THE CELTIC CINDERELLA
On Saturday evening, in the Horseshoe Bar of Dublin's grand old Shelbourne
Hotel, the buzz is that of a packed theatre lobby during interval. To so
animate its audience, one presumes the show must be brand new and brilliant. As
settings for conversation go, it would difficult to find a more elegant venue.
Outside the hotel, scarlet geraniums in the window boxes hit an intensity of
pitch just on dusk, while a doorman in dove grey top hat and tails ushers
customers into the spacious foyer. Indoors, the trumpet heads of white lilies
propped in tall glass jars waft their heady scent; long windows - partly open
to the warm, still evening - overlook St Stephen's Green, and chandeliers gleam
in this room that lovingly hugs the curve of its horseshoe-shaped bar.
One of the most endearing things about Dubliners is that on Friday and
Saturday nights they still dress up to go to town. Whole families are here,
and the women squeezed side-by-side onto the bar's low leather couches, or
perched on high stools twirling cocktails, are all wearing best frocks with
slender heels. Even the babies, of which a few are being dandled on knees, are
smartly turned out. But this atmosphere of affluence is recent, for as little
as fifteen years ago - plagued by unemployment and the seemingly endless
migration of its brightest talent to distant lands - Dublin looked rather
battered and grubby, as careworn as its famous purveyor of cockles and mussels,
the barrow-pushing Molly Malone. But like Molly, underneath its superficial
grime the city had good bones, and in recent times a fairy godmother - in the
shape of the European Union - has waved a magic wand and revitalised the Irish
One result is that Dublin's rows of elegant 18th century houses, which
once seemed in a state of terminal decay, have been rescued. Some have been
turned from office use into painstakingly restored private residences, bringing
a breath of everyday life to the city centre. Another surprising change is the
reversal of emigration, and it is not only Ireland's lost sons and daughters
returning, but immigrant workers from the eastern edge of Europe in search of
better lives. In the catering trade, especially, Polish is the language spoken
by kitchen hands and waitresses.
Now one of Europe's most vibrant cities, Dublin is low-rise and all the
more appealing for that, although with its current prosperity and growth rate,
it is anybody's guess how long this will last. In a recent survey by Economist
magazine, Ireland topped the list of desirable places to live with its
combination of a tiger economy coupled with the Irish preference for
traditional ways of life. Perhaps the latter has something to do with the
extreme politeness of Dublin's motorists, for although the inner city is jammed
with traffic, and only the tourists abide by pedestrian crossings or the little
red and green men on traffic signals, there is a gallantry about the driving
which has, sadly, disappeared from our own city streets.
Any travel guide will point visitors in the direction of the city's main
attractions, and there are some that should not be missed. Top of the list is
Dublin Castle, stronghold of British power in Ireland for 700 years and built
on Norman and Viking foundations. Of the original 13th century fortress, only
the Record Tower remains, but it offers an enticing glimpse of medieval Dublin,
and the castle itself is impressive. Access is by tours, which include state
rooms, such as the Throne room, as well as bedrooms once used by royal visitors
to the castle.
In the heart of the city sits Trinity College. Established in 1592 by
Elizabeth I, its Old Library is home to Dublin's greatest tourist draw, the
Book of Kells. With its superbly decorated lettering of the New Testament, it
is one of the oldest books in the world, dated at around AD800. Entrance to it
includes the Library Long Room with its vaulted timber ceiling, ancient books,
and a collection of early harps.
You cannot leave Ireland without at least one encounter with St Patrick,
and it is the soaring simplicity of its architecture which makes the cathedral
he founded the most satisfying of Dublin's many churches to visit. After the
bustle of the streets, St Patrick's is a haven of peace and quiet where you can
take a pew and imagine the kerfuffle caused when Oliver Cromwell ordered the
cathedral's nave to be used as a stable for his horses. St Patrick's sits in
the heart of The Liberties, an area that was once outside the walls of the old
Dublin has always been a city of writers and scholars, and its most
famous author, James Joyce, claimed that if his home town should ever disappear
it could be reconstructed, street by street, from his novel Ulysses, a book
which charts a single day in the life of its hero, Leopold Bloom. The 16th of
June each year is known as Bloomsday, and Joyce's life and work is celebrated
with readings and dramatic performances all over the city. Contemporary writers
have continued the stand-out Irish contribution to literature, with Roddy Doyle
(The Commitments), John Banville, and most recently Anne Enright, winning the
Man Booker Prize.
But the cherishing of tradition in the midst of change means that the
greatest pleasures to be found in Dublin are some of the simplest to access,
those aspects of life the city has always excelled at - a hot towel shave in an
old fashioned barber's shop, or a perfectly poured glass of Guinness enjoyed in
any one of the handful of public houses which have resisted change and are
loved all the more ardently for that.
Doheny & Nesbitt on Lower Baggot Street is one such. Its narrow entrance
opens into a series of darkly panelled rooms, sparely furnished, where mirrors
advertising Irish whiskey brands long out of production line the walls. The
back bar has a snug at either end; small private rooms where women once enjoyed
a tipple without being seen, they are served by a hatch off the main bar and in
their time have hosted clandestine meetings of every political and romantic
O'Donoghue's on Merrion Row is another watering hole untouched by time.
The walls teem with framed sketches and photographs of musicians, some
well-faded behind cracked glass. Christy Moore has played here, and famous
Irish folk band, The Dubliners, began their long career in the back room with
its chipped red walls and uncompromising seating.
A visit to these much-copied public houses makes it clear that Irish theme
pubs around the globe have got it wrong - while their designers' hearts may be
in the right place, they make them too neat, for the charm of the originals is
in the worn edges of everything, the scratches and scrapes, the bubbling
varnish on mahogany-panelled walls. Under O'Donoghue's night black ceiling,
things that break have been unceremoniously repaired with parcel tape; pictures
hang askew. The most perfect objects in sight are elegant glasses of Guinness
with their signature gold script.
Unlike Dublin's flash new breed of cafe bars, traditional public houses
retain a certain Celtic gravity alongside their stripped down style and, as
with waiters in Italy, to be a barman here is viewed as a valid occupation.
For a taste of the new Dublin, Café en Seine on Dawson Street opens into
an interior packed with luxurious clutter, room after room decorated with
ornate mirrors, giant glass lanterns, marble columns, bronze and ebony statues,
even mature trees under an atrium roof towards the back; a French hotel lift
shuttles between three floors. The style is a modern take on art deco, with a
nod to turn of the century France. For all its opulence, the menu of café style
dishes is reasonably priced.
To satisfy a fast food craving with history attached, visit Leo Burdock's,
Dublin's oldest chipper, where the hall of fame includes Naomi Campbell,
Metallica, Rod Stewart, BB King, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen and his band.
Bags of spuds are piled up in quantity in the open kitchen, and the spuds in
Ireland are something special; you'll find them served up, mashed with
imaginative additions, from small cafes to expensive restaurants.
Bewley's Oriental Café is another Dublin institution, wonderful for lunch
followed by a stroll past the buskers who ply their trade outside on Grafton
Street. The musicianship on display is stunning, and some now famous players -
such as Glen Hanson of Irish band
who recently toured Australia
with Bob Dylan - began their careers here on the pavement.
owned and operated Clarence Hotel, you could find yourself
sharing the lift with visiting rock stars. For a comfortable billet with a
quieter clientele, the five-star Fitzwilliam Hotel on St Stephen's Green was
designed by Sir Terence Conran, from its dramatic entrance hall right down to
its thoughtfully sited central bath taps.
As a luxury destination, Ireland is a late bloomer, although one which,
even in difficult times, has managed to nurture the arts. In the Temple Bar
area of the city, traditional music bounds from doorways, nearly knocking down
passersby with the energy of a slip jig or a reel. Theatres here attract young
audiences. But above all Dublin is a literary city where the ghost of James
Joyce remains a presence and his collection of short stories, Dubliners, makes
the perfect holiday reading.