I have no deeper connection to Dublin than the fact that I’ve been there twice. But I often catch myself planning the next journey to Ireland’s capital city. Glowing with energy drawn from its heady cultural history, this city of poets and pubs, music and mythology, scholars and saints, is always in spin. You only have to put your bags down to feel pulled in competing directions.
The grand bus tour
Embarking on this adventure with a Big Bus tour is a good way to get a complete overview, not just of the vibe, but also of places you want to delve deeper into. We fly by the river Liffey that brought the Vikings here hundreds of years ago, Grafton street bustling with shopping and life, leafy city parks and pavement cafes — with all manner of life’s tableaus quietly unfolding, square after square of elegant Georgian houses and cobbled archways, the looming edifice of Christ Church Cathedral, until at last we reach Trinity College. One notices with appreciation that Dublin is still one of the few places in the world where people queue to visit a library. The 1200-year old illustrated Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript gospel book that sits in Trinity College library, has the fan following of a Bollywood star.
From the top deck of the bus you learn that in whichever direction you turn, you’re likely to see either a theatre or a pub. The smallest pub, the loudest pub, the highest pub… but a pub, indisputably. And that every sight has a story. The doors of these Georgian homes were painted with bright colours so that after a heady night in the pubs and on the town, errant husbands could distinguish their own home from that of others.
The other thing you observe is that irrepressible Irish humour will follow wherever you go. Restaurant fronts wear imaginative names like Mama’s Revenge and Stir Crazy. A sign outside a shop selling wedding paraphernalia reads, “If you want a stable relationship, get a horse.” Upon a lamp-post adorned with a shamrock, I contemplate the statement of Dublin pin-up-boy Oscar Wilde, that goes, “Work is the curse of the drinking class.”
And that’s all the prompting I need to get off the bus and into the Guinness Storehouse. Famous for its creamy stout, the Storehouse is the welcome mat of any visit to Dublin. What you will find here are displays showing how production methods have morphed since 1757 — when Arthur Guinness took over this backstreet brewery. Along with these displays is the artful presentation of assorted facts like Guinness being responsible for the world’s most sold copyrighted book — The Guinness Book of World Records. A lesson on how to pour the perfect pint is included in this rather educational deal.
My lust, however, remains wreathed on the 360-degree panoramic Gravity Bar at the top, which offers a complimentary pint of Guinness accompanied by breathtaking views across Dublin. Large picture windows illuminate in neatly printed text what you’re looking out towards. The attention to detail that goes into everything is an attractive trait of the city.
Brew it up
While on this liquid diet of all things ale and hearty, I stop at the Old Jameson Distillery. Once a flourishing brewery, the buildings are now dedicated to the history of whiskey production. Our guide explains the difference between Irish and Scotch whiskey. He explains energetically that the Irish variety is distilled three times more than Scotch and doesn’t use peat in its production, which gives it a sweeter taste.
Much of what Dublin offers is to do with atmosphere. Time was when a Gaelic social gathering called a ‘Ceilidh’ was popular. Today even if you don’t have the good fortune to be invited to anyone’s home for this traditional evening of dance, feasting and storytelling, there is a possibility to experience a version of the evening commercially. I trundle to the Merry Ploughboy Pub, a popular and representative gathering of similar spirit. I imagine this will turn into a soiree driven by folk song and nostalgic performance, but it is, in fact, redeemed from being merely about the packaged past, because these folk traditions are not only still popular with the locals but have also begun to influence modern Irish music. Regulars here will lose no time to tell you that Sinead O’ Connor and Van Morrison found success in modern music by fusing Irish technique with pop and rock styles.
The pub culture
One of the greatest achievements in the history of Ireland was the creation of the Irish pub. It is here that poets and writers gather and produce the kind of works that one imagines ought to emerge from a quiet pod in Trinity College Library. It is also in these cavernous wooden wombs that people discuss things, fuelled by a pint or two, that they’d never discuss elsewhere.
The other distinguishing feature of the Irish pub is that when you enter, you might not know a soul, yet it’s easy to leave with many friends. That’s because everyone is up for some ‘craic’, loosely translated, this means ‘a good time’. In Ireland it specifically involves drinking, dancing, eating, and most of all, a hearty gab. Unlike the American bar for the young and the single or the old and the isolated, the Irish pub is where the community congregates, across age and strata.
Punctuating the drinking bouts, the following digressions (a very Irish thing to do) are in order: A visit to the Dublin Writers’ Museum, housed in an 18th century mansion, which features the lives and works of the city’s literary celebrities over the past 300 years, the City Gallery with its collection of Renoir and Degas, Monet and Morisota and a pilgrimage to Dublina to learn the history of this early Viking settlement. But what makes the experience of Dublin transcend these man-made wonders, is that the wit, intelligence, aesthetics and sense of civilisation spills out of the galleries and onto the streets.
Shiny happy people
The Temple Bar area, a teeming, streaming tableau of humanity, runs with people like a waterfall in the monsoon. Congregating the crowds are pubs, live music venues and nightclubs. But the real attraction lies in the throb and hum of the populace. Street Acts. Fortune-tellers. Artists sketching portraits by the roadside. Poets declaiming poems to vast audiences. The policeman in front of me does a little jig to the tunes being drummed out by a busker. In a less emotionally secure city, he’d be told off. But what better sign of the psychological health of a place than a policeman brimming over with the most endearing humanity.
On my way back home, I pass giggling girls and young men clowning about the statue of Molly Malone. Theatrical and living it up for themselves without pretense. And I am reminded of the words of Jan Morris who once famously wrote of Dublin, “Over the water the city lay brownish below the Wicklow Mountains, encrusted it seemed with some tangible patina of legend and literature, and fragrant of course with its own vin du pays, Guinness.” So if you want to renew your faith in human ability and be reminded of what a vital, creative species we are, go to Dublin.
Getting around: British Airways flies daily between Mumbai and London. From London there are connecting flights to Dublin every few hours. The airport is 12 kms from the city centre and the transport options are bus, taxi or car. Once in the centre, you can use the hop-on hop-off bus. But it’s also a good idea to explore the city on foot
Where to stay: Located in the heart of the city, The Fitzwilliam Hotel — a 5-star design hotel with St Steven’s Green on one side and Grafton Street on the other — is more than convenient. For more information, visit fitzwilliamhoteldublin.com; if you want to follow in the footsteps of James Joyce, however, you can stay at The Shelbourne Hotel. The place, which has been around since 1824, is centrally located. For more information, visit marriott.co.uk/hotels/travel/dubbr-the-shelbourne-dublin-a-renaissance-hotel
What to eat: Vibrant, funky and great for lunch or a quick snack while exploring the centre, Pepper Pot does a great sandwich, bagel or French toast. For more information, visit: thepepperpot.ie
If you want traditional Irish stew served up with Irish folk music, head to The Merry Ploughboy Pub. For more information, visit mpbpub.com
What to buy: Shop at Grafton Street for Irish and International fashion and craftswear. The Celtic Whiskey shop on Dawson Street works well for Irish whiskey