Dublin: Romance In The Éire

May 1, 2010
2010 / May 2010

There’s thunder rumbling in the distance as James and I dash, hand in hand, west from St. Stephen’s Green, bound for Auniger Street and the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church. It’s here that at least a portion of St. Valentine has found a final resting place, thanks to relics from Rome that were gifted to Dublin by Pope Gregory XVI during the 19th century. Good sport that he is, James has been married to me long enough to know, that faced with the promise of a departed saint, poet, philosopher or other teller of tall tales, a little rain is unlikely to dissuade me from exploration. For that kind of adventure, Dublin is a treasure trove.

A beguiling blend of ancient and contemporary, Dublin most likely originated as an early Christian community, repopulated by separate Viking and Gaelic settlements somewhere around 841, when it was called Dubh Linn. The city’s name translates to “black pool,” which pays tribute to the geographical — and quite murky — convergence of the rivers Poddle and Liffey.

While the Poddle isn’t readily visible, the Liffey remains a strong presence, running through the city and demarcating the historic neighborhood of Temple Bar. It’s here in Temple Bar, the city’s lively cultural center, where the strongest sense of old Dublin lingers. Stretching from the riverbank south to Dame Street, this quarter escaped the modernization efforts that began during the 18th century and which introduced Georgian architecture to large areas of the city. Today, Temple Bar’s narrow, cobbled streets and alleys — called slips — are still an accurate reflection of the city’s medieval street layout. This collection of neighborhoods has become a dynamic hub filled with galleries, pubs, shops and museums. In addition to a profusion of entertainment options including a wide selection of clubs, you’ll also find the Projects Arts Centre (tel 353 1 881 9613), Temple Bar Music Centre (tel 353 1 670 9202) and the Irish Photography Centre — a complex comprising the Gallery of Photography, National Photographic Archives and Dublin Institute of Photography (tel 353 1 671 4654). This is also the location of the Irish Film Institute (tel 353 1 679 5744). During summer months, films are screened outdoors in nearby Meeting House Square — the perfect spot for a starlight assignation.

We’re in Dublin too soon to enjoy the upcoming production of The Importance of Being Earnest — featuring Stockard Channing as Lady Bracknell — at the Gaiety Theatre (tel 353 1 677 1717) but lucky enough to be in town on a weekend. On Saturdays year-round, you can wander a maze of food stalls at the acclaimed Temple Bar Food Market, where a fabulous array of farmers, fishmongers, smoked-meat producers and other artisan food makers gather with their wares. We sample a variety of local cheeses, smoked fish and scrumptious pastries, leaving with a selection of ripe organic fruit and handmade chocolates for a picnic later in the afternoon.

East of Temple Bar and bordered by Pearse and Nassau streets, Trinity College rises magnificently from the city landscape. Established in 1592, the college houses Ireland’s largest library, with exhibits and lectures that are open to visitors. Historic, priceless manuscripts, including the lavishly illustrated Book of Kells, are on view seven days a week (some holidays excepted).

As we gaze at the richly colored drawings that decorate the ancient pages, the medieval legend of ill-fated lovers Tristan and Isolde comes to mind. In this story, the princess Isolde, the daughter of Angwish, King of Ireland, is promised in marriage to King Mark of Cornwall. Aboard a ship en route to her wedding, she drinks a love potion with her escort, the knight Tristan — who also happens to be King Mark’s nephew. They fall in love forever, though the princess keeps her promises and marries the king. Though it’s currently protected by a locked gate, the remains of a tower dedicated to the memory of the mythical princess can be found on lower Exchange Street, a block south of the river.

In Parnell Square north of the Liffey, close to the soaring Gothic edifice of Findlater’s Church, the Dublin Writer’s Museum (tel 353 1 872 2077) sits among a number of beautiful Georgian houses. Past the museum’s polished entrance, the city’s literary elite are immortalized. Manuscripts, typewriters and other memorabilia from past greats such as James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, along with modern-day writers including Sean Heaney, are on display. Tours are available, or you can wander the exhibits and peruse the bookshop at your leisure.

Our city agenda includes a visit to the massive structure of Dublin Castle on Dame Street, a site that frequently hosts concerts, exhibits and other events. The gardens of the enormous stone rampart are situated above the spot where the Poddle and Liffey meet and mingle. From here, it’s a short walk to Christ Church Cathedral. The original wooden structure, dating to 1038, was later rebuilt of stone by Richard de Clare, known also as Strongbow.

Also in the area is Saint Mary’s Abbey, accessed by a stone stairway leading from Meetinghouse Lane (tel 353 1 833 1618). Dating to 1139, only two rooms have survived. Local organizations including the Dublin Archaeological Society have put together an intriguing exhibit that makes the walk here worthwhile and fully justifies our next stop: a romantic afternoon Champagne Art Tea at The Merrion Hotel (tel 353 1 603 0600). Touted as the city’s most decadent afternoon tea experience, it features sweet treats and savories inspired by famous works from Dublin’s poets and artists. Served in the hotel’s lavish drawing rooms, the tea service includes such sumptuous offerings as raspberry and passionfruit tart, rosewater and orange mousse and mango panna cotta.

Buoyed by the Champagne, we make our way from the hotel to Merrion Square. A light rain has begun to fall, but Dublin’s tendency toward umbrella-swinging dapperness, rather than flash and dazzle, suits us just fine. On weekends, the square is filled with artists exhibiting their works. This late in the day, it’s quiet save for two magpies that greet us with their chattering. James says they’re expressing their approval of our arrival as a pair, since magpies have a tendency to mate for life.

A likeness of Oscar Wilde lounges rakishly on a nearby boulder, peering at us from above the crimson collar of his jacket. James winks at Wilde, and then leans toward me and whispers in his best Irish accent, “Come with me, grá mo chroí.” In Gaelic, that’s “love of my heart.” Just like Dublin, he’s pitch-perfect.


Info to Go

Depending on traffic, Dublin Airport (DUB) is about a 15-minute drive from the city center. There’s currently no direct rail link to the airport, so plan on renting a car, taking a taxi or exploring the bus and coach options. Among these are Air Link, Coach and Dublin Bus. Visit www.visitdublin.com.


Lodging

The Harcourt Hotel
Comprised of eight Georgian buildings, this is one of George Bernard Shaw’s former homes, located on St. Stephen’s Green. 60 Harcourt St., tel 353 1 478 3677, $$$

The Merrion
Award-winning property with 123 rooms, 19 suites, central city address and a truly fabulous spa. Upper Merrion Street, tel 353 1 603 0600, $$$$

The Westbury Hotel
Contemporary luxury with traditional Irish allure, located front and center on famous Grafton Street. Member of The Leading Hotels of the World. Grafton Street, tel 353 1 679 1122, $$$$


Dining

Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill
Irish celebrity chef Richard Corrigan serves classic Irish fare with a contemporary twist; daily lunch and dinner, Sunday lunch 1–4 p.m. 22 St. Stephen’s Green, tel 353 1 638 3939, $$$

Chapter One
Enjoy your rib of Irish Angus beef in the Michelin-starred basement of the Dublin Writer’s Museum. Lunch and dinner Tuesday–Saturday. Chef’s Table available. 8-19 Parnell Square, tel 353 1 873 2266, $$$

Salon des Saveurs
Make reservations well in advance for Michelin star chef Conrad Gallagher’s new tasting room. Lunch and dinner Monday–Saturday, pre-theater menu available. 16 Aungier St., tel 353 1 475 8840, $$$

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