Over the May bank holiday weekend, my Mum and I visited Dublin for the first time. It was my second, more informed, trip to Ireland, and we saw into not only Dublin’s past and present but also future. Other first-timers on a similarly short break, you may find this a good introduction to Dublin. It is not a sightseer’s guide to the city, but more of a recollection of personal impressions of the people and their attitudes, the city’s culture and heritage, the weather, and a few tourist tips we learned by trial during our brief stay.
Where I visited
- St. Patrick’s Cathedral
- Christchurch Cathedral
- Trinity College, primarily to see the Book of Kells
- Phoenix Park
- Guinness Storehouse, as substitute for Kilmainham Gaol
- National Gallery, as substitute for the Bank of Ireland
Where I stayed
Fitzwilliam Townhouse – This guesthouse has its flaws but those can be overlooked on a short stay and are more than compensated by its location. This guesthouse where we stayed was at first disappointing in the smallness of its room and the keenly felt age of its furnishings and appliances, but we grew to appreciate it as the days passed. It is worth booking if you are particular about exterior aesthetics. Our second choice, Travelodge, would have suited us better with its more functional interior and hotel chains north of the river would have had more transport connections, including the Airlink 747 that really does run every 10 minutes, but none match the Fitzwilliam Townhouse for the beauty and tranquillity of its location. The Airlink 757 bus from the airport stops at Merrion Square, the address of Dublin’s most famous residents, and upon alighting you face the back of Leinster House, the model for America’s White House. A first impression of the city centre can hardly be grander than this. Fitzwilliam Street is the longest in Dublin at 1km and many of its Georgian terraced townhouses have doors brightly painted, one story goes, by Dubliners who rejected Queen Victoria’s request that doors be painted black after her husband Prince Albert’s death.
We explored quite thoroughly south of the river, and up to Phoenix Park and Parnell Square north of the river. This is what we learnt:
Dubliners are trusting and witty. Just look at the title image of a high school third-year’s imagining of Dublin in the year 2116. They love to write “Q” for “queue”, and provide a bottled water stand at the airport Duty Free which takes voluntary €1 per bottle. We saw no-one who did not pay for their water; what we did see was a great incentive to buy before you board, especially for time-pressed passengers. Perhaps unintentionally but funnily, the Gaelic words for USA abbreviate to SAM (Stáit Aontaithe Mheiriceá) – I had not realised this at the airport and thought it was typical of Irish cheek to refer to the USA as Uncle Sam!
Dubliners are also compassionate and friendly. How so? (1) When, tired from our night-time flight, we questioned why we had to wait 25 minutes for the Airlink 757 bus from Dublin Airport to our destination, Merrion Square Upper, when the bus livery claimed that a bus departed “every 10 mins”, the bus driver did not take offence but chuckled and replied that the bus sometimes switched to number 747. (2) Later, when we ran out of money on our Leap card (Dublin’s version of London’s Oyster card) due to a misunderstanding about the balance on our card, the driver was patient in explaining the situation to us, and in addition gave us advice about a bus number that stopped even closer at our destination of Phoenix Park. He even told us when to get off without us asking him to, which was a lucky thing since I had expected the bus to cross back over to the north side of the river Liffey. (3) The locals cater to more squeamish tourists who balk at eating blood and in many cases serve Irish Breakfasts with white pudding instead of black pudding. (4) Dubliners like to add some flavour and freshness to their tap water jugs with mint leaves and lemon slices. (5) The toilets at Heuston railway station are free of charge, unlike station toilets in London.
Irish food in Dublin is not inexpensive and, unless it’s seafood, almost invariably consists of potatoes, carrots, and some sort of meat. However, despite its plainness, the food is filling and tasty, which is all travellers on their feet all day need. We ate at (1) the Cathedral Café that overlooks St. Patrick’s Cathedral, (2) Davy Byrne’s, famous for its mention in the novel Ulysses and for its post-WWII art deco interior, (3) the Phoenix Park Tea Rooms, where inside a simple hut teacups dangle by ribbons from chandeliers, (4) The Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub, and (5) the Wintergarden Café inside the National Gallery. In the land which depended on potatoes so much that the Irish Potato Famine (1845-52) killed nearly a quarter of the island’s population, their Disneyland equivalent is a Tayto Park, opened by the crisps brand Tayto, 30 minutes’ drive from Dublin.
Dublin, as does Ireland in general, has a relationship with the USA that is closer than that more frequently touted relationship between the UK with the USA. The American ambassador is the Irish President’s only neighbour, whereas the British embassy is not even in the city centre and is almost as far from the centre as the Chinese embassy. Furthermore, Dublin and Shannon airports are unique in Europe for offering US Border Preclearance whereby your documentation is completed in Ireland and you can skip the immigration inspections queue when you land in the US.
Ireland has bank holidays just like the UK. Despite the fact that Hong Kong has bank holidays too, I had never heard of bank holidays until coming to the UK and had so far in my life only associated bank holidays with the Brits. This was to my cost, as the bank holiday Monday thwarted our plans for our final half-day in Dublin, which included, ironically, a visit to the Bank of Ireland to see what the House of Commons and House of Lords in Grattan’s Parliament, which sat inside the building during the 18th century that currently houses the Bank of Ireland, would have looked like. Even independent stores close on bank holidays, as did the Queen of Tarts café where we had hoped to eat brunch in on our last day.
The poverty of Dublin’s weather is an exaggeration. Our guidebook stipulated that the maximum temperature in the year was 20 degrees in July, and the winner of the Dublin 2116 art competition was titled “We’ll probably still be complaining about the weather” but on 1st May, our final day, I could walk out into the sunshine wearing just a shirt. The tendency for rain only serves to make their flowers bloom more beautifully, and the maple trees in the Library Square of Trinity College grow to bigger than their expected size, albeit helped by the nutrients in the land where a cemetery once existed.
Alcohol has a presence that stretches beyond the pubs. Lord Arthur Guinness, the founder of the Guinness brewery, pushed through an Act of Parliament to make St. Stephen’s Green a free public park in 1877, and funded the restoration of Ireland’s National Cathedral, St. Patrick’s. He was a shrewd businessman, always ensuring that he benefited ostentatiously from his donations. He has a private lodge inside St. Stephen’s Green, stamped his family symbol of a boar all over the cathedral tiles, and received a private box pew opposite the state pew. A testament to Guinness’ ingenuity was that his adoption of the Brian Borù harp as his brand symbol in 1862 was even copied by the Irish Free State in 1922. This led to Guinness having to choose another harp to avoid trademark issues.
But not everything is about alcohol. We might not have believed this if we had been obliged to walk through Temple Bar on the night we arrived, at near-midnight on a Bank Holiday weekend Friday, amidst hen and stag partygoers. But since we were there on a digestive early-evening stroll the next day, we did pause to read the sign concerning the district’s namesake, the Temple Bar, and discovered that it referred to the sandy promenade, or barr, alongside the river created on the land of the Temple family.
Catholicism is not outwardly pre-eminent in Dublin. The seat of the Roman Catholic archbishop of Ireland, St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, is situated not in the historic heart of the city south of the river Liffey but on the north side, tucked away on a side street off broad O’Connell street. Newman University Church, which belonged to the former Catholic University of Ireland, which James Joyce attended, is a tiny building squashed between two more than double its size.
Dubliners don’t take serious things too seriously. I had aforehand read the dramatist Sean O’Casey’s quote that the Irish “treat a serious thing as a joke and a joke as a serious thing” and the first half of this phrase was no better enacted than by our guide at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, who was a haphazard young man with a Viking’s appearance and an Irishman’s sense of humour who almost set himself on fire by standing too close to devotional candles, loved to touch the things he was showcasing, and whose act of leaning on the modern tree sculpture inside the chapter house area at one point I feared would cause the artwork to fall down. Outside the next cathedral we visited, Christchurch, were many food stalls including a BBQ in full smoke, while a bronze sculpture of ‘Homeless Jesus’, who in the Bible overturns the stalls outside the temple, laid on a bench. Inside the cathedral, displayed in the largest crypt in the British Isles, was a most peculiar case, containing a cat and mouse which were mummified mid-chase through the organ pipes. The third site we visited on our first full day in Dublin was Trinity College, the female students of which clamber up in their graduation robes onto the lap of the sitting statue of Provost George Salmon to take a selfie with the man who in 1901 with much reluctance dropped his veto against the motion to allow women to graduate from the university.
The Book of Kells exhibition is underrated. This doesn’t mean you should not pay it – or more accurately ‘them’ since it has been split into 4 separate volumes – a visit. But do consider paying the extra €3 to be guided around the college by a student. I preferred the tour more than the exhibition because whereas the exhibition only displayed 2 of the 4 volumes and not at their most illustrious pages, which was out of step with the flow of the exhibition which focused on the most stunning pages of the ‘book’, the college tour told of buildings and art you could actually see for real. Another highlight was seeing the Brian Borù harp in the library proper, which I had seen a reproduction of in Limerick.
Oysters and Guinness is a thing, so if you get the chance, order it. The combination did not sound appealing enough for me to order it at Davy Byrne’s, but anyone familiar with Guinness advertising or who has visited The Guinness Storehouse (as we later did and regretted not ordering oysters and Guinness) will know that this is one of the ways Guinness recommends you to pair their stout.
The Irish adore and take pride in their chocolate. This surprised me too two years ago, when my friend whom I visited in Limerick told me that Cork was known for its chocolate, but really, the Irish are the 3rd biggest chocolate consumers in the world. In Dublin, the queen of chocolate chains is homegrown Butler’s. After dining at Davy Byrne’s, I followed the waft of cocoa in the air from Grafton Street and was led to Butler’s Chocolate Café, where I bought a bar of delicious yet wrong chocolate – the Irish prize their milk chocolate but I opted for the dark variety – flavoured with Irish whiskey. Something to note, however, is that we did not find the Irish whiskey flavour in either supermarkets or the Butler’s Chocolate Café in Dublin Airport Terminal 2, so if that is the bar you seek, buy it at the Butler’s Chocolate Café I visited on Wicklow Street.
Dublin has historic as well as modern achievements. How many of you know that Dublin Zoo is the world’s third oldest? Or that Phoenix Park is Europe’s largest urban park? Or that Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital is the oldest maternity hospital still operating today? Or that Dublin is a co-capital of love since it is home to some of St. Valentine’s relics (in Whitefriar Street Church)? All I knew before I went was that Dublin was the HQ for many tech companies due to tax incentives, information confirmed by the Airlink passing Facebook’s and Yahoo!’s offices on our way back to the airport. But Dublin thrived as much in the past when it was under British rule as it is thriving now. It was regarded the “second city” of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in the early 19th century before being eclipsed by Liverpool and Glasgow.
Pitfalls to avoid. Some are more frustrating than others. (1) Not booking a tour in advance if you want to visit Kilmainham Gaol. It was my priority for the trip and I will not make the same mistake in any future visits. Even the Guinness Storehouse with its 45-minute long queue in our case was not as difficult to enter. (2) Believing the label on products at The Guinness Storehouse gift-shop which says “Storehouse Exclusive”. You may find the same products in Guinness merchandise stores, such as the one at Dublin Airport that also had the Storehouse’s alcohol quiz. (3) Mistaking the big iron gate for the entrance to Dublin Castle from Lord Edward Street. When we went the entrance was actually the opening left of the gate that was covered by scaffolding. We did not notice this on our first full day in Dublin and did not tick it off our holiday checklist until our final day.