Grey sky, grey stone, grey water: first impression of Ireland's capital. If you were looking for the mystical Emerald Isle, with its green hills and leprechauns, you won't find it here -- not at first glance, at least.
Ireland in Dublin City peeks out at you like a shy sprite: to see it, you just have to look a little harder.
Dublin is a fairly small city; you can walk the city center, one end to the other, in about a half-hour. But it's a handsome and comfortable place, with all its pretty, old buildings, lively people, and quiet parks. The city is divided in two by the River Liffey, enclosed in its stone banks. The north side is where most of the working class lives; it's grittier and newer, but also where most of the hostels and B&Bs are. Cross the river to the south side, and you'll find the old Dublin, with Trinity College and the cathedrals.
A hostel is probably your best bet for a place to stay -- and part of the experience. You'll meet people from around the world, and hostel staff are invariably friendly and helpful. Abraham House, on Gardiner St. Lower, is wonderful and comfortable, besides being a short walk from the city center.
The first thing I'd recommend is get yourself a good city plan. Even with a map it's ridiculously easy to get lost; not only do streets seem to have a mind of their own in their ramblings, but the names change about every block. As a general rule, though, "lower" means closer to the river, "upper" means away from the river. That doesn't always hold true, so even if you have a compass embedded in your brain, get a map. Otherwise you'll never find anything.
Dublin is full of beautiful monumental buildings. Follow me in an easy walking tour and you'll see quite a bit of Dublin's architecture. Start at the great bronze statue of Daniel O'Connell on the north side of the Liffey. Walking south across the O'Connell Bridge, take a moment to look both ways down the river for some good views of the city. Bear right down Westmoreland St.; passing the monumental old Parliament building (now the Bank of Ireland) on your right, the street opens to College Green.
On your left through the gates is Trinity College, a whole collection of wonderful buildings. Step through the gates and under the arch through a thick stone building, and the noise of the city vanishes. Feel free to wander all around the lush green campus.
One of the places to visit here is, of course, the infamous Book of Kells. Truthfully, though, the Long Hall above the Book's exhibit is much more interesting. The Long Hall is Trinity's old library; it's an extraordinarily long and tall hall, filled top to bottom with antique books. Despite being paneled entirely in a dark wood, the hall doesn't give the impression of being heavy, dark, or oppressive. Just impressive!
Speaking of impressive -- there are two cathedrals in Dublin: Christchurch and St. Patrick's, both of which should definitely be on your list of places to visit. Both ask for a donation of £1 for an entrance fee -- and believe me, it's worth it!
Coming out of Trinity College, walk straight down the street in front of you (Dame St.). You'll pass the gates to the Dublin Castle on your left; we'll visit there a little later. Straight on and you'll run into Christchurch.
Christchurch Cathedral is a delightful jumble of grey, semi-gothic stone. The style is a blend of Gothic and Romanesque, but with the same heavy Irish flavor that permeates all of Dublin. Inside, colorful designs of the stained glass and glazed floor tiles dizzy the eye. Large, but comforting, Christchurch feels as though it has a soul.
On to St. Patrick's Cathedral: head south down Nicholas St., and you can't miss its tall spire, the tallest in Ireland. St. Patrick's is a grand and glorious cathedral, much bigger and more awesome than Christchurch. Christchurch gives the feeling of home; St. Patrick's strikes chords of glory and magnificence. Its stained glass is particularly beautiful: Celtic knotwork rendered in jeweled colors. St. Patrick's also lays claim to the largest working pipe organ in Europe!
Walking back the way you came, we return to Dublin Castle. It's not much of a "castle" as we think of Irish castles. It used to be a great stone keep, built in medieval times, with the requisite four round towers at the corners, but it was destroyed almost entirely in the 16th century. It is now a Georgian-style quadrangle used for government purposes.
The guided tour of the buildings are definitely worth the £2 fee. This tour will tell you about some of the interesting parts of the castle, like the little neo-gothic chapel that's just gorgeous -- and a bit of a surprise. The entire interior, incredibly intricate in its craftsmanship, is covered with ornamentation and carvings. But before you lavish praise on this amazing "stonework," knock on a pillar: it's all nothing more than wood, plastered over to look like marble and stone.
For something a little more colorful, try the Temple Bar, a bohemian tangle of streets down by the Liffey; Grafton St. for some high-class, tourist shopping; St. Stephen's Green (on a sunny day), a lovely green gem of a park; and the National Gallery of Ireland (free), which houses an excellent collection of both Irish and other masters.
Tired of walking? Then your next stop for the evening and a rest (and a requisite pint of Guiness) is a pub, the institution of Ireland. "Pubs are the real Ireland," a pub musician told me. "This is where everything happens. If you want to take in Ireland, go sit in a pub."
While Dublin's monuments may express truly the Irish intellect, it is the pub that expresses the colorful heart and soul of the Irish. Almost all the pubs are warm, smoky places full of high spirited Irish enjoying their beer and craic -- an Irish word meaning a good time -- there's a very high chance that you'll end up discussing anything from politics to music with your neighbor within a matter of minutes.
Speaking of music, the pubs are also where the musical soul of Ireland comes out. Here in Dublin City, you can find everything from rock'n'roll to traditional Irish music if you look hard enough. Ask the staff of your hostel or B&B for places to go; they seem to know everything.
In search of traditional Irish music (or simply "trad"), check around the Temple Bar; sessions start around 9 p.m. and usually go till the pubs close at 11 p.m. For the genuine stuff, look for real sessions, not the tourist trap idea of Fitzsimon's and Oliver St. George Gogarty's. A real session means no microphones, no amplifiers; just a few musicians jamming, very relaxed, perched around a table crammed with pints of Guiness. However, this sort of thing is becoming more and more difficult to find in Dublin; tragically, more and more pubs, like the Auld Dubliner, are remodelling to fit a tourist's idea of a pub, and true sessions are dying out here on the east coast.
From soaring steeples to crowded pubs, the magic of the Emerald Isle is here in Dublin City, despite grey sky, grey stone, grey water. Just don't go looking for leprechauns.
Copyright 1997 by Jennifer Tyson