Dublin and a rare oul' time

 

What do foreigners make of our main city? Adam Harvey, an Australian, takes his family sightseeing

IT'S 9.30AM ON AN overcast Sunday, and my four-year-old son has decided what Dublin tourist attraction he wants to do. We are among the first passengers to climb aboard a big red double-decker bus on St Stephen's Green. We give the driver €15 each, walk past a giant roll of green toilet paper and climb the stairs to the top deck.

Other early risers have nabbed the seats beneath the awning, so we sit a little farther back and plug in our headphones for the audio tour. Static. We shift seats. I sit in a puddle. That explains the toilet paper. I collect some paper, wipe the seat down and plug in again. More static. We repeat the exercise a few more times. Finally, somewhere along Dame Street, the recorded commentary kicks in. " . . . Dublin Castle. With its grounds and its cafe, it's well worth a visit." Then there's a screech of static and a tinny version of Danny Boy.

Thirty minutes later I've learned a lot about this wonderful city - mainly that it's too cold in winter to ride an open-top bus.

Teeth chattering, we zoom through the enormous Phoenix Park, where we're told about one of Ireland's most famous inhabitants, the MGM lion, which was born at Dublin Zoo. We'd like to stop and visit his descendants, but it's too cold to stay outside, so we get off at the next spot that's likely to have heating: the National Museum of Ireland's decorative-arts-and-history branch, at Collins Barracks.

Were it warmer, I don't think I could have talked my wife into entering what is in part a military museum, but she's happy enough once she spots a sign pointing to a coffee shop. Rory spots a picture of an aircraft and leads the charge through the former barracks' maze-like passageways to find the real thing. He stops in his tracks at the IRA section and picks up one of three rifles that are resting on the ground, pointing towards a blank television screen. We unleash our inner republicans, pointing our rifles and imagining which villains might normally be displayed on the target screen: Cromwell? Black and Tans? The person who introduced open-top buses to Dublin?

We find the aircraft, as well as an impressive Viking longship - which, we note, is also open-top - then take a family vote outside the barracks and decide to sacrifice our hop-on-hop-off bus rights in favour of the gleaming Luas that's humming down the rails towards us.

It's a hit. Fast, clean and warm. Strangely, the tram is full of people wearing tracksuits. Are they all heading into town to go to the gym? Why are they wearing Ugg boots?

We disembark somewhere near the Ha'penny Bridge and cross over the Whiffey. Er, Liffey. As we stand at the top of the bridge, admiring the buildings fronting on to the river, a man comes and orders a beggar to leave before sitting down on the spot and pulling out his own begging cup.

On the other side of the river, in Temple Bar, all the stories we've heard about drunken stag nights and "pavement pizzas" prove inaccurate. The place is spotless, and everyone at the outdoor market in Meeting House Square is dead sober.

It's about six degrees, so I don't stand around and fondle organic beetroot. Instead I duck into the National Photographic Archive, where there's a stunning exhibition of colour photographs taken in Ireland in 1913 by two Frenchwomen, Marguerite Mespoulet and Madeleine Mignon-Alba.

They used eight-second exposures, so their subjects had to be perfectly still. A breath of wind could ruin the frame, which meant it took a long time for the women to complete their work in Ireland.

Over and over again, captions refer to the foul conditions: "The weather was terrible . . ." "We are just about able to set the camera . . ." "The blinding rain . . ." "This was taken between two showers."

It makes me feel better about the conditions outside. I walk to a market stall to take a shot of hot apple cider with a complementary nip of whiskey. A nearby stall sells freshly shucked west-coast oysters, which are nice and briny, and the little plastic glass of cider warms the cockles.

It's another Dublin myth exposed. The food here is great. I'd go back to every place we eat at. Armed with a copy of the Bridgestone guide and locals' recommendations, we eat at three restaurants over three days: excellent Thai food (and Vietnamese coffee, made with authentic tin drip filters and condensed milk) in Saba, the best bangers and mash I've ever eaten at Bang Café, off St Stephen's Green, and upmarket seafood and an excellent bottle of Australian Verdelho at the Mermaid Café, on Dame Street.

If I were in Sydney I would have a heart attack at the prices, but this is Dublin, and the bills seem reasonable enough for this very expensive town: €70 for three people at Saba and Bang, and €165, including wine but without desserts, at the Mermaid Café.

We walk around town to work off the food: the hands-down highlight is the Grand Canal. The waterway is an oasis among the busy city streets, and it would be even better if you didn't have to run the gauntlet of traffic every few hundred metres. A bench in memory of Patrick Kavanagh encourages the passer-by to commemorate the poet "where by a lock Niagariously roars / The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence / Of mid-July."

This being the opposite end of the year, we don't sit for long.

The canal goes past the front door of our hotel, the Hilton Dublin, on Charlemont Place, which has just about everything you want from a city hotel: nice rooms, a great buffet breakfast and a quiet spot near the Luas line.

It's a five-minute tram trip into Grafton Street for the 7.30pm Dublin Literary Pub Crawl. Colm Quilligan, our guide, kicks off with a song - Waxie's Dargle, with cheerful lines such as "When food is scarce and you see the hearse / You'll know you've died of hunger" - then takes us from the Duke pub through the cobbled square of Trinity College and into several pubs in a nearby maze of narrow streets.

He quotes at ease from Joyce, Behan, Beckett, Yeats and even James Larkin and Flann O'Brien, and although he must have said it all 1,000 times Quilligan is witty, enthusiastic and informative, happy to veer off the mark and into subjects that wouldn't be covered by the city's tourist brochures, such as Eamon de Valera's signing, in 1945, of a condolence book for Adolf Hitler.

Quilligan's literary tour has everything that was lacking from the recorded commentary on the bus: detail, personality and, once the group is tucked inside a quiet pub, warmth.

City ups and downs

The wonderful
The grand Georgian streetscape of Harcourt Street.
The endless, almost empty Phoenix Park.
The Luas. Public transport that glides seamlessly through the city in a way that no bus or train could.
Poets' Corner on the Dart. Digesting Seamus Heaney while gazing out at the squalls on Dublin Bay.
The Patrick Kavanagh bench on the banks of the Grand Canal - not the one with his statue but the wooden one with his words.

The weird
The human-statue buskers on Grafton Street. What's it all about? Why do people bother watching them?
Concrete-coloured houses. What have Dubliners got against paint?
The tragic U2 graffiti outside the band's Hanover Quay recording studio. "U2 is my God" and worse.

And the woeful
The rubbish everywhere:  the bicycles in the Royal  Canal, the plastic bottles rattling about the floor of the Dart.
The sign in the canal beside Croke Park warning swimmers to beware of disease-carrying rats.
Inner north Dublin. Has this part of the city been condemned? Even the new buildings look abandoned and rundown.
St Stephen's Green and Phoenix Park are great, but where are the small corner parks? You could walk past 1,000 pubs and never spot a swing or a slide for the city's children.

Go there

Where we stayed
Hilton Dublin, Charlemont Place, Dublin 2, 01-4029988, www.hilton.com. Hilton's two-night mini-breaks include dinner on the first night and breakfast each morning. Under-18s stay free in their parents' room. Under-10s stay, eat and drink for free. Second rooms booked for children are charged at half-price. There's a 30 per cent discount for booking 21 days in advance.

Where we ate
Bang Café. 11 Merrion Row, Dublin 2, 01-6760898,  www.bangrestaurant.com
Mermaid Café, 69-70 Dame Street, Dublin 2, 01-6708236,  www.mermaid.ie
Saba, 26-28 Clarendon Street, Dublin 2, 01-6792000,  www.sabadublin.com