There is a plaque on the ornate 19th-century O’Connell Bridge, which spans Dublin’s brooding River Liffey, and it commemorates what may be one of the more moving episodes in the city’s history.
It tells the story of Father Pat Noise. The beloved cleric died on this crossing on August 10, 1919. He lost control of his carriage and it plunged into the waters below, the metal decoration says. Neither he nor the four horses pulling the vehicle were ever seen again.
Dubliners know this story well. Every so often, flowers and candles appear here, left by citizens in honour of the priest’s memory.
There is just one slightly unusual thing: Father Pat Noise never actually existed. The plaque is a hoax. It was installed on the bridge, under cover of night, by two brothers in 2004. It was a surreptitious tribute to their own dad. Pat Noise is simple wordplay on Pater Noster, Latin for ‘our father’.
‘The plaque says it was erected by the HSTI, and that should be a clue it’s not for real,’ says Dublin expert and resident Siobhan Doyle. ‘There is no such group as the HSTI. In fact, that’s an anagram. I’ll let you work out what for.’
When council leaders had their attention drawn to the illegal placement, they announced it would be removed.
‘Except,’ continues Siobhan, ‘there was an outcry. Folks had taken it to their hearts by then. They liked that it was a prank on officialdom, and they wanted it to stay. That’s why people started ironically leaving flowers. So the council backed down. And that’s why, on Dublin’s most famous bridge, there is a memorial to a man who never existed.’
She thinks for a moment.
‘Only in Ireland,’ she concludes.
Indeed, as I’m starting to find out during my stay here, it is a story that somehow captures the essence of this great European capital: colourful, characterful, and absolutely in love with a good story. Dublin is a writers’ city. It’s been said before, of course, but it’s probably worth repeating. This is a place with a literary legacy perhaps unrivalled anywhere on the planet.
I’m here for a three-day overview and, while there’s plenty to impress – history, architecture, a nightlife that buzzes with both live music and lilting conversations – it’s the love of books that stands out above all else.
Never, it seems, are you more than a couple of minutes away from a landmark or reference point celebrating one of the almost unreasonable number of great wordsmiths who have called this town home.
On Earl Street, there’s a statue of James Joyce – hat, cane and oversized jacket all present. Outside the one-time tax office on Castle Street, there’s a tribute to Bram Stoker – he worked there by day while writing Dracula by night. There’s a Samuel Becket Theatre, an Oscar Wilde House and a Seán O’Casey Bridge. Half the taverns in town, meanwhile, claim to have been a regular stop-off for Brendan Behan. Which, given his reputation for enjoying a prodigious night out, they probably were.
Walking tours will take you around all these places, and the best include readings and street theatre. All will proudly inform you that this is, in fact, a Unesco City of Literature and the only place in the world to have been the home of four Nobel Prize winners for literature: playwright George Bernard Shaw, poets WB Yeats and Seamus Heaney, and the multifaceted Samuel Beckett.
It’s quite a heritage. And all of it is commemorated at the impressive Dublin Writers Museum, housed in a grand 18th-century block, in Parnell Square. Befittingly, it’s quite a place.
As, indeed, is the James Joyce Tower and Museum. You need to head a little out of town to coastal Sandycove, but it’s well worth the short drive, if only to see the building itself. That’s because the centre is based in a 19th-century military watchtower, where 22-year-old Joyce lived for six days in 1904 and which is the setting for the start of Ulysses, perhaps the world’s most celebrated work of fiction.
Original manuscripts, personal possessions and (a bit morbid) a plaster death mask of the author are part of the collection, while a flick through the guest book offers an indication of the writer’s worldwide reputation. In the past week, guests had come from Brazil, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Germany.
In a moment of quiet, I ask a volunteer why so many great writers have come from this small island on the northwestern edge of Europe, and she glances out of the window.
‘It might have something to do with the scenery,’ she says. ‘The sea, the mountains, the greenery, it’s very inspiring.’
Then, eyeing the weather, she comes up with another theory. ‘It might also be the rain. When it’s always wet, you stay in and tell stories. Maybe that makes us creative.’
Perhaps it’s this creativity that means you need to be careful of the occasional turn of phrase in Dublin.
If someone refers to the dead zoo, they mean the Natural History Museum. If they mention the golden goolie, that’s the (much-derided) globular sculpture outside the Central Bank of Ireland. At the city’s single largest tourist attraction, you can see the biggest pint glass in the world standing several storeys high. To which one might reasonably argue: then it’s not a pint glass.
But the expression that really gets me is when I’m told that the Etihad Skyline at Croke Park is deadly. It is a 17-storey-high open-air metal walkway suspended above the vast 82,300 capacity stadium, and given that I’m climbing the steps to go along it, deadly is not necessarily a word I want to hear.
‘Don’t worry,’ says Dubliner Mick Langan, the guide showing me around the city. ‘That just means ‘really good’.
Which, it turns out, it is.
After a day discovering all lit legends, I’m finishing things off with an overview of the cityscape that inspired them. And there’s no better place to see it than from up here.
As a general rule, Croke Park – Europe’s third-largest stadium behind Barcelona’s Camp Nou and Wembley in London – is the home of Gaelic sports like handball and hurling. But since 2012, it’s done a neat sideline in these aerial rooftop tours.
The 360-degree panorama is staggering. The entire capital unfolds before you like a miniature village, from the newly developed Silicon Docks out east to westerly Phoenix Park, a vast green space that’s more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park; the super-modern Spire – a millennial, skyscraper-sized needle sculpture – and the 19th-century brutality of Kilmainham Gaol where Irish men fighting for independence were imprisoned by the British and executed.
Dublin is a low-rise city. The highest building is the Montevetro (where Google’s offices are based) and that stands just 67m tall. But that doesn’t mean it’s skyline is any less impressive than of cities that reach for the skies. On the contrary, its medieval lanes and Georgian boulevards are understatedly stunning. Encircling it all, the mountains and the sea provide a jaw-dropping backdrop.
As I climb down, I decide we shouldn’t wonder why so many people here become such gifted wordsmiths. With this city to inspire them, perhaps the more pertinent question should be why so few do.
The spirit of great literature hangs over dinner that night too. We’re at The Winding Stair Restaurant. Upstairs, you eat. Downstairs, there’s a bookshop to browse. The clue lies in the name: it’s the title of a Yeats poem.
Overlooking the Liffey and the iconic Ha’penny Bridge, it has an old-fashioned feel – all stripped wooden tables, exposed girders and refined waiters – but the menu is modern Irish, and delicious.
When eating on a land surrounded by an ocean, a friend and food writer once told me, try the seafood – you know it’s not travelled far. So I do. Chowder to start and hand-smoked haddock for mains. And it’s wonderful – big and authentic and confident enough of its own ingredients to let them do the talking without overly complicating matters. On what turns out to be a cold, wet night, it warms the cockles.
I’m sitting with Mick. He’s talking a lot, telling tales and weaving yarns. It’s a fitting end to a day in a city that seems incapable of not spinning stories.
I visit the Trinity College Library the next day, and words feature heavily at this attraction too. Wait! Come back! It’s more interesting than your average university book house.
For starters, it was founded in 1592 (the same year as the university it serves), holds five million printed volumes, and is the home of Ireland’s most-prized national treasure, The Book Of Kells.
This lavishly decorated tome was produced in the ninth century and is widely considered a master work of both Western calligraphy and Hiberno-Saxon art. Kept in a glass cabin and on permanent display, it’s in remarkably good nick for a book that’s more than a millennium old. It is accompanied by an ongoing exhibition, Turning Darkness Into Light, which tells the story of its creation.
Also worth viewing here is the Long Room, a 65-metre chamber, built around 1730 and housing some 200,000 books, all of which are at least 150 years old and considerably greater vintage.
If it looks familiar, it may be because its barrel-vaulted ceilings, two-storey-tall shelves and oak balconies bear a striking similarity (read: look virtually identical) to the Jedi archive in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. ‘The film-makers said any resemblance was purely coincidental, though,’ notes Mick drily. ‘Which was fortunate for them. Because they hasn’t actually got permission to use the likeness.’
Not far from Trinity College – a five-minute walk down Dame Street – is another of the city’s great historical buildings: Dublin Castle.
Founded in 1204, this sprawling complex houses a number of museums (including the impressive Chester Beatty Library), the Gothic Chapel Royal and a number of state rooms, all open for public viewing. But, for much of its history, it was the administrative centre of British colonial rule here. It has also, says Jen Laverty, the castle’s senior guide, ‘had a strange habit of being at the centre of the city’s most important historical events’.
Most notably, it was here, after the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule, rebel leader James Connolly was imprisoned before being executed by a firing squad.
Just six years later – and following an independence war sparked in part by that execution – one of Connolly’s fellow Easter rebels, Michael Collins, would walk into the castle grounds to sign a treaty that ended 700 years of British rule and created the Irish Free State.
The history of this fight for independence is all around Dublin, actually. Its deadliness cannot be mistaken. Croke Park has a remembrance plaque to 14 Gaelic football fans who died there on Bloody Sunday 1920 when British troops opened fire on the crowd. The General Post Office, on O’Connell Street Lower, still bares the bullet marks of the Easter Rising. And Kilmainham Gaol – though now turned into a fascinating visitor experience – remains a daunting site both inside and out.
Yet, somehow, the city wears its past lightly too.
Everyone who grows up in Ireland is taught about the fight for independence, explains Mick.
‘But this is a forward-looking place. And the Irish are a friendly people. It’s who we are.’
Indeed, a visit to the Temple Bar cultural quarter on the south bank of the Liffey is evidence of that.
Despite being the city’s main tourist hub, it also remains the city’s official Cultural Quarter and nocturnal heartbeat. Theatres, art galleries and restaurants all jostle for space around its cobbled streets.
Particularly impressive is Meeting House Square, where outdoor performances and film screenings are held throughout the summer. More pertinently, the area has a reputation that you might arrive a stranger but you leave among friends.
As we walk through it all in the late afternoon, with live music already pouring out what feels like every other door, I make a mental note to return again later.
History, architecture and culture are all well and good, of course, but they don’t fill a visitor’s stomach.
No matter. Dublin is fast-earning a reputation for gastronomic excellence – and that’s not just because of its own internationally renowned beef and lamb. Restaurants serving cuisines from around the world abound here and not many, I’m told, have excited residents in recent years more than Sophie’s, a rooftop Italian restaurant at the boutique Dean Hotel Dublin on the vibrant Harcourt Street.
Who’s Sophie? ‘I’m not sure,’ says reception manager David Lee as he shows us around. ‘I don’t know who Dean is either. The owner likes to have an air of mystery.’
The restaurant describes itself, with typical Dublin lyricism, as ‘a glasshouse where the weather is our wallpaper’. I won’t try and put it better, but the view from that glasshouse rivals those from above Croke Park. ‘Deadly,’ I say to Mick.
The food is decent enough too. Steaks and pizzas are polished off with aplomb. We linger awhile looking over that skyline.
Somewhere there Mick is telling me about yet another of the city’s literary greats. Roddy Dowel. He still lives here, has set many of his novels in its working-class neighbourhoods and, in 2009, founded Fighting Words, a centre to offer free creative writing classes. Yet his most famous quote about the place is less than complimentary. ‘It’s a big con job,’ he said in an interview in 2004. ‘We’ve sold the myth of Dublin as a sexy place incredibly well, because it is a dreary little dump most of the time.’
It might be the first time in two days I’ve shaken my head at the words of an Irish writer. He’s wrong. Dublin is magnificent.