establishing Dublin as the focus for British sway over Ireland. This became the centre of the “English Pale” (from the Latin palum, meaning originally a “stake”, though later a “defined territory”), ruling over the areas of Anglo-Norman settlement in Ireland; since Irish resistance to conquest was so strong in other parts of the country, the pejorative phrase “beyond the pale” evolved as a means of signifying (at least in English terms) a lack of civilized behaviour.
Only a few buildings have survived from before the seventeenth century, mainly in the area encompassing Dublin Castle and the two cathedrals, and much of the city’s layout is essentially Georgian. During this period, Dublin’s Anglo-Irish nobility and its increasingly wealthy mercantile class used their money (often, in the aristocracy’s case derived from confiscated land granted as a reward for services to the Crown) to showcase their wealth in the form of grandiose houses, public buildings and wide new thoroughfares. Wealthy members of the elite revelled in their new-found opulence, filling their houses with works by the latest artists and craftsmen, and seeking to enhance their own cachet by patronizing the arts; Handel conducted the first performance of his Messiah in the city, for example. Increasing political freedom resulted in demands for self-government, inspired by the American and French revolutions. The legislative independence achieved during “Grattan’s Parliament” in 1782 was to be short-lived, however, and the failure of the 1798 Rebellion, led largely by members of the Protestant Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, inevitably led to the 1801 Act of Union and the removal of Dublin’s independent powers.
With Ireland now governed by a British vice-regent, Dublin sank into a period of economic decline, brought about by its inability to compete with Britain’s flourishing industries. The city remained the focus of agitation for self-rule, and by the end of the nineteenth century had also become the centre for efforts to form a sense of Irish national consciousness via the foundation of the Gaelic League in 1893. This sought to revive both the Irish language and traditional culture, and set the scene for the Celtic literary revival, led by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, who established the Abbey Theatre in 1904. The political struggle for independence remained a live issue and events came to a head with the Easter Rising of 1916. The city’s streets saw violence again during the civil war, which followed the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921.
Austerity and much emigration followed Independence and it was not until the 1950s that Dublin began to emerge from its colonial past. The city’s infrastructure was ravaged by ill-conceived redevelopment in the 1960s which saw the demolition of many Georgian edifices, as well as the creation of poorly-planned “sink” estates to replace dilapidated tenements. A couple of decades later city planners began to address the issue of inner-city depopulation, constructing apartment blocks to house Dublin’s wealthy middle classes, and the numerous cranes on the city’s skyline demonstrate the continuing activity of the regeneration process, not least in the former docklands. The most obvious evidence of reinvigoration in the city centre is the Temple Bar area, though the original intention to develop a Parisian-style quarter of ateliers and arts centres soon fell foul of the moneygrubbers, while east of the centre, reconstruction continues in the city’s docklands, though much has been stalled by the severity of Ireland’s ongoing economic crisis. Today, the arrival of migrants, particularly from Africa and Eastern Europe, together with the city’s longer-standing Chinese community, has seen Dublin gradually inch towards multiculturalism. The effects of these changes are most visible in the city’s restaurants, shops and street markets, broadening native Dublin tastes and introducing locals to all manner of culinary and fashion delights.Read More
Festivals and events
Festivals and events
Temple Bar Trad Festival t01/677 2397, wwww.templebartrad.com. Five days and nights of traditional-music pub sessions, concerts, instrument workshops and more in the heart of the city.
Jameson Dublin International Film Festival t01/687 7974, wwww.dubliniff.com. Held at cinemas and other venues across the city centre for eleven days in mid-February. While screening the latest in new Irish cinema, the festival also has a decidedly international flavour and its hundred or so films include special themes and retrospectives.
Easter Rising Commemorations take place on Easter Sunday, featuring speeches and a march from the General Post Office to Glasnevin Cemetery.
St Patrick’s Festival t01/676 3205, wwww.stpatricksfestival.ie. Running for six days on and around St Patrick’s Day (March 17), this city-wide festival includes a parade, light shows, concerts, funfair, films, exhibitions and a céilí mór (thousands of locals and visitors fill the streets in a traditional danceathon).
Poetry Now Festival t01/231 2929, wwww.poetrynow.ie. A major four-day event, held over the last weekend in March at The Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, the festival features readings by well-known Irish and international poets, master classes, exhibitions and children’s events.
Absolut Gay Theatre Festival t01/677 8511, wwww.absolutgaytheatre.ie. A fortnight of LGBT-focused drama, comedy, cabaret and musical theatre with international and Irish casts taking place at a variety of city-centre locations.
Dublin Writers Festival t01/222 7848, wwww.dublinwritersfestival.com. Major Irish and international writers and poets take part in six days of readings, discussions and other events around the city centre in early June.
Docklands Maritime Festival t01/818 3300, wwww.dublindocklands.ie. Tall ships open their decks to visitors over the first weekend in June at North Wall Quay, plus there’s a market, street theatre, trips along the Liffey and a variety of events for children.
Bloomsday t01/878 8547, wwww.jamesjoyce.ie. The James Joyce Centre organizes a week of events in mid-June, culminating in Bloomsday itself (June 16), the day on which Joyce’s Ulysses is set.
Dublin Pride wwww.dublinpride.ie. A week of celebration by the city’s gay, lesbian, bi-and transsexual communities, featuring all manner of events, culminating in a vibrant and entertaining street parade.
The Summer Sensation wwww.templebar.ie. Five days of film, music, street theatre and other events in Temple Bar early in the month.
Dún Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures t01/231 2929. Late July sees three days of (mostly free) events spread over various venues around the town, featuring major international acts and a host of lively outdoor activities.
Dublin Lesbian and Gay Film Festival wwww.gaze.ie. A strong bill of Irish and international films screened over five days towards the end of the month at the Light House Cinema in Smithfield.
Dublin Horse Show t01/485 8010, wwww.dublinhorseshow.com. Five-day festival of equestrian events in early August at the RDS arena in Ballsbridge, featuring major international showjumpers participating in the Nations’ Cup.
Dublin Viking Festival t01/222 2242. The last weekend in August sees a recreated Viking village established off Wood Quay, featuring plenty of wandering inhabitants and the chance to watch reenacted combats.
All-Ireland Senior Hurling and Gaelic Football finals Two of Ireland’s major sporting events are staged at Croke Park in September: The hurling final on the first or second Sunday and the football final on the third or fourth.
Dublin Fringe Festival t1850374643, wwww.fringefest.com. Ireland’s biggest performing-arts festival takes place over more than two weeks from mid-September and features all manner of music, dance, street theatre, comedy and children’s events.
Dublin Theatre Festival t01/677 8899, wwww.dublintheatrefestival.com. A major celebration of theatre, held during the last few days of September and the first two weeks in October, this includes performances of new and classic drama at various city-centre venues.
Dublin City Marathon t01/623 2250, wwww.dublinmarathon.ie. Featuring 10,000 entrants, the race takes place on the last Monday in October and involves a roughly circular course starting from Fitzwilliam Street Upper, heads north across O’Connell Bridge, and takes in Phoenix Park and some southern suburbs before terminating at Merrion Square North.
The Easter Rising
The Easter Rising
The initial impact of some historical events often runs counter to their long-term effects and such was the case with the Easter Rising of 1916. Truth be told, this inherently idealistic rebellion was a bungled affair from start to finish, and it was only the repressive response of the British Army, whose political overlords were unsurprisingly sidetracked by the seemingly more pressing affairs taking place in the fields of Flanders, that gave the event its pivotal role in attaining Ireland’s independence.
The Rising was organized by the Irish Republican Brethren (IRB), a Republican grouping that had been founded in 1858, and was now led by educationalist and Gaelic cultural revivalist Patrick Pearse and Scots-born socialist and trades union activist James Connolly. Impelled by the continuing failure of democratic means to achieve the goal of independence, they concocted a plan to take over by force, aided by the much larger Irish Volunteers, a Nationalist corps founded in 1913, and using arms acquired from Germany. The armaments were however intercepted by the British, and though the Volunteers’ leader withdrew his support, the rising still went ahead.
On the morning of Easter Monday, the rebels took control of a number of key buildings in the city centre and further afield (see The War for Independence). They made the General Post Office on O’Connell Street their base, and it was from here that Pearse emerged to make his Proclamation of the Irish Republic. The British response was initially guarded, but a full-scale battle soon ensued, destroying much of the surrounding area and heavily damaging rebel-held buildings elsewhere in the city.
It took five days for the rebellion to be suppressed and its leaders captured. Dubliners decried the uprising at its outset, dismayed by the devastation ravaged upon their city by the fighting. Had the British simply imprisoned the IRB’s leaders, it’s extremely unlikely later political developments would have occurred as quickly as they did, but the draconian decision was made to execute all of them (with the exception of Éamon de Valera, who had US citizenship). In the process, the British created national martyrs, transforming the situation irrevocably and ultimately leading to a bitter war of independence.
Perhaps no other writer has so encapsulated the life, lore and mores of his native city as James Joyce so successfully achieved in his remarkable novels, most notably Ulysses (1922). So precise are the author’s descriptions of the locales visited by the book’s protagonists on the date of the book’s setting, June 16, that it is possible to follow literally in their footsteps. This annual pilgrimage undertaken by Joycean aficionados across the city has become known as Bloomsday. Though you can undertake to cover the Bloomsday route independently (a Ulysses map is available from the Dublin Tourism Centre), guided walks are organized by the James Joyce Centre. There are plenty of other associated events, including recreations by actors of some of the book’s central passages and concerts devoted to music referenced in the novel.
Strangely, for someone who documented his native city’s life with such pride, Joyce came to loathe Dublin, once describing the place in a letter as a “city of failure, of rancour and of unhappiness”, and concluding “I long to be out of it.” Though his early works, such as the short-story collection Dubliners and the semi-autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, draw heavily upon his upbringing, Catholic education and Dublin experiences, by the time of the latter’s publication in 1916, Joyce had long abandoned Ireland. Not long after meeting a Connemara-born chambermaid, Nora Barnacle, having first dated her on June 16, 1904, the pair eloped to Europe. Other than two brief visits to Ireland, Joyce spent the rest of his life in exile living in cities across Europe – in Pola (now Pula) in Istria, Trieste, Zurich and, notably, Paris, where Ulysses was published in 1922 and he finally wed Nora in 1931. Joyce’s only subsequent published work was the convoluted Finnegans Wake (1939). When he died in 1941, Ulysses was still unavailable in Ireland (though it never officially fell foul of Ireland’s censorship laws, booksellers were loath to stock copies), and was not published in the country until the 1960s.
The growth in visitor numbers over the last decade or so has had a positive effect on the variety of accommodation available in Dublin, and there is plenty to choose from for all budgets, with the Northside and suburbs generally cheaper than the centre. Hotels in the city centre tend to be expensive, though many offer discounts midweek or outside the high season (especially via Web bookings), while B&Bs usually provide a very welcoming and comfortable alternative. If money is comparatively tight and you want to be near the action, hostels are the best option and almost all have private rooms. Booking in advance is always highly advisable, and essential around major festivals such as St Patrick’s Day, in July and August, and on weekends all year round, especially when major concerts or sporting events are taking place. There is one campsite on Dublin’s outskirts.
Many of the city’s top-range hotels are located around Temple Bar and St Stephen’s Green, though the Northside also has some chic options. Dublin has a staggering number of B&Bs and you’ll find economically priced options on the Northside’s Gardiner Street or in the pleasant Southside suburbs of Ballsbridge, Donnybrook and Rathmines, which are all within easy reach of the centre.
Numerous hostels offer both dormitory accommodation (€12–25 per person, depending on the season) and private rooms, usually sleeping between two and four people (€30–60 per person). Most rooms are en suite and the standard of private rooms is often as good as at B&Bs. Several Dublin hostels belong to the IHH though a few are members of the IHO. Many hostels offer free breakfast and provide internet access.Book a hostel in Dublin
It’s fair to say that no one comes to Dublin just for the cuisine, but the last twenty years has seen a remarkable growth in the variety of places to eat, from Lebanese to Nepalese. The consequent rise in both standards and expectations looks set to continue – especially in the area of modern Irish cooking – though prices can be off-putting. Many restaurants, however, offer lunchtime or early-bird (typically before 7pm) set menus of two or three courses, sometimes for as little as half the cost of their regular evening fare. Some cafés and restaurants, catering to a crowd who have spent their money carousing late into the previous night, also provide good-value weekend brunch. In addition, plenty of pubs dish up decent, reasonably priced, hearty food, with more ambitious menus available at gastropubs like The Exchequer and The Odeon.
Dublin has long had a thriving café scene, strongly supported by the widespread temperance movement and the churches. Nowadays you’re almost as likely to find baklava as traditional brack, accompanied by a speciality tea or a frothy cappuccino. For a splurge with a difference, “Art Tea” at the Merrion Hotel is a lot of fun: delicious afternoon tea in the drawing rooms, with cakes that creatively reflect the surrounding paintings from the hotel’s excellent collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century, mostly Irish, art (€36, including the catalogue of the collection).
The majority of Dublin’s restaurants are on the south side of the river in the city centre, with a tight concentration in Temple Bar. It’s generally worth booking ahead if you can, especially in the evenings.
Pubs and bars
Pubs and bars
Good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub
- James Joyce, Ulysses
Not known for their understatement, Dubliners boast that their city possesses the finest pubs in the world. They’re probably right too, but with over seven hundred watering holes to choose from, forming the backbone of the capital’s social life, there’s no harm in checking out their assertion. Along the way, you’ll also be able to test out competing claims about the hometown drink, Guinness: that it tastes better here is not open to doubt, but locals argue about exactly which pub pours the best drop (is the travel-shy liquid better at Ryan’s, just across the river from the brewery, than downstream at Mulligan’s?). In general, the stout is best in the characterful and sociable historic pubs, many of which retain their cut-glass screens, ornate wood-carving and cosy snugs, often with a private hatch to the bar.
In recent years, a plethora of cosmopolitan, youth-oriented bars have come onto the scene, the best of which have forged a style and character of their own, be they cavernous microbrewery-pubs, studenty DJ bars or chic designer lounges. Plenty of these bars have late licences, as noted in the reviews below, which allow them to stay open until 2.30am or so, usually from Thursday to Saturday.
Dublin’s music scene is thriving but ever-changing, so it’s always wise to check listings in the Event Guide or The Ticket, or the fortnightly rock-and-style magazine Hot Press. Ticket prices are dependent on the venue’s size and the performers’ status, usually costing €8–30, although major gigs can be as much as €110. There are also a number of open-air events during the summer, including one-off gigs by major acts at places such as Croke Park and Marlay Park in Rathfarnham. Traditional music is flourishing in the city with a number of pubs offering sessions, usually commencing at around 9.30pm. Listings of these can be found at wwww.thesession.org/sessions.
Drama played a pivotal role in Ireland’s twentieth-century cultural revival and Dublin’s theatres continue to act as a crucible for innovation, alongside staging a range of Irish classics. Highlights include the Dublin Theatre Festival (late Sept to mid-Oct) and the Dublin Fringe Festival (mid-Sept). Ticket prices vary, and you should expect to pay €10–20 per ticket for fringe shows, €20–40 for mainstream. Advance bookings can be made at the venues or through Ticketmaster (t0818719300, wwww.ticketmaster.ie). If you’re budget-conscious, it’s worth enquiring about low-cost previews and occasional cut-price Monday- and Tuesday-night shows, while students (with ID) and OAPs can sometimes find good concessionary rates.
Gay and lesbian Dublin
Gay and lesbian Dublin
As attitudes to homosexuality in Dublin have become increasingly liberal over the last two decades, so the capital’s gay community has grown in confidence, and a small but vibrant scene has established a niche in the city’s social life. The latest information on gay events and venues in Dublin is provided by Outhouse, 105 Capel St (t01/873 4999, wwww.outhouse.ie), a gay and lesbian resource centre with a café and a small library, or from Gay Switchboard ( t01/872 1055, wwww.gayswitchboard.ie). The free magazine GCN (Gay Community News) has detailed listings of upcoming events and can be found in the gay-friendly Books Upstairs, College Green, or in clubs and bars. Useful websites include wwww.queerid.com for events and news and wwww.gaire.com for information, message boards and online chat.
The Southside is the most fruitful hunting ground for shoppers, offering Irish and global designer clothes around Grafton Street, and more alternative boutiques in the Market Arcade and Temple Bar. Also south of the river, you’ll find an attractive and eclectic range of artisan products gathered from around the country, from cheeses and whiskey to ceramics. Despite a recent revamp, Dublin’s most extensive shopping boulevard, O’Connell Street, is likely to hold little of interest for the visiting consumer, though the raucous Moore Street market, off Henry Street, is always entertaining. The majority of shops in Dublin are open Monday to Saturday only.