Dublin: Enjoy the Wilde life in the Irish capital

By Andy Mossack, February 12, 2009
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The Ha’Penny Bridge spanning the Liffey in the heart of Dublin

The Ha’Penny Bridge spanning the Liffey in the heart of Dublin

I have the simplest of tastes; always satisfied with the best.” So said Oscar Wilde, one of Dublin’s most famous residents and an inspired way of encapsulating just what Dublin can offer.

This is, after all, a city where history, culture and partying collide and manage to co-exist in a glorious partnership.

You can, in one day in the Irish capital, travel back in time 1,000 years to when the Vikings first settled here, go forward 400 years or so to Trinity College which guards The Book of Kells, one of the few hand-illustrated bibles left in the world, move up another few hundred years and surround yourself in Georgian architecture, relive the exodus to America to escape the potato famine, and then walk the streets, cafés and bars that Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett frequented.

And you’ll still have time to perhaps enjoy a night of Ireland’s great musical legends — Van Morrison, U2, Thin Lizzy, Sinead O’Connor or even The Dubliners or The Chieftains — while sipping a pint or two of the black stuff.

Dublin also has a strong Jewish past, certainly going back to at least the 13th century, and having peaked at around 4,000 in 1901, it is around 1,500 strong today. It could still be argued that it’s the second oldest community in the British Isles.

It is said that many of the Jews who settled there in the early 20th century did so because they ran out of money during their voyage to America, or were set ashore by crewmen who either deliberately told them they had landed in the USA, or with poor English, they believed they had. Either way, they stayed and were able to fully engage in their religious beliefs without official victimisation.

In the mind of James Joyce, one of Dublin’s greatest literary sons, the Jews and the Irish had a shared identity: the Jews were outcasts throughout Europe and the Irish were the “lost people of the 20th century”. In arguably his finest novel, Ulysses, the character Leopold Bloom was born in “Little Jerusalem”, the Jewish quarter of Dublin which had Clanbrassil Street at its bustling heart.

Today, you can still see remnants of that almost lost community, including Dublin’s only kosher bakery, The Bretzel — owned by non-Jews for many years now. Portobello is now regarded as the area where most Jewish life is going about its business, and on Walworth Road you’ll find the Irish Jewish Museum which was founded in 1985 and opened by Dublin-born Chaim Herzog, then Israel’s President.

It is housed in the former Walworth Road Synagogue and contains a detailed collection of the history of Jews in Ireland. As well as covering the past 150 years of professional, commercial, artistic and social activity of the community, there’s enough remaining of the original shul interior to warrant a look — but the place could do with a facelift.

Jews have had a major influence throughout Ireland’s colourful history, and although there are only fragments left of a once bustling community, there are signs of life returning.

The “Celtic Tiger” — now bereft of its roar thanks to the economic downturn — was responsible for rapid economic growth bringing many businesses and immigrants to Dublin, and Jewish immigration is now on the increase.

Dublin is a very walkable city and the River Liffey dividing the city neatly down the middle, is an excellent way to ensure you keep your sense of direction.

If you’d rather be given a personal guided tour then Pat Liddy is your man. A historian with a great sense of humour and a deep love of the city, he brings Dublin’s past to life. You’ll find yourself stumbling across all kinds of hidden gems like the Dawson Lounge on Dawson Street, reputedly the smallest pub in the world and about 10 feet wide at the front.

Just down the street, in St Ann’s Church, you can glimpse a real Irish tradition still being embraced. Here, they continue with the age-old custom of free bread for the needy and, if you visit, you’ll see loaves lined up on the bread shelf, although I couldn’t vouch for their freshness.

Cross the Liffey to see the Custom House, a neoclassical 18th century building — and Dublin’s most architecturally important — and once the nerve centre for all shipping traffic coming into port.

A little further down the riverbank is a grim reminder of Ireland’s worst natural disaster, the potato famine — or Great Hunger — which wiped out half the population in the mid 19th century, and led to as many as a million people fleeing to North America.

Along the quayside you’ll see statues depicting families who waited on that very spot, desperate for a place on one of the emigration ships. The area, once run down docks, is undergoing massive regeneration similar to that of London, Liverpool, Bristol and Edinburgh, fast becoming a major destination for up-scale apartments, dining and entertaining.

If you don’t want to take a guide, the best way to orientate yourself, is by taking one of the many city tours.

You can take an open-top, hop-on, hop-off bus, or you can get a bit more adventurous, don a Viking helmet and opt for the Viking Splash Tour. There is also a 1940’s amphibious vehicle that will give you a taste of road and river at the same time.

Alternatively, you can really embrace Irish music aboard the Rock and Roll bus, a genuine former band tour bus where you can see and hear all about The Dubliners, Van Morrison, Thin Lizzy, and the rest, as you are driven around the city.

No trip would be complete, of course, without a visit to the Guinness Storehouse building next door to the brewery. You can learn everything to do with Guinness here, and even pull your own pint at the end of the tour. Many people believe Guinness tastes different in Ireland and here you’ll find out why that may be true!

Temple Bar has Dublin’s most historic streets, and into them are crammed the best clubs, pubs, bars and restaurants. It’s noisy, busy, and more expensive than anywhere else in the city, but, if you want to people watch or join in the craic this is the place to do it.

The Clarence Hotel, owned by Dublin’s most famous duo, Bono and The Edge, with its Tearoom restaurant, offers a fine — if rather formal — dining experience in a fabulous setting.

Other restaurants well worth a detour are the Cill Airne, an old passenger ship permanently moored at Quay 16, which serves excellent food in an informal atmosphere, and L’Ecrivain, one of Ireland’s top five restaurants. Tucked away in Lower Baggot Street and owned and run by Derry and Sallyanne Clarke, this Michelin-starred restaurant serves an interesting fusion of Irish and French cuisine. My goat cheese with red pepper risotto, aubergine caviar and basalmic foam was wonderful, and there are vegetarian alternatives for every course.

An absolute must visit for breakfast or lunch is Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street, a cherished Dublin landmark for over 80 years. The haunt of Dublin’s famous writers, the listed interior will transport you back to the days when the greats sat in there scribbling and philosophising. And the coffee’s pretty good, too.

My base was the stylish Fitzwilliam, a 10-year-old boutique hotel overlooking St Stephen’s Green, which is great for the shopping on Grafton Street.

Originally designed by Sir Terence Conran, it was totally renovated by Project Orange — originally the Conran Partnership — for its 10th birthday.

It has four-poster beds and balcony patios complete with your very own outdoor heater, as well as three restaurants and a cool bar. If you are looking for traditional Irish charm, you might prefer The Merrion in the heart of Dublin’s Georgian district.

Travel facts

Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) offer return flights from £10; Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) has returns from £39.98. Fitzwilliam Hotel (www.fitzwilliamhotel.com) from €200 (£195) per room per night. Breakfast in Bewleys, Grafton Street (www.bewleys.com/grafton-street/breakfast-at-bewleys); Irish Jewish Museum,3 Walworth Road, Portobello, Dublin 8 (00353 1 490 1857); The Bretzel Bakery, 1a Lennox Street, Portobello Dublin 8 (00353 1 4752724); Dublin’s only kosher restaurant is at the Terenure Synagogue (00353 86 2788326)

    Last updated: 11:28am, July 20 2009