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Surprising Dublin

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

Photo: Cedric Angeles

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.

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