Troy Hightower

42 hours in Dublin

With less than two days in Dublin before boarding the grand Hibernian train to circumnavigate the Emerald Isle, we are using up time stuck in Sunday traffic due to the 84,000 fans streaming to Croke stadium for the semifinals, between Dublin and Armagh, of Ghaelach, the uniquely Irish game that's a sort of half-breed of rugby, American football and soccer. Wild cheering in the streets and outside pubs some hours later will be the sign that Dublin prevailed.

The river Liffey divides Dublin into the north side-traditionally more working class, and the south which is more affluent, and which contains the medieval and historic areas. Dublin castle sits at the site of first Viking settlement around the year 840. The name Dublin comes from Gaelic dubh linn or “black pool” - where the Poddle river met the River Liffey to form a deep pool, and today there is a large grass oval to the west of the castle which commemorates the place.

Home base in the south side is the Merrion hotel, a lovely and elegant retreat created by combining four Georgian town houses around a sculpture and fountain-filled garden. The hotel is filled with a wonderful collection of mostly Irish 18th century through modern art, accumulated by the proprietors Lachlan and Brenda Quinn, and for which there is an audio tour available. Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, Ireland’s only Michelin two-star is located within the hotel, as well as the stone-vaulted Cellar Restaurant and Cellar Bar.

We dine our first night at the Cellar on crusted red tuna loin, tiny grilled quail with parsnip purée and grilled black sole, off the bone. Dover sole is my favorite fish in the world, and never having tried black, we inquire about the difference. In our restaurant manager’s opinion, lemon, Dover and black Sole are all quite similar, but with black Sole being the richest. The crispy filets do not disappoint, and an intriguing glass of 2011 Nozze d ‘Oro made from Sicilian Inzolia and Sauvignon Blanc grapes has just the right bottle age to complement the rich sole.

No 23 is an elegant mahogany wainscoted hunter-green walled cocktail bar in the front corner of the hotel along Merrion Street, with a list of Irish whiskeys and several signature drinks. Two that we try to wind down our evening are El Tajamulco—Ron Zacapa with Antico Martini, bitters and a rinse of chocolate liqueur, and Hendricks black pepper sour—quite zippy.

Next morning, we set out to explore, and two blocks from the hotel come upon St Stephens Green, the Central Park of Dublin. Designed by William Shepard, The Green, as it's simply known to locals, contains stately mature trees, shrubbery and flower beds, two lakes with swans and ducks and miles of pathways. On a balmy Sunday it is packed with families spread out on picnic blankets, kids cavorting across the lawns, and lovers canoodling on hidden park benches. The Green was also the site of many military skirmishes in the failed revolt of the Irish Republican Army against the British in 1916, and there are plaques at various locations commemorating actions of note, including British officers firing machine guns into the park from upper floors of the historic Shelbourne Hotel across the street.

The National Gallery in Merrion Square, just down the road from our hotel, was recently re-opened after a three-year, 30 million Euro renovation. There is an interesting exhibition of Irish artists that spans a hundred years or so, and a highly sought exhibition, for which we are lucky to secure tickets during our stay—a fantastic show of Vermeer’s works, paired with some of his contemporary Dutch genre painters. Some of Vermeer’s most famous paintings-- Woman with a Pearl Necklace, Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, The Astronomer and The Geographer are in the show.

Historical tours of Dublin, led by graduate students, commence at College Green, Main Gate of Trinity College. Trinity was founded under royal charter in 1592, as a small college of red brick buildings around a square, but over centuries the simple brick was replaced with Georgian stone edifices of greater grandeur—the Chapel, the Dining Hall and the Provost’s House. The Long Library on the south side of the square was the model for the refectory in Harry Potter, and houses the famous illustrated manuscript, the Book of Kells.

Across College Green from the main Trinity gate, the original House of Lords, with its vaulted coffered ceilings sits inside what is now the Bank of Ireland. This original Parliament House was built starting in 1729 and was extended and expanded over fifty years. The House of Commons originally had pride of place as an octagonal chamber in the center of the building but was destroyed by fire in the 1790’s   The Irish Parliament was abolished in 1800 with the Acts of Union, when Ireland was merged into Great Britain.

We walk out the Ha’penny Bridge for a view of Dublin port and the River Liffey, which bubbles up from a mountain bog a mere 25 kilometers to the south. The Liffey has been an important part of Dublin life since before the Vikings first arrived in the late 700’s. Liffey water is slang for the famous Irish stout, Guinness, which for years was brewed on the banks of the river.

Literary Dublin—James Joyce, Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and more are all commemorated in various ways hereabouts. There are huge murals celebrating Ulysses adorning Blooms Hotel in Anglesey street.

The Palace bar, a bow-front Victorian pub at the beginning of the entertainment area known as Temple Bar was a hangout for Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brian and Brendan Behan, who famously said “I'm a drinker with a writing problem.”

Fleet Street and Essex Street are part of this area, and at the Temple Bar pub located where those two streets converge, there is a bronze statue of Joyce and Oliver Sinjin Gogarty, the Irish poet who served as inspiration for Buck Mulligan in Joyce’s Ulysses. Sure an ye can get a pint o’ Guinness inside, but it's wicked touristy….

The tour continues to take in the striking and beautiful Christ Church Cathedral, seat of the Church of Ireland, with vistas over the River Liffey, then on to City Hall and its domed rotunda, which was originally the Royal Exchange, around which colonnade merchants and bankers could trade.  In the Easter Uprising of 1916, the building was used for a time as a garrison for the Irish Citizen Army. We end the tour at Dublin Castle, which originally dates to 1228—only the circular, crenellated Records Tower survives from that period. The Irish Citizen Army also seized the Castle for a brief time at the beginning of the 1916 Easter Uprising.

We dine our last evening at a restaurant curiously called Matt the Thresher, which is billed as a seafood gastropub situated in the heart of Georgian Dublin. It’s interior features tapered pillars with half-moon copper shelves, wrought iron railings, a spiral bronze and blown glass chandelier, and hammered iron torchieres around the room. Who could possibly resist ordering Wild Crab-stuffed Donuts, which turn out to be mini brioches stuffed with crab salad topped with scallop “dust” and served with aioli. We follow with Cork crab claws with garlic butter, which look, and are as hard as very small stone-crab claws and are fabulous—and the malt brown bread served alongside soaks up the extra garlic butter. And once again, grilled black sole, served on the bone with mangetout, as the brits call snow peas, at the side. I think I might be considering black sole and Dover sole a dead tossup.

After a final nightcap of Red Breast 12-year Irish whiskey in Number 23, we retire to begin to pack and prepare to board the Royal Hibernian Belmond train for our grand tour around the Emerald Isle the next day.