Do go to Howth (pronounced ‘Hoath’), or any of the small towns nestling on the Western coast a mere twenty minutes’ drive from Dublin. You can also take the Dart, a standard train prettily painted in green and yellow, which takes a coastal route to the town through attractive suburbs with substantial sea views. Not many cities are such a short hop from the sea, and even a weekend visit to Dublin could accommodate a couple of hours of a coastal nature.
Howth has the benefit of perfect hiking-ground with steadily rising cliffs covered with heather, wildflowers and stubby, sweet-smelling grass as emerald as any golfing green. At their furthest point these cliffs boast sea views that stretch to a full three points of the compass.
A walk along Howth’s windy promontory, down by the quay, also stands you a good chance of a nose-to-nose meeting with one of the grey seals common to Ireland’s western shores. If you want to seal-spot, it helps to have a dog around – with their inbuilt bark alarms they are quicker off the mark than their owners in these matters, and the dull sheen of sealskin blends only too well with the sea.
If it is to your taste, Howth’s Catholic church is also worth visiting. It has several shrines, is attractive in a simply-painted, no-nonsense way befitting a community of sea-people, and is likely to contain churchgoers counting off their rosaries in an unusually lyrical and melodic manner that may be peculiar to devout Gaelic areas.
Do take in as much of the art and architecture on the streets as possible. An outrageously insouciant statue of Oscar Wilde lounges in Merrion Square, close to the rather fine Shelbourne Hotel which boasts one of the best addresses in Dublin.
Although she would not have been to his taste, Wilde is only a short walk away from a harassed and blowsily-dressed statue of Dublin’s favourite fictive pin-up, Molly Malone. Sculptures appear on many streets in the centre and they range from populist and folksy street-art to modern millennial commissions and older, classically grand affairs.
Dublin is a busy place, nowadays, and you are as likely to hear a British or Australian accent as an Irish one, so it is pleasant to be in the more serene vicinity of Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square, two of the last bastions of Georgian Dublin. Sadly, a substantial number of Dublin’s Georgian buildings were knocked down in the fifties, partly due to the controversial concrete-based work of Sam Stephenson who designed the National Bank and the Dublin Corporation Offices (also known as the ‘bunkers’) at Wood Quay.
Do drink coffee in Temple Bar on a Sunday morning. Although a haven for tourists and giddy young folk, Dublin’s equivalent of Covent Garden has pretty streets and architecture, and is a charming place to people-watch and consider what to do next. After all, man cannot live by art and literature alone. It is also fair to say that the Dubliners have feelings for coffee; many restaurants and cafes in the centre have gleaming Italian machines that span entire walls and are testaments to the diligent application of that other black stuff’s production.
Do ask why Dublin’s police are called gardaí when so many of the words for the authorities are not Gaelic. Your innocence will become you, and you will be bound to enter into all manner of interesting conversations from this innocuous starting-point. Incidentally, Gardaí is a contraction of Garda Síochána or ‘keeper of the peace’. The Gardaí were formed in the 1940s, and from the outset it was decided that they be an unarmed police force.
Do visit the Irish National Gallery on a rainy afternoon – of which, in Dublin, there are sure to be a few, unless you visit in May or September.
The layout is currently rather confusing, due to the inclusion of the new Millennium Wing with its lofty atrium. However, along with a section devoted to Irish art, all the usual suspects are there: the Dutch and Flemish masters, the Baroque masters, British art featuring Gainsborough amongst others, and also the Impressionists and the Barbizon school who left their studios to paint from nature.
For those who have thus far avoided the crowds at the British National Gallery’s Turner exhibition, the Irish National Gallery hosts a temporary Turner exhibition every January and is currently displaying a collection of his watercolours.
Do go to Glendalough, which is only an hour’s drive (or coach ride from St. Stephen’s Green) away from Dublin. How could you not? Hemmed in by some of the most beautiful river-threaded hills in all of Ireland, Glendalough is a monument to Ireland’s historically nature-rooted, animistic approach to Christianity. The monastery here combines elements of faith and nature to conjure up ‘Ireland’ better than any tourist brochure.
Even a short visit of an hour or two will be sufficient time to explore the old monastery, the lower lake and ‘St Kevin’s Cell’, a hermit hideaway belonging to possibly the only saint ever to have hurled an insistent female stalker off a cliff to her death and still have received a canonisation.
Do place an emphasis on memories rather than tangible souvenirs. If one is pushed for time on a visit to a particular place there can be a terrible predilection for buying the things one feels one ought to buy, almost in order to prove that one has been there, and a person can end up feeling a little done out of a genuinely enjoyable visit in the process. If you must buy presents, make them food or glass or some form of craftsmanship to support Irish artisan work.