Dublin: A Painful Case

One day, my primary school teacher handed out blank maps of Northern Ireland and asked us to create our own weather forecast. Everyone got out the felt tips and went to town decorating our six counties with sunshine, rainfall, dark clouds and flashes of lightning. When the finished pieces were handed in, she roared with laughter and observed that we had all coloured around the boundary of Norn Iron with blue water on every side, as if the other twenty-six counties of the emerald isle had never existed. This story sums up the relationship that more obdurate Prods will have with what my grandfather still calls “The Free State”: there isn’t one.

Starry-eyed lovers attest, like Orpheus after Eurydice, that they would follow their darling into hell itself. In the song ‘Follow Follow’, the greatest expression of ardour that Glasgow Rangers fans can conceive of is following their team into Dublin. Under the old Ulster siege mentality, my default is to consider the Republic of Ireland an enemy and a threat. This is plainly irrational; our feud must seem as incomprehensible to Dubliners as it does to the English, and I’m sure most of them have no appetite to see Ireland united and thus inherit a million very angry Unionists, with no means of placating them. Spending some time on the Shankill during my visit, I noticed that many Loyalists are far more at ease with their Irishness than I am, and my instinctive revulsion is probably that of Gulliver realising he is a Yahoo. It might well have its roots in my turning up at Cambridge University as an unsocialised, depressed bedroom teenager and encountering a fair bit of anti-Irish prejudice, and the subconscious fear that England, now my home, will turn around one day and tell me I am unwelcome. It’s probably a common conundrum: as seen in the TV show where Grayson Perry lectured East Belfast for being left behind by a Britain where everyone is gay and no-one believes in God.

Enough amateur self-psychoanalysis. I have not been to Dublin many times, and not for a few years, but I had noticed that anyone who comes back from it, Irish or otherwise, will report their disbelief at its Scandinavian prices. With the disdain of the second city for the first, those from Belfast often perceive Dublin as a fiddle-dee-dee Walt Disney presentation of Irishness that may be more charming or diverting but is essentially staged to match the preconceptions of American tourists, and somehow less real than our own taciturn, deindustrialised, what-you-see-is-what-you-get city. However, on investigating the train service I was amazed to learn that a day return is £10 if booked on the morning tickets are released (quickly rising to around £30).

Having spent two weeks off work and travelling around Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland in what feels like the final days of the United Kingdom, I had the slightly melancholy sensation of being some Austrian cavalry officer from a Joseph Roth novel. Dublin seemed to foretell what an independent Scotland will feel like; and, in time, Belfast. Today Dublin is no more a British city than London is a Roman one, but many of the finest things in it date from the days when Dublin was the playground of the Protestant Ascendancy, in the same way that the famous cities along the Baltic were Germanic, or Edinburgh castle was a bolthole for English forces. Ireland can hardly be blamed for wanting to go it alone; the British callously stuck to laissez-faire economics when they could have alleviated the suffering of the potato famine, and gave the Irish no alternative but to flood into their showpiece city.

Walking around Dublin for a day, I was continually reminded of Budapest. So keen to relish independence from Vienna, the Hungarians frequently remind you of it and it sometimes feels as if they have a statue of a local hero on every street corner. An Edward VII letterbox painted green was particularly eloquent.

The train from Belfast is a quiet affair, that after slightly over two hours leaves you at Connolly station, not the most charming part of Dublin, with lots of office blocks and places with names like ‘Paddy Palace Backpackers Hostel’. After the imperious Custom House things get a little better and we stop for a cooked breakfast. The charming waiters look like out-of-work actors. They talk to the locals about how “times are hard now” and talk to themselves about how the saxophonist on ‘Baker Street’ was paid a £25 session fee for a piece of music that made millions.

Wondering if we’re at the centre yet, we leave the cafe and within thirty seconds, find ourselves smack in the middle of O’Connell Street, with the imposing Portland Stone portico of the GPO, world famous as the base of the Easter Rising. That portico, featuring an elaborate decorative band and Hibernia with her harp where we are used to seeing Britannia, is all that was left after the Rising. In front of the GPO is the Spire, a 400ft-tall abstract pin, that replaced a Nelson’s Column (older than London’s) which the IRA blew up in the sixties.

O’Connell Street is lively, your classic grand boulevard of showpieces, attractions and palatial department stores, with a broad, tree-lined walkway separating the two directions of trams and other traffic. Its buildings are embellished with classical columns, balustrades, miniature domes and ornamental turrets. Daniel O’Connell’s monument is guarded by huge bronze angels at its base and would look just as at home on Place de la République. Despite the traffic, you have breathing space here. It is quite crowded, but sees around 20% the crowds of Oxford Street.

Dublin is so big that there was no reasonable way of seeing it all in a few hours, and we decided that the area south of the Liffey looked as if it had the richest concentration of Dublin’s Greatest Hits. Cross O’Connell Bridge and the route is lined with more lovely buildings, in particular the Bank of Ireland which cribs from the same template as the GPO. It was not built for the bank, but for the Irish parliament; however the curved, windowless wall facing College Green recalls Soane’s walls on the Bank of England.

First port of call is Trinity College. Founded in Elizabethan times and one of Britain’s ancient universities, it is considered a cousin of sorts to Oxford and Cambridge. This was a central part of Britain’s attempts to secure a foothold in Ireland and it still feels very British (the grounds even include a cricket ground and pavilion). They began to admit Catholics shortly after the Enlightenment, but until 1970 the Catholic Church would excommunicate anyone who enrolled here.

As with Oxbridge colleges, you enter through an arch and find yourself in another world; a dazzling square courtyard featuring a sequence of tasteful neo-classical beauties, all turned in to face one another. Hermetic if not monastic, this is very akin to UCL’s Gower Street base, or the university campus at Greenwich Hospital. The sober grey stone and relatively restrained design gives the buildings a bit of a Robert Adam look. At the centre of the first courtyard is an unusual granite campanile. A small lantern dome sits on a domed belfry with long windows, supported by rusticated arches. Superstition decrees that you will fail your exams if you pass under the arch as the bells are ringing. This reminds me of the walk to the first of my final exams, when I appalled my companions by walking under a ladder.

Had I been in Dublin for a few days I would probably have shelled out to visit the Old Library in Trinity, with its world-famous Long Room and the Book of Kells. Follow around the corner, and you’ll find a fifties brutalist library with an abstract sphere. No-one could accuse Trinity of preserving itself in aspic.

Exiting Trinity via its park at the southeastern end, you find yourself well place to contemplate Georgian Dublin. Kildare Street is named after James Fitzgerald, known as the Earl of Leinster or Lord Kildare, the trendsetter who was first to move south of the river. The street starts with the mock-Romanesque quarters of former Kildare Street Club, which the novelist George Moore described as “a sort of oyster-bed into which all the eldest sons of the landed gentry fall as a matter of course”. The same architect designed the National Library and Museum of Archaeology, also on Kildare Street.

If you’re trying to get an idea of Lord Kildare’s status here, Leinster House, his own home, now serves as the Irish parliament buildings, and the builders of the White House drew on its design. Kildare Street ends with the fancy Shelbourne Hotel, sadly covered up at the moment but with enticing torches held by Nubian statues. The hotel faces onto St Stephen’s Green.

After modest beginnings St Stephen’s Green became the focus for a wealthy neighbourhood. It was opened to the public and landscaped into pleasure gardens with Guinness money. From the streets, the park is obscured by trees and, at its corner entrance, a screen of tall, thin stones shielding an abstract sculpture group that serves as a Great Famine memorial. This performs a similar function to the shocking curtain of freezing cold water you have to walk through to get from the changing rooms into the swimming pool. Inside, a quick survey of the northern edge reveals a large, slender lake with a stone bridge and all sorts of wildfowl, and beyond it rose gardens.

Back on the streets, Merrion Row leads into the heart of Georgian Dublin and the gentlemen’s agreement of slight variations to a uniform style; varying heights and dimensions on each block, but all with the distinctive skinny bricks and restrained design. The home of Wellington’s parents, and his most likely birthplace, is on Merrion Street; funny to think that this is the hometown of such a prominent Briton whose mark has been left all over London, from the triumphal arch facing his house to his granite horse block outside the Athenaeum. When teased about his Irish beginnings, the Iron Duke would reportedly snap “being born in a stable doesn’t make one a horse”.

Across the road, the Edwardian Government Buildings sit behind an entrance that looks like Sicilian Avenue has acquired ideas above its station. Behind a courtyard is a hexagonal dome with a pensive art-deco carving underneath. When we reach Merrion Square, a distant view of the intriguingly-shaped St Stephen’s Church, known locally as ‘the pepper canister’, appears.

Merrion Square is Dublin at its swankiest and feels like those grand circuses at the edge of Edinburgh New Town. It appears to be worth noting that nowadays, the fenced gardens at the centre are open to the public. In Kensington or Belgravia this would never be the case; only for the owners of adjoining flats and houses, with each person’s service charge for the garden amounting to far more than normal people’s rent and still constituting small pocket change to them.

As for the townhouses, now containing more offices than homes, think ’10 Downing St on steroids’. The fan windows are quite something and I enjoy seeing how each design slightly tweaks the template; it may not exactly be Brussels but it’s quite individualistic. The style is cherished now, but like all styles it has gone through periods of severe unpopularity. De Valera’s government were planning to demolish the square when WWII distracted them; nowadays mock-Georgian houses are built to replace the stretches that were lost. That’s fashion for you; think of the Victorian “monstrosities” that were being torn down in the fifties, and how Brutalism is only beginning to come in from the cold.

The south side has a plaque for Yeats; on the north side, No. 1 is the house in which Wilde grew up, marked by a statue with a perplexed expression, and on which I am not entirely sold. I suppose the use of green jade and crystalline pink stone for his smoking jacket is indicative of the hothouse decadence for which the Dorian Gray author is well known.

After a circuit of the square we find ourselves round the corner from the National Gallery. It being free, we poke our heads inside and find that the old masters have been convienently gathered together in one corridor. It’s a bitesized rush from the gilded icons of medieval Italy to twentieth-century modernism. On the way we find Rembrandt and Vermeer; I particularly liked a Titian Ecce Homo. A dramatic Caravaggio is the most famous piece in the collection.

Afterwards we traverse the streets west of Trinity on the way to Dublin Castle, which have a few diverting sights; there are plenty jolly red-brick pieces of Victorian fantasia with pointy turrets. There’s also a gathering of tourists around the statue for Molly Malone, with her wheelbarrow of seafood; the evidence suggests this historical figure is about as real as Romeo & Juliet. The song itself I find ghastly and sentimental, and part of me internally applauds when the droogs from A Clockwork Orange kick to death the beggar who sings it.

Belfast Castle is a Victorian folly which replaced the burnt original, and Dublin Castle fares only slightly better. The fat round tower is from the 1220s, although the crenellated trim around the top that makes it recalls Castel Nuovo on the Naples seafront is much newer. The rest of the complex is largely Georgian; including the church next to the tower, whose Gothic Revival was deemed sufficiently convincing for The Tudors to set Thomas More’s trial inside. There is a nice round lawn from which you can contemplate both. We don’t try to explore the castle further as we are merely passing en route to the Chester Beatty Library.

Alfred Chester Beatty was a New Yorker who made his fortune in mining and settled in London, then Dublin, who, like Lisbon with the Gulbenkian museum, are the happy recipients of a spectacular collection. Chester Beatty was a booklover and his ruling passion, after starting out with stamps, saw him judiciously amass a library of illustrated manuscripts, principally from the Islamic World, India and the Orient. The Mamluks, Mughals, and Persians are all well represented and the Korans hit all the high notes.

I’m sure the Book of Kells in Trinity is worth the €10 entrance fee, but the Chester Beatty is free, has comparatively sparse crowds, and its contents are mesmerising. The top floor has just as wide a sweep, but focuses on texts with a more religious bent; one has a cartoon of Vishnu up a tree, having stolen the clothes of women bathing. There are fragments of C2nd bibles in Ancient Greek and manuscripts from the workshop of Giotto, just to show that it’s not all orientalism.

Dublin’s severed link to Britain is most keenly felt when one contemplates its cathedrals. In this most ferociously Catholic of countries, both are Protestant, and having no congregation to speak of both must charge €6 entry to maintain the buildings. Their vintage and backstories are also similar; bona fide medieval churches, they became severely dilapidated before heavy renovation in the 1870s.

Christ Church is closer to the river. I decide not to go inside, perhaps because of how it looks on the outside. As far as the eyes can tell me, this may have been built by the Normans but it is no longer Norman. The cladding is trying to pass itself off as the real thing, but it looks as utterly Victorian as Tower Bridge or the Wallace Monument or St John’s Gate. It sticks out a country mile. Everything has been done by the book, with Gothic arched windows and flying buttresses to support the nave, but it is not the real thing anymore. It is Ricky Gervais wearing a fancy dress costume and telling you he is Dante Alighieri.

The street separating the two cathedrals is notable for an Edwardian housing estate with fantastic lunettes above each doorway, where the letter of the staircase is surrounded by mythical beasts and personifications of the winds. There are some very curious plaques which I initially take to come from the work of some key Dublin author, but might just be selected from the anecdotes that its residents had to offer.

Then we get to St Patrick’s Cathedral, the biggest church in Ireland and with a long queue of tourists. There may not be much to choose between the two but with its tall tower and spire this looks a little less chocolate-box from the outside.

Inside is all that you expect from a major church. Even with absurd numbers of tourists milling around, it is an awe-inspiring space with a rib vaulted ceiling, Gothic arches, good stained glass and an ornately carved wooden choir.

There are plenty of artefacts from centuries past to keep you occupied. Statues of Important Men are legion and what is striking is the prominence of the British Empire as it honours its fallen. The faded standards, and the grandiose carvings marking our exploits in China, India and South Africa give the impression that we are a future generation for whom Britain only lives in museum exhibits like these. As you stroll past the memorials, Pax Brittanica seems as distant as the reign of the Caesars.

At the entrance end of the nave, the tomb effigies for a noble family are outsized to the point of absurdity. This photo shows the bottom two tiers but there were three more.

St Patrick’s was intended to replace Christ Church but never did, hence it had a Dean instead of an Archbishop. One such Dean was the great Jonathan Swift; he has left traces all over the church, and the relics of this secular saint are a very big draw. There are fancy memorial tablets for him (mentioning the famous saeva indignatio) and his beloved Stella, a bust, a death mask, his old pulpit, and plenty of information about his activities beyond Gulliver’s Travels and the Modest Proposal; mentioned are his anonymously published Drapier’s Letters that forced the British government to back down from a plan to devalue the Irish currency, and a wry Sermon on Sleeping in Church. His coldly furious Latin memorial for the Duke of Schomberg, killed fighting for William III at the Battle of the Boyne, is found next to William III’s chair, and is translated so that we can taste Swift’s palpable irritation at the refusal of the Duke’s children to contribute.

The Temple Bar area, right by the Liffey, is the only part of Dublin that adheres to the medieval street pattern and, with its close concentration of heritage pubs, is the centre of touristic Dublin. I had heard of it through reputation, and the many visitors who stopped for a Guinness and were charged €20 for their pint. We walked through and I had the impression I was in a Walt Disney Soho; cobbled streets, hanging baskets, shamrock pub signs and ready-made craic. The pub pictured at the top of this blog post looked very beautiful, but just out of picture was a man in a giant Leprechaun suit, posing for photos with backpackers.

Before catching a return train packed with weary commuters -who all get off well before us- we stopped for pints somewhere a little bit further from the main drag, John Mulligans. This is an early C19th pub with much dark timber and echoing backrooms. Quite earthy and no-frills, it makes a fleeting appearance in Joyce’s Dubliners and boasts that John F Kennedy drank here for this reason; however it is full of locals, makes no attempt to push expensive meals, craft ales, or quiz nights run by men with braces, waxed moustaches and monocles; it feels authentic enough, and by not trying too hard to ingratiate it does nicely. One last look at the Liffey, and the oxidised copper dome of Custom House, before rushing to Connolly Street and, two hours later, the sharp, chilly embrace of a dark Belfast night.

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