Bubbly Dublin. A bit naughty, very catchy

By Richard Burton, March 21, 2008

The Americans were ladies who lunched: plump as pillows and struggling with bags resembling fridges on wheels as they queued to board the airport bus for the city centre.

The driver lounged in his cab, chin propped on folded arms, thought of his dear old mum back in Limerick, and let his voice fill the bus: “I’m sure there are plenty of foine gentlemen ready to lend a hand,” he said.

And of course there were. As I helped to heave the cases aboard, I asked how close he went to the Shelbourne. “McConnell Street,” he said: “I’ll give you a shout and tell you where to go from there.”

And he did. And I wasn’t surprised. For this was a city where people do lend a hand, do chat to strangers, offer directions and smile a lot. At least they did when one Londoner dropped in on a balmy September afternoon.

I’d flown in by Air France from London City Airport, not something I’d have expected, but oddly, it is a main route, going in and out six times a day from London’s Docklands airport.

I dropped my bag at the Shelbourne and got straight back on the buses, grabbing a 24-hour, hop-on, hop-off ticket that takes you just about everywhere worth going if you are a visitor looking for a few sights, a few pints of Guiness and the sound of a fiddle or two.

The buses run both banks of the Liffey and every seat has an earphone connection that gives you live commentary on everything from where James Joyce used to live to where Bono still does when he is there. Once round, and you’ve more or less got your bearings.

The hotel — the city’s biggest five-star — sits facing St Stephen’s Green, a tranquil, floral, mini-Regent’s Park, full of courting couples and families picnicking while wardens turf off anyone daring to openly swig from a can.

A short stroll to its left is Temple Bar, a mini-Covent Garden thronged with street entertainers, strumming for few euros a few yards from Rory Gallagher Corner and a few streets from Phil Lynott’s statue.

That is where the real atmosphere is: a bustle of cobbled streets and squares jam-packed with markets and pubs such as Gogarty’s, a noisy music bar named after a larger-than-life character immortalised as Buck Mulligan in Ulysses. It is atmospheric but friendly. There is even a sign over the bar which warns: ‘Be good or be-gone’.

A rustic string-and-whistle band played a few tunes, passed a hat round and played a few more. Occasionally, a new face would join them and join in. Outside in the street, a group of likely lads, two with beards, one with a cheeky smile were getting very jiggy on the fiddles. The beards sat down and tapped their feet, Mr Smiley did things with a violin Hendrix did with a guitar. A bit naughty, very catchy and the crowds skipped and shimmied in time. And all for a euro in the banjo case.

And so back to the bus. A normal one this time. The 78A that runs out east to the more sobering streets of blackened houses reeking of hops and the Guinness Storehouse, a brewery that thinks it is a tourist attraction.

I asked the driver to let me know when we got close and sat at the back watching in vain for a sign as the bus gradually filled to a point where there was a wall of people crammed in front of me I was just about to move when the driver pulled up sharp and belted out: “Gunnuss!” And the bus emptied as quick as the first glass on St Patrick’s Day.

It was worth the trip. The storehouse is six storeys of, well, stories, that tell the history of the most famous brand in brewing and, for anyone who wants to take notes, how to cook up a pint of the black stuff.

The building’s even got a head-of-froth roof, under which sits a 360-degree bar where you can sip and scan the skyline.

My favourite section was on level two, devoted to Guinness ad campaigns over the years; from nesting toucans to iconic surfers. Back on the top deck of the hop-on, things were going a little awry as the commentary slipped out of synch and the sights up ahead to our right were now behind and to our left. The couple in front unplugged and shook their headphones. The family behind spoke loudly in Spanish and, by the time we reached the zoo, something had caught up and we all settled back exchanging glances and wondering if that had really happened.

Later, as the rain came, I looked in on Trinity College: one of those places that make you wish you were a student again. As a visitor, it is the city’s private box; a complex of vast squares, including one where I spent a lazy hour watching cricket under a tree wondering just how Jewish is Dublin?

The answer is, far less than it once was. Jews began arriving in significant numbers in Ireland in the early 19th century, their numbers swelled 60 years later by those fleeing the Russian empire.

This is the city where Chaim Herzog, Israel’s president from 1983 to 1991 spent most of his early years, and where the late emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits served from 1949 to 1958. But since the 1960s, the community has dwindled. Since the Dublin Hebrew Congregation merged with Terenure in 1999, it now has just one Orthodox synagogue and one Progressive, but its history is affectionately recorded at the Irish Jewish Museum in the Portobello district. Founded in 1984, and officially opened by Chaim Herzog in June 1985, the museum showcases more than 200 years of Irish Jewish life.

Weekends like these are as exhausting as they are exciting and at some point you hanker to stroll back to the hotel, kick off your shoes and laze a bit on the Egyptian cotton bedding.

I dropped in for a hot chocolate at the café En Siene, fabulously kitsch and totally un-Irish. But inside, there was a bustle. Staff greet you in the foyer and you get the feeling you are in the centre of something and the night is young.

Formed from three massive townhouses facing Europe’s largest garden square, it is in arguably the best spot in town. The Irish Independence Treaty was drafted there and anyone who’s anyone seems to spend time there.

I had a drink in the No 27 bar; all original artwork, polished marble and tall windows looking out at the envious and, what the hell, grabbed another across the foyer at the Horseshoe, one of the most famous in Dublin and the city’s premier chattering-class hotspot.

It was rammed to its rich red walls with politicians, the odd model or two and media types, including the anchor of a local TV channel.

“That’s the editor of the Irish Times,” a member of staff pointed out, wondering if I fancied an introduction. Not now, I said, I’m on a break. Besides, a few years back I was headhunted for the job she got. I did not get it but then I did not exactly pursue it with vigour. But, as I boarded the Air France jet for London the following morning, I could not help thinking, if they had thrown in a suite at the Shelbourne, I just might have done.

Last updated: 2:31pm, September 10 2008