FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Dublin: Literary City

Sep 1, 2013
2013 / September 2013

Nearly two hours into our visit to Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library, I glanced at my watch, consulted our must-see list and realized that, yet again, we were behind schedule. “Decision time,” I said to Jackie, my travel mate. “St. Patrick’s, the Marsh Library and Christ Church are in the neighborhood. If we sacrifice the Storehouse, we might be able to still see the jail, have tea at The Winding Stair and hit the Writers Museum.” To call it an overambitious plan is an understatement; it was 2:30, and we’d yet to have lunch.

We’d hit Dublin running three days prior, and despite fighting jet lag, we’d barely stopped to breathe. Although I’ve made nearly a dozen trips to the Emerald Isle, this was my first time in Molly Malone’s fair city.

Before arriving, I’d not only researched the possibilities but also reached out to my stateside friend Lorraine, whose blood likely runs shamrock green. She connected me via Facebook with her first cousin Vivienne, who kindly agreed to meet us late afternoon on our arrival day to share some insider advice. We bolstered that by booking a guided walking tour on day two. And that was all before checking into the Westbury Hotel and consulting the concierge, who recommended we begin our Dublin immersion with a walk around St. Stephen’s Green.

Sweet, soft air revived us as we entered the Victorian-era park at Fusiliers’ Arch and began exploring its nooks and crannies. Dubliners on their lunch breaks were savoring the sunlight dancing across the pond, along with their sandwiches. “It’s Dublin’s Central Park,” Jackie exclaimed. She paused at a memorial statue honoring Robert Emmet and wondered, “Who’s he?” When I shrugged, she quizzed a passerby, who delivered a concise intro to the 1803 Irish Rebellion leader who was executed for high treason.

Hunger pains drew us out of the park, down Grafton, Dublin’s pedestrian shopping street, and into Davy Byrnes Pub. By sheer chance we’d chosen the literary icon where Leopold Bloom, a character in James Joyce’s Ulysses, had a gorgonzola sandwich. “Nice quiet bar. Nice piece of wood in that counter. Nicely planed. Like the way it curves,” Joyce wrote. I’d add, nice sandwich, nice statues. Like the cultural references. Nicely played.

Guided by a city map, we padded the narrow, cobblestoned streets of Temple Bar, the medieval neighborhood where the world premiere of Handel’s Messiah took place in 1742. These days, Temple Bar is renowned for its cultural institutions as well as its traditional — if touristy — pubs. Strains of live music lured us into Oliver St. John Gogarty Pub, where Jackie picked up a brochure touting a literary pub crawl. “We have to do this,” she exclaimed.

Plunk two writers down in the heart of Dublin, and despite dozens of other temptations, it’s inevitable they’ll aim to visit every literary site and historical library in the city that luminaries including Joyce, Swift, Wilde and Nobel laureates Yeats (1923), Shaw (1925) and Beckett (1969) called home. That wasn’t our initial plan, but it evolved into our mission after meeting Lorraine’s cousin Vivienne. En route to the Shelbourne Hotel for tea, she steered us into the National Library for a quick look-see. “I used to come here every week as a child with my father,” Vivienne said, as we climbed the stairs to the Reading Room. I gasped upon entering this architectural feast. The horseshoe-shaped room is rimmed with a cherub frieze between the lower walls and side windows and crowned by a nearly 50-foot-high domed ceiling. The only way she could get us to leave was to allude to a different flavor of eye candy downstairs. “C’mon, there’s a wonderful Yeats exhibit,” she teased. We popped in for a peek. Jackie got that crazy, writer-on-a-eureka-high look in her eyes, and I knew we’d be returning to absorb the displays and videos drawn from the library’s collection of more than 2,000 items donated by the family.

A display at The National Library’s Yeats exhibit © Hilary Nangle

A display at The National Library’s Yeats exhibit © Hilary Nangle

As we discussed our sightseeing plans over tea at the Shelbourne Hotel, our itinerary morphed from general tourism to literary bender. The Guinness Storehouse (touristy but fun and worth it for the tasting and views), Christ Church (I was especially eager for the Thursday food-vendor market) and Kilmainham Gaol (deemed shudder-worthy) were on our list, as were the Yeats exhibit, pub crawl and, of course, viewing the Book of Kells at Trinity College. If that wasn’t enough, Vivienne sprinkled a few more possibilities into the pool. “The Marsh Library is attached to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It’s associated with Jonathan Swift, who was dean there, and is reputed to be haunted by a woman who was spurned by Swift,” she said. “And the Chester Beatty Library was founded by a philanthropist businessman who had a huge collection of Asian books and artifacts.”

The must-see list grew again as we made notes after a walking tour with guide Sean Finegan the next day. We’d briefly visited the National Museum, touring only the Celtic gold exhibit, and longed for more time there as well as at the National Art Gallery, which he raved about. We also wanted to return for a reading at Sweny’s Pharmacy, where the lemon soap Leopold Bloom purchased in Ulysses is still sold. Sean left us oohing and aahing at the late-18th-century Georgian townhouses with their much-photographed doorways at Merrion Square; Wilde lived at No. 1, Yeats at No. 82. Before scurrying off, he’d suggested we also make time for the Writers Museum and lunch or tea at The Winding Stair bookstore/café: “It’s easy to find; it’s just the other side of the Ha’penny Bridge.”

Over a fresh-from-the-sea shared seafood platter at The Cliff Townhouse, we’d roughed a cram-it-all-in itinerary for our final day. Following the concierge’s advice, we queued before opening for the Book of Kells, on view in Trinity’s early-18th-century Old Library, slipping in before the tour buses arrived. Trinity, founded in 1592 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, is one of the world’s oldest universities. Unfortunately, we spent far longer than the recommended 20 minutes immersed in viewing the displays explaining the book’s history and creation process.

I find the scents of centuries-old books far more intoxicating than alcohol, so we fell further behind when the Kells exhibit spit us out into the library’s 40-foot-wide, 209-foot-long Long Room. We drank in the soaring hall peppered with sculpted busts of learned men such as Homer, Plato, Aristotle and Swift; watched clerks scramble up spiral stairs and ladders accessing stacks on the upper-level gallery; viewed exhibits highlighting rare books and printing and binding techniques. “We’ll have to make up for it at the Yeats exhibit,” Jackie said, knowing full well that wasn’t going to happen.

After lingering with Yeats, we hustled to the Chester Beatty, located on the grounds of Dublin Castle. In “The Art of the Book” exhibition, we cooed over rare books, scrolls and manuscripts from Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, an American mining magnate who retired to Ireland in 1950, selected each piece for its artistic merit rather than its literary value. Treasures include Egyptian books of the dead, richly illustrated Islamic manuscripts, Chinese jade books, Japanese picture scrolls, European printed books and Old Master prints. Unlike the Book of Kells, we shared this exhibit with only a handful of other visitors. Again, we spent far more time than we’d planned.

From there it was a short walk to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which dates from 1225 and is where Jonathan Swift, dean from 1713 to 1745, is buried. A rehearsing boys’ choir provided angelic background music as we poked around. A quick glance at the watch and we rushed to the adjacent Marsh Library, which has remained in its original state since its 1701 founding as Ireland’s first public library. More than 25,000 rare and intriguing books are shelved on the original oak bookcases, each with carved and lettered gable. Again, we inhaled the scent of centuries-old leather as we viewed the three rooms, taking in exhibits and pausing to try our hands at using a quill pen.

As we raced to Christ Church Cathedral, we began sacrificing our darlings, scrapping both the Guinness Storehouse and the Gaol. By the time we left Christ Church’s 12th-century crypt, including a visit with a mummified cat and rat mentioned by Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake, we knew the Writers Museum, too, would have to await a return visit. Once we’d accepted that, we substituted the Dublinia, a museum housed in the cathedral’s former synod hall. Although a bit outdated and at times corny, it brought Dublin’s Viking heritage to life, and despite protests from our walking-weary legs, the views from the 17th-century stone tower were worth the climb.

It was well after 5 p.m. when we crossed the Ha’penny Bridge and poked our heads into The Winding Stair — too late for tea, too early for dinner. We meandered back toward the hotel through Temple Bar, both of us too exhausted to contemplate the pub crawl, but neither of us willing to admit it. Jackie tentatively proposed an alternative: “Let’s stop at some of the pubs we’ve been told are authentic and rich in literary history.” I grinned, and she consulted her notes, reeling off The Duke, Neary’s, Davy Byrnes and McDaids as possibilities.

Over pints of perfectly poured Guinness — as much an art form as a book is in these parts — we toasted what we’d seen rather than what we’d missed. “We’ll come back,” I proposed. “For a week,” Jackie agreed. I considered our propensities not only to linger but also to keep adding sights that piqued our interest. “Better make it two.”


International flights land at Dublin Airport (DUB). A taxi to downtown Dublin is about $26–40. City Sightseeing Dublin’s Hop-on Hop-off bus (about $24) is the easiest way to get around the city. An airport-transfer combo ticket ($32) includes transportation from the airport to downtown as well as a two-day city tour.

Where to Stay in Dublin

The Cliff Townhouse Housed in a late-17th-century townhouse, the nine-room Cliff Townhouse blends Georgian style with contemporary accents and amenities, including Irish linens and Donegal tweed blankets. 22 St. Stephen’s Green $$–$$$

The Shelbourne Dublin The Irish Constitution was drafted in 1922 at the 265-room Shelbourne Dublin, an elegant, steeped-in-history, 5-star Renaissance Hotel that even offers the services of a genealogy butler. 27 St. Stephen’s Green $$$–$$$$

The Westbury Hotel A member of the Leading Hotels of the World, this 205-room 5-star hotel, with contemporary décor and a fabulous art collection, is located behind the flower ladies on Grafton Street. Grafton Street $$$–$$$$

Restaurants in Dublin

The Cliff Townhouse Modern Irish cuisine with an emphasis on ultra-fresh seafood is served in an Art Deco-accented Georgian dining room, with oyster and Champagne bar, overlooking St. Stephen’s Green. 22 St. Stephen’s Green $$$–$$$$

Davy Byrnes Pub Toast Leopold Bloom, a character in James Joyce’s Ulysses, at one of Dublin’s most famous pubs, serving traditional pub fare with a few surprises; seafood is the specialty. 21 Duke St. $$

The Winding Stair Named after a poem by Yeats, The Winding Stair, located above the bookstore of the same name, overlooks the River Liffey and serves a menu drawn from artisan producers. 40 Lower Ormond Quay $$–$$$


FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.


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