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Dublin – Let There Be Light

River Liffey, Dublin, copyright Claire Burdett

River Liffey, Dublin

The Art of Light in the City of the Black Stuff

Dublin is full of light; a clear, luminous light that is the result of all the moisture in the air, otherwise known as the weather. And the weather is something that affects the national character as well as the light. When it rains as often as it does in Ireland, when you can have all four seasons in a day, and sometimes in an afternoon, you have two choices as a culture – either you become dour and miserable, or you shrug and make the most of what you do have. And the latter is thankfully what they do in Dublin.

And what they have to make the most of in Dublin is a lot of pubs, the wonderful black stuff (aka Guinness), fabulous raw ingredients within easy reach, their friendliness and sense of humour, their cultural and intellectual inheritance, and, of course, the marvellous light.

It’s quite a lot to be going on with.

Dublin doesn’t feel very cityish, to be honest, not like New York, for example, or Paris. It’s small and rather scruffy, a city that seems to be continually in the midst of reinventing itself. You can be in the centre of the city and see beautiful Georgian houses that are still run-down tenements, look up and see cranes on the skyline in every direction, and turn a corner and have to gingerly pick your way past a derelict building about to be spruced up.

It’s like there’s a city-wide “How clean is your house?” meets “What’s your house worth?” television programme going on that you haven’t been told about, and somehow you keep expecting God to appear in a blinding flash, booming “Let there be light!” and “ta da!” suddenly the freshly-minted and shiny city of Dublin will appear from behind all the plastic sheeting.

In the meantime, while you are waiting for that blinding revelation, there is much to enjoy. Dublin is fairly compact and so entirely do-able in a weekend. And it is best to walk because not only will you want to take advantage of the fabulous hostelries for pit stops, but also because Dublin’s jewels are for the more discerning, those with time to look and find, because they have to be sought out, unlike Oxford, Bath, or Rome, say, where they are massed densely in whatever direction you look.

For a Catholic city stuffed with churches, the ecclesiastical architecture isn’t in your face. The cathedrals look more like churches and the statues are all of (important, inspirational, but still ordinary) people rather than angels, Madonnas, Emperors, Kings or cherubs. And while this could be disappointing if you were hankering after grand and awe-inspiring extravaganza, it actually forms part of the city’s appeal. Dublin is on a human scale, which is entirely as it should be because the real gems of this city are its friendly and chatty people who are rightly most famed for their way with words (blarney starts right here!), their wit, and their hospitality, rather than their history or their pomp and ceremony.

And it isn’t an urban myth that Dubliners are welcoming and talkative. Everyone here has an opinion, and often many more than one, and no Dubliner seems to have taken on board their Mother’s warnings about stranger danger because they talk to everyone and anyone about everything. And everyone knows how to drink, And dance. And argue. And tease. And laugh. So if you are of a sociable persuasion it’s almost impossible not to have a good time, even if you are on your own. Perhaps especially if you are on your own.

The creative and intellectual inheritance of Dublin is phenomenal, especially considering its diminutive size. Some of our foremost and most popular intellectuals and crusaders, authors and musicians originated here, including U2, Bob Geldof (and his Boomtown Rats), Thin Lizzy, James Joyce, W.B.Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen, Bram Stoker, Samuel Beckett, Oliver Goldsmith, J. M. Synge, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Roddy Doyle, Maeve Binchey, Basically if there’s something relevant to the human condition that needs commenting upon or expressing, in whatever form, you can bet a Dubliner won’t be far away.

Nowadays the city hosts a huge amount of music from big rock concerts and top djs to classical events and the Eurovision. On a more personal level, the city has a tradition of making music that, unlike many Northern cultures, it has retained, so nobody will complain or be upset if you’re listening to someone playing in a pub and you decide to join in for the ‘crac’ – in Dublin it can be live karaoke every night.

Put this all together and you have a social culture that is second to none. Because of the weather, no one in Dublin expects it NOT to rain, so the whole brave expectation you get in so much of England, of tables set out on patios and in courtyard with the hope that it will be warm and sunny, is missing. The Dubliners expect it to be moist, breezy and possibly a tad chilly, and they are rarely disappointed – and isn’t it a nice surprise when it isn’t? But like all Northerners they crave the light, so here you get a neat solution – nearly every café, restaurant, or bar you go into of any size either has walloping huge glass doors and windows to bring in the light, or glass atriums, or lots of skylights, or all of them together, plus walls of mirrors that reflect the light and make the most of every ray.

It occurs so often that it becomes a noticeably Dublin feature, a design signature if you like. Add the reflective and metallic vases and surfaces that they use everywhere, plus the retro furnishings combined with funky modern Irish designs, and you have a very stylish, inside kind of city that is dazzlingly full of light and luckily doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Getting There

Whenever you go it’s almost certain to rain, although it tends to be a soft kind of nothing rain in the summer, hardly enough to bother getting your umbrella out, unlike the storms that can blow up from the sea in winter. There’s something major happening most months, depending on your personal taste – August sees the Temple bar Blues Festival, September brings Dublin’s answer to the Edinburgh Fringe. In October you can sample the delights of the Dublin Theatre Festival, November sees the start of Opera season, while March is all about St Patrick and the black stuff, with parades and fireworks.

Following the introduction of cheap flights (see below) Dublin has rather turned into a weekend Stag and Hen land, with an influx from the UK on a Friday afternoon through to Sunday, and it gets crammed and somewhat messy. So if that’s not your bag, go midweek.

Flights go from Bournemouth, Bristol, London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Blackpool, Leeds, Durham, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, and cost anywhere from £20 up to £170 return, depending when you go and which airport you fly from (it’s worth checking the ones within striking distance). The most popular airlines are Ryan Air and Aer Lingus. Make sure you wear your walking shoes on the plane – Dublin airport is, like so much of the city, being refurbished and improved and the walk to the baggage area is very very long.

Where to Go

At the centre of the Dublin lies College Green, and this is a good place to get your bearings.

Here the main 18th century promenade, O’Connell Street, leads down from the north of the city, punctuated by the Spire of Dublin (see below) and numerous statues of influential and significant people, to cross the Liffey and arrive at College Green between the Bank of Ireland (the old Parliament building) and Trinity University. Here the north to south road, now called Westmoreland Street, meets Dame Street, which travels west from College Green up towards the Old City, and College Street, which heads off east along the flank of Trinity and ultimately leads to the City Quay. The southern route travels on as trendy Grafton Street towards the Georgian splendour surrounding St Stephen’s Green.

In the centre of College Green stands the statue of Henry Gratton, Prime Minister and a supporter of Catholic Emancipation (see box), caught declaiming one of his ringing speeches towards the front of Trinity and the statues of two of Trinity’s famous alumni, Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith.

Bank of Ireland
The 18th century, curving, colonnaded building that is now the Bank of Ireland began life as the Houses of Parliament. The House of Commons is now the bank’s cash office, but the House of Lords is relatively untouched and can be visited. There are guided tours – don’t miss the fabulous 1,233-piece chandelier and splendid Huguenot tapestries.

The university was founded by Elizabeth I in 1591, and only Protestants were admitted until 1793, with Catholics only really attending in any numbers after 1970. Trinity now has over 5,000 students and is considered a close third in preference for students after Oxford and Cambridge. The famous Book of Kells is housed here in the Treasury, while Brian Boru’s Harp (the one that appears as Ireland’s icon) is displayed in the breathtaking Long Room.

Grafton Street area
Grafton Street is the city’s main social and shopping artery, with numerous alleys and streets and shopping areas leading off and situated around it (Dawson Street, Wicklow Street, South Grafton Street, Powerscourt Townhouse Centre), all filled with a wide selection of shops, bars, cafes, and pubs. At the entrance of Grafton Street stands a very buxom statue of Molly Malone, she of the city’s most famous song “In Dublin’s Fair City” and who, in typical deadpan manner, is known in Dublin as the “tart with the cart” (told you they had a way with words). The street itself is constantly filled with buskers and street performers, as well as flower sellers, and although it seems buzzy, it is a street along which to amble, not power walk.

St Stephen’s Green
At the end of Grafton Street you will find the Fusilier’s Arch that marks the entrance to St Stephen’s Green, a nicely informal park that is a very pleasant place for a stroll or a picnic, especially on weekday lunchtimes when there is always a band performing in the bandstand, regardless of the weather.

Marrion Street area
At the far end of St Stephen’s Green, beyond the Shelbourne Hotel (see below) lies the Marrion Street area, famed for its beautiful Georgian houses, and home to Dublin’s political and government life. Here you can visit Newman House, where you can see the finest examples of Irish 18th century craftsmanship, as well exquisite furnishings from the period.

The Old City
Take a westerly walk up Dame Street from College Green, and visit St Patrick’s Cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral, and Dublin Castle for a taste of Dublin’s most colourful period of history. The guided tour of the castle takes you through sumptuous state apartments from where English rule held sway over Ireland for seven centuries, while in the basement are the interesting remnants of Viking settlement. Outside in the courtyard you can check out the statue of Justice holding her scales over the archway “with her face to the Castle and her back to the city” as disgruntled Dubliners were wont to remark.

Guinness Storehouse
Everyone should visit this temple to one of Ireland’s greatest exports. It’s no showroom or factory outlet, but a full-blown, creatively-conceived and craftsman-built installation that explores every layer of the history, creation and marketing of this most famous drink and brand – quite literally as its all arranged on ascending floors. The entry ticket also includes a complementary pint of Guinness straight from the factory and enjoyed at the top of the building in the *8 bar, which gives you a 350° view of Dublin (you can play Spot the Crane) and the beautiful Wicklow mountains, 30 minutes to the south of the city.

The Guinness is, of course, excellent.

Temple Bar
Quirky artisan and arts area that despite having been ‘discovered’ and becoming a Mecca for Stag and Hen parties still retains much of its charm (look for the engravings in the flag stones) and is a popular student hangout. The pretty Ha’penny Bridge (that was the toll to cross the river) crosses the Liffey here – go through the Merchant’s Arch on the north side of Temple Bar.

The Custom House
On the north side of the river lies the French-inspired 18th century ‘palace’ that was commissioned by the chief taxman of the time. Topped by the Statue of commerce, the Custom House now houses the Department of Environment and Customs and Excise. There is a visitor’s area where you can appreciate the neo classical design and interior.

The Four Courts
Also on the north side of the Liffey is the Four Courts. Designed by the Gratton, the architect responsible for the Custom House and the Bank of Ireland’s façade, the circular and colonnaded Four Courts houses Ireland’s High Court and Supreme Court.

The Spire of Dublin
Casually referred to by Dubliners as the “Spike”, this was erected in 2002 on O’Connell Street, and is constructed of rolled stainless steel, rising 120 metres with a luminous tip. Its shiny form reflects the weather and the light in a wonderful way, the whole of it glowing in the setting sun and the tip seeming to disappear in the cloud on overcast days.

Where to drink

Nearly every pub is a gem in Dublin, but here are a couple of particularly choice ones you really shouldn’t miss.

The Old Stand
Exchequer Street

One of the oldest pubs in Dublin, with the original charter thought to have been granted in the 15th Century, The Old Stand is on the excellent Literary Walk, which tells the tale of writers and their drinking holes (get details from the Tourist Information Centre, St Andrew’s Street). The décor is unspoilt (you step down into a flagstoned interior), the food is good, and the bar staff friendly and knowledgeable.

The Horseshoe Bar
Shelbourne Hotel, St Stephen’s Green

Horseshoe-shaped bar in the Shelbourne Hotel (see Where to Stay, below) that sees an influx of politicians, government bods and media types in the early evening, Has a “clubby” décor (the owners retained it’s original design when the hotel was recently refurbished) and the standard of people watching is superb.

Where to Eat

The food in Dublin is good. The mix of Mediterranean influences and fresh local ingredients is a winner, and you will be hard pressed to have a bad meal here, whether you eat in a café, a pub, or a restaurant.

Café en Seine
Dawson Street

The Café en Seine is a beautiful light-filled place designed with a funky Art Deco theme and filled with eye candy is every direction, including a Louis XIVth bust, brass chandeliers, ornate mirrors, and 40ft palms. Like many Dublin establishments, it is a café by day (go for Sunday brunch, when some of Dublin’s best jazz bands play) and a happening pub by night, complete with bands and djs.

Dakota Bar
South William Street

By day a bistro filled with light and congenial chat, by evening a social hot spot with cocktails and food for the young crowd. The food is local produce with a Mediterranean twist, and is excellent – try their spicy fish cakes with lime crème fraîche or pan-fried fillets of wild Irish salmon, or their Irish bangers and mash if the weather has you craving comfort food.

The Cedar Tree
St Andrew’s Street

Lebanese restaurant that is always full and always has people waiting (best to pop in early and book ahead, or ring). The menu is comprehensive, with everything you’d expect including lots of vegan and vegetarian options. The service and ambience is fabulous (they will cook something specially for you), and although it is quite pricey it’s probably one of the very best vegetarian options in Dublin.

The Port House
South William Street

Candlelit cellar Spanish restaurant with masses of ambience and appeal: they run a waiting list for tables, it’s that popular – and rightly so. The food is good and there’s a great wine list – try any of their pinchos (means on a stick) or cold tapas while you are waiting for a table or as a starter, and then try their Galician octopus with smoked paprika, or spicy lamb stew with paprika, peppers and garlic, or Pisto manchego, a vegetable slow-cooked stew topped with cheese.

Bad Ass Café
Crown Alley

Studenty haunt in Temple bar, the Bad Ass is a typically Irish café/bar that is perfect for a pit stop – the light floods in through the huge windows, the orders whiz down to the kitchen and bar on what looks like a home-designed pulley system, and the menu is littered with puns on its name. The food isn’t bad either, although not in the gourmet stakes. Try their The Bad Ass Got Your Goat salad (goat’s cheese and pine nuts) or their Pesto We’re Impressed-O pizza – or ask for the DIY list and create your own.

The Lemon Crepe and Coffee Co.
Dawson Street & South William Street

Funky little coffee and crepe cafes, with huge selection of pancake fillings on offer, from their lemon breakfast crepe with maple syrup and lemon through to the creamy pastrami filled with Irish Cashel blue cheese, pastrami and caramelised onion. If you have a sweet tooth, don’t miss their Choc Ice Baileys crepe, which is pretty much what it says on the packet. Perfect!

Butler’s Chocolate Café
Wicklow Street

Butler’s chocolate is the ‘other’ dark stuff of Dublin, and their first (and still the best) chocolate cafe is situated on the corner of Wicklow and South William Street. The coffee is good, the hot chocolate even better, and their handmade Irish chocolates sublime. Odds on you won’t be able to leave without buying a little souvenir – for yourself, obviously, why waste such delights on philistines?

Where to Stay

It’s not a cheap place, Dublin, but the quality of the hotels is good, the breakfasts substantial, and a central location really does mean that here.

Shelbourne Hotel

St Stephen’s Green
Dublin’s finest and the sort of place you feel the need to whisper when you are talking to the reception staff. Has huge amount of old world appeal. Home of the horseshoe bar (see above).

The Morgan
Fleet Street
Cool boutique hotel near Temple Bar where your every comfort is catered for.

Drury Court Hotel
Lower Stephen’s Street
Popular 3-star hotel with large comfortable rooms near St Stephen’s Green.

Trinity College Accommodation
Trinity College
Accommodation in student quarters, with a lovely setting on campus, Available June-September only.

© Claire Burdett.

First published in Citylife Magazine 2008

Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you. The accompanying photos to this article can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/funkyangelclaire/sets/72157622165222865/


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