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Surprising Dublin

The Spirit of Dublin, Dublin, Ireland, the O’Connell Bridge

Photo: Cedric Angeles

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.

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