On first encounter, three impressions immediately emerge regarding the throngs of pedestrians walking along O’Connell Street, the main thoroughfare in Dublin’s central district: first, everyone is incredibly young; second, they are a surprisingly diverse crowd; and third, there are a hell of a lot of babies in strollers everywhere you look.
The D&O Diary was on assignment in the British Isles last week, and the final stop on the itinerary was Dublin, a great city with a rich history and beautiful buildings, that is brimming with youthful energy and full of contrasts. (The picture above depicts the River Liffey, looking west, and also reflects the glorious weather we enjoyed during our visit.)
It turns out that the initial impressions about the crowds on O’Connell Street have a basis in demographic fact; while we were in Dublin, the Irish government released the preliminary results of the 2011 census, which showed, among other things, that the country has been experiencing an “extraordinarily high birth rate” and the natural increase in population is the “highest on record of any previous census.” The census also found that “ethnic diversity is now an established fact of Irish life,” and that the number of non-Irish nationals increased by a third since the 2006 census.
The city’s youthful, lively population projects a sense of dynamism that, at least at first impression, seems to be reflected in the fabric of the city itself. The city’s gleaming airport is brand new. A sleek new tram line runs parallel to the River Liffey. New ultramodern office buildings line the tram tracks, bearing logos of global companies like PwC, J.P. Morgan, Statoil, and BNP Paribas. Unfortunately, all of the dazzling infrastructure and of the ultramodern construction projects are the glittering remnants of the time, now five years gone and receding further into the past every day, when the Celtic Tiger roared.
As the tram line continues east toward the city’s docklands, it quickly becomes apparent how it all went so terribly wrong. The snazzy buildings with the corporate logos quickly give way to empty “see through” buildings, and then to the hulking concrete superstructures of buildings that were incomplete when the music stopped. Along the final tram stops, huge areas optimistically cleared for even more building projects remain empty, inhabited only by the ghosts of the banks and other firms that failed when the real estate bubble burst.
As befits a city with both an irrepressible youthful dynamism and a legacy of seemingly insurmountable budget woes, Dublin presents a host of contradictions. On Saturday, crowds of youths – many with babies in strollers — thronged the city’s main shopping districts along Grafton and Henry Streets, both of which lined with global brands like H&M, Swatch, Starbucks, Disney and Apple. At the same time, thousands of protest marchers demonstrated outside the governing party’s annual convention, rallying against the new 100 euro household tax (which more than half of the obligated tax payers had failed to pay by the March 30 deadline).
In the wake of the financial crisis, Dublin and Ireland face a host of challenges. But during several days of record-breaking warmth in the final week of March, the city positively hummed with life. The walkways along the Liffey were lined with grateful city dwellers, their pale faces turned toward the sun like so many red-headed sunflowers. The lush, flower covered St. Stephen’s Green, which is a veritable urban oasis, was also crowded with families (including innumerable babies in ubiquitous strollers) sunning themselves and enjoying the prematurely blooming flowers and blossoming trees.
Nestled in the city’s center is the venerable Trinity College, founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth to civilize and improve her Irish subjects. I can’t say for sure what the campus might be like under ordinary conditions, but on a sunny Spring day with temperatures in the 70s, its lawns are covered with students enjoying the warmth in a way you might expect, say, on a college campus in South Carolina.
Near Trinity College is another area that is perhaps of even greater interest to many tourists, the pub and restaurant district know as Temple Bar. On a warm spring evening, the area’s cobble-stone streets were full of Guinness-fuelled crowds of tourists and youthful revelers. The party atmosphere was lots of fun, but by the second or third visit to the area, I began to feel like it was an entertainment zone for thirsty visitors looking for the tourist version of the Irish pub experience. When my son and I found ourselves seated next to six middle-aged Japanese women taking pictures of themselves holding (untouched) glasses of Guinness, the whole place started to feel like an Irish-themed amusement park designed to separate foreign visitors from their euros.
In search of something a little less tourist-intensive, and hoping to catch the Pro12 rugby league game between Munster and Leinster, I typed “best places to watch sports in Dublin” into Google, and came up with the Bruxelles pub, on Harry Street, off of Grafton. The bar was packed with rugby fans, most seemingly loyal to Leinster. The bartender poured a proper pint, and the crowd was transfixed on the flat screen televisions around the room.
Leinster ultimately won the game, but the important thing is that we learned the appropriate forms of address during a televised rugby game. The true rugby fan from time to time waves a hand toward the television and exclaims “Ahhh!”, in a guttural growl from deep in the throat. Periodically, it is also appropriate to shout “Come on lads!” as well as “that’s a fookin’high tackle, for sure!” Large quantities of Guinness also are apparently required. No one was taking pictures of themselves drinking beer.
Perhaps the high point of our Dublin visit was the walking tour of the 1916 Easter Rising. Because the events took place relatively recently; because the structures involved in the Rising are not only still standing but mostly still in use; and because the consequences of the Rising have continued to reverberate over the years, the tour’s impact is extraordinary. The Rising has been and remains the source of much controversy, as it was quickly suppressed and resulted in the swift execution of its leaders, and also resulted in the destruction of much of the city’s central business district. O’Connell Street (then called Sackville Street) itself was left in ruins. In the immediate aftermath, the leaders of the Rising were widely reviled for in effect bringing the War in Europe to Dublin. Ireland has never adopted the anniversary of the Rising as its Fourth of July or Bastille Day.
But after it was suppressed and the leaders executed, the Rising came to represent the embodiment of heroic nationalism as the country struggled toward independence. Views about the meaning of the Rising have continued to shift in the years since. With the centennial of the Rising now approaching, the question of the meaning of the events is the subject of renewed focus. The Rising tour, along with a separate tour of Kilmainham Gaol, where political prisoners were held and where the leaders of the Rising were executed, was a particularly interesting and memorable part of the visit to Dublin.
The Rising tour meets at the International Bar on Wicklow Street, not far from Trinity College. It turns out that a tour of a different type was also taking place there. That same morning, groups of Trinity students were conducting a unique form of pub crawl. The students were arranged in groups of six and dressed in costumes (as, say, the cast from Scoobie Doo or from the Flintstones). Their apparent plan was to run through a series of six pubs. At each pub, each participant had to chug a beer, and then run to the next pub. The International was only the second pub on the circuit. I can only imagine what the participants looked like by the time they reached the fifth or sixth pub. Now, I know some readers may be thinking that this activity is simply the ancient Gaelic sport of “hurling,” but that is actually an entirely different but equally inexplicable pastime (involving giant wooden spoons with three foot long handles, where the contestants run around, and, well, I am not sure about the rest, but it is a lot of fun to watch with a pint of Guinness).
One of the most amusing parts of this costumed, beer-swilling foot-race was the reaction of the pub regulars, who were seated at tables along the wall opposite the bar, pints of Guinness at their elbows, and faces unchanging as huffing and puffing teams of, say, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, came charging into the pub, called for a round of beers, and then went running out. Just another day in Dublin, the regulars’ unchanging faces seemed to say.
Although there is much to be said for a pub and a proper pint, on a warm spring day Dublin’s outlying areas offer an even more alluring attraction. Thirty minutes north of the city on the DASH commuter rail line is the seaside village of Howth . The train line terminates at the edge of the town’s snug harbor. The main road runs along the sea-front past the breakwater, and then winds up into the hills overlooking the town and the harbor. At the road’s end, a foot path winds into the cliffs and up to the summit, where there are breathtaking views of the Irish Sea and of Ireland’s Eye, a rugged offshore island. The hillsides were covered with yellow gorse blossoms. Looking south from the summit, you can see beyond Dublin to the Wicklow Mountains.
Ireland is a beautiful country with a rich history, as well as an enviable trove of assets. It may face some formidable challenges. But with its youth and its energy, its future holds great promise. In the meantime, its capital remains a lively and entertaining destination, a comfortably diverse place to visit and enjoy.
St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin:
Trinity College, Dublin
Ireland’s Eye, Off of Howth
The Cliffs at Howth, from breakwater
Looking South to the Wicklow Mountains