City life: Dublin

One of the great small capitals, Dublin is a seductive and garrulous place that never lets the truth get in the way of a good story.

By Pól Ó Conghaile
Published 25 Apr 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 12:46 BST
Marsh's Library, Dublin.

Marsh's Library.

Photograph by Pól O Conghaile

I'm sitting in a Dublin pub that doesn't serve Guinness.

I know that sounds like sacrilege, but it makes sense. Instead of the usual, dreamy-creamy stout, staff at The Black Sheep are talking me through dozens of craft beers (a sign above the pub's Cask Corner dubs it the place 'where sh*t gets real'). Options range from Dan Kelly's cider, brewed in Ireland's Boyne Valley, to Kinnegar farmhouse ales from Donegal. I settle on a pint of Full Sail, a crisp, fruity IPA from the Galway Bay Brewery, which owns the pub.

Behind me, a table of Spanish visitors are singing enthusiastically. "We've got a lot of good beers," the bartender deadpans.

Outside, darkness is drawing down on Capel Street — a raggle-taggle strip that sits hip bars and cafes alongside pawnbrokers, mattress shops and women selling fruit, toys and toilet rolls from prams. The pub's rough edges are starting to feel cosy. The light is low; the tunes good. Time passes imperceptibly. Who needs the 'black stuff' when you have The Black Sheep?

Drinking dens are nothing new to this city, of course ('Good puzzle would be to cross Dublin without passing a pub,' as Leopold Bloom muses in James Joyce's Ulysses). Bars, conversation and craic have always been the heart and soul of this place. It's just that now — post-Celtic Tiger, post-recession, post-recovery, even — things feel different. Whereas a decade ago, a brash wave of superpubs stomped on old boozers like cigarette butts, now there's a sense of balance, of history sitting alongside the here-and-now. Legendary spaces like Kehoes of South Anne Street and Mulligan's of Poolbeg Street remain, but the hipster hubs and gastropubs joining them feel like they could stay awhile too. A doorbell at the heart of touristy Temple Bar gains access to the plush Vintage Cocktail Club. It feels textured, cosmopolitan, and it goes way beyond the booze.

"I love Dublin's overlapping layers," tour guide Kevin McKenna tells me during his Rakes, Ruffians and Blasphemers walking tour of the city centre. "You can walk along any street and construct any narrative here, some going back a thousand years. Any city as old as Dublin has heritage, but it's the art of storytelling too — how it was written down, how people engage with it, the mix of the academic and the popular. Three different guides could take you on a tour based on the 1916 Rising [a rebellion against British rule in Ireland], and you'd get three different takes. Everyone has their own narrative."

On cue, we arrive at City Hall. Kevin, wearing a bristly copper beard and green woollen overcoat, points out scars in the building's
facade. They were made by bullets in 1916, he tells me (there are similar marks on the General Post Office, the statue of Daniel O'Connell on O'Connell Street and even in several books at the 18th-century Marsh's Library). "The first shots were literally fired here, killing a policeman inside the gates of Dublin Castle," Kevin explains.

This is a big year for Dublin, not just on account of this centenary. It also sees the opening of Epic Ireland, a state-of-the-art attraction telling the story of the country's diaspora, and the ongoing development of The Dubline, an interactive 'discovery trail' running from College Green to Kilmainham. Kevin and I stroll through Temple Bar before stopping to chat on the cobbles of Trinity College — home to the Book of Kells, an illustrated manuscript displayed in a Hogwarts-like library building. His stories run from bawdy tales of 'aristocratic rakes' to the first ever performance of Handel's Messiah, on Fishamble Street.

I love the way fact and folklore intermingle. As you walk along O'Connell Bridge, for instance, check out the small bronze plaque embedded in the west side's stone balustrade. It commemorates Father Pat Noise, who, it says, died under suspicious circumstances when his carriage plunged into the River Liffey on a summer night in 1919. But here's the thing — the priest never existed. The plaque is a prank, installed in broad daylight over a decade ago. Dubliners, lovers of mischief and random acts of defiance, took it to their hearts. It was to be removed, but a City Council area committee voted to retain it.

Past and present braid beautifully too. In St Patrick's Cathedral, huge, iPad-like displays take me back to a time when Jonathan Swift served as Dean (his death mask and reading lamp are on display). Temple Bar's stag parties lurch past Instagrammable street art. On Dame Street, I pass a pavement mosaic of a stag's head opposite the Central Bank. An arrow directs me down an alley to The Stag's Head, a Victorian-era pub anchoring the bustling Dame District.

This is definitely more of a Guinness boozer than a craft beer pub, with lashings of stout sloshing to and fro over the granite counter. It's said Quentin Tarantino was once refused service here for pulling rank. True? Increasingly, you won't care. Dublin is as much a place as a state of mind.

Home grown

'Dublin came of age in the 20th century but she never quite became an adult,' reads an explanatory plaque next to a yellowing Irish flag in The Little Museum of Dublin. Located in a Georgian townhouse overlooking St Stephen's Green, this small institution seems symbolic of where the city is at — the point where civic and folk history meet, where displays range from destination roll scrolls rescued off old double-decker buses to a U2 exhibition that begins by recalling a 1976 note: 'Drummer seeks musicians to form band'. There's a jar of Liquorice allsorts to dip into, too.

"There's an emotional connection here," Trevor White, the museum's director, tells me. "We wanted the people of Dublin to take ownership, and they have done. There's an element of nostalgia to the more recent stuff, but it's not just that. Traditionally, you went to museums to be lectured about the past, but we encourage conversations. We encourage participation in the story. Pop downstairs, and you might find someone who's been here four or five times. You might find an elderly customer singing a song like Cockles and Mussels [the old ditty about Molly Malone] to a group of Californians."

In the basement beneath the museum is Hatch & Sons, a farm-to-table-style restaurant located in the building's original kitchen, complete with sash windows and chunky, reclaimed oak tables set around an island loaded with scones and cakes. Almost everything on the menu is Irish. I order a blaa (a floury bap from Waterford) stuffed with spiced beef from butcher Michael Bermingham, creamy Coolea cheese from Cork, onion relish and rapeseed mayo. Classy comfort food that arrives on a chopping board and puts a smile on my face.

Like anywhere, Dublin has its fads and pop-ups, its gourmet burgers, burrito bars and barbecue pits. But a more substantial, if less sexy, revolution is putting Irish ingredients front and centre. Michelin-starred Chapter One is the yardstick, but try Sunday brunch at Forest Avenue, or the scotch eggs encased in a mix of rare-breed pork at the brilliant L Mulligan Grocer, in Stoneybatter — another gastro-pub eschewing Guinness.

"Twenty years ago, Dublin offered pubs or fine dining," says Hugo Arnold, a food writer and consultant who worked on the Hatch & Sons concept. "We're in a lucky space now, a time when there's a big appetite for good-quality casual dining. The coffee scene is thriving [the World Barista Championship is in Dublin this June], and I think we punch above our weight in terms of vegetables; the pub has been reinvented by all these cafes doing accessible, affordable meals."

I also eat a mean huevos rancheros at The Dean, a new boutique hotel on boisterous Harcourt Street. It combines funky touches — record players and vinyl LPs in guest rooms, a Tracey Emin neon sign over reception — with works by emerging Irish artists and a stonking rooftop bar and restaurant, Sophie's. 'The weather is our wallpaper,' the website says of the 270-degree views diners get to enjoy. In Dublin, that can range from pelting rain to grimy greys and searing sunlight within the space of a single meal. Book a hangover brunch — and bring shades.

Dublin doesn't really do neighbourhoods (despite the cringey efforts to rebrand South William Street and its surrounds as the 'Creative Quarter'), but it does do snack-sized pockets, hubs and streets. Think of the grungy pubs and gigs of Wexford Street, the hot mess of late clubs on Leeson and Harcourt Streets, or the ramshackle gems of Capel Street. Using the Design Island app, I call up a host of design-related stops within striking distance of The Dean, and end up browsing my way along the cafes and design shops of Drury Street.

Dublin's main shopping drags are Grafton Street and Henry Street, south and north of the river respectively, but this short strip is one of the city's emerging shopping secrets — home to the food stalls and vintage threads of the George's Street Arcade, boutiques like Costume and Jenny Vander, funky cafes and restaurants like Kaph, Super Miss Sue and the Drury Buildings to one of the city's best Asian markets. It's low-rise, stitched with redbrick, wafting with the smells of roasting coffee, triple-cooked chips and snap-fresh salad bars, a mix that feels both gentrified and ragged at the same time.

"Right now, everyone is happy," says Clare Grennan, who runs the Irish Design Shop with business partner Laura Caffrey. Theirs is a tiny little cube of a store I feel I'll be in and out of in 60 seconds, but the more I look, the more engaging it gets. I pick up candles that smell of turf from Achill Island. I run my fingers across the warm wool of John Hanley's cashmere throws. I spot a hand-bound notebook with a fabric cover inspired by a building on little-loved Gardiner Street. Design can be arty-farty and pretentious. But it can also catch your attention in the most surprising ways. Right now, Clare and Laura say, Drury Street is clicking, coming together with an unscripted and serendipitous choreography. I hope rising rents don't change that.

Later that evening, on O'Connell Street, the sun sets on the outstretched hands of a statue of Jim Larkin, an iconic Irish trade union leader. Beside him is the colonnaded arch of the General Post Office, where rebels declared an Irish Republic before being executed in 1916. Behind him, is the Spire of Dublin, a soaring needle that's the city's tallest structure at 396ft. Everywhere I look, I see layers: in the architecture, the streets, the stories; in the craft beer that quenched my thirst at The Black Sheep. Dublin has its dumps, its follies, its late-night drunkenness. But it's also got a rare aul' design for life.


Getting there
Aer Lingus, British Airways, CityJet and Ryanair are among the airlines offering dozens of daily routes from London and other UK cities to Dublin. Visitors can also travel with Irish Ferries or Stena Line from Holyhead to Dublin Port.
Average flight time: 1h 20m.

Getting around
Dublin is best seen on foot, while dublinbikes, taxis, buses, Luas trams and DART trains are plentiful for trips between neighbourhoods. The Leap Card is a reusable smart card that can be used on most public transport and topped up as you go. It can be bought at newsagents or information desks at Dublin Airport. Three days costs €33 (£25.50) and includes free transport on the Airlink airport bus.

When to go
Peak season is July-August, but the shoulder months (May, June, September) can be just as pleasant, with fewer crowds and lower rates. St Patrick's Day (17 March), Bloomsday (16 June) and New Year's Eve are great fun, but accommodation can be pricey.

Need to know
Visas: None necessary for UK citizens.
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.35.
International dial code: 00 353 1.
Time zone: GMT.

How to do it
Leger Holidays has a six-day Heart of Ireland and Dublin for single travellers trip, including coach/ferry travel, excursions and accommodation from £549 per person.
Shearings Holidays has a four-night half-board Delightful Dublin trip, including flights from £512 per person, departing June. Includes the Guinness Storehouse, a Wicklow tour and evening drinks.

Published in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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