Six senses of Dublin

It’s famed for being boozy, good craic, expensive, but beyond the stereotypes what is the real Dublin like? Over the past 18 months this blog has visited many tourist destinations in Dublin and its surrounds. I’ve visited many with tourists, others on standard Saturdays. This mix of perspectives and experiences has provided insight into Dublin’s key tourist traits and given a flavour of some of the best experiences to be had.

1. New or movable tourist attractions are not well advertised – For a popular European capital city, it’s surprising how few websites show what’s on in Dublin. Many of the city’s newer and more interesting museums, galleries and exhibitions are often discovered by keeping open your eyes and ears. Look out for flyers. Talk to locals. Hunt out the information offices.

Suggestion: visit the Shackleton exhibition in Dún Laoghaire. Even if you’re not maritime minded, this is a must for the quality of the tour and the story.

2. The city of walking tours – Whether it’s the Irish love of history (particularly with the centenaries upon us) or the fondness for a bit of banter and storytelling, walking tours seem to be all the rage these days. You won’t be long without seeing one advertised.

Suggestion: the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl. Far from crawling since 1988, this is hilarious, informative and unroudy!

3. Don’t just do Dublin by day – Under its normal cloudy skies, Dublin has a good mix of things to do and places to eat or drink. By night the capital is a different animal. You don’t have to be a stag or hen to enjoy the buzz on Grafton Street or nearby with their milieus of buskers, banter and nocturnal joie de vivre. Ireland’s pubs are second to none and even if you don’t drink they’re worth experiencing for their atmospheres.

Suggestion: have a drop in a bar off Grafton Street then walk down the newly paved said street, soaking in the sounds and sights. Snake along College Green, Dame Street and the lively Temple Bar before catching a glimpse of the Ha’penny Bridge en route to another bar.

4. A tale of three cities – Whether you love mountains, sea, metropolises, suburbia or exurbia, Dublin has everything. The city’s highest points, the breezy coastline and Dublin Mountain’s peaks each reveal different complexions of a low-rise city and suburbs cushioned by mountains, a peninsula and a bay.

Suggestion: climb Croke Park stadium’s roof the respectable way with the Skyline tour before getting the DART to Howth for its views of the bay. The DART can then bring you to Dún Laoghaire, where you’ll get a great view of the mountains opposite. If you’ve got a car, drive up to the peak of Three Rock Mountain via Tiknock Wood – the view is superb.

5. The Guinnesses shadow everything – It’s not that Ireland’s most famous drink is the black stuff, or that the storehouse is the most popular fee charging attraction. It’s that virtually every stately home or anecdote about old Dublin has some connection with the Guinness family. This clan of bankers, preachers and brewers were real movers and shakers in old Dublin. It’s claimed that when one of the Guinness family members died in Britain, the windfall duties from his estate allowed Winston Churchill to cut income tax by a penny.

Suggestion: visit Farmeigh House. Its opulence, history and surrounds give you a glimpse of the State-Stout relationship.

6. A good sport to all – Dublin has a lot to offer both kinds of sports lovers, participant and spectator. Whether you’re looking for indigenous or universal sport, there’s always live sport to enjoy or game event about to obsess with the locals. Professional and community-based sports are easily found. Lovers of outdoor activities such as kayaking, hiking, sailing or windsurfing will find a city with much more to offer than a decade ago.

Suggestion: go to a local GAA game. It’s on Saturday or Sunday mornings, standing pitch-side watching 30 young people play, that you’ll see the skill, dedication and passion of those on and off the field who sustain these amateur games.

For a small city, I’ve been surprised at how much there is to do, how much of it is not well known and the wealth of its cultural, social and political history. Like any city worth discovering, it’s about hunting out the information about what’s to discover. Next month this blog will take a new path to places on where Dublin’s history and culture often meet.

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New story published

‘The Driver’ has been published in The Galway Review:

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Open season soon

If you’re finalising your plans for a weekend in Dublin, try and centre it on mid-October. For one weekend every year, some of the capital’s finest buildings, old and new, open their doors to the public for free, to provide an insight into their structure and substance, past and present.

Two of Dublin’s older buildings, still in use but closed off from the public day-to-day, should be on your list on the weekend of Open House Dublin, 16-18 October, provided they’re on the list again.

Number 58 (formerly number 30) Merrion Square was home to one of Ireland’s most famous politicians, Daniel O’Connell. Now home to the Dublin branch of America’s Notre Dame University, this building was built in 1762 as part of the Fitzwilliam estate on Merrion Square, modelled on the quiet squares of Paris. This three-bay, four-storey-over-basement house is neo-classical in style, and on Open House weekend, gives visitors a glimpse of the rooms and life that O’Connell and his family once had. Among the highlights are the stained glass chapel and the library, which contains a vast collection of Seamus Heaney’s work, a sketch of W.B. Yeats and an iconic photo of Samuel Beckett.

The highlight, however, is the view of Merrion Square, opposite the house, and the city beyond. One can see for miles and appreciate how low-rise and close everything is in the city. The staff of Notre Dame, which has been based here since 2002, will undoubtedly be as welcoming and informative as last year.

Just three blocks away, built twenty six years earlier, is Iveagh House, headquarters to Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This vast building, once two houses, is defined externally by a four columned entrance portico, inspired by St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Originally the town mansion of Bishop Clayton, it was bought by Benjamin Guinness in 1862 and remained part of the Guinness family’s empire until 1939.

As a part of the world of international diplomacy, it’s fitting that splendour and style define much of the interior. Visitors can marvel at fine paintings, some donated by visiting dignitaries, and the plush offices in, and views from, this Portland stone building. The staircase is defined by Victorian ironwork, marble columns and circular roof lights. There’s a feel of decline about the ballroom, but it remains an elegant presence, full of light and impressive features.

These two buildings’ raisons d’être have changed greatly since their earliest days. O’Connell lived in Merrion Square till he died in 1847, but his family was left with little money and soon had to sell the house. The donation by the Guinness family of Iveagh House to the State marked the family’s parting with another part of its Dublin estate. Both O’Connell and Guinness would probably be pleased that their pride and joys are accessible to all for an autumnal weekend every year.

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The royal treatment

If having a gallery of modern art is a pre-requisite for a modern city, James Butler will be resting easily in his grave. In 2012, 63,642 people graced the doors of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA). Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde and owner of Kilkenny Castle, received a royal charter from King Charles in 1679 to construct a building on the same site in Kilmainham that Butler hoped would help Dublin develop into a city of European standing.

A gallery of modern art was not Butler’s dream, but a retirement home and infirmary for military veterans. Inspired by ‘Les Invalides’, King Louis XIV’s home for army pensioners, in Paris, Butler commissioned William Robinson, architect of Marsh’s Library and Charles’ Fort in Kinsale, to design a similar building.

The interior of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (RHK) retains its appearance of 1684, when it opened. Soldiers sat by the black, Kilkenny stone fireplace. The pine panelled walls have been restored to their original stone-like colour, known as ‘Spanish White’. The ceiling’s simple coved form represents a return to its original look. Above the north facing entrance sits a carving of the Duke of Ormonde’s coat of arms in Portland stone.

For almost two hundred and fifty years the RHK housed army veterans known as ‘in-pensioners’. They were treated well, provided with bed, board, spacious surrounds in which to walk and relax, and a library. On Sundays, visitors and residents were treated to parades. Veterans had been injured in battles from near – the Battle of Rathmines and the Battle of the Boyne – and afar – the Crimean War, Waterloo, the Anglo-Afghan wars. After death, they were buried within the grounds. Though they received no pension, ‘out-pensioners’ did but lived outside the hospital. They could live anywhere in the country but had to report to the RHK every three months. In the days of the hospital, veterans were the only people in Ireland to receive a pension.

Though the grounds grew in military significance during the 19th century, becoming the residence and headquarters of the army’s commander-in-chief, Irish independence changed everything. In 1927, the building sceased to be an old soldiers’ home. Between 1930 and 1950 it housed An Garda Síochána’s headquarters. After decades of renovations, the building found its artistic potential, firstly in the 1980s as the National Centre for the Culture and the Arts, secondly as IMMA, since 1992.

If IMMA is on your Dublin list, search out the modestly signposted ‘Old Man’s House’ in the courtyard. As well as reading about the hospital’s history, you’ll explore its rich, earlier past. This site was home to an early Christian monastery, then a Viking settlement. The tradition of caring here didn’t start with the RHK but in 1174 with the granting by Strongbow (Richard de Clare) of the land to the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem for the construction of a priory. The bearded knights looked after pilgrims and the poor. Pre-dating the site’s first cemetry for veterans was Bully’s Acre, the oldest graveyard in Dublin. Body snatching was common there in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The OPW’s exhibition of display boards, props, photos and artefacts charts the site’s history well. It roundly covers its strands of religion, compassion, culture, power and death, themes that could well define any work of modern art.

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Their backs are turned to you as you walk up river towards Custom House Quay, seven people, their clothes the same lime-brown colour as the trees to their left and right. The quay is always busy – traffic, pedestrians, river gazers, employees of the financial services centre opposite, people on the pavement doing yoga. Yet this group, four men – one with a child draped over his shoulders – two women, never leave.

On the walkway to the left of the Talbot Memorial Bridge, there’s a perfect paved space between two copses. There, the seven stand. People stop and photo them, dozens if not hundreds a day. Curiosity draws you, to get a glimpse of their faces and forms. They’re gaunt, emaciated, their clothes haggard and creased. Their faces spell misery, pain, hunger, the danger of death. The facial contortions suggest crying or wailing. The child, draped over the man, doesn’t show its face. A dog stands behind the seven, more energy in the emaciated creature’s movements than the six adults combined. A stranger has gifted them flowers in a gesture of kindness.

It’s hard to know their next direction. Perhaps to a poor house, where work and a basic meal might have kept them alive. Perhaps merely up the road, one without hope, only drudgery and inexorability. Perhaps towards the sea, like many others who boarded ships to avoid starvation.

The route to a ship would be appropriate for these statues. One of the first Famine voyages to America, Perseverance, sailed from the Custom House Quay on St Patrick’s Day 1846. A year earlier, Ireland’s Great Famine had began. Over four years, one million died from starvation and disease after a potato dependent nation experienced the crop’s blight. Another million emigrated. In the aftermath of the population’s decline by somewhere between a fifth and a quarter, the native language went from dominance to near terminal decline.

One hundred and fifty years after the Famine, these bronze statues, made by Rowan Gillespie, were unveiled. To locals and tourists alike, they remain iconic, striking and haunting. Your guide book may provide a brief account of the Famine. If it doesn’t, find some information elsewhere. Then approach these people. Observe their expressions along the walk to where the rushing river meets the open sea, the point where so many were transported away forever. Many survived. Many died. They all departed with loved ones, alive and dead, left behind. Art meets history here. Take a few minutes to remember.


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‘Papal Games’ – an article published in ‘Lakelands – Past and Present’ (December 2014)

new lakelands 2

Lakelands – Past and Present, the collection of articles in which ‘Papal Games’ is included.

In time, references to ‘the Pope’s Children’ in the annals of Lakelands Close might refer to those of us born in the early ’80s, conceived amidst the euphoria that gripped the parents of the Close and beyond resulting from John Paul’s visit to Ireland.

The papal generation share many common images. Those of us who lived along the line of houses backing onto Sandyford Industrial Estate can probably remember the old Harcourt Street railway track behind our gardens. We remember the Travellers congregating in the industrial estate most summers, and our interesting encounters with their children, who would arrive over the wall backing onto Blackthorn Drive, or through the Crescent entrance to the Close.

We remember when there was no gap in the line of tall, majestic trees on the Close’s green, trees that only fluttered in the wildest of storms. We share the experience of that milestone of maturity when we were allowed to go down to the local shops – then McNeill’s or Hanley’s – where we would buy penny sweets, a Mr Freeze or soft drinks such as Club Shandy, which we could buy despite its alcoholic content. (Families were safe from infantile alcoholism as it tasted insipid). We all went to the annual fancy dress competition and barbeque every June – long, hot, June nights when the smell of sizzling meat hung in the air and adults drank, sang, played guitars and became inexplicably vociferous to us little people.

For those of us nestled in the enclave by its green, the bigger green by the Lawn and Avenue seemed remote despite its spaciousness and beautiful evergreens. It never seemed as conducive to sport, which perhaps explained why Sports Day, held down there, never felt as enticing.

There was an external world beyond our own self-contained one: the schools we attended; the local sports clubs and swimming pool; St Laurence O’Toole’s church; Stillorgan, with its bowling alley and cinema; and the nearby reservoir, where, story had it, braver children swam. Three Rock Mountain, with its dense carpet of conifers and communications mast at the peak, loomed down on our houses. I remember lying awake at night as a young boy hearing, beyond the sound of dogs barking, the roar of a motorbike in the industrial estate, and wondering to where in the mysterious mountains the biker was hastily travelling.

What bound the Pope’s Children of the Close most, however, was sport. With our bountiful, flat green, regularly mowed by the council, the world was our oyster. With the beginning of each sports tournament on TV our focus would change. When Wimbledon infiltrated TV sets in July, the wooden rackets were brought out and we played on the road, using the lines in the road as boundaries. When the Tour de France commenced we cycled around the green for time trials lasting hours. When Channel 4 showed the Ashes, we encouraged the kid with stumps and bat to give his gear a rare appearance.

When the Olympics entered the spotlight, the road around became a perfect 400 metre track and the pitch was host for the long jump etc. Ireland’s poor rugby record in the late ’80s didn’t stop us from playing with the oval ball. Though most of us played them at school, hurling and gaelic football were only ever exhibited as a few pucs or punts of the ball between friends.

Soccer, however, was our staple diet. We played the beautiful game morning, noon and night. Tournament on TV or not, we were always keen to fill the field with equal sized teams for a marathon game. If the numbers didn’t suffice, we resorted to two-on-two or three-on-three with a neutral keeper. Another variant was ‘world cup’: everyone playing against each other (possibly five or six), with a neutral keeper between the posts. A goal ensured passage to the next round, which had one player less. As we grew older, we played organised games against neighbouring estates.

Our fervency was undoubtedly enhanced by nearby greatness. The Close was home to former Ireland international Ray Treacy’s twin sons, Gary and John. One summer evening Ray gave us the privilege of a penalty shoot-out with him in nets. I was probably half his size, but couldn’t believe he saved my attempt so easily. Neighbouring the Treacys were the Beehans, whose grandfather was former Ireland international and Manchester United player (then scout) Billy Beehan. Renowned soccer commentator Jimmy Magee lived in Lakelands Lawn.

Our obsession with soccer coincided with Ireland’s ascension onto the world soccer stage. I just about remember Euro ’88, perhaps in part because my niece was baptised on the day Ireland played England. The ceremony was due to start at the same time as kick-off, but someone connected to this book, who I won’t mention following legal advice, conspired with the priest to defer the christening until late afternoon. He who can’t be named, the priest, and someone on high were vindicated. I remember Ronnie Whelan’s goal against Russia and the sense of achievement in drawing; the tantalising prospect of a semi-final as the game against the Netherlands closed out, only for Vim Kieft’s goal in the dying minutes to quench it.

Most of Ireland’s world cup games in 1990 were mid-week, which might explain the lack of atmosphere in the Close. The memories, however, endure: Sheedy’s goal; the painful draw against Egypt; Quinn’s heroic stretch against the Dutch and the subsequent lottery to see who played West Germany; the agonising 120 minutes against Romania before a nation held its breath. The same Pope who inspired our conception met Big Jack and the Irish team.

My dad promised to bring me to the tournament if Ireland got to the quarter-final and he kept his word. I cried when Schillaci tucked away Bonner’s parried save of Donadoni’s shot. I bawled at the final whistle. Different members of my family flew the flag for Lakelands at every unsuccessful game in the ’90 and ’94 world cups: Egypt and Italy in ’90; Mexico and the Netherlands in ’94. I’m sure someone on the residents’ association must have had a quiet word with the family before tickets went available for South Korea and Japan in ’02.

It’s memories of the first game in’94 against Italy, however, that probably endure most for the Papal children. The June night was warm and all my friends and I gathered in a friend’s house to watch the game. His parents’ friends and neighbours were also there. Ireland played to within an inch of its life. Houghton was again the scoring hero, after which we sat on the edge of the couch for an eternity. When the referee finally figured out how to use the final whistle, an earthquake hit Lakelands. We paraded around the estate deep into the night singing Olé Olé Olé and Put ‘Em Under Pressure. Ireland was on top of the world.

The next morning, tired from the previous night’s exertions but alive to the sweet promise of more glory, I had to leave for Irish college. It was painful being separated from all my friends and the prospect of countless hours of playing and watching soccer. I skulked aboard the train. Perhaps it was for the best. Rather than watch Ireland wilt in the US heat, and with them the carnival atmosphere in Lakelands, I was away for it all. The last 16 game against the Dutch was the first game I ever watched in which I realised at half-time a team was not going to win – an invaluable lesson for subsequent years watching the national team.

Life changes. We grew up. Games like ‘tip the can’, ‘hide and seek’, and ‘bulldog’s charge’ – played with the increasingly distracting girls who hung about on the edge of our pitch – competed with soccer for our time. Different kids went to different schools and found new friends. A more complex game called adult life eventually replaced those on our field of dreams. Irish soccer became a less inspiring affair.

The mountain behind the estate is barely visible from our childhood houses now, concealed by a Sandyford Industrial Estate unrecognisable from the ’80s. A tram whizzes past where the old railway line used to rust. The Pope’s Children have become adults. A new Pope, living in a Vatican guesthouse, is making waves, with his retired predecessor living a few miles away in a monastery.

Yet certain things remain and renew themselves. A new generation in the Close is finding its feet, running and playing ball on the same green as we did. The gallant trees still watch. The old evergreens on the other green have retained their magnificent verdant hues and still keep an eye on those on play beside them.

Driving through Lakelands on the day of the world cup final last summer, I remembered those halcyon days, especially that glorious night in ’94 when a giant was slayed in the Giants Stadium. Our roars and chants; the final whistle; a football rumbling down the road with us like a loyal dog as we paraded the estate’s streets: the images endure. There was something apt about preparing to write this article as the curtain fell on the career of RTÉ’s anchorman for every world cup since Italia 1990. We were very fortunate growing up in the Close. Those early memories will always form part of the excitement that comes with a new world cup.

Stephen Dineen

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Finding the right pitch

For visitors to Ireland, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) is an intriguing phenomenon. The tourist brought to a Sunday morning game of hurling or gaelic football at a small club’s grounds or in a public park sees passion and pride among those playing for parish, town or village. Woven into the spectacle of these most skilful of outdoor sports are the numerous coaches, linesmen, umpires and referees, sometimes nonchalant looking, but rarely less passionate. Those brought to the association’s premium stadia for a national competition on a summer Sunday will see athleticism, competitiveness and professionalism. Yet both strands operate under the egalitarian banner of amateur sport.

The stadium tour of Croke Park, the GAA’s main stadium, captures these two contrasting strands superbly. It is the third largest stadium in Europe. It has the largest bar in Ireland. The 82,300-seater hosts high profile concerts, conferences and a range of corporate events (also State exams) to bolster the coffers of the 131-year old organisation. Yet its staple diet remains the top flight hurling and gaelic football games played during the summer by young men who, when not excelling on the field, are studying or working like many others.

During this hour and a half stadium tour, participants are given a detailed insight into the stadium’s ways and means. It begins with a powerful 12 minute video of its activities on a big match day. The tour guide then brings visitors around the stadium, showing them the main dressing rooms, the pitch entrance for players, the media centre, the bar where players relax after games, and the view from one of the 93 corporate boxes. The GAA’s history is wonderfully woven into details of the stadium’s development and modern features. On a summer’s day, you’re likely to get the view of ‘Croker’s’ grounds men working on the pristine pitch beneath a skyline of its three-tier horseshoe structure, a railway line tucked beneath one goal end and a canal beneath the other, the city centre in the distance. Always check (online) the availability of tours on match days, which are at weekends.

Also included in the ticket is a visit to the Croke Park museum. Here you’ll get more details on the evolution of the sports (including its lesser known non-pitch ones) and the organisation, presented audio-visually and with many exhibits. A sense of the cultural nationalism underpinning the association is evident.

For some members of this unique organisation, the twin track approach of amateur games and corporate outlook is a leap too far from the GAA’s roots. For others, it represents modernising and sourcing revenue to support its players and bring the game to a global audience. Regardless of a member’s viewpoint, or whether his or her own county gets there for an All-Ireland final in September, all take pride in Croke Park. The tour of the stadium should too.

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