I feel the weight of the city on my shoulders as I stand on the first floor of a grand old Georgian house in Dublin and wait for the young French-Canadian couple staring expectantly at me to make the first decision of their whistle-stop tour of Dublin.
I only have an hour to share all the great things I know about the city, after which they will have just one day to take it all in before flying home: Dublin is the last leg on a four-month European adventure for the 21-year-olds.
Their impressions of this city, and country, will be shaped by me, so I suggest they go to the Leprechaun Museum in the morning before spending the afternoon drinking lager in Temple Bar ahead of some souvenir shopping in Carroll's gift shop and an evening meal bought in Abrakebabra and wolfed down on the Liffey boardwalk.
No, I suggest none of these things.
Before I make my suggestions, my charges must choose between the porter, the fancy tea or the coffee that the good folk at the Little Museum of Dublin have organised for us as part of our introduction to the City of a Thousand Welcomes initiative.
It was set up three years ago to introduce tourists to local ambassadors willing and able to promote the city. After an initial media blitz that saw 2,500 people declare an interest in becoming ambassadors, 600 made it through the process. Of those, just 50 are still involved. For one day only, I am one of them.
"We have done very little to promote the programme, but we have got some very good media coverage internationally, and that is where a lot of people have learned about us," says Simon O'Connor of the Little Museum of Dublin, which is housed in a gorgeous building overlooking St Stephen's Green. "In fact, the Sydney Morning Herald said it was the best free thing to do in Europe. Obviously we are delighted by such praise, even if I do think swimming off an empty beach in Sicily is a better free thing to do," he laughs.
The appeal for many tourists – apart from its freeness – is meeting locals. They pick a day and a time, and the information is posted on a private area of the City of a Thousand Welcomes website that only guides can access. The guides pick time slots that suit them.
The guides don’t know the age or the gender of the tourists, which O’Connor says is “a security measure”.
He also says the “randomness makes it work”. He recalls one match-up that saw an Irish man in his 70s taking a group of seven 21-year-old Finnish women on a tour. “As he was leaving, he said it was like he’d died and gone to heaven, and I have to admit that I was a little worried that the match-up was not entirely appropriate. But they mailed me when they got home to say they had the best time and it was a real highlight of the trip.”
Tips for the guide
He gives me some advice about how I should behave as ambassador. “First find out what they like to do at home, and then maybe think about what your perfect day in Dublin would include and start from there,” he says. His perfect day involves a swim at the Forty Foot, a 99 from Teddy’s in Dún Laoghaire and a pint and a toasted sandwich in Grogan’s pub. You’d never guess he was a southsider.
To help us on our way, O'Connor has vouchers for the Merrion Hotel, Bewley's or the Porterhouse for us to use. It is up to my tourists to decide.
“We figured all three were a good match for the programme because they are the best in class and just a few minutes from here,” says O’Connor. “I thought when we were starting out that the Merrion would be the most popular choice, but a lot of people want to go to a really busy cafe.”
I reckon my tourists’ decision will tell me a good deal about who they are. It is late on a Friday evening, and I hope they pick the pint of plain over the more sober options. They do, and I sense we will get on famously.
We wander down Dawson Street. They tell me they are interested in history. I point to the Mansion House and tell them this is where the first Dáil sat in 1919. This topic leads us on to 800 years of colonial oppression, the War of Independence, the Civil War and the Troubles, by which time we have reached South Anne Street. My history lesson is nothing if not potted.
I point out Kehoe's, which is heaving with locals skulling pints. It's a good pub with a fine pint of Guinness, I tell them. They nod eagerly but look suspiciously at the crowd. We wander down Grafton Street and I am acutely conscious of how, with the mobile phone shops and multinational chains, it could be almost anywhere in Europe. At least Brown Thomas and Weir & Sons are uniquely Irish, I tell them. "You'll not be going in there, mind you, not on your budget."
They ask what is behind Bewley’s and Brown Thomas. “Hipster haven,” I tell them – South William Street. “You have hipsters in Dublin too?” one asks. Oh yes, we had them before they were cool.
At the end of the street, I point to where Molly Malone isn't and to Trinity College. I suggest they call in and have a look at the Book of Kells early the following morning to avoid the queues. I also suggest they avoid the gift shop – it's beyond their budget. And then we get to the Porterhouse. They look warily at the Oyster Stout and Pint of Plain, but sip gamely all the same.
I ask what they would like to do and see. “History and music,” comes the response. They stress that they haven’t much cash and even less time: they plan to sleep in Dublin Airport the following night ahead of an 8am flight the morning after, 36 hours from now.
They are staying in a hostel off O’Connell Street, so I suggest they go to the GPO museum for a quick look ahead of their Trinity visit in the morning, and then wander up Grafton Street to St Stephen’s Green to feed the ducks. After that I recommend a quick visit to the Dead Zoo – or the Natural History Museum.
Fish and chips
From St Stephen’s Green, they should take the Luas to Kilmainham Gaol then back in to town for fish and chips from Burdocks, eaten in the grounds of Christ Church or maybe Dublin Castle.
After that I propose a wander through Temple Bar’s two markets – on Cow’s Lane and Meeting House Square – before heading up to the crypt in St Michan’s Church to hug mummies, and then on to Smithfield Square, where they can get a look at the Jameson observation tower.
From there I tell them to walk to the Botanic Gardens and Glasnevin Cemetery – they’re young and fit after all. If they walk, they will have money to buy a pint in the Gravediggers, which for me is the finest pub in Dublin.
If they follow my plan they will then head back in to Stoneybatter, where they can eat in L Mulligan Grocer’s and drink lovely beer and eat nice food in the company of hipsters. Their evening will end in the Cobblestone on Smithfield Square, where the beards are even more impressive and the music will keep playing until they have to head to their beds in the airport.
It is not my idea of the perfect day in Dublin, but it shouldn’t cost too much. I leave them to their stouts. I hope they had fun.