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 economy.
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 fortress.
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 inclination.
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.
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.
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 The Frames, who recently toured Australia with Bob Dylan - began their careers here on the pavement.
At the U2 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.