Ireland has never had its flaneurs, no one to perfect the art of urban walking while immersing themselves in the landscape of the city. But even if that cultural type has never stepped out onto the Dublin streets — apart perhaps from the fictional Leopold Bloom — the city’s historic buildings and graceful squares have long provided the setting to do so.
So, equipped with Gregory and Audrey Bracken’s newly-published walking guide, Dublin Strolls: Exploring Dublin’s Architectural Treasures (The Collins Press, €12.99)
I set out on a crisp day in November to see if I could avoid fast food joints and discount stores, and instead focus on the best built heritage the capital has to offer.
Dublin Strolls begins with a walk around the oldest part of the city — the medieval core. The teeming claustrophobic lanes are long gone thanks to the Guinness family, who paid for slum clearances in the early part of the 20th century, but individual architectural gems remain.
There is, for instance, St Patrick’s Cathedral. In the 1220s it rose from among the hovels clustered around the city walls, gaining a tower in 1400 and a spire in 1749. Although much modified, it is still this island’s finest example of religious shock and awe — it might lack the scale of a Chartres or a Notre Dame, but otherwise it ticks all the gothic boxes: flying buttresses, pointed arches and stained glass.
It also had Dean Swift, and walking like a Lilliputian in its shadow, it’s easy to picture the great novelist and thinker absentmindedly rambling these streets.
Marsh’s Library is just around the corner — the oldest public library in the country, built in 1679 and later extensively remodelled by the Guinnesses, who seem to have spent as much time altering Dublin’s cityscape as they did brewing.
The interior is a feast for the eyes, book after book stretching from the 16th to 18th centuries. Also here are the original wired-off alcoves where readers were locked in with whatever they wished to read — books had value in those days.
One of the strengths of Dublin Strolls is they way it draws attention to the lesser-known points of interest. Further along St Patrick’s Close is Kevin Street Garda Station. Its present appearance makes it hard to believe, but it was originally known as St Sepulchre’s Palace and was built in the 12th century as a home for the Archbishop of Dublin.
This is the advantage of a slow walk with a good guidebook, hidden places appear that have only ever interested tourists.
Dublin Castle, with its courtyards and state apartments, is always tempting for a visit; so too is Christchurch Cathedral, where one of the biggest draws is the mummified remains of a cat and rat discovered in an organ pipe in the 1860s and now preserved forever like some immortal Itchy and Scratchy.
But instead my eyes, and nose, are drawn towards nearby Leo Burdock’s, a take-away which kept me supplied with fish and chips during my student days. From Dublin Strolls I learn it first opened in 1913 and they used coal to heat their chip pans right up to 1991.
Drifting towards Temple Bar takes you towards the second planned walk in the Brackens’ book, but just before that you enter real-life Game of Thrones territory.
Lower Exchange Street is home to the ruins of Isolde’s Tower, named after the Irish princess immortalised by Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. She’s supposedly buried in Chapelizod — Isolde’s Chapel — so the link with this 13th century defensive structure is tenuous.
What isn’t in doubt, however, is the gruesome use this place was once put to — archaeological discoveries made here in the 1990s include the skulls of young men whose heads had been mounted on spikes as a warning against rebellion and general wrong-doing.
One of Dublin’s most distinctive buildings, and one that can’t be missed by any walker, is on the corner of Parliament Street. Sunlight Chambers, built by the soap magnates the Lever Brothers in 1901, is an in-your-face four-storey Victorian interpretation of 15th century Italian Renaissance architecture, complete with a colourful frieze depicting neither Greek gods nor biblical scenes, but the process of soap manufacture.
Despite the tackiness of Temple Bar you can still just about imagine it as it once was, crowded with merchants and craftsmen serving the civil servants and soldiers in the Castle.
There’s plenty of modern architecture here too — Meeting House Square and the National Photographic Archive are two of the more successful examples built when the area was revamped in the 1990s.
Ducking through Merchant’s Arch you come to a true Dublin icon — the Ha’Penny Bridge. With its industrial appearance it comes as a surprise to read that it dates from as early as 1816, and was originally named after the Duke of Wellington. If there were any celebrations held to mark its bicentenary then they must have been so low-key as to be virtually non-existent.
Up to 30,000 people cross it every day — they would once have had to pay a toll of one half penny, so, this being Dublin, the Wellington Bridge was soon rechristened by the locals.
The third walk in Dublin Strolls is named after Grafton Street but actually takes in the surrounding area as well. With so much Georgian architecture Dublin’s Victorian heritage tends to get overlooked, but one structure that really holds its own is the South City Arcade, also known as the Georges Street Market.
Built in 1878, it’s supposed to be Europe’s oldest shopping centre and walking through its tiny shops and stalls selling antique books, bric-a-brac and vintage clothes is like stepping back in time. At 118 metres long its neo-Gothic facade is the longest in the city — only 1.6 metres shorter that the Custom House.
Grafton Street itself may be heaven, with no shortage of places to take coffee at 11 or anytime you like, but it’s also a street with a wealth of side alleys and parallel lanes. One of them, South William Street, is home to the Powerscourt Centre, built by Richard Wingfield in 1770.
Richard was also Third Viscount Powerscourt and he built this townhouse for use as his city base when he wasn’t spending time on his Wicklow estate. According to Gregory and Audrey Bracken’s book, its granite facade is busy and crude compared to other townhouses of the time, which is a good reason to go and judge for yourself. The interior was remodelled as an upmarket shopping centre in the early 1980s.
If you leave the Powerscourt Centre via the Clarendon Street exit, St Theresa’s Church is opposite, which, with its Italianate tower, makes the area feel, according to the Brackens, like ‘somewhere in Italy’.
Here, Dublin Strolls provides one of those quirky little facts that isn’t generally known: In order to avoid upsetting the Protestant Ascendancy, Catholic Churches tended to be built just off main thoroughfares rather than actually on them, which is why the Pro-Cathedral is on Marlborough Street and not O’Connell Street, and why this fine church, with a sculpture of The Dead Christ by Corkman John Hogan, is nestled on Clarendon Street rather than sitting proudly on Grafton Street.
Grafton Street itself was a muddy lane until it was redesigned by the Wide Streets Commission in the 1840s — here it’s worth dropping into Bewley’s to check out the stained glass windows by Harry Clarke, before heading up to St Stephen’s Green to soak up the atmosphere.
Make your way in under the Fusiliers’ Arch on the north-west corner. Built in 1907 to commemorate Irish soldiers killed in the Boer War, it was, within a few years, rechristened ‘Traitors Arch’ as the political world turned on its head.
The Green, once marshy grazing ground and later home to a leper hospital, is a good place to take a rest and browse through your copy of Dublin Strolls to plan another day’s walk — the Docklands, the Georgian Northside, and even further afield to Dun Laoghaire and Sandycove — all parts of the city are packed into this informative little walking guide. Thanks to Gregory and Audrey Bracken you’ll never look at Dublin in the same way again.
Dublin Strolls: Exploring Dublin’s Architectural Treasures by Gregory and Audrey Bracken. The Collins Press (€12.99).
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