The new Dublin

David Moore writes about the new Dublin -- from trend-setting cafes and pubs to computer companies and jet-set neighborhoods.


David Moore
March 18, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

Early morning in the Phoenix Park, and the mist sits on the tops of the trees, swirling around the stark white papal cross. From the ruined magazine fort you can see Dublin rising through the haze -- the red neon of the sign on the Guinness brewery, the green dome of Rathmines church and the distant slim striped chimneys of the power station in Ringsend. Off to the south, the gray curves of the mountains watch over the city.

From the park, the scene is largely unchanged from how it would have looked 10, 20 or 50 years ago. Except for the cranes. Throughout the city, they poke their skinny crossbeams into the sky -- signs that Ireland's capital is going through a period of unprecedented prosperity and change.

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Housing prices have increased by 25 percent in a year, and the economy's growth rate stands at around 8 percent. Thousands of high-tech jobs have been created and the country that used to export its people to work in Continental Europe, America and Australia is now welcoming home the diaspora. Ireland has become the Celtic Tiger, matching and outstripping the apparently fragile success of Far Eastern countries such as South Korea and Taiwan.

The International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) on the north side of the Liffey sports a sizable growth of cranes. Slick office buildings with green tinted glass sit beside the old docks and provide a home to banks, commercial lawyers and accountants -- Chase Manhattan across from Citibank, and Credit Lyonnais next door to Deutsche Morgan Grenfell.

It's 8.30 a.m., and the young people riding the back of the Celtic Tiger dash into coffee shops for their cappuccino. Bond traders named Aisling or Conor reach into their expensive suits for their mobile phones. The whole area was derelict dockland a few years ago, but now shiny new pubs, restaurants and shops serve the office workers and those who live in the apartments that form part of the complex.

Although Dublin has a population of some 1.5 million, the center of town (locals never say "city" -- that feels a bit presumptuous) is small enough to mean you always bump into your friends in the street. This small scale means that the IFSC backs on to Sheriff Street, a no-nonsense area of publicly owned corporation housing that was there long before offshore accounts and futures trading hit town. This collision of old and new, poverty and wealth, run-down and hyped-up, is a hallmark of Dublin these days.

The small side street where I work shows this to the extreme. In a 100-yard stretch there's a set of three-story red-brick corporation flats with laundry lines strung across the concrete yard at the back, where kids kick footballs around and sneak a quick smoke in a dark corner. Opposite them in a converted factory building is my office, and next to us is a second-hand furniture warehouse. Up the street is a vacant lot used as a car park, and then a couple of small print and design shops.

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Within the last 18 months, the pub at the corner has been renovated and turned into a traditionalist-meets-modernist extravaganza, with antique knick-knacks and old hardcover books in one ground-floor room, and all cool blue paintwork and asymmetrical fireplaces in the other. Upstairs is Stonewall Jackson's -- a Wild West theme bar, where saddles compete with newly aged signs inviting guests to check their guns at the door.

So far so surreal. And now on the opposite corner is a five-star hotel, playing host to business conferences and busloads of elderly American tourists.

Back at the IFSC, it's lunch time, and those of the office crowd who can spare the time are heading across the river to the Stag's Head in Dame Court, a classic Dublin pub. The stained glass windows lend a religious air (it's no accident that barmen used to be called "curates"), and on the altar of the polished oak bar pints are left to settle for a few minutes before they're given a final pull. Huge plates of hearty food (roast beef with carrots, mashed potatoes, roast potatoes and cabbage, say) are delivered to drinkers in the semi-private snugs. There's no music and no bar games -- just the hum of Dubliners catching up on the latest gossip or chewing over the fortunes of the football teams they follow in the English league.

Traditional pubs like the Stag's Head, or Kehoe's on South Anne Street, serve a wide clientele: Near the door pose young trendies with DJ bags and sharp clothes; slumped at the bar are elderly men in raincoats who take drinking very seriously indeed; and at a far table a group of casually dressed people in their mid-20s argue over Microsoft's ethics.

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These last symbolize Ireland's booming computer industry. Intel, Gateway, Hewlett Packard and Dell all have manufacturing plants in the country, which is now also the world's second largest software producer. Microsoft has its European headquarters in Sandyford in south Dublin, while home-grown companies such as Iona and Trintech are becoming known in the world market.

Half the population in Ireland is under 25, and this young, skilled work force is one of the attractions to the incoming big businesses (government subsidies and tax breaks are among the others). Every now and again, someone makes a guess at why Irish people are so well-suited to high-tech work -- one theory states that in addition to a very good education system, there's something about the Irish mind that can appreciate logical, detailed and systematic work, while at the same time having a broader and more creative approach to problems. They claim this is exemplified by the medieval treasure of the Book of Kells (on display up the street from the Stag's Head in Trinity College), with its perfect, half-uncial script enlivened by gloriously illuminated initials and intertwining illustrations.

All this might not mean much to the programmers and project managers as they head back to check their mail, but it's certainly true that the country seems to have leapt from being largely farming-based and pre-industrial to knowledge-based and post-industrial in a very short space of time.

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Dublin is a seaside town, and if you take the DART suburban train,
within 10 minutes of the center you can be out along Sandymount Strand,
where the tide goes out so far the ships seem to be sitting on the sand.

Stay on the DART southwards to Dalkey and you get out at a quiet,
prosperous residential area of well-kept cottages and larger Victorian
residences hiding up leafy driveways. Just down from the station on the
right is a white-fronted Georgian pub, Flanagans. On a wintry weekday
afternoon, it's a haven of civilized drinking, and the regulars are a
mixture of locals who have lived round here for years and newcomers
who have made enough money to buy out here recently.

Along with the economic success, Dublin has recently gained cultural and
showbiz kudos it's never had before. To make it, you used to have to
leave for London or New York (the irony of Joyce and Beckett being feted
in the town of their birth is that they couldn't stand to live there
during the ascetic and anti-intellectual decades at the beginning of the
century). Now, not only are home-grown stars choosing to stay, but
foreign celebs are buying properties here too.

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As a result, Dalkey has turned into millionaires' row. Neil Jordan,
director of "Interview With the Vampire" and "The Crying Game," lives around
the corner from Formula One racing drivers Eddy Irvine and Damon Hill, and
up the road lives English soul singer Lisa Stansfield. Farther along the
coast, where Killiney Bay sweeps around to Bray Head, lives Bono from U2.
When a film's being made here (which happens a lot more than it used to),
the big names tend to stay near Dalkey.

Nurse your hot whiskey long enough in Flanagans, and one of the stars
might pop in for a drink. Just as
multinational corporations find themselves rubbing shoulders with
corporation housing at the IFSC, so the international jet set mix with
the rest of us in a way that would be unlikely just about anywhere else. I've found
myself dining next to half of U2 in Tosca, the Suffolk Street restaurant
owned by Bono's restaurateur brother, while friends have bumped into
writers Roddy Doyle and Nick Hornby out for a drink with Elvis Costello.

Locals are proud that the city is becoming a cool place to be, and the
tourists are flocking to the Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham, the new
National Museum in Collins Barracks, Trinity College and the many other
cultural and musical venues that show a new confidence in the city's
artistic life.

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Central to this cultural tourism should be Temple Bar, an area on the
south bank of the Liffey in the heart of the city. When a new bus
station was planned, the old warehouses along its cobbled streets became
home to artists looking for cheap short-term rents. Funky second-hand
clothes and record shops opened, and buskers played in the archway
across from the Ha'penny bridge.

The bus station plan was scrapped, and a development group formed to
turn the area into Dublin's cultural quarter. The Irish Film Centre was
built, gallery space and a children's cultural center created. Next came
a music center, a multimedia and computer art venue, the renovated
Project Theatre and a photography gallery. The city's answer to London's
Covent Garden or the Parisian Left Bank was a palpable hit.

Now, however, things seem to have gone a little awry. The old pubs in
the area were renovated and licenses were found for new pubs, boasting
"antique" paraphernalia and old advertising signs. Hotels sprang up,
catering to the burgeoning weekend break market.

The cultural venues are still there, but it's hard to spot the locals
among the groups of English lads over on stag nights and the earnest
Germans with their guidebooks and backpacks. On summer weekend evenings, visitors who came to see the real Dublin end up sharing their pints
with everyone but Dubliners, who are drinking in pubs a little more off
the beaten track. But on a weekday afternoon, Temple Bar is still worth
wandering through, even if you keep getting lost because there's a whole
new row of delis, cybercafes and expensive apartments built since you
were last there.

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Back out on Westmoreland Street, the thoroughfare linking O'Connell Bridge
to College Green, people are gathering outside Bewleys Oriental Cafe.
The four Bewleys cafes in the center of town are closer to national
institutions than anything other than the creamy produce of St. James'
Gate. Everyone goes to Bewleys, from glamorous women in their 40s,
laden down with Brown Thomas bags, to farmers up in town for a day's
business.

The food and drink are passable though slightly overpriced, and Bewleys
coffee is not the best (especially now that our expectations have been
raised by the huge Gaggia machines in the new cafes opening seemingly
every day). People wait for their tardy friends outside Bewleys because
of the atmosphere of the place. Real fires bathe tables in a warm glow;
the decor is all burgundy velvet and dark wood.

You can sit with a pot of tea for hours and not be disturbed while
you watch serious young men play chess or groups of Italian students at
language college requisition chairs from nearby tables. To fritter away
an hour with a friend in Bewleys before stepping out into the Dublin
dusk and going your different ways is to spend a perfect afternoon.
While sitting in Bewleys, my sister and her boyfriend decided to get
married.

If you linger in the cafe, maybe going for an all-day special (chips,
baked beans, sausages, bacon and fried egg) to tide you over, the next
thought is where to go for a good feed of pints. Foreign visitors to the
city can be shocked at the amount that people drink. And not just the
amount -- although four or five pints a night is completely
unexceptional -- but also the way it appears that everyone drinks to
excess as a matter of course. When the country was going through the
last recession, you wouldn't have known it from the pubs, and now that people
are doing well, whole new drinking opportunities are opening up.

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Until the early '90s, all pubs looked the same: stained or frosted glass
windows (so you could see neither in nor out), dark wooden bars and a
combination of stools, low tables and upholstered seats. The only
differences were in how far the particular establishment strayed from
the Platonic ideal of the pub, exemplified by such high Victorian
classics as Doheny and Nesbitts on Baggot Street or the Long Hall on South
Great George's Street.

Then a few cafe-bars started to appear, complete with plate glass
windows, cool music and a commitment to food that went beyond the "ham,
cheese, or ham and cheese" sandwich cuisine of the more traditional pub.
An exclusively young crowd could be seen in the Globe on South Great
George's Street or Thomas Read's on Parliament Street, and Dublin suddenly felt
cosmopolitan.

Meanwhile, the traditional Dublin pub and its country cousins were being
sold around Europe, and Irish pubs opened (and are still opening) at an
alarming rate from Madrid to Moscow. These pubs often have a similar
feel, with old bikes in the window, and books, bottles, barrels and
bellows filling shelves all over the place. The demand for road signs to
adorn their walls has grown so great that rural areas in Ireland (not
renowned for their overhelpful signposts at the best of times) are
seeing those they do have stolen and spirited off to Riga, or some such
place. And now, ironically enough, artificial theme bars have replaced the real
thing in some parts of Dublin, with traditional pubs turning into parodies of
themselves renamed Rasher Geraghty's or the Hairy Lemon.

Nevertheless, whatever type of pub you find yourself in, the craic is
still likely to be mighty. You'll not see many espressos ordered in the
cafe-bars after 7 p.m., and first among the many unwritten rules of pub
etiquette (ahead even of the lore of buying rounds) is that the only
thing that will get you out before closing time is if you're going to
another pub. Part of the roof collapsed in a city center pub recently,
and only the arrival of the fire brigade in full kit persuaded drinkers
that they should reluctantly leave their pints behind.

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Drinking up time after last orders is generous, and it's often well
after midnight before you return to the street. If after-hours
entertainment tempts you, there's the traditional black box
tackiness of Lesson Street or the star-studded POD on Harcourt Street.

From the inside, Dublin at present looks like a city in vibrant flux. As each new shopping center
or apartment complex arrives, an older part of the city is lost. And
while the changes bring more choice and greater opportunities, these
depend on the partial preservation of what's gone before. The real
Dublin of today is neither the old nor the new, but the fruitful
co-existence of them both. Whether this balance will remain is hard to
say, but those of us who love the place are doing our best to make sure it will.


David Moore

David Moore is a writer who lives in Dublin.

MORE FROM David Moore

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