Gilly Pickup enjoys the vibrant culture of Ireland’s capital and its surrounding area
There I was in Dublin’s Merrion Square, a fashionable address in the 1800s for those and such as those. Physicians, politicians, judges and writers including Oscar Wilde all resided here, the latter commemorated by a flamboyant statue in a corner of the park opposite his former home. I was on my way to the National Gallery of Ireland which reopened earlier this year after an extensive refurbishment. The Gallery, which houses over 16,300 works, first opened to the public in 1864 with only 112 pictures. Now the ground floor is entirely devoted to Irish art while upper rooms hold works by Goya, Velazquez and Poussin. Visitors can take themed tours to gain a deeper insight into the works of art while free workshops and courses for children are also available.
I couldn’t linger too long mulling over the delights in the National Gallery though, as my guide was waiting to meet me in the less highbrow but fun Little Museum of Dublin. This quirky museum in a Georgian townhouse is crammed to the gills with photos, artefacts, art, posters and exhibits, all donated by the general public and organisations to reflect Dublin’s political, social and cultural life between 1900 and 2000. The collection includes a lectern used by JFK on his visit to Ireland in 1963, a school desk from the 1930s, while an entire room on the second floor is devoted to the history of local boys, U2.
While walking around Dublin, I could see that this is a city which embraces its statues. On the way to lunch, I discovered a statue of Molly Malone, she of cockles and mussels fame and nicknamed by locals ‘The Tart with the Cart’. The huge Spire of Dublin or Monument of Light in O’Connell Street – 398 feet high – is referred to as ‘The Stiletto in the Ghetto’. Meanwhile a more poignant sculpture, the ‘Famine’, is a collection of bronze figures which stand at Custom House Quay in the Docklands area. It pays homage to those forced to emigrate during the 19th century Irish famine. This location is particularly appropriate as one of the first voyages was on the ‘Perseverance’ which sailed from Custom House Quay on St. Patrick’s Day in 1846. This is also where to find EPIC, an interactive museum telling the story of those same millions of Irish through the eyes of those who lived through the terrible times or from observations of others.
I ventured outside town one day to nearby Howth village (pronounced ‘Hoath’) on the Irish Sea. Its medieval Lutyens-influenced castle, home of the Gaisford-St Lawrence family, dates back to 1177. One of the family dogs in the grand hall was happy to have his tummy rubbed as long as anyone was available to oblige, giving the castle a lived-in family feel. The castle has a foot golf course too – in simple terms, foot golf is where participants kick a football around a specially adapted golf course – it is surprisingly popular, or maybe not so surprising when you consider it combines two of the world’s favourite sports, football and golf. The Castle’s restored Georgian kitchens are home to the Kitchen in the Castle Cookery School where courses offered range in length from an afternoon to one week. While there I took in a cookery demonstration by Sarah and John which was instructive and fun while the pan-fried hake, braised leeks and shallot crisps followed by passionfruit and lemon tart were extremely tasty too.
There was just time after that to drive along the coast to Malahide, a small, affluent town and home to another ancient castle where I enjoyed a tour with an entertaining guide. She regaled our group with stories of those who lived and died there with a smattering of scary tales about the castle’s five ghosts thrown in for good measure. She assured us that the phantoms appear from time to time and that she herself had encountered them, but none happened along to entertain our group – which perhaps was just as well ….
Fly to Dublin from London Southend Airport up to three times daily through Stobart Air’s franchise partnership with Flybe. Tickets from £29.99 pp one way (including taxes and charges). http://www.flybe.com
For more information on Ireland see www.ireland.com
Dylan Hotel, Dublin – www.dylan.ie