Dublin: Unpretentious and Magical

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Dublin, the capital of the Irish Republic, is not a big city. I don’t know why I thought it would be, but it has about four hundred thousand people. Dublin, in fact, was nothing like I expected. It isn’t grand; it isn’t fabulous; it isn’t stately nor venerable nor regal. Dublin, I have to say, met none of my expectations… but it somehow exceeded them all. Dublin may just be the most unpretentious and utterly charming capital city on earth, and I savoured every minute of the week I spent there.

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If I had to put my finger on why I enjoyed the city so much, it would boil down to just a few qualities: first, the gentle good humour of the Dubliners. Relaxed and informal, Dubliners don’t seem to have much patience for the putting on of airs. A quick wit and a flair for a good story will get you much further here than any kind of ostentation.

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Secondly, the Dublin accent must surely be the most beautiful in the English language. It’s soft and sensual and lilting and seductive, and my friends and I spent hours just walking the streets, listening for a particularly idiomatic turn of phrase that we would immediately set to work imitating. So much fun.

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And thirdly, this is a tremendously walkable city. It does rain a fair bit, but if you carry your brolly, you virtually never need to resort to any form of transit. And walk we did: first, to the National Archaeological Museum. The name doesn’t do it justice; this is a world-class museum of history and culture, and it is fantastic. They have bog people—need I say more? And gold. Fantastic early-Celtic era gold from the strange hoards that show up in peat bogs from time to time, and its simple, primitive beauty is arresting. The museum also tells the story of early Dublin, of the first Viking settlement and the great battle of Brian Boru. There is so much to see here, we ended up going twice.

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We did resort to local transit to take us to the nearby town of Howth (rhymes with both, or boat if you’re Irish). It’s a beautiful seaside village with spectacular cliffside hiking trails. I will not soon forget peering down from cliffs covered in heather, into deep green seas with porpoises swimming lazily by.

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More walking: to the Natural History Museum, or the Dead Animal Zoo as the Dubliners call it. This is a beautifully-preserved Victorian-era museum, from a time when all the stories were told through taxidermy. Young children squeal with delight as they run through the lifeless, lively exhibits. The gigantic Irish elk (an extinct member of the deer family, unbelievably tall) is worth the price of admission alone. Wait, there is no price of admission. It’s free, just like the Archaeological Museum. Apparently making the nation’s treasures accessible to all is a priority here. I wish Canada could say the same.

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Then there’s Temple Bar. It’s not a bar; it’s a district. Full of bars. This very old neighbourhood is where Dublin goes to drink (who am I kidding, they go everywhere to drink), to relax, to listen to music, to party. We stumbled by chance into Temple Bar our first evening in town. It was a Monday evening, and the streets were filled with music. The pubs were packed. Dubliners seem to have discerning taste in music: crappy street performers are largely ignored, but we walked by a young blues duo that had hundreds of people standing and applauding, beer in hand. We returned later that week, and squeezed into a packed pub for a pint of Guinness. The band was on fire, and the young crowd was singing, swaying, laughing, drinking. Nobody was over-drunk; nobody was fighting. We left after midnight, and found the proprietor standing at the door, shaking everyone’s hand and thanking us for coming. When was the last time you saw that in North America?

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My only regret: the Book of Kells. It pains me to give it the thumbs down, because the Book of Kells is a wonder. But after standing in a long lineup, paying good money, and seeing an exhibit (admittedly very good) about the book, you crowd into an utterly disorganized space to see the real thing. Everyone jostles for a glimpse of the tiny tome, and it’s chaos. After multiple attempts, I didn’t manage to see it. I did, however, mentally design a simple layout of bank-like stanchions to create a unidirectional flow around the book that would solve their problems in about four minutes, and I don’t even have a degree in rocket science. Fail. Total fail. Don’t go.

Aside from that wee sour experience, I can’t think of a single reason why you shouldn’t visit Dublin. So leave your fancy clothes at home, make your way to the city of James Joyce, walk the crooked old streets, and drink a pint or three. You’ll feel at home in Dublin in no time.

(Photos by Tom Ediger and Don Enright)

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