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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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Obama’s Oratory

Devouring the Financial Times over a good espresso has become something of a fixture of my weekends. One particularly interesting article from this weekend’s edition concerned Obama’s oratory; political junkies, English students and Toby-Ziegler-from-the-West Wing fans alike should savour this introduction to the tricolon, anaphora and the molossus and their use from Greek times through to the present day.

Perhaps less entertainingly, but it’s also worth noting that the current interest in rhetoric and oratory has spawned another high-brow reality show on BBC, namely The Speaker.

Moon Rise Over Dún Laoghaire

Uncommonly good weather this afternoon for an Irish wedding and a brief but welcome reunion with old friends and colleagues. The afters were also a welcome departure from tradition with the usual late-night drunken “revelry” nowhere in sight and everything, instead, wrapped up nicely by 6pm.

It looked like hours of sunshine ahead, so I hopped on a south-bound DART and ambled around Seapoint, Monkstown and Dún Laoghaire as the moon rose over the sea. The sea is absolutely my favourite thing about Dublin – something I’ll write about some other time – and although I still harbour plans to move away, just occasionally you get an evening here as spectacular in its own little way as anything you’ll ever see anywhere in the world.

The route began at Seapoint DART station, where several divers and other water-dwellers were enjoying the Irish Sea. It’s a straight walk up to the east Dún Laoghaire pier, where a steady but manageable stream of walkers and roller skaters mingled under the clear sky. I bought a hot dog and ice cream and made my way out to the end of the pier: a small crowd sat here admiring the setting sun over Poolbeg Station while a lonely few ventured behind the pier wall to savour the far rarer vista of a perfect moon rise.

Here, at the end of the world, a lone banjo player strummed Irish airs for both camps as the light slowly faded.

Custom House Plaza

Just lovely for a Saturday evening stroll up towards the cinema.

The excellent Irish Town Planner’s Blog reports that plans to create a pedestrian-only area in front of the Custom House are underway; the area would be connected to the Liffey boardwalk and finally open up the interior courtyard of the complex.