On a whirlwind visit to the fair city of Dublin, Jenni Frazer finds an intriguing mixture of attractions from pastries to politics – not to mention the pubs and an unusually helpful taxi driver
It’s usually from taxi drivers that you can take the temperature of a place, and our Dublin cabbie didn’t disappoint.
Hired to take us from a secret, hole-in-the-wall cocktail lounge to a top-class restaurant, the cabbie revealed, with a flourish, that he had once been a concierge at a city-centre hotel.
Thus, at no extra cost, he couldn’t resist taking us the pretty way round and pointing out Dublin’s oldest pub, the 11th-century Brazen Head, as well as reminding us our destination restaurant, Matt the Thresher, had been the one chosen by Michelle Obama during the American presidential visit in 2011.
I may even have sat where America’s First Lady sat. Who knows?
Dublin is the easiest and most hospitable of cities for a short break and if Jewish travellers are reminded of Jerusalem, that has a lot to do with its small-town, homey feel and the endless, artless inquiries from total strangers as to how they can help you.
Our base for our all-too-quick two-night visit to the Irish capital was the spectacular Merrion Hotel. A member of the Leading Hotels of the World group, it was created from four magnificent Georgian houses built in the 1760s, one of which happens to have been the birthplace of the Duke of Wellington.
The restoration of the houses was designed to provide authentic laid-back luxury. And a Georgian background still offers 21st-century comforts, from the two-Michelin star Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, which is part of the hotel, to the 18-metre infinity swimming pool at the basement Tethra Spa, which also boasts a gym and Espa treatments.
The Merrion is set in the heart of Georgian Dublin and is often referred to as the city’s best address – it’s round the corner from the National Gallery and Trinity College, home to the ninth-century illuminated Book of Kells.
Oscar Wilde was born in this area and satirist Jonathan Swift is buried up the road in the churchyard of St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Even George Bernard Shaw’s birthplace, Upper Synge Street, is not far away.
If a visit to the National Gallery seems a bit daunting – and perhaps time-consuming if you’re only on a short break – then the Merrion is the perfect answer.
In restoring the hotel, which opened in 1997, the owners determined to decorate it with the cream of 19th- and 20th-century Irish art.
Only the most informed of visitors are likely to have heard of many of the Irish artists whose work covers the public areas and some of the best of the 123 rooms of the hotel, but the Merrion offers guests an informative audio tour, together with a 58-page book showcasing many of the artworks. The paintings are often sent out on loan to be shown elsewhere.
We were privileged to have an insider’s view in the form of a delightfully gossipy personal tour from one of the National Gallery curators.
Twelve paintings by Roderic O’Conor, who died in 1940, hang in the private dining room of the Patrick Guilbaud restaurant.
O’Conor, it turns out, was not only a friend of Gauguin, but was, so we learned, “a direct descendant of the High Kings of Ireland”.
Another picture that tells a story hangs in one of the cosy dining rooms, complete with wood- fuelled fire. It is a portrait of Eileen, daughter of the artist Sir John Lavery.
The latter’s private life, so our guide informs us, was thoroughly scandal-filled, with much moving going on between wives and much younger mistresses.
Jewish artist Stella Steyn is represented on the Merrion walls too, and in fact anywhere your eye looks is a pleasure.
Don’t forget to venture out into the Merrion knot gardens, at one end of which stands a statue of the writer James Joyce.
Afternoon tea at the Merrion is a hallowed tradition and parties book places for it weeks in advance – not least because the Merrion pastry chef pays homage to the art around the hotel by crafting gateaux reflecting some of the most iconic pictures on display.
Venture out around the corner from the hotel into nearby Molesworth Street and nestling next to Sotheby’s you’ll find the Oliver Sears Gallery, a contemporary fine-art gallery showcasing a variety of Irish and European artists.
Sears is probably the only Jewish art dealer in Dublin and as the son of a Holocaust survivor he is active on the Holocaust Educational Trust of Ireland, lectures at Trinity College on the issues of the Holocaust and is due to do the same at Dublin schools.
Among the most recent shows to adorn Sears’ gallery was been a series of portraits of men and women from Jerusalem, painted by the Irish artist Colin Davidson, along with an exhibition of pictures by Irish-Jewish photographer Amelia Stein.
Though, like Jerusalem, Dublin is a walking city – and like Jerusalem will soon have a light-rail service – one of the most enjoyable ways to learn about the capital is to take one of the hop-on, hop-off circular excursions run by Dublin Bus Tours. They are conducted in various languages – including the city’s own special style of English.
It’s fair to say that no pub goes unmentioned on the tour, and you really can’t visit Dublin without a nod to the Guinness Storehouse brewery, one of the tour’s stops.
By contrast, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising and politics is never far from the surface of this cheerful, hospitable city. Look carefully in the Merrion and you’ll see a certificate of the Good Friday Agreement, signed by the main players, from Tony Blair to Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness.
Or you could wander out into Upper Merrion Row and find a friendly taxi driver who will recommend the best pub in Dublin.
It’s bound to be close.
The Ha’penny Bridge, named for the toll that was once exacted for crossing it, is one of Dublin’s best-known visitor attractions
Left, the elegant entrance to the Merrion Hotel shows its Georgian origins; above, all-round comfort is the keynote in the hotel’s cosy rooms and suites