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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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,a gay and lesbian resource centre with a café and a small library, or from Gay Switchboard. The free magazine GCN (Gay Community News) has detailed listings of upcoming events and can be found in the gay-friendly Books Upstairs, 17 D'Olier St, or in clubs and bars. Useful websites include www.queerid.com for events and news and www.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.
The National Museum on Kildare Street is the finest of a portfolio of jointly run museums – including Collins Barracks, which focuses on the decorative arts, and the National Museum of Country Life in Castlebar – and a must-see for visitors to Dublin. Undoubted stars of the show here are a stunning hoard of prehistoric gold and a thousand years’ worth of ornate ecclesiastical treasures, but the whole collection builds up a fascinating and accessible story of Irish archeology and history. The shop in the beautiful entrance rotunda sells a range of high-quality crafts inspired by works in the museum, and there’s a small café.
Prehistoric gold, much of it discovered during peat-cutting, takes pride of place on the ground floor of the main hall. From the Earlier Bronze Age (c. 2500–1500 BC) come lunulae, thin sheets of gold formed into crescent-moon collars. After around 1200 BC, when new sources of the metal were apparently found, goldsmiths could be more extravagant, fashioning chunky torcs, such as the spectacular Gleninsheen Collar and the Tumna Hoard of nine large gold balls, which are perforated, suggesting that when joined together they formed a huge necklace. Further prehistoric material is arrayed around the walls of the main hall, including the fifteen-metre-long Lurgan Logboat, dating from around 2500 BC, which was unearthed in a Galway bog in 1902.
The adjacent Treasury holds most of the museum’s better-known ecclesiastical exhibits, notably the ornate, eighth-century Ardagh Chalice, the Tara Brooch, decorated with beautiful knot designs, and the Cross of Cong, created to enshrine a fragment of the True Cross given to the King of Connacht by the Pope in 1123. Also on the ground floor is Kingship and Sacrifice, showcasing the leathery bodies of four Iron Age noblemen that were preserved and discovered in various bogs around Ireland.
Upstairs, Viking-age Ireland (c.800–1150) features models of a house and the layout of Dublin’s Fishamble Street, while Medieval Ireland (1150–1550) moves on to cover the first English colonists, their withdrawal to the fortified area around Dublin known as “the Pale” after 1300, and the hybrid culture that developed all the while – you can listen to recordings of poetry written in Ireland in Middle Irish, Middle English and Norman French. Unmissable here is a host of strange, ornate portable shrines, made to hold holy relics or texts, including examples for all three of Ireland’s patron saints: the Shrine of St Patrick’s Tooth, the Shrine of St Brigid’s Shoe and the Shrine of the Cathach, containing a manuscript written by St Colmcille (St Columba), legendary bard, scholar, ruler and evangelizer of Scotland.
The National Gallery hosts a fine collection of Western European art dating from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, which will happily engage you for several hours. The gallery’s old building, divided into Beit, Milltown and Dargan wings and entered from Merrion Square West, has now been joined by the Millennium Wing, giving access from Clare Street, which hosts major temporary exhibitions around its striking, sky-lit atrium. The resulting layout of the gallery, however, can be confusing, especially after a recent rehang, so the first thing to do when you go in is pick up a free floor-plan leaflet. In a prime location under the Millennium Wing’s glass roof, there’s a good self-service café, with a restaurant upstairs serving lunch and afternoon tea. The gallery also offers classical and contemporary concerts, lectures and workshops, which are detailed in the quarterly Gallery News (available in the foyer).
Level 1 is chiefly given over to Irish art from the seventeenth century onwards, including a large gallery in the Millennium Wing devoted to the twentieth century. The real stand-out in the Irish collection, however, is the Yeats Museum (Level 1, Beit Wing), which traces the development of Jack B. Yeats (1871–1957), younger brother of the writer W.B. Yeats, from an unsentimental illustrator of everyday scenes to an expressive painter in abstract, unmixed colours. It’s also worth looking in on the National Portrait Gallery (Level 1, Dargan Wing), a chronological survey of Irish worthies that includes a rather sci-fi head of Bono from 2003 by Louis le Brocquy. In the mezzanine Print Gallery (Beit Wing), as well as temporary exhibitions throughout the year, watercolours by Turner are exhibited every January, when the light is low enough for these delicate works.
Highlights of Level 2 include Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus, the earliest known picture by Velázquez (c.1617–18); Vermeer’s Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid, one of only 35 accepted works by the artist, with his characteristic use of white light from the window accentuating the woman’s heated emotions (both Milltown Wing); Caravaggio’s dynamic The Taking of Christ, in which the artist portrayed himself as a passive spectator on the right of the picture, holding a lamp (Beit Wing); and the “Grand Tour in Rome” room in the Dargan Wing: among some diverting views of Rome and various Irish gentlemen who had themselves immortalized in the Eternal City, don’t miss Reynolds’ fascinating Parody of Raphael’s “School of Athens”, which purveys some familiar Irish stereotypes to ridicule the Grand Tourists.
Begun in 1762, Merrion Square represents Georgian town planning at its grandest. Its long, graceful terraces of red-brown brick sport elaborate doors, knockers and fanlights, as well as wrought-iron balconies (added in the early nineteenth century) and tall windows on the first floor, where the main reception rooms would have been; the north side of the square was built first and displays the widest variety of design.
The broad, manicured lawns of the square’s gardens themselves are a joy, quieter than St Stephen’s Green, and especially agreeable for picnics on fine days. Revolutionary politician Michael Collins is commemorated with a bronze bust on the gardens’ south side, near a slightly hapless stone bust of Henry Grattan, while writer, artist and mystic George Russell (“AE”) stands gravely near the southwest corner and his former home at no. 74. But the square’s most remarkable and controversial statue is at the northwest corner, where Oscar Wilde reclines on a rock facing his childhood home at no. 1 (now the American College Dublin), in a wry, languid pose that has earned the figure the nickname “the fag on the crag”. In front of him, a male torso and his wife Constance, pregnant with their second child, stand on plinths inscribed with Wildean witticisms: “This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last,” “I drink to keep body and soul apart.” Nearby on the railings around the square’s gardens, dozens of artists hang their paintings for sale every Sunday (and some Sats, depending on the weather).
The Merrion Square South terrace has the greatest concentration of famous former residents, giving a vivid sense of the history of the place: politician Daniel O’Connell bought no. 58 in 1809; the Nobel Prize-winning Austrian physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, occupied no. 65; Gothic novelist Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu died at no. 70, which is now the Arts Council; and W.B. Yeats lived at no. 82 from 1922 to 1928. At no. 39 stood the British Embassy, burnt down by a crowd protesting against the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in 1972.
St Stephen’s Green is central Dublin’s largest and most varied park, whose statuary provides a poignant history lesson in stone, wood and bronze. The main sightseeing draws in the area date from the Georgian period: the splendid stuccowork of Newman House and the elegant streets and squares to the east of the Green. St Stephen’s Green preserves its distinctive Victorian character with a small lake, bandstand, arboretum and well-tended flower displays. It was originally open common land, a notoriously dirty and dangerous spot and the site of public hangings until the eighteenth century. In 1880, however, it was turned into a public park with funding from the brewer Lord Ardilaun (Arthur Guinness), who now boasts the grandest of the Green’s many statues, seated at his leisure on the far western side. Over at the northeast corner, a row of huge granite monoliths – nicknamed “Tonehenge” – has been erected in honour of eighteenth-century nationalist Wolfe Tone, behind which stands a moving commemoration of the Great Famine. Meanwhile, on the west side of the central flower display, a tiny plaque inlaid in a wooden park bench commemorates the so-called “fallen women” – mostly unmarried mothers or abused girls – who were forced to live and work in severe conditions in Ireland’s Magdalen laundries; the last of them, in Dublin, wasn’t closed down until 1996. From the Green’s northwest corner, by the top of Grafton Street, you can hire a horse and carriage, either as a grandiose taxi or for a tour of the sights, which will typically set you back €40–50 for thirty minutes.
Termed in the eighteenth century “Beau Walk”, St Stephen’s Green North is still the most fashionable side of the square. The Shelbourne Hotel here claims to have been “the best address in Dublin” since its establishment in 1824 (see The Inner Southside). Beyond the hotel at the start of Merrion Row, the tiny, tree-shaded Huguenot Cemetery was opened in 1693 for Protestant refugees fleeing religious persecution in France. A large plaque inside the gates gives a roll call of Huguenot Dubliners, among whom the most famous have been writers Dion Boucicault and Sheridan Le Fanu.
Born in Dublin in 1856, George Bernard Shaw grew up among a Protestant family fallen on hard times. His father was an unsuccessful grain merchant and alcoholic – prompting Shaw to become a lifelong abstainer – and there was no money to pay for his education. At 15 he started work as a junior clerk for a land agency, but five years later went to London to join his mother who had moved there to further the musical career of one of his sisters. Reliant on what little income his mother earned as a music teacher, Shaw set about educating himself by spending his afternoons in the reading room of the British Museum. He hoped to become a novelist, but, following the rejection of no fewer than five novels, turned his hand to journalism instead, contributing music and drama criticism to London newspapers.
Shaw was a devout socialist, joining the Fabian Society in 1884, writing pamphlets and gaining a reputation as a natural orator. He espoused numerous causes, including electoral reform, vegetarianism and the abolition of private property. His theatrical career began in the 1890s when, influenced by Ibsen, he began to compose plays focusing on social and moral matters, rather than the romantic and personal subjects which then dominated British theatre.
In 1898 he married the heiress Charlotte Payne-Townshend and the same year saw the production of his first successful play, Candida. A stream of equally lauded comedy-dramas followed – including The Devil’s Disciple, Arms and the Man, Major Barbara and Pygmalion – though he later turned to more serious drama, such as Heartbreak House and Saint Joan. Simultaneously, he maintained an active career as a critic, journalist and essayist, his often bitterly ironic wit (“England and America are two countries separated by a common language”) becoming legendary. In 1925 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but initially rejected the honour before relenting and giving his prize money to a newly established Anglo–Swedish Literary Foundation.
Shaw’s attitude to Ireland was ever ambivalent – he once commented “I am a typical Irishman; my family came from Yorkshire” – and, though he remained interested in Irish affairs and became a personal friend of Michael Collins, his brand of democratic socialism would have been antipathetic to the austere Catholic and anti-British state that emerged post-independence. Shaw died in 1950 at Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire.
Newman House at 85–86 St Stephen’s Green South boasts probably the finest Georgian interiors in Dublin, noted especially for their decorative plasterwork. The place is named after John Henry Newman, the famous British convert from Anglicanism, who was invited to found the Catholic University of Ireland here in 1854 as an alternative to Anglican Trinity College and the recently established “godless” Queen’s Colleges in Belfast, Cork and Galway. James Joyce and Éamon de Valera were educated at what became University College Dublin (UCD), which now occupies a large campus in the southern suburbs.
Newman House began life as two houses. No. 85 is a Palladian mansion built by Richard Castle in 1738 and adorned with superb baroque stuccowork by the Swiss Lafranchini brothers, notably in the ground-floor Apollo Room, where the god himself appears majestically over the fireplace, attended by the nine muses on the surrounding walls. The much larger no. 86, with flowing rococo plasterwork by Robert West, the notable Dublin-born imitator of the Lafranchinis, was added in 1765. On the top floor of the latter are a lecture room, done out as in Joyce’s student days (1899–1902), and the bedroom of the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Having converted from Anglicanism, Hopkins became a Jesuit priest and then Professor of Classics here in 1884; after five wretched years in Dublin, he died of typhoid and was buried in an unmarked grave in Glasnevin Cemetery.
Running due north from O’Connell Bridge, broader than it is long, to Parnell Square, O’Connell Street is the main artery of Dublin’s Northside. Lined with numerous impressive memorials, as well as the historic GPO and the remarkable four-hundred-foot-high stainless steel “Spike” sculpture, this bustling thoroughfare was originally laid out in the fashion of the grand Parisian boulevards. Poorly redeveloped since the damage caused by the 1916 Easter Rising, nowadays the street is very much a mishmash of modern shop frontages, though glancing at the upper storeys reveals some of its former glory. The streets around, however, represent a consumer’s paradise and, particularly on Liffey Street Lower and in the burgeoning Italian quarter centred on Bloom Lane (the result of a local developer’s fascination with all things Tuscan), you’ll find plenty of stylish bars and cafés. Notable cultural landmarks east of O’Connell Street include the Abbey Theatre, centre of the twentieth-century revival in Irish theatre, and, along The Quays, the opulent eighteenth-century Custom House.
By the junction with O’Connell Street and Earl Street North, stands the Northside’s most remarkable landmark on the spot where Nelson’s Pillar stood until it was blown up by Republicans in 1966 – the frankly astonishing Dublin Spire or “Spike” as it’s colloquially known. Designed by Ian Ritchie, this 120m-high stainless-steel needle, surmounted by a beacon, is easily the tallest structure in the city centre. Just over a metre wide at its base, it tapers to a mere fifteen centimetres at its summit. In the early morning or at dusk its surface takes on an ethereal blue colour while at night it seems to loom ominously over the city. What the ghost of James Joyce, whose adjacent and somewhat rakish statue stands just down Earl Street North, would make of it all is open to question.
Just to the left of the “Spike” stands one of O’Connell Street’s few remaining buildings of major historical importance, the General Post Office, whose significance lies in its role as the rebels’ headquarters during the Easter Rising of 1916. The building was constructed in 1818 but only its Ionic portico survived the fighting – and still bears the marks of gunfire. Following restoration, the GPO reopened in 1929 and inside its marble halls you’ll find Oliver Sheppard’s intricately wrought bronze statue The Death of Cúchulainn, representing a key moment in the Irish legend Táin Bó Cúailnge.
Parnell Square might lack the allure of its Southside Georgian equivalents, but it still has a certain grace. The Square’s north side hosts one of Dublin’s premier galleries, the Hugh Lane, as well as the Dublin Writers Museum, an excellent place to learn about the city’s literary history, while nearby is a centre devoted to the works of the acclaimed writer James Joyce.
The elegant, Georgian, stone-clad Charlemont House, with its curved outer and inner walls and Neoclassical interior, has provided a permanent home for the Hugh Lane gallery since 1933. Sir Hugh, a nephew of Lady Gregory, wanted Dublin to house a major gallery of Irish and international art. He amassed a considerable collection by persuading native artists to contribute their work and purchasing many other paintings himself, particularly from the French Impressionist school and Italy.
The gallery holds around half of the Lane collection (the rest is in London’s National Gallery) and only a fraction is on display here at any one time, though you’re likely to see works by Renoir, Monet and Degas, as well as Pissarro and the Irish painters Jack B. Yeats, Roderic O’Connor and Louis le Brocquy, as well as stained-glass pieces by Evie Hone and Harry Clarke. Simultaneously, there are usually other temporary exhibitions of more modern artworks.
Part of the gallery is devoted to a recreation of Dublin-born painter Francis Bacon’s studio, transported from its original location at Reece Mews in South Kensington, London, where the artist lived and worked for the last thirty years of his life. After his death in 1992, his studio was donated to the gallery by his heir, John Edwards, and reconstructed here with astonishing precision – more than seven thousand individual items were catalogued and placed here with verisimilitude in the reconstruction. The studio can only be viewed through the window glass but amongst the apparent debris are an old Bush record-player, empty champagne boxes and huge tins of the type of matt vinyl favoured by Bacon, the fumes of which exacerbated his asthma. The surrounding rooms hold displays of memorabilia, such as photographs and correspondence, as well as a detailed database of every item found in the studio (accessible via touchscreen consoles) and large canvases from the painter’s last years.
The Dublin Writers Museum aims to illuminate Ireland’s literary history, featuring not just giants such as Wilde, Shaw, Joyce and Beckett, but also lesser-known figures like Sheridan Le Fanu and Oliver St John Gogarty. The ground floor contains a plethora of displays on particular writers or literary schools, and it is well worth picking up the free and entertaining guide-tape to receive background information on the authors.
The hall downstairs, hung with modern paintings of writers, leads to an outdoor Zen garden where you can contemplate works you’ve purchased in the museum’s bookshop or, alternatively, head for the café at the rear. On the first floor is the Gallery of Writers, an elegant salon with plasterwork by Michael Stapleton, which features James Joyce’s piano and more paintings, of which the most impressive is John B. Yeats’s portrait of George Moore. Beside this is the Gorham Library, which features numerous rare editions. The museum’s basement houses one of the Northside’s best restaurants, Chapter One.
The James Joyce Centre occupies a grand eighteenth-century townhouse, restored in the 1980s. The centre aims to illuminate the work of perhaps Ireland’s most imaginative yet most complex writer, who spent part of his life living in the inner Northside, and drew upon his experiences in the creation of his characters and the settings for his works. The building features decorative stucco mouldings by Michael Stapleton. The ground floor houses a small shop full of Joyceiana, such as books and prints, and an airy courtyard which includes the actual period door of 7 Eccles Street, the fictional home of Leopold and Molly Bloom, two of the main protagonists in Ulysses, as well as a somewhat enigmatic, modernist Joyce-inspired sculpture of a cow.
The building’s upper floors house a recreation of the tiny room occupied by Joyce in Trieste, featuring various books, pianola music-rolls and a splendid collection of hats, as well as photographs of people and places associated with Ulysses, and touchscreen consoles tracing the development of the novel’s plot and its variety of characters. Three short documentary films on the writer’s life can also be viewed.
West of Smithfield on Benburb Street is the National Museum’s Decorative Arts Collection, housed in the eighteenth-century Collins Barracks, which surrounds Europe’s largest regimental drilling square. The buildings set around this quadrangle contain a wonderful series of galleries devoted to the fine arts of Ireland and selections from abroad. Unquestionably, the best of these is Curator’s Choice, on the first floor of the west block, which is selected by museum curators from all over Ireland. Among its draws are a medieval oak carving of St Molaise; the extravagant cabinet presented by Oliver Cromwell to his daughter Bridget in 1652; and the remarkable fourteenth-century Chinese porcelain Fonthill Vase. The Out of Storage section is another highlight, bringing together everything from decorative glassware to a seventeenth-century suit of Samurai armour, while others focus on Celtic art, coinage, silverware, period furniture, costumes and scientific instruments, and there are usually plenty of temporary exhibits.
On the ground floor is a chain of thematically interconnected galleries, Soldiers and Chiefs, devoted to almost five hundred years of Irish military history. Apart from an array of helmets and weaponry, there’s the remarkable Stokes tapestry, created by one Stephen of that ilk, a British soldier who devoted his spare time to the depiction of contemporary garrison life and was honoured to have his work shown to Queen Victoria on a royal visit to Ireland in 1849. Other exhibits trace the Irish involvement in the US Civil War and World War I with later examples of tanks and a de Havilland Vampire fighter plane while, contrastingly, there’s the 200-year-old Bantry Boat, captured from the French frigate La Résolue during the abortive invasion of 1796.
Unless you’re a keen walker, you’ll want to take a bus or LUAS tram to reach some of the city’s western attractions. Highlights on the north side of the river include the vast grounds of Phoenix Park, with the dazzling interiors of Farmleigh mansion lying just beyond. Across the Liffey, the area west of the old city is dominated by the mammoth Guinness Brewery, whose wares are celebrated by the Guinness Storehouse. Further west lies the suburb of Kilmainham, home to the impressive Irish Museum of Modern Art and the forbidding Kilmainham Gaol, where the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were executed.
South of the Liffey, much of James Street, west of the old city, is centred around the colossal complex of the Guinness Brewery. Founded by Arthur Guinness in 1759, the Guinness Brewery initially manufactured ale, but in the 1770s started making porter, a drink so named because of its popularity with the porters of London’s markets. Arthur’s new brew, whose distinctive black colouring derived from the addition of roasted barley to the brewing process, found such favour that by 1796 it was being exported to London, and three years later ale production ceased altogether. From that point, Guinness and his successors never looked back and, at its peak in the middle of the twentieth century, their brewery produced some 2,500,000 pints of their now eponymous product a day.
The brewery is sadly not open to the public, but instead you can visit the seven-storey Guinness Storehouse, signposted from Crane Street, a high-tech temple to the black stuff. Its self-guided tour kicks off with the brewing process – a whirl of water (not from the Liffey, despite the myth) and a reek of barley, hops and malt – before progressing to the storage and transportation areas. A huge barrel dominates the section on the lost art of coopering, and nearby there’s an engine from the brewery’s old railway system. The remainder of the tour consists of an array of marketing memorabilia, supported by plenty of facts and figures about the Guinness empire, and there’s a gallery on John Gilroy, an esteemed painter who designed many of the company’s advertisements. Right at the top of the tower is the Gravity Bar, where you can savour your complimentary pint of perhaps the best Guinness in Dublin while absorbing the superb panorama of the city and the countryside beyond.
You’ll want fine weather for a trip north to the beautiful Botanic Gardens and the adjacent Glasnevin Cemetery, last resting-place for the major figures in Irish history since 1832, which is best appreciated on a guided tour. To the east lie Croke Park, a major sports arena and home to the innovative GAA Museum, the exquisite Georgian Casino at Marino and, at the end of the DART line, Howth, an attractive seaside village with a fine cliff walk.
The National Botanic Gardens on the south bank of the River Tolka in Glasnevin are a great place to wander on a fine day, while their magnificent Victorian wrought-iron glasshouses offer diversion and shelter whatever the weather. Laid out between 1795 and 1825 with a grant from the Irish parliament, the gardens were, in 1844, the first in the world to germinate orchids from seed successfully, and in August of the following year, the first to notice the potato blight that brought on the Great Famine. Nowadays, a total of around twenty thousand species and cultivated varieties flourish here, including an internationally important collection of cycads, primitive fern-like trees. Highlights include the rose garden, collections of heather and rhododendrons, the Chinese shrubbery and the arboretum.
Founded as a burial place for Catholics by the nationalist political leader Daniel O’Connell in 1832, Glasnevin Cemetery is now the national cemetery, open to all denominations and groaning with Celtic crosses, harps and other patriotic emblems. It’s well worth timing your visit to coincide with one of the fascinating ninety-minute guided tours, which includes access to the newly renovated crypt of O’Connell.
O’Connell himself is commemorated near the entrance by a fifty-metre-high round tower, which managed to survive a Loyalist bomb in the 1970s. His corpse was interred in the tower’s crypt in 1869, having been brought home from Genoa where he died (in fact, not all of his body is here: his heart was buried in Rome).
To the left of the round tower, O’Connell’s political descendant, Charles Stewart Parnell, who asked to be buried in a mass grave among the people of Ireland, is commemorated by a huge granite boulder from his estate at Avondale, County Wicklow. Other notable figures among the 1.2 million dead at Glasnevin – most of them gathered around O’Connell’s tower – include Countess Markiewicz, Éamon de Valera, prime minister, president and architect of modern Ireland, and his old rival Michael Collins, the most charismatic leader of the successful independence struggle; from the arts, there’s Gerard Manley Hopkins (unmarked, in the Jesuit plot), W.B. Yeats’s muse Maud Gonne MacBride, writer, drinker and Republican Brendan Behan, and Alfred Chester Beatty. To the right of the tower is the Republican plot, with a memorial to hunger strikers, from Thomas Ashe who died in 1917 to Bobby Sands in 1981, while in front of the tower lie the recent graves of 18-year-old Kevin Barry and eight other Volunteers hanged by the British during the War of Independence; originally buried in Mountjoy Prison, their bodies were moved here with the full honours of a state funeral in October 2001. For refreshment after your visit, call in at nearby Kavanagh’s (aka The Gravediggers), a particularly atmospheric old pub.
Three kilometres northeast of O’Connell Street, Croke Park is the home of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), a magnificent, much redeveloped and now very modern stadium whose capacity of 82,000-plus puts it amongst the largest in Europe. Situated under the Cusack Stand is one of Dublin’s finest museums, the GAA Museum, whose creatively designed exhibits provide an enthralling account of not only the sports of hurling and Gaelic football, but also lesser known games such as camogie (the women’s version of hurling) and handball. Historical and political contexts are explored in a thoroughly engaging manner – since its foundation in 1884 the GAA has always been irrevocably linked with Irish Nationalism. Thus the museum does not shirk from recounting key, politically sensitive events such as the first Bloody Sunday, when British troops fired on the crowd attending a match in 1920, killing twelve people in the process. On a lighter note, upstairs you can have a go at whacking a hurling ball or test your balance and reactions via various simulations.
Sited in the now unpromising suburb of Marino, the Casino is probably the finest piece of Neoclassical architecture in Ireland. It’s located on Cherrymount Crescent, just off the Malahide Road. The building was commissioned by James Caulfield, the first Earl of Charlemont, shortly after returning from eight years on the Grand Tour. Seeking to recreate an Italianate park with a casino (“little house” in Italian) as its focus, emphasizing the fine views of Dublin Bay that his estate then enjoyed, Charlemont turned to Sir William Chambers, the architect of Somerset House in London (Chambers also designed the earl’s new townhouse at around the same time, now the Hugh Lane Gallery). Started in 1757, construction of the Casino lasted nearly twenty years and cost £20,000 sterling (equivalent to about €5 million today), depleting the estate to such a degree that the second Earl was obliged to sell off his father’s precious library and collection of art and antiquities.
A walk up adjoining Dalkey and Killiney hills, before descending to Killiney DART station, offers panoramic views of the city and its environs, and can all be done in an hour and a half from Dalkey DART station at a moderate pace. From Dalkey, head southeast on Sorrento Road, and then either take the easier route to the right up Knocknacree and Torca roads, or continue along cliffside Vico Road, from where steps and a path ascend steeply. On Torca Road, Shaw fans might want to track down privately owned Torca Cottage, where GBS lived for several years as a boy and where he occasionally returned to write in later years. On the way to Dalkey Hill’s summit, with its crenellated former telegraph station and fine views over Dublin Bay, you’ll pass Dalkey quarry, which provided the granite blocks for the massive piers of Dún Laoghaire harbour below.
From here, follow the partly wooded ridge up to Killiney Hill, where a stone obelisk, built to provide work during the severe winter of 1741, enjoys even more glorious views, north to Howth and south to Killiney Bay and the Wicklow Mountains. From the obelisk, you can quickly descend to the park gate on Killiney Hill Road and refreshment at the cosy Druid’s Chair pub directly opposite; from here it’s a fifteen-minute walk down Victoria Road and Vico Road through the leafy and exclusive borough of Killiney, to the DART station by the beach.
A ride on a DART train south along the coast, as well as giving access to Sandycove’s James Joyce Museum and the charming, historic neighbourhood of Dalkey, is a scenic attraction in itself, displaying the great sweep of Dublin Bay before dramatically skirting Dalkey and Killiney hills and arrowing off towards Bray and Greystones. Now a pretty seaside suburb set against the tree-clad slopes of Dalkey Hill, in medieval times Dalkey prospered as a fortified settlement and the main port of Dublin, until the dredging of the River Liffey in the sixteenth century took away its business. Nowadays, with the building of the railway, Dalkey’s characterful old houses and villas are much sought after by well-to-do commuters, as well as celebrities seeking privacy.
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. 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.
Top image © massimofusaro/Shutterstock
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.
On a ridge above the Liffey, where previously the Vikings had established themselves, the Anglo-Norman invaders rebuilt Dublin in the thirteenth century around a doughty castle. You’re free to walk around the courtyards, an architectural mishmash that’s home to police and tax offices. The castle was the seat of British power in Ireland for seven hundred years, after its establishment by the Anglo-Normans in the early thirteenth century as the main element of their walled city, and successfully withstood all attempts to take it by force. It did, however, succumb to a major fire in 1684 and was rebuilt during the eighteenth century as a complex of residential and administrative buildings over two quadrangles, giving a sedate collegiate appearance. The outline of the medieval castle is traced by the Upper Yard; above its original main gate, the Cork Hill State Entrance, stands a statue of Justice, wearing no blindfold and turning her back on the city – a fitting symbol of British rule, locals reckon.
Built as the residence of the English viceroy and entered from the Upper Yard, the State Apartments are accessible on regular guided tours (dublincastle.ie). It’s advisable to ring ahead, however, as the apartments are sometimes closed for state occasions, when the tour will take in only the Chapel Royal and the Undercroft. Inside the apartments, the Grand Staircase leads up to the east wing of bedrooms and drawing rooms, refurbished to their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century style after a major fire in 1941. The brass chandelier in the Throne Room, with its shamrock, rose and thistle emblems, commemorates the 1801 Act of Union, while the Picture Gallery beyond is lined with viceroys, including – hiding ignominiously behind the door – the First Marquis of Cornwallis, who not only lost the American colonies, but also faced rebellions as viceroy, first of India, then of Ireland (1798). St Patrick’s Hall, formerly a ballroom that hosted investitures of the Knights of St Patrick, is now used for the inaugurations and funerals of Irish presidents. Its overblown, late eighteenth-century ceiling paintings show St Patrick converting the Irish, Henry II receiving the submission of the Irish chieftains, and George III’s coronation.
The tour also includes the Chapel Royal in the Lower Yard, an ornate Gothic Revival gem, and the excavations of the Undercroft, which have revealed the base of the gunpowder tower of the medieval castle and steps leading down to the moat, fed by the old River Poddle on its way down to the Liffey, as well as part of the original Viking ramparts.
Several other remnants of British hegemony are still dotted around the castle: the beautifully restored rotunda of City Hall; Christ Church Cathedral, with its huge crypt and photogenic covered bridge; and St Patrick’s Cathedral, sheltering an intriguing array of memorials. The main highlight for visitors in this area, however, is the Chester Beatty Library, a world-class collection of books and objets d’art from around the globe, in the castle gardens.
Opposite Christ Church cathedral on Fishamble Street once stood Neal’s Music Hall, where Handel conducted the combined choirs of Christ Church and St Patrick’s cathedrals in the first performance of his Messiah in 1742. As the takings were going to charity, ladies were requested not to wear hoops in their crinolines, to get more bums on seats. Jonathan Swift exclaimed, “Oh, a German, a genius, a prodigy.” In a private garden on the site, the composer’s reward is a statue of himself conducting in the nude, perched on a set of organ pipes. Every April 13, on the anniversary of the first performance, Our Lady’s Choral Society gives a singalong performance of excerpts from the Messiah here.
Overlooking the pretty castle garden from the renovated eighteenth-century Clock Tower Building, the Chester Beatty Library preserves a dazzling collection of books, manuscripts, prints and objets d’art from around the world. Superlatives come thick and fast here: as well as one of the finest Islamic collections in existence, containing some of the earliest manuscripts from the ninth and tenth centuries, the library holds important Biblical papyri, including the earliest surviving examples in any language of Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels, St Paul’s Letters and the Book of Revelations. Elegantly displayed in high-tech galleries, the artefacts are used to tell the story of religious and artistic traditions across the world with great ingenuity. It’s well worth timing your visit to coincide with lunch at the excellent Silk Road Café.
Though occupying the highest point of the old city, Christ Church Cathedral is now hemmed in by buildings and traffic and appears as an unexceptional Gothic Revival edifice. Inside, however, you’ll find some fascinating remnants from its long history as the seat of the (now Anglican) Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough. From as early as the seventh century, there may have been a small Celtic church on these grounds, and in about 1030, the recently converted Viking king of Dublin, Sitric Silkenbeard, built a wooden cathedral here. This in turn was replaced by the Normans, who between 1186 and 1240 erected a magnificent stone structure to mark their accession to power. Of this, the crypt, the transept (which retains a few eroded Romanesque carvings), the west end of the choir and the remarkable leaning north wall can still be seen – as the church had been built over a bog, the roof collapsed in 1562, bringing down the south wall and pulling the north side of the nave half a metre out of the perpendicular. In the 1870s, distiller Henry Roe lavished the equivalent of €30 million on the heavy-handed restoration you can see today, and bankrupted himself.
Near the main entrance at the southwest corner you’ll come across the strange tomb of Strongbow, the Norman leader who captured Dublin in 1170 and was buried here six years later. The original, around which the landlords of Dublin had gathered to collect rents, was destroyed by the sixteenth-century roof collapse, and had to be replaced with a fourteenth-century effigy of one of the earls of Drogheda so that business could proceed as usual. The small half-figure alongside is probably a fragment of the original tomb, though legend maintains that it’s an effigy of Strongbow’s son, hacked in two by his own father for cowardice in battle.
The chapels off the choir show the Anglo-Normans celebrating their dual nationality. To the left stands the Chapel of St Edmund, the ninth-century king of East Anglia who was martyred by the Vikings, while on the right is the Chapel of St Laud, the sixth-century bishop of Coutances in Normandy. The floor tiles here are original – those in the rest of the cathedral are 1870s replicas – while on the wall you can see an iron box containing the embalmed heart of twelfth-century St Laurence O’Toole, Dublin’s only canonized archbishop.
If you descend the stairs by the south transept, you’ll reach the crypt, the least changed remnant of the twelfth-century cathedral; formerly a storehouse for the trade in alcohol and tobacco, it’s one of the largest crypts in Britain and Ireland, extending under the entire cathedral for 55m. Here you’ll find the Treasures of Christ Church exhibition, which includes an interesting twenty-minute audiovisual on the history of the cathedral, as well as a miscellany of manuscripts and church crockery, and a mummified cat and rat, which were frozen in hot pursuit in an organ pipe in the 1860s. Look out also for a ropey tabernacle and pair of candlesticks made for James II on his flight from England in 1689, when, for three months only, Latin Mass was again celebrated at Christ Church (the existing cathedral paraphernalia was hidden by quick-thinking Anglican officials under a bishop’s coffin). In extravagant contrast is a chunky silver-gilt plate, around a metre wide, presented by King William III in thanksgiving for his victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
The history of St Patrick’s Cathedral is remarkably similar to that of its fellow-Anglican rival Christ Church up the road. It was built between 1220 and 1270 in Gothic style, but its roof collapsed in 1544, leading to a decline that included its use as a stable by Cromwell’s army in 1649. Its Victorian restoration, however, by Sir Benjamin Guinness in the 1860s, was more sensitive than at Christ Church, and it has a more appealing, lived-in feel, thanks largely to its clutter of quirky funerary monuments. Dublin has two Church of Ireland cathedrals because, in the 1190s, Archbishop John Comyn left the clergy of Christ Church and built his own palace and church here outside the city walls, and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the city provosts.
To the right of the entrance in the harmoniously proportioned nave are diverse memorials to Jonathan Swift, the cathedral’s dean for 32 years, including his and his long-term partner Stella’s graves, his pulpit and table, and a cast of his skull – both his and Stella’s bodies were dug up by Victorian phrenologists, studying the skulls of the famous. The Door of Reconciliation by the north transept recalls a quarrel between the earls of Kildare and Ormond in 1492. Ormond fled and sought sanctuary in the cathedral’s chapterhouse, but Kildare, eager to make peace, cut a hole in the door and stretched his arm through to shake Ormond’s hand – so giving us the phrase “chancing your arm”. Nearby in the north aisle of the choir, a simple black slab commemorates Duke Frederick Schomberg, who advised William of Orange to come to Ireland in 1686 but had the misfortune to be slain at the ensuing Battle of the Boyne. His family didn’t bother to erect a memorial for him, so it was left to Dean Swift to do the honours here in 1731; in Swift’s words, “The renown of his valour had greater power among strangers than had the ties of blood among his kith and kin.”
In the northwest corner of the nave you’ll find a slab carved with a Celtic cross that once marked the site of a well next to the cathedral, where St Patrick baptized converts in the fifth century. Back near the entrance, you can’t miss the extravagant Boyle monument, which Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, erected in 1632 in memory of his wife Katherine who had borne him fifteen children, including the famous chemist Robert Boyle (shown in the bottom-centre niche). Viceroy Wentworth, objecting to being forced to kneel before a Corkman, had the monument moved here from beside the altar, but Boyle exacted revenge in later years by engineering Wentworth’s execution.
Running south from popular meeting point College Green to St Stephen’s Green is the city’s main commercial drag, Grafton Street. This pedestrianized street gets off to an inauspicious start with “the tart with the cart”, a gaggingly kitsch bronze, complete with wheelbarrow of cockles and mussels, of Molly Malone, who was immortalized – though it’s unlikely that she ever existed – in the popular nineteenth-century song. For those who hate crowds, Grafton Street won’t get any better; for people-watchers, however, it’s a must, noted especially for its buskers, who range from string quartets to street poets. Shoppers will be drawn here, too, in particular to the city’s flagship department store, Brown Thomas. The street’s other major landmark, Bewley’s Oriental Café, was founded by the Quaker Bewley family as a teetotal bulwark against the demon drink, and owes its beautiful mosaic facade to the mania for all things Egyptian that followed the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.
West of the Guinness Brewery lies the rather more salubrious area of Kilmainham where you'll find Kilmainham Gaol. The jail has an iconic position in the history of Ireland’s struggle for independence and came to symbolize both Irish political martyrdom and British oppression. Opened in 1796, it became the place of incarceration for captured revolutionaries, including the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, who were also executed here. Even after the War of Independence, Republicans continued to be imprisoned here, though it closed in July 1924 after the release of its last inmate, Éamon de Valera – later to become Ireland’s Taoiseach and president. Tours of the jail provide a chilling impression of the prisoners’ living conditions and spartan regime. Its single cells ensured that they were forced into solitary contemplation, and since the building was constructed on top of limestone, their health was often sorely affected by damp and severe cold in winter. Before embarking on the tour, it’s well worth visiting the exhibition galleries. The ground floor display includes a mock-up of a cell and an early mug-shot camera, and there is a small side gallery showing paintings by Civil War internees and a huge self-portrait of Constance Gore-Booth (better known as the Countess Markiewicz) as the Good Shepherd. The upstairs gallery provides an enthralling account of the struggle for independence with numerous mementos, old cinematic footage of Michael Collins and the letter ordering the release of Charles Stewart Parnell.
North of the River Liffey are the buildings of the Old Jameson Distillery, where John Jameson set up his whiskey company. They have long been turned over to a somewhat touristy shrine to “the hard stuff”. Guided tours whirl visitors through the process itself, from milling and mashing to the essential distillation element; while the separation of water from alcohol only occurs once in bourbon and twice in Scotch, the production of uisce beatha (Irish for “water of life”, anglicized to “whiskey”) involves a three-stage process. The resulting liquid is diluted via the addition of water and then left in imported oak casks, formerly used for sherry, port or brandy, to mature for five to seven years, though some rare whiskeys are left 25 years before bottling. The tour ends with a tasting exercise in which testers are requested to sample four brands of whiskey, plus a bourbon and Scotch, before plumping for their favourite – if you want to take part, make sure to volunteer at the start of the tour, or you’ll only receive the complimentary tot of Jameson’s from the bar.
Adjacent to the distillery is an area christened Smithfield Village by developers. More an ongoing process of urban renewal than an identifiable community, its centrepiece is also the city’s largest civic open space, cobbled Smithfield itself. Surrounded by rising blocks of executive flats, shops and restaurants, Smithfield still manages to host one of the city’s major sights – the 300-year-old Dublin Horse Fair, which takes place from around 9am or so until noon on the first Sunday of each month and draws a fair number of traders and other horse-lovers from the city and outlying rural areas.
Europe’s largest urban walled park, Phoenix Park’s undulating landscape sprawls across some 1750 acres. Originally intended as a deer park for Charles II (a small herd still ranges across its fields), the park takes its name from Phoenix House, the original residence of the British viceroys, whose title derived from the Irish fionn uisce (“clear water”). Much of the park is open space, sparsely dotted with trees, shrubs and wild flowers, though there are also areas of woodland and hawthorn. Overall it’s an ideal place to escape the city’s bustle, a popular venue for sports, and offers plenty of spots for a picnic.
Sandwiched between the busy thoroughfare of Dame Street and the Liffey, Temple Bar is marketed, with a fair dose of artistic licence, as Dublin’s “Left Bank” (inconveniently, it’s on the right bank as you face downstream). Its transformation into the city’s main cultural and entertainment district came about after a 1960s plan for a new central bus terminal here was abandoned after much procrastination. Instead, the area’s narrow cobbled streets and old warehouses, by now occupied by short-lease studios, workshops and boutiques, began to be sensitively redeveloped as an artistic quarter in the 1980s. Nowadays, as well as more galleries and arts centres than you can shake a paintbrush at – even the helpful Temple Bar Information Centre on Essex Street East houses a small exhibition space for independent, “no-grants” artists – Temple Bar shelters a huge number of restaurants, pubs and clubs, engendering a notoriously raucous nightlife scene that attracts more outsiders than Dubliners.
An imposing and surprisingly extensive architectural set-piece right at the heart of the city, Trinity College was founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I to prevent the Irish from being “infected with popery and other ill qualities” at French, Spanish and Italian universities. Catholics were duly admitted until 1637, when restrictions were imposed that lasted until the Catholic Relief Act of 1793; the Catholic Church, however, banned its flock from studying here until 1970 because of the college’s Anglican orientation. Famous alumni range from politicians Edward Carson and Douglas Hyde, through philosopher George Berkeley and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest Walton, to writers such as Swift, Wilde and Beckett. Today seventy percent of the students are Catholic, and Trinity, though it also calls itself Dublin University, is actually just one of three universities in the capital: its main rival, University College Dublin (UCD), part of the National University of Ireland, is based at Belfield in the southern suburbs; while Dublin City University is in Glasnevin.
The main gates give onto eighteenth-century Front Square, flanked, with appealing symmetry, by the Chapel and the Examination Hall, which is the elegant, stuccoed setting for occasional concerts. On the east side of adjoining Library Square is the college’s oldest surviving building, the Rubrics, a red-brick student dormitory dating from around 1701, though much altered in the nineteenth century. In New Square beyond, the School of Engineering occupies the old Museum Building (1852), designed in extravagant Venetian Gothic style by Benjamin Woodward under the influence of his friend, John Ruskin, and awash with decorative stone-carving of animals and floral patterns. Further on, in the northeastern corner of the college at the Pearse Street entrance, is the excellent, new Science Gallery. Both thoughtful and thought-provoking, it hosts high-tech and interactive temporary exhibitions on all aspects of science, as well as an Italian café and interesting one-off events.
Other useful entrances to the college are at Lincoln Place (handy for the National Gallery) and Nassau Street. By the latter, in Fellows’ Square, on the south side of Library Square, the modern Arts Block is home to the Douglas Hyde Gallery, one of Ireland’s most important galleries of modern art, hosting top-notch temporary shows by Irish and international artists.
Trinity’s most compelling tourist attraction is the Book of Kells, kept in the eighteenth-century Old Library on Fellows’ Square. On the library’s ground floor, beautiful pages are displayed not just from the Book of Kells (around 800 AD), but from other works such as the Book of Armagh (early ninth century) and the Book of Mulling (late eighth century). The books themselves are preceded by a fascinating exhibition, Turning Darkness into Light, which sets Irish illuminated manuscripts in context – ranging from ogham (the earlier, Celtic writing system of lines carved on standing stones) to Ethiopian books of devotions.
Pre-eminent for the scale, variety and colour of its decoration, the Book of Kells probably originated at the monastery on Iona off the west coast of Scotland, which had been founded around 561 by the great Irish scholar, bard and ruler St Colmcille (St Columba in English). After a Viking raid in 806 the Columbines moved to the monastery of Kells in County Meath, which in its turn was raided four times between 920 and 1019. Although they looted the book’s cumdach or metal shrine cover, the pagan Norsemen did not value the book itself, however, and despite spending some time buried underground and losing thirty folios, it survived at Kells up to the seventeenth century when it was taken to Dublin for safekeeping during the Cromwellian Wars. The 340 calfskin folios of the Book of Kells contain the four New Testament gospels along with preliminary texts, all in Latin. It’s thought that three artists created the book’s lavish decoration, which shows Pictish, Germanic and Mediterranean, as well as Celtic influences. Not only are there full-page illustrations of Christ and the Virgin and Child, but an elaborate decorative scheme of animals and spiral, roundel and interlace patterns is employed throughout the text, on the initials at the beginning of each Gospel and on full-length “carpet pages”.
Upstairs is the library’s magnificent Long Room, built by Thomas Burgh between 1712 and 1732 and enlarged, with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, in 1860. As a copyright library, Trinity has had the right to claim a free copy of all British and Irish publications since 1801; of its current stock of four million titles, 200,000 of the oldest are stored in the Long Room’s oak bookcases. Besides interesting temporary exhibitions of books and prints from the library’s collection, the Long Room also displays a gnarled fifteenth-century harp, the oldest to survive from Ireland, and a rare original printing of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, made on Easter Sunday in Dublin’s Liberty Hall.