The Times, 2004
This is closer to heaven than I've been in a while - literally. On a brilliant, freezing day in Dublin I'm sitting in the Gravity Bar atop the Guinness Storehouse (part of the old brewery, now an imaginative visitor centre) drinking my first-ever pint of the black stuff - and a free one too, served with a shamrock 'carved' in its foam. The circular glass bar is styled to represent (from outside) the creamy head on Ireland's most famous export. I can't imagine any other place where a brewery would emblazon literary quotations all around on the vast windows, so you gaze at the panoramic view of this most beautiful of cities through the floating words of another great export, James Joyce. I'm sipping contentedly, oblivious to the happy drinkers, dipping into 'Dubliners' and Patrick Kavanagh from time to time. And it's all going down so well - since liquor and literature are twin sides of Ireland's soul, as well as the thriving tourist trade of its capital.
Though this is the land of my fathers, I have no real knowledge of Dublin. In 1967 I slept one night in the YWCA, after the Yeats Summer School in Sligo. In 1972 I came for two nights to a depressed city, for a newspaper story about IRA funds from America, and went undercover to a Republican bar which cheered when the TV announced British soldiers blown up in Belfast. In 1984 I flew in for a day to interview Seamus Heaney for The Times. But today's Dublin is rocking because of the 'Celtic Tiger' economic boom, and a favourite destination for stag and hen nights. 'It's really changed - and we need it' the taxi drivers tell you.
Modern Dublin is epitomised by the slick style of the Morrison Hotel. You know that, out there in traditional pubs they're still singing republication songs about the wearing of the green and that Dublin has its problems despite the boom - but the lobbies of the Morrison are darkly fashionable, its clientele prosperous. The Georgian Merrion Hotel is ultra-elegant, the Clarence lent extra glamour because of U2 ownership - but the Morrison is younger and funkier. However, we were in one of the large, new 'studio' rooms, and what do you know? All style over comfort. Who decided that a vast, glacially chic bathroom didn't even merit a heated towel-rail or decent shower-head, that there should be no a drawer or reachable shelf to stash your smalls, poor lighting, no dressing table, no desk light for those of us who need to work...? Memo to boutique hotel designers: neither enormous Apple computer, nor hair straighteners (for whom?) nor even delightful staff and great food, make up for a chilly, uncomfortable room.
Hotels do not a city make, when marvels like the book of Kells await. The first sight of the graceful buildings and spaces of Trinity College made me wish I'd studied there. Students who pass under the bell-tower are said to fail their exams, so it was pleasant to stand there knowing I would never have to take another exam in my life. But to be tested on the exemplary exhibition, 'Turning Darkness into Light,' would be a pleasure. This sets the Book of Kells and other Irish illuminated manuscripts in context, before you move through with awe to the thing itself - the miraculous survivor from about 800 AD, with its glowing colours, and intricate undulations. It would be worth hopping over to Dublin just for a day to see Trinity College and its most precious possession, and to walk along the Liffey in a pink of a winter afternoon.
There are many ways of approaching Dublin - museums (of course), shopping in Grafton Street, a pub crawl in buzzy Temple Bar, fine dining. We did some of it all. But Grafton Street, thronged for Christmas, disappointed me by being too full of predictable chain shops, and so I fell with delight on the eclectic wonders of Wicklow-based Avoca in Suffolk Street (wonderful clothes, accessories, food, throws and cushions, children's stuff etc) and some of the national outlets (like Kilkenny) in Nassau Street. When in Ireland, try to buy Irish, for what's the point of going to Habitat? Mind you, what must be the most classy Top Shop in the Western World, the new one on Stephen's Green, has made a point of showcasing some Irish designers.
'Crossing Stephen's, that is, my green....' wrote Joyce, and literature is my own path into Dublin - although, in this particular city, that's as predictable as a row of sweaters in M&S! What quirk of socio-historical chemistry produced so many writers in Ireland - some of them great on the world stage? We made a pilgrimage to the Henry Moore tribute to Yeats, tucked in a corner of the Green where yobbos hang out to swig beer, undaunted by the dancing, soaring figure. Characteristically, the bust of Joyce not far away gazes with a gimlet eye on the city he so disliked. You can go to see Wilde's house, the James Joyce Cultural Centre and Tower, the monument to Jonathan Swift in St Patrick's Cathedral - or wrap them all up in one by spending half a day in the Writers' Museum in a Georgian mansion in Parnell Square. Fascinating and essential for literati though this is, the displays need updating - for Ireland's roll call of greats goes on, and there should (for example) be much more than a bronze bust of Nobel prize winner Heaney
I thought a Monday to Friday visit gave plenty of time, but you can't stay on your feet forever - and a day when we saw Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin Castle and its brilliant Chester Beatty Library, followed by the National Gallery (the Yeats family pictures and so much more) was all but too much. The Ulysses exhibition at the National Library is the most brilliantly conceived and executed literary show I have ever seen, the Museum of Ireland is unmissable... and by Thursday I knew two things for sure. I'd fallen in love with this city of my blood, and need to return early next year, since the next state-of-the-art exhibition at the Library will be on Yeats.
On the last night we brought the two sides of Dublin together, on the famous literary pub crawl. Upstairs too in the Duke Pub, off Grafton Street: about 25 people from Australia, American, Sandinavia, England, Ireland, gathered to hear professional actors Derek Reid and Eithne Dempsey do their stuff on literature and liquor, then seque into an extract from 'Waiting For Godot', brilliantly performed. The tour was eccentric and whistle stop: they talked, we walked, drank and walked - and when we stood in freezing wind hearing an extract from 'The Importance of Being Earnest' under Trinity's Campanile, I thought devotion to literaturecould be tested.. We ended with a light quiz (tee-shirt handed out to a proud Aussie) and a Yeats lyric sung by Eithne in the bitter air, by way of farewell.
Much later, in the smart club 'Lillie's Bordello', mixed music thudded for a mixed group of people: all sequins and trainers. A British guy who looked about twenty was ordering bottles of Veuve Cliquot at £60 a time. Dublin's nightlife wasn't for me. So we walked back past Molly Malone's buxom statue, though Temple Bar and over the Ha'penny Bridge pausing to look down into the freezing water of 'Anna Livia Plurabelle' - the memory of Eithne's sweet voice enough to drown the distant shouts oif drunks.