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Dublin Gets a Makeover

When word first spread through Dublin that members of the rock band U2 were planning to buy the Clarence, a dilapidated hotel in the Temple Bar neighborhood, and turn it into an upscale crash pad, visions of outdated excess danced in Dubliners' heads. The decoration would make Vegas look refined; televisions would fly through the windows; and the police would have to clear the street whenever the band shot videos on the roof.

So I decided to check it out before the vice squad shut it down. I hadn't visited Dublin in a few years, but I knew that for some time the ramshackle Temple Bar area, on the banks of the Liffey, had been scheduled for demolition to make way for a mammoth bus depot. There were only a few restaurants and shops back then, and a handful of pubs frequented by hard-core fans of Gaelic football-the national pastime, an amalgam of soccer, rugby, and the Road Warrior movies.

A friend living in Dublin told me that Temple Bar had changed dramatically. Now called "Dublin's left bank," it's the city's hippest neighborhood. Flying over for the weekend has become the in thing for Londoners and Parisians. And the Clarence has added a little Hollywood glamour: since its opening last June, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner, and Michael Douglas have all checked in.

This renaissance of Dublin, where dark wood and brass have almost become dirty words, was still hard to fathom. After all, it's not your typical capital city. Dublin is intensely proud but defensive, eager to show you its beauty and charm but, in true Irish tradition, mistrustful of anyone too full of themselves—even U2, its rock-and-roll royal family.

I arrived at the Clarence at 6:30 in the morning, jet-lagged and skeptical, only to be hit by the certainty that the boys in U2 had ransacked a Terence Conran warehouse. The hotel was a symphony of pale brown with modest Art Deco touches. Tables were light pine; the darker leather chairs in the sitting room looked comfortable and unassuming.

Is this the usual lobby furniture?I asked the woman at reception. "As you can see we're extremely informal," she laughed. "Obviously, because of the owners"—no one at the Clarence ever utters the names of band members Bono or the Edge—"people in the entertainment industry want to stay here. We like to make them feel at ease."

She walked me down the hall to show off the Tea Room, an elegant dining room with a 20-foot-high ceiling. Dublin-born chef Michael Martin, who has worked with the Michelin-starred Roux brothers in London, is attracting attention for his determinedly un-Irish dishes such as quail with baby spinach. The Octagon Bar, instead of being the site of raucous jam sessions, looked rather sedate, with a fireplace and plenty of alcoves for tête-à-têtes. Either the rock lifestyle isn't what it used to be, I thought, or U2 has taken the Irish notions of quiet dignity and service-over-style to the extreme.

A few hours later, I awoke from a nap and stepped out onto the streets. Although Temple Bar has been compared to London's Covent Garden, I soon realized that it's more like a micro-French Quarter. The narrow cobblestoned streets teemed with a mix of tourists and Trinity students, impeccably dressed hipsters in Louise Kennedy (Ireland's answer to Anna Sui), and the jeans and T-shirt set. Music floated out of virtually every doorway-country at Bad Bob's, traditional Irish at Fitzsimons, the latest pop songs at the Norseman.

Wherever I turned I saw small, funky shops. Rory's Fishing Tackle, a wonderfully shabby nook that has anchored its corner for 37 years, was stocked with huge tackle boxes and shiny lures but nothing that seemed conceivably useful to those two French tourists poking around. I walked out, content to wander back in time, and ran smack into Condom Power, a decidedly un-Victorian boutique with the largest selection of prophylactics on the Emerald Isle.

In need of caffeine and sustenance, I spied a place called the Temple Bar pub, located before a curved street named Curved Street (the names seemed to typify the no-nonsense Irish nature). I settled in with a coffee. The bartender filled me in on the hot spots, as I watched bohemian types writing in notebooks or sketching on pads. Temple Bar has become the artists' quarter, and nearly 20 galleries are scattered throughout the compact area.

One of the most prominent is the Graphic Studio Gallery, on Cope Street, which frequently shows the work of contemporary artist Felim Egan, as well as that of newcomers such as William Crozier and John Graham. A small shop named the Original Print Gallery sells limited-edition prints, etchings, and lithographs by, among others, local names Felicity Clear and Siobhan Piercy.

A few blocks away is the Irish Film Centre, on Eustace Street. Opened in 1992, it quickly became Temple Bar's anchor. Local luminaries like actor Gabriel Byrne and director Jim Sheridan are regularly spotted making the scene. On Friday nights in summer, the center presents outdoor screenings in Meeting House Square to crowds of 400-plus.

This part of town has appeared on the big screen itself. Movie buffs might recognize Temple Bar's winding lanes and narrow streets from Tom Cruise's epic flop Far and Away. Several scenes from Michael Collins were shot there, and Neil Jordan is currently in town shooting his latest film, The Butcher Boy.

I shuffled down one of those winding paths, past the buskers playing earnest-but-bad renditions of Van Morrison tunes in Meeting House Square, and settled in at Gallagher's Boxty House, the place in Temple Bar for lunch. I was finding it all a little disorienting. Not just ordering lunch—a boxty is a type of pancake stuffed with meat, fish, or vegetables—but this idea of a new Dublin where pub dwellers blithely sip their Guinness as they watch Daniel Day-Lewis or Sinéad O'Connor skulk by. Just catercorner from where I sat, tourists were being suckered into the Thunder Road Café, a Hard Rock-style monstrosity. Down the street I could glimpse the new Internet cafés, Planet Web and Cyberia.

After lunch I checked out Claddagh Records on Cecilia Street. I'd heard it had one of the widest selections in the city, and being of Irish descent, I was curious to see what traditional music they stocked. I wasn't disappointed: besides the Chieftains and other stalwarts, there were more contemporary bands like Anuna and the Afro/Celt Sound System.

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