Tony Clayton-Lea says we take Dublin for granted – it’s time to revisit the city and see it through the eyes of a tourist.
Residents of cities look gift horses in the mouth every hour of the day and every day of the week – they are so accustomed to running down streets that have thousands of tourists strolling along, they are so used to passing by statues and architecture that visitors have photos taken with, and they often cannot understand what tourists see that they themselves do not.
It’s a problem, certainly, to uncover aspects of a city that has become part of your personal wallpaper, no matter the colour or the pattern. How do you strip away the sheets to see what is underneath? And when do you like what’s there?
Perhaps the place to start with is history. While Dublin is now home to approximately one-third of Ireland’s population, just 300 or so years ago its inhabitants numbered a mere 20,000.
These days, it provides everything one could safely expect – or hope for – from a capital city, but over the past several hundred years it has developed and embraced layers of influences that sell the city to visitors.
These include the medieval spaces in and around Christ Church Cathedral and Dublin Castle, the glorious Georgian areas in and around the Grand and Royal canals, Merrion and Fitzwilliam Squares, many examples of Victoriana and, latterly, the modern edifices of buildings often rightly regarded as blots on the landscape.
As for its indigenous population, well, how many people that term themselves “Dubs” are actually one, two or three generations away from rural parts of Ireland?
An unscientific guess would proffer quite a lot, the implication of which is that the city thrums to the rhythm of people who aren’t hardwired into its mainframe.
Whatever the demographic and whatever about the unscientific estimates, Dublin, similar to any city worth its salt, has its own character traits, good and bad.
The bad includes (still) too many people begging on the streets, (still) too many depressing clusters of civic poverty, and (still) traceable scars of drug addiction and racism.
Thankfully, the city’s positives far outweigh the negatives: superb museums, vivid art galleries, a wide range of excellent restaurants, fine architecture and public sculpture, dynamic, genuinely interesting movements in the areas of music, theatre, visual art, literature, and some of the best traditional pubs in Europe.
The city also comes up trumps (although this is often dismissed by the locals) in the areas of innate wit, charm, sense of humour and gift of the gab.
You will read regularly in tourists guides that Dubliners are just impossible to resist, which might come as something of a surprise to those of us who walk the gauntlet of Temple Bar at the weekend. Another tourist guide reports that, “driving in Dublin is delightfully disordered”.
This is no surprise, but you have to ask: since when was disorder while driving delightful? You will also read, however, that there is an overall atmosphere threading its way through the fabric of the city that is equal parts multi-cultural and friendly.
Another major plus in Dublin’s favour is its size – it’s incredibly easy to get your bearings and explore it on foot, and while it’s facile to say that a stranger is someone you haven’t yet made friends with, there is nonetheless a grain of truth in that (notwithstanding our previous comment of running the gauntlet in Temple Bar on weekend nights).
The city’s compact size, then (the central area occupies approximately five sq kms), is intricately linked with its sense of intimacy; the feeling that, although the person you strike up a conversation with might not know you, it’s quite possible that you will have several mutual acquaintances (either that or your respective parents will know all about the other person’s family).
There is also the fact that you will inevitably meet up with people you know on any given night. The downside? Dublin is such a concise city that you won’t be able to get away with anything.
The dogs and cats in the streets, dear readers, will know what you have been up to (and who you have been up to it with), so be careful out there!
This being said, between the busy city centre and less frantic outlying communities of Ranelagh, Phibsborough, Rathgar, Stoneybatter, Rathmines, Marino, Rathfarnham and several others, there is something (albeit on a much smaller scale) of the human melting pot neighborhoods of London, Paris, New York and a few more major international cities.
This is not to over romanticize matters, but more to emphasize the compact, obliging nature of what there is.
Ultimately? For tourists, Dublin is something of a snug, cosy treat. As someone who lives outside of the city, it’s difficult to remember the first time I was impressed by its natural, central charms.
Such charms include the network of streets and lanes behind Grafton Street towards South Great George’s Street, the serene atmosphere of St Stephen’s Green, Merrion Square Park, St Patrick’s Park, College Park, Iveagh Gardens.
And yet it’s easy enough to recall what has impressed me most recently – structurally, it’s the swerves and curves of the Aviva Stadium; personally, it’s the range of superb coffee shops that you can relax, or work, in.
The acid test question remains, however: do I think I’d enjoy the city if I had never been here before, or if I didn’t know it so well? I think I would. Actually, strike that – I know I would.
WHERE TO EAT/DRINK
The Exchequer (3-5 Exchequer Street; www.theexchequer.ie ) is that rarity: a pub that achieves true gastro quality by hitting all of the right notes with a smart menu, a contemporary yet warm interior, and friendly staff.
Old bar choice? Try The Long Hall (31 South Great George’s Street), which is a rightly praised example of a heritage-listed Victorian pub.
New bar choice? It has to be Fade Street Social (4-6 Fade Street; fadestreetsocial.com), which is a New York-style loft bar brilliantly complemented by a range of food options.
WHERE TO SLEEP
The Merrion (Merrion Street Upper; www.merrionhotel.com ), is effortlessly one of the best hotels in Dublin. It’s pricey, we agree, but it oozes casual grandeur, it boasts an amazing on-site art collection, and its basement Cellar Restaurant is up there with the best.
For something less taxing on your pocket, try Harrington Hall (70 Harcourt Street; www.harringtonhall.com ), a Georgian guesthouse less than ten minutes walk away from Grafton Street/St Stephen’s Green. It also offers double-glazed soundproofing, and its own private/secure car park (provided on a first served-first come basis).
If you’re a fan of comics and graphic novels (and their associated movie and television spin-offs), then MCM Ireland Comic Con is the place for you. Running from August 29-30, the venue is Simmonscourt, at the RDS.
Superhero clothes optional. In the lead up to the Dublin Theatre Festival, the Tiger Dublin Fringe takes place from September 7-20. With up to 800 events across over 40 venues expect the risky, the challenging, and the unexpected.
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