The comeback city
Dublin is recovering well from its mighty crash
BOOMand bust have left their mark on Dublin. Cruising through the outskirts past the (industrial) estate of Sandyford — flimsy-looking buildings, each as nastily designed as the last but in wildly different styles — I doubletake at a gigantic half-built, multi-storey car park. There are ‘‘to let’’ signs everywhere and it’s all a bit reminiscent of a Joni Mitchell song.
But the shiny new Luas tram that links this monument to property development greed with the centre of the city is quiet, efficient and fast — and Dublin is, thank heavens, still the ‘‘fair city’’ of the song, the River Liffey meandering unruffled and majestic.
Many of the handsome Georgian buildings around O’Connell Street have benefited from a boom buff-up, with decrepit ceilings painstakingly restored and exterior brickwork properly pointed. Their grandeur convinces any visitor of Dublin’s ‘‘second city of Europe’’ status in the 18th century.
New features abound, too. In place of Nelson’s Pillar (blown up by the IRA in 1966) is the Monument of Light, a steel needle sticking 121m into the air. Nearby on North Earl Street, a brass version of James Joyce, introduced in 1990, lounges on his walking stick in the manner of Charlie Chaplin.
Locals have their own names for the pair of them — the needle is the Pin in the Bin (north of the Liffey is generally thought to be a bit rough) while Joyce is the Prick with the Stick. I imagine this is affectionate.
Over the river in the more refined south, around Drury Street, chic restaurants with sharp typography and a respectful attitude to heritage abound; they’re good at food, too (The Winding Stair, Chapter One, Pichet). At the bar in the excellent Coppinger Row, restaurateur Benedict Gorman (who until the crash ran the beloved Mermaid Cafe on Dame Street, as well as Gruel next door) is considering a new venture in the city. ‘‘It’s hopping here,’’ he observes. ‘‘I set up a restaurant in Ibiza, but it might be time to come back. The atmosphere is buzzing.’’
There would be no shortage of prospective clientele: the city streets are busy with a youthful mix of Irish, Eastern Europeans and the obligatory American tourists. Meanwhile, over in the Liberties district, the digital revolution continues — Facebook’s international HQ is here and Google employs 3000 staff in the city.
There’s plenty more on Dublin’s doorstep. Even though once small, charming coastal towns such as Bray and Greystones have suffered a plague of golf courses, marinas and ‘‘luxury’’ apartment blocks during the boom, you can still find Celtic magic. My hostess Suki takes me to the Harbour Bar in Bray, where there is a random power cut; its many nooks and crannies are lit with candles, log fires heating each of the five saloons. Beside one hearth a meeting is taking place of an honest-to-goodness witches’ coven, featuring long badly dyed black hair, baggy clothing and a conversation about which phase of the moon each member had been born in. We leave before anything properly supernatural takes place.
The next day, on a stroll around Killruddery House and Gardens, a few weeks before it opens to the public for the summer, I wonder if those witches hadn’t cast a spell — the lush and calmly stunning gardens are otherworldly gorgeous with the pale grey 17th-century house in the centre. I’m particularly enamoured of the orangerycum-statue gallery, an 1852 extension inspired by Crystal Palace and funded by the sale of the lady of the house’s ancestral tiara. The ornamental stonework that crowns it
Below apparently echoes the patterned band of the auctionedoff jewellery. We agree that it is a much better use of resources than a boring old tiara.
Suki and I follow a plume of stone-dust smoke to find Andy angle-grinding flagstones. It’s Sunday, but there’s masses of preparation going on: this yard is being overhauled and rejuvenated for events and a weekly farmers and craft market. It is a wonderful space of old timber and stone, with 1.5m-high farm animals freshly painted on whitewashed plaster by artist John Jobson, who lives up the hill. Longer-term plans for the kitchen garden include rebuilding the three large Victorian pit houses.
Locals are both involved and fully behind the restoration works; Killruddery is being embraced by a community that it was divided from for many years. It’s good to see a stately home on an upward swing — who knows, maybe this four-century-old pile will outlast the industrial estates; it certainly outshines them.
By the third day of my stay I know for sure I have been enchanted.
We ride (me on a horse for the first time since I was a teenager) along the ridge of the Little Sugar Loaf mountain, Dublin Bay and the sea spread out before us. Later we drive into the Wicklow Mountains, finding dramatic dark peaty lakes sunk deep in valleys and edged by sandy beaches; from the hills above, such features look not unlike a creamy headed pint of Guinness.
The mist expands and contracts our field of vision; the soft heathery moorland walking is gentle. Wesit on a rock beside a lake, not a soul nearby apart from a dog shut in a house: the hound is barking, answering its own echo that rolls back from across the lake.
The 121m steel Monument of Light A brass statue of James Joyce The other-worldly gardens of Killruddery House