Published: February 2011
By Gini Alhadeff
Despite the trying economic times, Dublin's bustling streets reveal thriving artists, novelists, cooks, and assorted raconteurs.
Dublin is a city of stories. I heard the tale of the man who lives in a trailer, worked as a tailor on film sets, and was studying the law, for instance; of the mystic who gave up a university post in Canada to be a gardener till the end of his days. I heard the tale of Mrs. Chairbre, who could hold 12 people spellbound with one bottle and her conversation at a pub; the day she died she was laid out at the pub itself while people stood vigil all night long by her open casket, drinking and telling stories.
As I listened to the radio while riding in cabs, it seemed as if an author was always being interviewed, and I thought of what the novelist Colm Tóibín had told me: “America may have Hollywood and Wall Street, the French may have their food, wine, and culture, but the Irish have their writers!” No. 1 Merrion Square was where Oscar Wilde lived from 1855 to 1876, and a monument, right across the street from his former residence, has him reclining in a green jacket with quilted lapels, one leg propped up, on a pink rock so huge he looks like a splayed insect. The blackened bronze figure of James Joyce—thin and wiry, in a longish coat, with a stick, thick glasses, and his crumpled, wide-brimmed hat worn at an angle—on North Earl Street is dignified by comparison. But these were just statues: I actually met a few of Ireland’s great living writers, among them the Booker Prize winner John Banville, a mischievous man in a suit and tie and a long, undulating blue scarf. His studio is just steps away from the Winding Stair, the restaurant where we met, and from the dainty, lacelike frame of the Ha’penny Bridge across which I’d walked. There really aren’t many better ways to have lunch than overlooking the Liffey with a fresh, char-grilled mackerel on your plate.
Banville was telling me about the moment when he knew that Ireland was no longer the place his American wife, Janet, had first known in the 1970’s. Nostalgic for a hamburger, she had ordered one and a “thin gray thing” had arrived. “We had little apart from potatoes, cabbage, and corned beef then,” Banville said. Things changed in 1992, “when we discovered that Bishop Casey—a big star when Pope John Paul came here—had had a mistress, that he had a 17-year old son, and had borrowed 70,000 pounds from the parish funds to pay her off. When that story broke we just said, ‘The priests are gone. Let’s start having fun.’ The Celtic Tiger was born out of Bishop Casey’s loins.” The Irish economic boom started in the mid-90’s and began to fizzle in the fall of 2008. With unemployment now at 12 percent and public debt on the rise, Ireland has suffered badly during the global recession. Nonetheless, the food was delicious—no “thin gray things” here. And no economic downturn, furthermore, is going to change the fact that conversation is the main commodity in this city.
Out the window of the winding stair the sky threatened a little rain, humidity seemed pervasive, women wore mostly black. All morning the sun had been unwilling to do more than flash itself between clouds, yet I was in thrall to its perfect light, which played like a silvery high note against rushing clusters of menacing cumuli—meant for other countries, not Ireland. Banville looked out. “I love this kind of weather,” he said. “You can get six seasons in one day.”
It seemed to me that the sky was practicing how to do with light what Dubliners do with words. No sooner had I landed at the stately and very cozy Merrion Hotel, in the heart of Georgian Dublin, than I set off to meet Antony Farrell, founder and editor of Lilliput Press, which publishes mostly Irish writers. From his roof, Farrell pointed out how much the Bay of Killiney resembled the Bay of Naples, with Sugar Loaf Mountain on one end standing in for Vesuvius. We could see the Guinness beer brewery right across the river, a huddle of tall, bulky cylinders with shining white caps producing what goes here by the sobriquet Vitamin G.
Downstairs, we stopped in at a tiny shop called Lilliput Stores, one of the many new outlets in Dublin offering delicately prepared organic food, and I went on to visit the Eileen Gray exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland’s decorative arts collection, an imposing 1702 Neoclassical complex. The show included family photographs, correspondence, lacquerware, tools, and most of the pieces for which this Modernist is best remembered. I encountered two of my old design favorites there—the E-1027, Gray’s perfect little round table in glass and tubular steel, and her side table with metal trays that can be used to empty out one’s pockets, or deposit a little book.
And then it was time for drinks. At Buswell’s, not far from my hotel and the luxuriant patch of riotous gentle vegetation at the center of Dublin that is St. Stephen’s Green, I headed for an empty table at the Georgian bar, all deep red brocade and mahogany. I’d been worrying about my teetotaling in Dublin. How would I fare in a city of drink, as I imagined it? A fair-skinned waitress came by to wipe the water rings off the table before me and I asked her, “What does one order if one does not drink?” She tilted her head thoughtfully: “You could always have wine.” My brother, who is married to an Irish woman, said he once found himself at a pub with eight shots of whiskey lined up before him—he hadn’t been able to keep up with whoever was buying.
At the long and narrow Cobblestone pub, in Smithfield, in the early evening and then again after dinner, musicians took turns depositing tall pints of Guinness before each member of the band. I decided that a Guinness, with its thick, coffee-colored foam, is the alcoholic cousin of a cappuccino. The harmonium player next to me banged his foot down hard to the beat. It was like being near a running engine, practically inside it, and the part of me that swayed my backbone and jittered my feet participated in the irrepressible production of rhythm. One man on a bar stool, who looked like the grizzled singer Joe Cocker, suddenly launched into a ballad about a sailor who puts in at a Spanish port where women with “dark eyes and dark hair” will “give you some more” even when “all your money is spent.” I couldn’t stop watching the intent faces of the two fiddlers, a man and a woman: they sat stock-still except for their arms and hands.
Early next morning I stood by the tall brick-and-copper façade of the Clarence Hotel, which was restored to its understated Arts and Crafts splendor in 1992. The hotel’s owners include Bono and The Edge of the band U2. A man in a top hat and tails materialized at my elbow. On closer inspection, I recognized the friend I had come to meet: the artist David McDermott, of the team McDermott & McGough, whose art mostly consists of pretending to live in preindustrial times, which includes moving through life in gentlemanly Victorian attire and making photographs and paintings. McDermott is an American of Irish origin; he became an Irish citizen after moving to Dublin more than a decade ago. What inspired him was the conviction that the city was a place where “you could get up, have your cup of tea, walk in the mist or rain, come home, and read a book—a place where you could be a scholar.” He’d come to the right place, he felt, because Dublin functioned as an old-fashioned city.
He’d offered to take me on a walking tour, and we began in the Temple Bar neighborhood, with its narrow cobblestoned streets and brick buildings. It is considered Dublin’s “cultural” quarter, with as many as 20 galleries, but also the Stock Exchange and probably a few too many pubs. One of the oldest, the Stag’s Head, on Dame Court, has stained-glass windows, a massive mahogany bar, and a snug—a small, enclosed space where women in the 18th century could drink and not be seen. Dublin is a hardworking town, which may be why, on Saturday nights, the streets flow with liquor and the sidewalks sway with revelers.
After St. George’s Arcade, a vaulted and skylighted mall, and the Powerscourt Townhouse, filled with cafés and shops selling antique jewelry, we entered a narrow alley and found Bewley’s Café. In the back were stained-glass windows, designed by the early-20th-century craftsman Harry Clarke, glowing with parrots and feathery foliage. Clarke was inspired by the windows of Chartres Cathedral and is thought to have died, at just over 40 years of age, from using toxic chemicals in stained-glass production. Suddenly, on South Anne Street, I came upon one of Dublin’s modern landmarks—the racing-green storefront of Sheridan’s Cheesemongers. It was freezing cold inside, and the two women working there seemed to be swaddled in several layers of clothing. The cheeses were displayed on long wooden tables and kept at a constant temperature of around 50 degrees—to ensure the “cheesiness of the cheese,” I was informed. I bought some St. Tola, an organic raw goat cheese made by Siobhan Ni Ghairbhith (I still wonder how to pronounce this) in Inagh, County Clare, and some Gubbeen, a washed-rind cow’s-milk semisoft cheese made by Bill and Giana Ferguson in Schull, West Cork.
When I emerged, my teeth chattering, the tepid air outside felt almost tropical. I walked around St. Stephen’s Green and onto Hume Street. The elegant Georgian houses had sober, whitewashed brick façades. There is an atmosphere of grandeur and ruin that hovers over some of these houses: on Henrietta Street, Dublin’s most intact Georgian quarter, the neighborhood’s changing fortunes have forced it to relinquish some of its gentility. But the buildings remain beautiful.
I’d been told about Michelle Darmody’s Cake Café, a restaurant in the Portobello neighborhood: the building was designed to be sustainable and with materials that were apparently “healthy and organic,” as indeed is the food. I sat outside, though it was drizzling and damp, because by then I was fairly addicted to that kind of weather. A woman with a baby strapped to her waist said something to the waiter and he returned with a hot-water bottle, not an unusual sight in Dublin. (Hot-water bottles in snug white Aran knits are even for sale at the gift shop of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Anglican church where Jonathan Swift, of Gulliver’s Travels, is buried.)
My white-turnip-and-tarragon soup had a faint fragrance of cloves and, after all that walking in the rain, was the perfect thing. Then a plate of delicious “snowflake” ginger cookies came—small, moist, dark, and packed with ginger. Everything was served on mismatched china. There were many more instances of Dublin’s interest in simple, locally grown food in the days to follow—at the Mermaid Café, with its schoolroom-like atmosphere; at the intimate Gruel; and, of course, at the Winding Stair, one of the most inviting public rooms in Dublin precisely because it is plain and unadorned.
Clad in a raincoat and beret the next day I mounted a bicycle the hotel had found for me and set off on a 20-minute ride to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, set in beautiful formal gardens. IMMA commissions site-specific works by an international roster of contemporary artists and displays them in a vast set of buildings that were once the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, founded in 1684. One building, where the stables used to be, now houses a set of studios in which artists are invited to live and work for a time.
The installation of Francis Bacon’s studio at the Hugh Lane Gallery is the next best thing to visiting the studio of a living artist. Bacon was born in Dublin, and his working space of 31 years in South Kensington, London—the original walls, floors, door, ceilings, and shelves—was transplanted here and reinstalled precisely as it was found after his death. There are 7,000 or so components, including 100 slashed canvases, 1,500 photographs, and a great many paint-splattered paintbrushes. The installation, done with the assistance of a team of archaeologists, is a work of art in itself, and there is something macabre and moving about this display of arrested furious energy.
I visited the Long Room library at Trinity, where one man waving a hand at the expanse of shelves packed with books from floor to ceiling asked the guard, “They read ’em, do they?” and the guard nodded gravely. I walked through Trinity campus, where Beckett admitted in a letter to feeling at home for the first time. At Marsh’s Library, Ireland’s first to be open to the public, I met Muriel McCarthy, the current librarian, a gray-eyed woman with a brooch twinkling from beneath one shoulder. She told me the story of the library’s founder, the Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, who believed that everyone should have access to books on medicine, law, science, travel, navigation, mathematics, music, classical literature, and, of course, theology. He hired a 19-year-old niece to be his housekeeper, but she stole out of her room one night to be with the vicar of Castleknock in a tavern, and was “bedded there with him—Lord consider my affliction,” Marsh wrote. She later regretted her actions and, it is said, wrote her uncle a letter, which she slipped between the pages of a book that he never could find. “His ghost haunts the library searching through the books for that letter,” McCarthy said.
I would have liked to see Samuel Beckett’s telephone at the Dublin Writers Museum, but on my last day, a cup of thick Irish tea in one hand, I couldn’t help lingering over the Irish Independent’s farming supplement, where I read an article about breeding techniques, ewes, rams, and lambs. It made me feel close to the source of food and of language. Before going to sleep that night I remembered Beckett in Molloy on the subject of the moon: “That movements of an extreme complexity were taking place seemed certain, and yet what a simple thing it seemed, that vast yellow light sailing slowly behind my bars and which little by little the dense wall devoured, and finally eclipsed.” Here was a sanatorium for the mind, I thought. Nothing really matters more in Dublin than spirits, and spirits to keep those spirits kindled.
Eat and Drink
Bewley’s Café 78-79 Grafton St.; 353-1/ 672-7720; dinner for two $40.
Cake Café 62 Pleasants Place, off Camden St.; 353-1/478-9394; lunch for two $26.
Cobblestone Smithfield Square; 353-1/872-1799; beers for two $9.50.
Gruel A faster version of the Mermaid Café. 68A Dame St.; 353-1/670-7119; lunch for two $17.
Jack Carvill & Sons An old liquor store with a beveled-glass cashier’s booth. 39 Lower Camden St.; 353-1/475-1791.
Lilliput Stores Coffee shop and gourmet grocery. 5 Rosemount Terrace; 353-1/672-9516.
Mermaid Café 69–70 Dame St.; 353-1/670-8236; dinner for two $92.
Sheridan’s Cheesemongers 11 S. Anne St.; 353-1/ 679-3143.
Stag’s Head 1 Dame Court; 353-1/679-3687.
Tea Room at the Clarence Hotel The prettiest room in Dublin. 6-8 Wellington Quay; 353-1/407-0813; afternoon tea for two $40.
Winding Stair 40 Lower Ormond Quay; 353-1/872-7320; dinner for two $145.
See and Do
Arbour Hill Cemetery The resting place of 14 of the executed leaders of the insurrection of 1916. Arbour Hill; 353-1/821-3021.
National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts & History Collins Barracks, Benburb St.; 353-1/677-7444.
Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane Site of Francis Bacon’s studio. Charlemont House, Parnell Square N.; 353-1/222-5550.