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Street Talk

by Sarah Shuckburgh

In the city of poets and writers, it's appropriate people find time to converse, says Sarah Shuckburgh.

All weekend, I have this tune on my brain. I hum it, murmur it, sing it aloud, while around me, the words come to life – for here I am in Dublin’s fair city.

Dublin contains an intriguing mix of old and new, and of streets broad and narrow. Wedged between bars and boutiques, barbers’ shops still have red and white striped poles, and offer “Hot Towel Shaves”. Down narrow cobbled alleys, locals gather in pubs where the décor hasn’t changed for a hundred years. But sleek new trams - named ‘lus’, Gaelic for ‘speed’ - hurtle across town; and Grafton Street, a dingy alley in the early 19th century, is now a premium shopping street, with rents as high as in Fifth Avenue, Oxford Street and the Champs Elysées. After centuries of migration from Dublin in search of jobs, workers are arriving here in their thousands, including many from China. The city now has one and a half million inhabitants - a quarter of Ireland’s population - but it retains the delightful feel of a small town where everyone knows each other and has time for a chat.

On our first morning, we take the hop-on-hop-off sight-seeing bus. The guide, Paddy, feels like our best friend after 2 minutes, and his jokes come thick and fast despite the sobering history of Protestant oppression. We crane our necks at the statue of the Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, and at Trinity College, founded by Queen Elizabeth I to educate a Protestant elite, and until 40 years ago barred to Catholics except with the archbishop’s permission.

I still have that tune on my brain as I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone, her voluptuous, wasp-waisted statue poised over a bronze barrow. The ‘tart with a cart’, as she is affectionately known, was a real Dubliner, who sold cockles and mussels and died of a fever in 1737.

We hop off the bus to peer at the exquisitely illuminated pages of the medieval Book of Kells. But if you’re short of time, my advice would be to avoid the crowds and the gift shop and go instead to the wonderful and little-visited Chester Beatty Museum inside Dublin Castle. Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, an American ‘prince of benefactors’ and Ireland’s first honorary citizen, built up the world’s largest private collection of rare books and manuscripts, which he bequeathed to the city of Dublin. In quiet, carpeted galleries, we gaze at Coptic bibles of 600AD, an illuminated Walsingham bible of 1153, medieval choir books from Italy, a Byzantine gospel from 1100, jewelled bibles, travelling bibles, and 14th century gilded miniatures. There are rare jade books from imperial China, bark books from Sumatra inscribed with twig pens, ancient Japanese calligraphy, Islamic books of 13th century geometry and astronomy. Unhurried videos show modern craftsmen and women illuminating manuscripts, applying gold leaf, and binding volumes. The films have no soundtrack except the sounds of scuffling or pasting. It is mesmerising. And entrance is free.

Back on the bus, with another witty guide, we drive down boulevards of red-brick, flat-fronted terraces, with fan-lights above the doors, tall sash windows and wrought-iron balconies - the elegant legacy of the ‘wide road’ policy of the Georgian era. We alight at 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street, for a glimpse of a late 18th century middle class house, where a widow lived with her 7 children, a housekeeper, and three daily servants. It is fascinating, but despite the collection of period furniture and knick-knacks, I find it hard to imagine the daily life of such a large household. Only much later, after two pints of Guinness, will I be able to picture it clearly.

Humming “Alive, alive-oh”, we now head for what locals call the Dead Zoo. The Natural History Museum is a wonderful time-warp, completely untouched by modern curating fads or interactive computing. The elegant 19th century building is crammed with polished mahogany cases of stuffed animals in unfashionably naturalistic settings. The world’s largest elks, preserved in peat bogs since the last ice age, sport antlers spanning 4 meters, and tower above hundreds of glassy-eyed modern specimens. There are Irish basking sharks, Dingle coast crabs three feet across, fat pike from inland lochs, lobsters from the Irish Sea. Upstairs, three tiers of wrought-iron balconies surround another fantastic display of skeletons and stuffed corpses, stacked one above the other against every wall. From the glass roof dangles a fin whale from County Cork, and a smaller humpback whale from County Sligo. Creaky wooden landings lead past flocks of black grouse and huge capercaillies, jars of pickled fish, frogs, worms, and Irish sponges, stuffed snakes (not native to Ireland, because St Patrick banished them all), tiny birds of paradise – their feathers faded to muted colours – and huge condors.

Exhausted, we sink a pint of Guinness in the Stag’s Head – a lovely pub, all 19th century mahogany, marble and stained glass. Everyone greets us as we arrive and says goodbye as we leave. After another pint in the equally atmospheric Palace Bar - James Joyce’s local - I nearly fall down the steep stairs to the loo, and we decide that it must be suppertime.

I love traditional Irish food, but Guillaume, my French husband, is not so sure. He looks longingly at restaurants serving Chinese, Italian, Thai and Indian food, but I insist on champ, colcannon, coddle and boxty – mashed potato and soggy cabbage in various guises. These comforting, unpretentious dishes remind me of my childhood in the 1950s, when cooking was plain and predictable.

We end up at Gogarty’s, a jolly restaurant on the second floor of a pub on Temple Bar. Guillaume enjoys his Dublin Bay prawns, and even eats some of his cabbage (although he says a little nutmeg would help). I find myself tackling an alarming Irish stew containing most of a sheep, still on the bone. Within minutes, fellow diners start chatting – one man has just come from the funeral of his 103-year-old mother, a splendid day, by his account, just a week off her 104th birthday, and attended by her seven surviving children, and by dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren – some of whom are drinking downstairs and occasionally come up to say hello. As I attack my mutton (which is delicious) we hear fascinating tales of his Dublin childhood in the 1930s, of the death of his father when he was four, and of his mother’s struggle to bring up her children alone. His vivid stories blend in my mind with the widow who lived with her seven children at 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street, a hundred years earlier. After supper, we all adjourn to the floor below, where musicians are playing fiddles, pipes and drums, and the atmosphere is electric – revellers of all shapes and ages are dancing, clapping, singing along. “Dubliners enjoy the craic,” explains our new friend.

Like Molly Malone, today’s Dublin girls are so pretty – and many of them seem to be about to get married. Out on the street, there are dozens of hen parties, giggling teenagers in matching feather headdresses, with the brides-to-be wearing veils over their sequinned tank-tops, and lacy garters over their jeans. Bare arms punch the air as they dance to music ringing from pubs all along Temple Bar.

Smoking is banned in Ireland’s pubs, and the new law has been cheerfully embraced by Dubliners. Outside every bar, ashtrays, sponsored by anti-smoking products, are crammed with fag-ends. But most pubs serve no food, and by now everyone is drunk. As we pass a group of lurching merrymakers, the Garda are gently suggesting that they make for home: “Sure you’ve taken too much drink, so you have”. From our hotel room, we hear drunken shouts long into the night.

On Sunday morning, the sound of seagulls and bells fill the air, and we decide to go to church. Dublin boasts two imposing 12th century cathedrals, whose choirs – normally arch-rivals - combined to give the first performance of Handel’s Messiah. St Patrick’s Cathedral is said to be built on the site of the first conversion by Ireland’s patron saint – a legend supported by recent archaeological evidence of a 5th century well beneath the cathedral green. In the crypt of nearby Christchurch, we watch a video explaining Dublin’s tangled religious history, which has left the predominantly Catholic city with two magnificent Protestant cathedrals, but little important Catholic architecture.

At lunchtime, we head for Gallagher’s Boxty House, with scrubbed floorboards, shelves of books and religious trinkets, blazing wood-stoves and a soundtrack of Irish fiddles. We sit with other diners at long wooden tables, and tuck into cabbage and potato pancakes. Everybody is talking. I wonder whether this verbosity perhaps explains why Dublin has produced so many writers – Samuel Beckett, Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Brendan Behan and many more. The current Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney, now lives here too.

We walk off our lunch by striding to the Guinness factory and soon breathe the smell of hops. The patch of land acquired by master brewer Arthur Guinness in 1725 (for £45 a year, on a 9000 year lease), is now a bleak 63-acre complex of grey silos and red and yellow brick vat-houses, where 4 million pints of stout are brewed every day. The museum, spacious and arty, illustrates the complex brewing process, with waterfalls and piles of grain, old machinery and vintage advertisements. Fascinating films (screened inside Guinness barrels) show coopers making traditional casks – hacking, steaming, scorching and hammering. The exhibition winds up through a 7-floor building, and after the Social Awareness section – on the dangers of drink - we are ready for our free pints of stout in the panoramic Gravity Bar.

In the distance, the 300-foot-high O’Connell spire reflects the afternoon light, one minute gleaming silver against a steel grey sky, the next, inky black against pale cloud. I stop humming for a moment, and crack a feeble joke - about how the dark stuff warms the cockles of our hearts, and relaxes our muscles. We raise our glasses to Dublin’s fine city.

First published by Travel Intelligence Ltd

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