There is a buzz in Dublin at the moment redolent of the 1990s when emigrants began to seriously contemplate coming home because the city was actually becoming a cool place to live in.
St Patrick’s Day saw the Fair City’s iconic buildings and bridges once again painted green but this year, the green hasn’t disappeared and the likes of Liberty Hall are dressed in cartoon-style posters celebrating 1916 heroes like trade unionist, James Connolly.
And then every second bus seems to be a 1916 tour bringing the events of 100 years ago to life for international tourists and the many Irish families who have been watching the drama, documentaries and reading the extensive newspaper coverage of the historical events.
Our plan for the weekend was to enjoy a sneak peak at the GPO Witness History and to go to Kilmainham Gaol.
But we also got a look at the impressive Epic Ireland experience at CHQ and, after wanting to for years, I eventually got to the Little Museum of Dublin.
Because of the commemoration events this weekend, GPO Witness History isn’t opening to the public until Tuesday.
As its name suggests, the exhibit allows visitors to bear witness to the events of that week and of the subsequent years by revealing them from the eyewitness perspective of the rebels, bystanders and British Crown forces.
There is a lot of film, of audio and touchscreen games for kids which help bring to life the challenges facing the rebels and their supporters.
One that grabbed my kids’ attention was a game which showed how kids and women were used to carry messages between the rebels’ various battalions: often the kids were on bikes, the women pushing babies in prams.
One game had the 9-year-old trying to work out how to get his message safely to College Green without being intercepted by the legions of police and army that were patrolling the city centre.
There is so much information to be accessed at the multimedia space that you could find yourself coming back several times and still learning.
According to the museum, they want to ensure that ‘all levels are catered for’ so those who only want a superficial understanding will find it engaging while those who want to dig deeper, will be enthralled.
We also visited Kilmainham Gaol.
Beware the queues for tours are over an hour long at the moment but it is worth every minute.
We began in the chapel where Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett were married before continuing past the bleak cells where rebel brothers Pádraig and Willie Pearse spent their final hours before being executed.
The cells at the Victorian prison were originally designed for one person per cell but as it become overcrowded during the famine, when people deliberately tried to get into prison in the hope of being fed, there were up to five men, women and children in the ice cold cells as none of its windows were glassed.
It was then into the East Wing where we looked into cells including that of Plunkett’s widow, Grace Gifford who, imprisoned during the civil war painted a Virgin Mary on her cell walls.
The section of Kilmainham that you will take with you forever, however, is the stonebreakers yard where the seven blindfolded rebellion leaders were executed at dawn by firing squads.
Going from museum to museum with children when you are staying at the Spencer Hotel is not easy, as it has a great underground swimming pool.
First thing in the morning after devouring pancakes and pains au chocolat from its mammoth breakfast buffet, they wanted to go to the pool, before dinner they wanted to go to the pool.
If there was any spare hour, they begged to go back to the hotel which is just 10 minutes walk from O’Connell St to swim, or play fussball in the lobby.
We got in one early evening swim at the pool’s underground pool on day one before heading to dinner across the river at Herb Street, just beside the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.
It’s a buzzy, restaurant which still has a chilled out vibe so parents and kids unwound easily.
We devoured hot Buffalo wings with a Cashel Blue dip for starters, the eldest went for the substantial turkey burger for mains while small boy, despite claiming he was on the point of starvation, couldn’t finish his fish and chips.
Herb Street also do a great homemade Iceberger made with flour-less chocolate cake which went down a treat with kids and coeliac parent alike.
Day two saw us walk five minutes to get a sneak look at Epic Ireland, the new multimedia museum of the diaspora which is due to open on May 6 in the vaults under the CHQ building.
It is entirely funded to the tune of €15m million by the former CEO of Coca Cola and now owner of CHQ, Neville Isdell, a member of the diaspora himself, having left the North in the 1950s for Zambia.
The vaults, which are broken into 21 interactive galleries, showcase some of the best stonemasonry in the city.
As you weave through them you take the journey taken by 10m emigrants: seeing via multimedia how they travelled, why they travelled whether it was to spread religion, to capitalise on the goldrush, because of conflict or to survive and how the extraordinary influence they had in their adopted homelands.
We met global icons like Grace Kelly, Billy the Kid, the real ‘Zorro’, a William Lamport from Wexford and the seventh president of the US, Andrew Jackson who was born in the States to recently emigrated Irish parents.
Sections of the ‘experience’ deal with the Irish contribution to design, via Orla Kiely and Eileen Grey and to the arts via John McCormack, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Riverdance, and there’s also a ‘gallery of infamy’ starring the likes of Ned Kelly and Typhoid Mary.
Later in the day, we visited the Little Museum of Dublin which operates on a minuscule scale compared to Epic Ireland but which tells the tale of Dublin and Irish history in a wonderfully sardonic, fun-filled way.
Set in a Georgian house just doors away from the Shelbourne, it is based entirely on donations from the people of Dublin and all the posters and artefacts handed over are used to tell the story of Dublin from Victorian times to now.
Take for example the framed newspaper front page published the day after Queen Victoria visited Dublin: ‘Queen Victoria pisses over the bridge’, rather than ‘passed over the bridge’, a headline boldly stated.
We heard anecdotes about Pearse, Connolly, the War of Independence, Beckett, George Bernard Shaw and the bombing of Nelson’s Pillar in an hour long tour of just two rooms in the house. The hour felt like 15 minutes as it’s an hour filled with humour, quirkiness, song and a healthy dose of Irish cynicism.
I can’t recommend it enough.
There’s so much to do in Dublin that we could have stayed for a week happily.
Dinner on the second night was at San Lorenzos, on South Great Georges St. Pan fried gambas, which felt like they had been caught that day, certainly hit the spot, while the kids devoured what they thought was a fancy bolognese.
It was Wicklow venison they were eating. We might inform them just how sophisticated they are next week.
This Easter, the Spencer hotel is offering family rooms with breakfast for up to two adults and two children under 12 with one night’s dinner in the East restaurant from €279 midweek.