A Day in Drogheda

New York’s pretty close to Ireland so I get a lot of requests from friends for what to see and do while they’re visiting. Itineraries almost always starts and end in Dublin and I’m happy to simply forward my list of Dublin favourites which I update anyway during each visit. Recently, however, I finally had a chance to share another list, covering where I grew up: in and around Drogheda. Of course, Newgrange was (quite rightly) the primary reason for the visit but there was a hotel booked, time to be spent in the town itself, and recommendations were sought.

_dsf0942

My list is reproduced below but, first, why was a request for Drogheda recommendations so long coming? As a large-ish, historic town situated only thirty minutes by train from the capital Drogheda could be flooded with visitors: smaller towns in remote parts of country (Kenmare, Lisdoonvarna, Carlingford, etc.) offer a lot more to visitors without having anything like the the mind-blowing attraction of Newgrange nearby. However, public transport is poor: the express train only runs a few times each day from a small station located almost 2km outside the town centre and those hoping for a bus onwards to Newgrange will, if they can find it at all, discover the schedule bearing little relation to the visitor centre’s opening hours. Consequently, Newgrange has become, for tourists, a day trip from Dublin before they hit the rest of the country rather than a short excursion from the town itself (a pattern repeated across Ireland but it does seems particularly unfortunate in the example of Drogheda, situated on a major train line so close to Dublin).

Thanks partly to this, Drogheda’s really only worth a half day or so in conjunction with Newgrange and Carlingford – but here’s how you can spend that time well (note that this list is short on pubs only because most of my friends back home live in Dublin – suggestions welcome):

  • You’ll get a good lunch at Bare Food Company on West Street, the town’s main drag.
  • Traders Coffee House, at the westernmost end of West Street near The Tholsel (now a tourist information office – formerly a toll booth, a bank, place of execution…basically, worth popping inside) serves the only decent (and occasionally very good) coffee in town.
  • See what’s on show at The Highlanes Gallery. They operate on strange opening hours so check their website first.
  • St. Peter’s Catholic Church, on West Street, is famous for housing the remains of St. Oliver Plunkett – specifically, his head. Free, and not as gruesome as it sounds.
  • View the Boyne Viaduct from one of the town’s many bridges. It’s a railway bridge connecting Dublin with Belfast and was one of the largest of its kind in the world when it was built back in the 1850s.
  • For dinner, go to Eastern Seaboard beside the train station. They offer good, modern Irish food and drink in a bustling, warehouse-like space. It’s as close to Brooklyn as you’ll find in Drogheda. Call ahead to reserve as it’s very popular.
  • If Eastern Seaboard is full, consider:
    • D’Vine on the quays north of the river (a few minutes walk from West Street). It’s a mish mash of Italian and Irish but pretty decent and serves local beer too.
    • Scholars Townhouse, a few minutes walk north of West Street. I’ve only been for Sunday lunch but it was excellent.

If it’s a nice day and you’ve a few hours to kill, consider walking or bicycling along the banks of the River Boyne on the Boyneside Trail. From town, you can access it from the Ramparts Park on the south side of the river. This will take you all the way to the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre and under the Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge. In fact, you might consider spending the morning at Newgrange before finding a ride down to the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre – roughly a ten minutes drive – and walking along the river into town.

Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge.
Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge.

Dublin Favourites #2: Ely

I could say “good pubs” but for several reasons Ely is a favourite. Besides, that would sound too pretentious. Of course, an awful lot of people seem to consider Ely a little pretentious. While they don’t actively dislike it, it’s bottom of a long list. Too fancy; too “Celtic Tiger”; too yuppy (and when did you last hear anybody use that word – it must really be bad!). I’ll side-step those fears with the simple observation that perhaps it makes sense to judge a pub or bar by the drinks it serves. I’ll even go out on a limb by suggesting that, in general, perhaps it makes sense to judge a business by the quality of its products or services.

At the risk of turning this into a rant (though it will serve to highlight why I like Ely so much), I’m careful to avoid saying Dublin pubs which, by and large, are a disappointment: Heineken, Budweiser, Guinness and Jameson do not a bar make and, despite living in a city where directions really are given in terms of pubs, Dubliners can count on their fingers the number of establishments that make an effort: the Porterhouses and “The Bull and Castle” for beer; Bowe’s and Brooks’ Hotel for whisky/whiskey; Olesya’s, Fallon & Byrne and, of course, the Elys for wine.

I’ll happily suggest going to all of the above at various times but – although it has inexplicably stopped serving O’Hara’s – Ely wins for its locations (a wonderful old Georgian house in the city centre and newer buildings in the docklands overlooking each of the canal docks); its interiors; its refusal to play loud music and, most of all, its book-like, often expensive but always fantastic wine list. I’ve also been known to enjoy their burger.

Dublin Favourites #1: The Beaches

No, we’re not Hawaii and I realise this may raise a laugh in some quarters but just think: from how many capital city centres can you walk out to the sea-side in just half an hour?

I won’t pretend the weather doesn’t put me off most of the time, too, but when it’s nice outside the beaches are absolutely without doubt my all-time #1 favourite thing about Dublin. Perhaps, however, I should be more precise and say the seaside. Sandymount Strand is actually the only Dublin beach I visit regularly; its low gradient affords it a vast expanse of sand (indeed, the sea is often miles out) upon which huge numbers of walkers spend sunny summer evenings in the shadow of Poolbeg Station, immortalised in every Dublin coastal painting in living memory. Combined with Irishtown Nature Park, it’s one of my favourite places in the world. BBC’s long-running series “Coast” made sure to visit Sandymount when they visited Ireland – worth catching on iPlayer when it appears again – in which a knowledgeable local makes the seldom-noted point that the beaches are one of Dublin’s best-kept secrets.

img_6316.JPG

Beyond Sandymount, a stroll through Blackrock onto Seapoint and finally towards Dun Laoghaire makes for the perfect summer walk: the end of either pier at dusk is rather like a very pleasant version of the end of the world where Armageddon has been averted and actually everything wrapped up pretty well. Usually shared with a handful of determined walkers, you can look out onto the bay across onto the islands just offshore and out further towards the possibility of foreign soil.

Joyce knew the power of the sea: it’s no coincidence Dublin’s coastline is so prominent a character in “Portrait of the Artist”, representing as it does Stephen’s escape from Ireland – escape from the city, for the rest of us. It’s no coincidence either that the DART serves only this hallowed (i.e. wealthy) stretch of coastline: though it may be hard to believe, Dublin’s suburbs developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries in a reasonably sane, sustainable, fashion along its then-extensive transport network. That not-sprawl started with the DART (running at that time only between Westland Row and Dun Laoghaire), the oldest and only surviving part of that network.

Speaking of the DART, I haven’t even mentioned Howth yet…

small_IMG_2159.JPG.jpg

Dublin Favourites: Introduction

I will admit there have been one or two angry posts here. Macbooks, the Popcorn Hour and certain films have all incurred my wrath down through the years – a laughable wrath, of course, and I’ve no doubt each has survived the onslaught. However, the venom directed at those items pales in comparison to what Ireland (and Dublin in particular) has injured: the weather, licensing laws, the airport and – of coursethe transport have all featured here many times.

I don’t want to retract any of those thoughts but, really, those posts don’t tell the whole story. After all, I’ve lived here almost ten years and if I was really that unhappy I’d have left long before now. A friend of mine enquired about my “Nothing But the Same Old Story” post from earlier this year, posing the excellent question of whether my proposed move was more push or more pull.

So, is Dublin all that bad or is it simply that other countries look so much more attractive? Upon (brief) reflection, it’s the latter. In fact, as I scan back through the archives here, I see many more positive posts than negative – that suggests a largely positive experience and so, as I finally do prepare to leave for fresh pastures, I thought it might be nice to leave behind something nice behind before I leave Dublin behind. Not a rant, but rather a rave.

Or, perhaps, a series of raves: as I wrote this post it soon became dangerously long, so – to paraphrase David Norris (who, come to think of it, should himself be one of the topics) – to save the audience from the risk of fainting from the boredom and give each topic its own post. A highly personal and perhaps controversial list – certainly puzzling to some – of the very best things Dublin has to offer with first in line being…the beaches.

Closing Time

So, in addition to all drinking establishments closing at 2.30am, off-licenses now have to close at 10pm. I knew this, of course, but it’s pretty annoying to be reminded after walking over 3km to one of Dublin’s few decent off-licenses to discover it already shut for the night.

Worse, I’ve made this mistake before – more fool me, I suppose, but this is Ireland, after all, and it’s bright until 11pm these days so I didn’t think anything of heading out for a walk at 9.30pm on a nice night like last night.

Simon Schama at the Dublin Writers’ Festival

Oh, that I could be so interesting for 5 minutes, let alone speak solo eloquently and intriguingly for 30 minutes in front of a packed Liberty Hall.

Simon Schama – he of “A History of Britain” fame, and several others since – was in town as part of the Dublin Writers’ Festival to promote his new book, “The American Future: A History”, and hold a public conversation on its subject matter with Fintan O’Toole.

Schama is funny, sprinkles his speech with anecdotes and, without stating his opinion outright, makes it fairly clear he feels the current administration is an improvement. O’Toole asks long questions but evokes useful elaborations on several of the topics Schama skims over in his whirlwind 30 minute opening address. The floor is opened up to the audience for the final third of the evening and produces some useful conversation openers, including a question on what Schama has learnt about himself in the course of the work.

A fine evening, all in all, the only downer being – perhaps unsurprisingly – Liberty Hall itself, as ugly within as without with a tiny lobby and an inexplicable delay beforehand in which 500 people cram into the small upstairs bar waiting for the doors to open (late).

Afterwards, I get an autographed copy of the new book; while struggling to decipher my accent:

Make it out to whom? Charles? … Oh, Trevor – I wasn’t even close, was I!

UPDATE, June 14th: This week’s Financial Times diary is by Simon Schama, writing in part about the shameful history being uncovered during his trip to Dublin

Nothing But the Same Old Story

Just before Christmas, I chanced upon a copy of the long out-of-print original soundtrack to the TV series “Bringing It All Back Home“. We still have most of the series lying around at home on video tape and, though I’ve yet to watch the complete series, I was keen to get one song in particular, Luka Bloom’s “You Couldn’t Have Come At A Better Time”, which is featured in the first episode.

Listening to the album, another song gradually got my attention: an epic tale of emigration, loneliness and despair, Paul Brady’s “Nothing But the Same Old Story” belongs, at first glance, to a different Ireland. Already, most Irish people have – thankfully – only faint memories of

Living under suspicion
Putting up with the hatred and fear in their eyes
You can see that you’re nothing but a murderer
In their eyes, we’re nothing but a bunch of murderers

For other reasons, however, the song seems strangely relevant. Just as in the 1980s when Brady’s “Hard Station” album was written, unemployment is high, the country broke and the callers to “Liveline” rage about their rising tax bills. Things were good for such a long time: wages were up, the city started to renew itself, people started returning for the first time since…ever.

However, for anybody with the slightest appreciation for what makes cities work, the problems were obvious. Dublin is a small city and it’s disgraceful how inadequate our transport system remains (five years to build two unconnected tram lines!); move outside the cosy bubble of the city centre and observe how the general lack of infrastructure has influenced a never-ending parade of housing estates, a shopping centre the only cultural advantage.

I used to work in the suburbs and the daily ritual of getting to work by public transport was like a window onto the problems of the city: board the bus at that paragon of Dublin architecture, the Department of Health, sit for 70 minutes to travel the 12 miles to work and witness first-hand the social problems of our city as the bus came under fire from rocks hurtled by disaffected youth at any of the many building sites surrounding the wild west that is Blanchardstown and its environs.

It was around then that I started to feel this was not perhaps the best way of life.

Out for a walk on a recent sunny spring evening on Dun Laoghaire pier – not incidentally, one of my favourite things about Dublin – I ran into an old music friend at the train station. We caught up and the conversation was pleasant but ended – as so many do these days – with the words,

“So, yeah, I’m fine. Oh, but, uh, I’m emigrating next week.”

All I could reply with was, “Oh, that’s funny…me too”. Not next week, of course. The arrangements are nowhere near complete. That’s the general plan, though, and it’s been a long time coming. I won’t pretend that the current economic climate has anything to do with those plans but it’s instructive to see how many others have the same plan now. Where did all the money go? We wasted our chance to improve things. There’s better places out there and I’m moving on.

I was just about nineteen
When I landed on their shore
With my eyes big as headlights
Like the thousands and thousands who came before
I was going to be something . . .
Smiled at the man scrutinising my face
As I stepped down off the gangway

Summer is Here

The time has just sprung forward for the summer and with it comes the sole benefit of living so far up in the northern hemisphere:  a beautiful long sunny evening, hopefully the first of many.

img_1502

Dún Laoghaire is a great post-work option – twenty minutes on the DART through the heart of the city’s leafy suburbs leads to a sudden at Dublin’s greatest secret, the seaside. I get off at Seapoint station, travel very briefly down Seapoint Avenue before crossing the tracks over to Brighton Vale. From there, it’s coast all the way until Dún Laoghaire village and the famous piers.

Crossing the tracks over the narrow little bridge I always think, for some reason, of the squad of christian brothers crossing over the bridge in Portrait of the Artist. Tonight I’m nowhere near Dollymount but this is clearly related to other musings. The bridge crossed, I follow the coastal path and admire the views of Poolbeg, pass the Martello tower and eventually merge with the steady stream of walkers along the length of the east pier. A lone banjo strums at the tip for the small band of paused walkers and I pause, too, savouring the atmosphere here at the end of the world before heading back and pausing again, this time for a heady pint of the black stuff (well, actually, a Go’ Burger) in the village, and catching the DART back to town.

img_1501

img_1506

Snow Day

Everybody – visitor or native – complains about the Irish weather but most don’t seem to realise that a snow day in spring is far, far rarer than even a full week of sunny days in summer. We’re having nothing like the show London is having but the two to three centimetres nevertheless threatens to shut down roads, rail and other essential services.

COMPLETE GALLERY

a_img_1275

a_img_1265

img_1280