Dublin: Lucky and Charmed

Befriending the locals in the world’s cheeriest city.  
Dublin: Lucky and Charmed 3
Greater Dublin is home to some 1.3 million people, but its core, as in the pub-filled Temple Bar area, remains engagingly intimate. Photo by Delpixart.

“Would you like to hear a song in Irish?”

P. J. Murphy sometimes surprises visitors with this question. “Of course, they can’t refuse,” he tells me.

We’re in Sweny’s, a Dublin pharmacy that features in James Joyce’s Ulysses (“Smell almost cure you like the dentist’s doorbell,” as Leopold Bloom muses). It’s no longer a working apothecary, but the mahogany shelves and woody whiff of books make me feel like I’ve stepped over a cordon into a museum exhibit. Murphy is one of the volunteers, entertaining visitors with lunchtime readings, freewheeling chats, and alarmingly forensic references to Joyce. He’d talk the hind legs off a donkey.

“If you open that book there on page 151, you’ll find the third verse of ‘The Lass of Aughrim,’ ” Murphy says, pointing out a copy of Dubliners to an Austrian couple who stumble into the time capsule. “I’m going to sing it for you now.”

And he does, whipping out a guitar that, he says, was left behind by an Italian student (everything has a story in Sweny’s).

With his bow tie, lab coat, and Einsteinian explosion of hair, Murphy is part mad scientist, part literary professor. But he’s all Dublin. As we banter, another visitor drops by, an American woman browsing for a literary souvenir. She settles on a diary with an image of Joyce’s masterpiece as its cover.

“You can write your own Ulysses,” Murphy grins.

***

Call it a Dublin minute. One moment, I’m walking from the train station toward town, a route I’ve taken a thousand times. The next, I’m in a short story.

What is it about this city? I was born in Dublin. I work here. I’ve lived here. I regularly curse its winter greyness and lopsided development, its choking traffic and soaring rents. But then the magic happens. I want to find out if this really is the friendliest city in the world, as so many tourists say it is. And if so, what strange chemistry makes it that way?

Most visitors to Trinity College make a beeline for the Old Library and the celebrated Book of Kells, an intricately illuminated gospel completed by A.D. 800. But don’t miss the college’s Science Gallery with its brain-expanding exhibitions and cool café. The popular Temple Bar pub anchors the namesake district, which the author says is “a bit like a tiny Times Square.”

Most visitors to Trinity College make a beeline for the Old Library and the celebrated Book of Kells, an intricately illuminated gospel completed by A.D. 800. But don’t miss the college’s Science Gallery with its brain-expanding exhibitions and cool café.
The popular Temple Bar pub anchors the namesake district, which the author says is “a bit like a tiny Times Square.”

Dublin’s charm isn’t breaking news, of course. The path between Guinness, Trinity College, and the Book of Kells is well-worn. But its secret lies in the spaces between. I’ve known that since I was a student here, writing stories and playing in bands and squandering food money on Friday nights. Cleaved in two by the River Liffey (and with a juicy northside-southside rivalry), Ireland’s capital is an intimate and wonderfully walkable puzzle.

“What do you know about Irish food?” asks Ketty Quigley. Sheltering from spits of rain under the portico of the General Post Office, she is kicking off another Delicious Dublin food tour.

“Stew and potatoes?” someone ventures.

A generation ago, perhaps. When I was growing up, “Irish cuisine” didn’t exist beyond dishes like bacon and cabbage. As in most other Catholic households, fish was for Fridays and “fine” meant “French” dining. Now, we’ve realised the quality of Irish ingredients, from mouthwatering cheeses to smoked fish and mountain lamb, and we’re not afraid to have fun with them: Just try a scoop of the caramelised brown-bread ice cream at Murphy’s, for example. A new wave of chefs, restaurants, and entrepreneurs is creating casual spaces that click.

Our island nation is also finally embracing its seafood. “Before, you couldn’t get fish in this country without having a white tablecloth rolled out in front of you,” says Niall Sabongi, owner of Klaw PoKē, a new seafood joint on Capel Street that serves the trendy raw-fish salad.

On Quigley’s tour, I knock back a tart and punchy brew at Vice Coffee Inc. We taste Irish chocolates at Cocoa Atelier, fresh scones at Camerino bakery, and steaming trays of fish-and-chips at Super Miss Sue.

Like so much else with this city, however, food proves a mere entry point, an excuse to pull at every conversational thread we encounter along the way. Quigley is French, she tells us; she moved here from the Loire Valley about a dozen years ago.

“I fell in love with an Irishman,” she says. “So I stayed.”

Just a 25-minute DART train ride from the capital, the coastal village of Howth offers Dubliners sea breezes, cliff walks, and locally caught seafood.

Just a 25-minute DART train ride from the capital, the coastal village of Howth offers Dubliners sea breezes, cliff walks, and locally caught seafood.

I’m reminded of the standard Dublin greeting, “What’s the story?” You don’t have to answer. You can toss it back (“Not much. Story with you?”). Or you can get dishing (“Wait till I tell ya …”). Often shortened to a single word (“Story?”), it evokes the city’s literary chops, but also the casual, off-the-cuff creativity that lifts a good conversation.

There’s an Irish word, seoraí, which describes “the flourishes and stylish additional details in storytelling,” as translated by Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of Motherfoclóir: Dispatches from a Not So Dead Language. Those details are the reason that “two people tell a story, but one tells it better.” Case in point:

a) “The football player is tired.”

b) “He’d given it everything. He could barely run the length of himself.”

Dublin is a place where everyone is said to have a novel in them, if only they’d go home and write it.

***

Remember the financial crisis of 2007-2008? I do. That’s when my wife and I bought our house. (I’m still scared to look at the bank statements.) Recession spiked the city like a football, but it’s bouncing back.

“Five or six years ago everybody was afraid to say they were doing well,” Klaw PoKé’s Sabongi tells me. “They’d put their head down. But we’re out of the slump, outward looking.”

Inevitably you’ll run into a leprechaun. But cultural clichés no longer define Dublin, says the author. “Dublin is savvy and self-assured enough to absorb them, while also celebrating modern Irishness and creativity.” (top) ; Caryna Camerino of Camerino bakery on Capel Street moved to Dublin from her native Canada. “I don’t know why, but Dublin felt like home,” she says. “It just feels like conversations are waiting to happen.” (bottom)

Inevitably you’ll run into a leprechaun. But cultural clichés no longer define Dublin, says the author. “Dublin is savvy and self-assured enough to absorb them, while also celebrating modern Irishness and creativity.” (top) ; Caryna Camerino of Camerino bakery on Capel Street moved to Dublin from her native Canada. “I don’t know why, but Dublin felt like home,” she says. “It just feels like conversations are waiting to happen.” (bottom)

It’s not the only change. Ireland has voted to legalise same-sex marriage. Leo Varadkar has become its first gay taoiseach (prime minister). In Dublin the high-tech Irish Emigration Museum (EPIC) has opened in the Docklands; the National Gallery shows off a $35 million revamp. The Luas Cross City tram launches soon and a U2 museum may one day rock the city. Ireland’s capital is having a moment.

At Meet Me in the Morning on Pleasants Street, I wolf down a bowl of “Eggs & Greens,” built on leaves, artisan bread, and Gubbeen chorizo; it feels like a reboot of the Irish breakfast. Heron & Grey, the city’s newest Michelin-starred restaurant, is a 24-seater shoehorned into car trunk–size Blackrock Market. Fishy Fridays? Try organic rope mussels at the Fish Shop on Benburb Street. Something’s cooking all right.

Downsides? There’s a plague of gourmet burgers. And “New York–style” eateries. And doughnuts. God, Dublin really has hit peak doughnut.

“Is it yourself?”

Walking along South Anne Street, I bump into a colleague. He’s in a chipper mood, breezing by with leather satchel slung over a pink T-shirt, orange sneakers, and khaki shorts. It’s June, and the sun is splitting stones.

He gestures to his outfit: “I just said feck it,” he tells me. “The rest of them are there outside Kehoe’s if you want to pop over for a pint.”

It’s 4.30 on a Wednesday afternoon. I’m sorely tempted. Back in the day, I wouldn’t have thought twice. Kehoe’s, a warren of snugs, bars, and living rooms crammed into a Victorian house, is a rabbit hole. Go down there, and you never know when you’ll come out. “Sorry,” I say, taking a rain check.

“You’re grand.”

Sorry. Grand. The salt and pepper of our sentences. I push on, musing on the malleability of Hiberno-English. In Ireland, sorry can mean “Excuse me,” “May I have your attention,” or occasionally, “Sorry.” Grand means “OK,” “Not bad,” or “That’s fine” (it does not mean “great” or “magnificent”). We don’t do direct here. Or literal. We talk around topics, not through them. We’re embarrassed by compliments. We love casually devastating takedowns (“she’s big-boned”). We drive English like we stole it.

***

I meet Joe Landy, a retired farmer who volunteers with the Little Museum of Dublin’s “City of a Thousand Welcomes” initiative, in the Porterhouse bar. Ambassadors like him take tourists for a pint or a cuppa to answer basic questions (“What’s it like to drive on the left?” “What exactly happened in 1916?”). But mostly they just chat.

“I was with one couple about two weeks ago,” Landy says, “and the guy told me: ‘I want to retire to this country.’ I said: ‘Have you ever spent a winter here?’ The guy said he had, but that it has nothing to do with the weather. I said: ‘Well, what is it then?’”

“He said: ‘The people.’ ”

The popular Temple Bar pub anchors the namesake district, which the author says is “a bit like a tiny Times Square.” Photo by Bernd Jonkmanns/laif/Redux.

The popular Temple Bar pub anchors the namesake district, which the author says is “a bit like a tiny Times Square.” Photo by Bernd Jonkmanns/laif/Redux.

Visitors just can’t believe Dublin’s friendliness, Landy says. Dubliners are not Disneyland cast members. But their chemistry with visitors, the mix of Celtic charm and Mediterranean warmth—well, it can turn even the hardest of hearts to putty.

My encounter with Landy reminds me of a slogan on one of the museum’s T-shirts—“Dublin: Europe’s largest village.” It’s true. Some 1.3 million people live in this city, yet I always meet someone I know. Walks take me from Georgian squares to the European headquarters of Facebook and Google, but streets feel as familiar and overlapping as the lines on my hand.

In the Liberties, a historic working class neighbourhood, I pass pubs and Catholic churches and street vendors selling from prams. The smell of coffee seeps from a hipster café. At the rebooted Teeling Whiskey Distillery, hashtags are stamped on barrels, copper vats shining like exotic fruit. In its café, a construction worker sits next to me with white headphones on and a paperback on his lap. A cushion between us is embellished with a paraphrase of James Joyce: “The light music of whiskey falling into a glass—an agreeable interlude.”

I wonder what P. J. Murphy at Sweny’s would think.

With people under 25 comprising 33 per cent of the Irish population, youthful energy fires up Dublin’s shopping, dining, and entertainment scenes.

With people under 25 comprising 33 per cent of the Irish population, youthful energy fires up Dublin’s shopping, dining, and entertainment scenes.

At the Powerscourt Centre, a boutique shopping mall off South William Street, I linger in the concept store, Atrium. Years ago, I bought a pair of earrings here for my wife. We’d just been through the stress of replacing a nanny—or rather, she had—and I wanted to get her a gift. I found it in a pair of earrings the designer, Chupi Sweetman, had cast from a swan feather collected along the Royal Canal. A block away, Grafton Street is bloated with international brands. Here, I smile when I see the familiar swan-feather earrings next to new local goods ranging from Jill de Búrca’s hand-embroidered textiles to Pearl Reddington’s hot takes on knitwear.

There’s a svelte young shop assistant on duty, with a rustle of raven hair and a jet-black T-shirt. I ask after some of Reddington’s pieces. “That’s me!” she beams. The 23-year-old is gearing up to stock her first collection, she tells me, using Donegal yarns and a “colour story” of navy blues, greys, and neon yellows. Right now, she’s trying to boost her fledgling label. I pull up her Instagram on my phone, and together we flick through her twists on the traditional Irish geansaí (sweater).

Not long ago, Irish design seemed like it was reserved for museums and Duty Free stores. Now it feels like a living thing.

***

There’s only one place for me to wrap up my walks. I’ve had a flea in my ear about Kehoe’s ever since that chance meeting on South Anne Street. Now it’s Saturday, the stars have aligned, and I squeeze in through a side door. A singsong is under way in the upstairs lounge, the woods are worn, the wallpaper waxy, and sash windows let cool air in from the street. My friends have already arrived and are cradling glasses.

“How’ya, ya bollix!”

Ha’penny Bridge crosses the River Liffey, which divides Dublin into north and south (left); Craft whiskey is booming in the city at such places as Teeling Distillery (right).

Ha’penny Bridge crosses the River Liffey, which divides Dublin into north and south (left); Craft whiskey is booming in the city at such places as Teeling Distillery (right).

I smile, feeling a little yip of endorphins. Nobody’s sorry, everything’s grand, the ribbing has started, and we’re rolling back the years. I think that, yes, in moments like these, Dublin might just be the friendliest city in the world. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be cynical. We all will. But right now Dublin isn’t a place. It’s a state of mind.

Travel Wise: Dublin

Three City Walks Day to Night

Morning Mosey

Scratch that selfie itch at Trinity College before walking west down Temple Bar from Anglesea Street. Skip the pubs here for independent stores such as the Gutter Bookshop, Siopaella, or Indigo & Cloth, following Essex Street all the way to Fishamble Street, where Handel’s Messiah was first performed in 1742. Loop back to cross Grattan Bridge onto Capel Street, opting for soup and contemporary art at Mish.Mash or brunch with a Middle Eastern twist at Brother Hubbard North.

Afternoon Amble

Grab a tour (and a taster) at Teeling Distillery, the craft whiskey hub in Newmarket. From there, it’s a 10-minute stroll to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where you’ll find timeworn tombs and treasures like Jonathan Swift’s death mask. Continue east toward Aungier Street, refuelling with a takeout slice at Dublin Pizza Company or a doughnut at Aungier Danger.

Evening Stroll

Start with a pint of Guinness at the old-school Toner’s on Baggot Street. Take a deep dive into contemporary Irish food at the deceptively simple Etto, followed by a dash of classic Dublin glam at the Shelbourne Hotel’s Horseshoe Bar. Afterward, let your hair down on grungy Wexford Street, stopping in Against the Grain for Irish craft beers and Whelan’s for live music.

Where To Stay

The Dean

When it opened in 2014, the Dean gave Dublin’s boutique hotel scene a kick in the backside. Some amenities feel a bit gimmicky (we’re looking at you, mini-Smeg fridges), but bold splashes of contemporary Irish art and expansive views from Sophie’s rooftop bar are the real deal (deandublin.ie).

The Westbury

Run by the family-owned Doyle Collection, this grand dame near Grafton Street embellishes five-star opulence with local touches like an Irish afternoon tea, custom-woven wool carpets, and the urbane new brasserie Balfes (doylecollection.com).

Number 31
A hidden doorway on Leeson Close leads to one of Dublin’s best small hotels. The sunken lounge and communal breakfasts are highlights (number31.ie).

  • Pól Ó Conghaile is an Irish travel writer and author of Secret Dublin: An Unusual Guide.

  • Kieran Dodds is a Scottish photographer who has baby twins and recommends time off in Dublin.

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