One may peruse in vain volumes of famous quotations and find precious little in praise of Ireland by its own most famous authors, whose sad, tough love for their native land was always being crashed on the rocks of history. James Joyce, the willing expatriate who never returned to Ireland, spat, “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow,” while Yeats in his day insisted Ireland’s romantic past was already “dead and gone.” George Bernard Shaw was most sanguine when he said, “Put an Irishman on the spit and you
can always get another Irishman to turn him.” Oscar Wilde somewhat less so: “We Irish are too poetical to be poets; we are a nation of brilliant failures, but we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks.” Poet and rebel Padraic Pearse sounded barely hopeful after the failure of the 1916 rebellion in Dublin when he insisted, “You cannot conquer Ireland. You cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom. If our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom, then our children will win by a better deed.”
But, eventually, Ireland proved him right and did win its independence, entering the modern world on bandy legs until well after World War II (it didn’t help that Ireland declared neutrality and extremist elements of the IRA worked with German intelligence against the British). Yet, despite being sentimentally overly characterized as a shamrock green land of leprechauns and fiddlers, modern Ireland’s true spirit is most manifest in the capital city of Dublin, which today is one of the most splendid and certainly most deeply cultural cities in Europe. I suspect that if Joyce and the rest were alive now, their sentiments would be far more positive, even swell with pride in what the last two generations have achieved. (Indeed, all those authors now have their monuments dotted around Dublin, and Pearse even has his own museum.)
The city has never looked better, especially since the disruptive gash of construction to entrench the center’s tram system is now gone. Most of the city’s new construction is happening north of the Liffey, long the poorest and derelict neighborhoods. The new glass-and-steel bank and office buildings show no more architectural distinction than do any other European cities’ and hardly fit in at all with Dublin’s architectural traditions.
Yet the north, reached across the happy Ha’Penny Bridge, has come to life on its own, with a whimsical statues of Joyce right there on the main drag of O’Connell Street. There are still commemorative bullet holes in the walls left over from the Easter Rebellion of April 1916 and the famous Post Office defense site is well worth visiting. St. Mary’s Church has been saved by being transformed into a vast pub and restaurant called The Church on Jervis Street, where you may pat the bronze pate of porter-maker Arthur Guinness, whose presence is felt on every corner of the city. Farther along there is now the 390-foot stainless steel Spire of Dublin, which no one sees the significance of beyond replacing an 1809 pillar topped with British Admiral Horatio Nelson, whom the Irish loathed and who the prescient Irish poet Louis MacNeice said was “watching his world collapse.”
Dublin Castle in southwest Dublin dates (after a devastating fire) to the 17th century, with state apartments and St. Patrick’s Hall.
The best way to get around town is with a Hop-on/Hop-off bus ticket, discounted if you book on-line. The route runs for one hour 45 minutes and 26 stops, with trained guides, stopping at all the city’s top attractions, including Dublin Zoo, the Guinness Storehouse, Trinity College and EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum (of which more in a moment), along with sites where Joyce, Wilde and Samuel Beckett (among others) lived. (Buses for the tour start at 9 am daily from outside Dublin Bus Head Office at 59 Upper O’Connell Street; the last tour of the day departs stop 1 at 17:00 during the Autumn/Winter months and 19:00 during the Summer.) Kids go free and there is free entrance to the delightful Little Museum of Dublin at St. Stephen’s Gre
en, whence you can also take a fine, guided walking tour of this expansively beautiful public space.
The city’s other great green is Merrion Square, twelve acres of it, with a statue of a lounging Oscar Wilde giving the passersby what is either a wry smile or a critical smirk. Ringing the Square are many of Dublin’s finest townhouses, hotels and restaurants. Incidentally, many of the once brightly colored Dublin doorways, made famous as a poster, have reverted to the historic black color they were before the 1960s ad promotion for the city. (I’ll report on Dublin’s hotels and restaurants in an upcoming column.)
Hop on and off if you like, but Dublin has a small center and you can stroll around it in mere hours, unless you spend your time at the better-than-ever National Museum of archaeology and Irish history and the National Gallery, with its priceless “The Taking of Christ” by Caravaggio. Trinity College is so lovely and green this time of year, and its great Long Library is the magnificent and home to the uniquely beautiful medieval Book of Kells, a new page of which is turned each day. (Tickets are necessary.)
A little away from downtown is St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Jonathan Swift was Dean, and beyond that the Guinness Storehouse, with its rich history, superb exhibits and a vast, panoramic view of the city from the circular bar. There is also an Irish Whiskey Museum on Grafton Street worth a visit.
Downtown, the main thoroughfare, closed to cars, is Grafton Street, made famous in many Irish lyrics and songs, originally a connecting lane dating to the 1700s and once a high-end residential stretch. Since then it’s become a fashionable shopping street with as many international as Irish brands and those persistent street performers called buskers of various talents, which once included Bono. There’s a Molly Malone statue at one end—she of the “alive-alive-o” fishmongers’ ditty—and what was once called the Dandelion Market has become the wrought-iron multi-level St. Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre.
Perpendicular to Grafton Street are several smaller streets with a better selection of native Irish goods. (In fact, I saw several “out of business” signs in the windows of international fashion boutiques on those streets.) Some of the best include The Irish Store, The Woolens Mills and CLOTH Dublin. For unique Donegal tweeds and men’s and women’s country clothing, I always make a visit to Kevin & Howlin on Nassau Street, across from Trinity, where each month brings entirely new colors and weavings of sturdy tweeds to last a lifetime, even in Irish weather.
One of my favorite stops off Grafton is Sheridan’s Cheesemongers on Anne Street, which has become so successful that there are now branches in other Irish cities. Here you’ll find small production Irish cheeses as nowhere else, with delightful names like Carrig Bru, Wicklow Bán and Drunken Saint. And if you’re going abroad, they’ll shrink-wrap the cheeses so as to be allowed through customs.
Over the past twenty years the neighborhood known as Temple Bar, near the Houses of Parliament, has become a crucible for the arts and entertainment, with all the expected pubs and restaurants (the Auld Dubliner is a little quieter than some and has good music) that service locals and visitors who are always heartily welcomed. It’s a youthful area of Dublin, with the Ark Children’s Cultural Centre and Irish Film Institute, along with the very fine Irish Photography Centre, the Gaiety School of Acting, IBAT College Dublin, the New Theatre. The Cow’s Lane Market is known for its fashion and design offerings on Saturdays.
To put Dublin’s shadier past in perspective, the city has declared it will turn one of the last of what were called the Magdalene Laundries, on McDermott Street, into a museum showing the true horrors of a Church-run workhouse for women who strayed from the rules, some prostitutes, some pregnant out of wedlock, some nothing more than flirts turned in by their parents into a life of years of literal slavery in order to save their souls. Only now in Ireland could the thought emerge to preserve such a hellish place as a way of coming to grips with an unsavory past.
Far more inspiring, however, is the new EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum, which, like the Titanic Museum in Belfast, is a state-of-the-art living museum of history focused on those who emigrated during the agonies of the potato famine of the 1840s, in which millions starved to death while millions more escaped to America and Australia on small transport boats below decks for weeks, even months, at a time. One of these, though a replica, is just outside the museum, called the Jennie Johnson, whose captain was among the most humane of his profession, whose thousands of passengers—five to a bunk—over several years all survived journeys in which sickness, storms and bare subsistence hung over everyone. Others on lesser ships had a good chance of never making it to their destination alive.
Otherwise, within the museum there are thousands of hours of recording of immigrants, letters, a family history centre, interactive touch screens, music and dance, with impressive walls of hundreds of famous Irish men and women, from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan and Joe Biden, along with Irish-Americans like Gene Kelly, Kurt Cobain, Walt Disney and John Ford, all presented as well as anything at Washington’s Smithsonian.