Recently, Wilf and I took to the road from West Kerry feeling excited and, to tell the truth, uncertain of what lay ahead. With my new novel out, and bookshops reopened, Golden Ireland had arranged a trip for us to the bright lights of Dublin, where we hadn’t been for a year.
I’m a Dubliner, so to go there as a tourist felt strange. But, arriving at Brooks Hotel, only a short walk from Grafton St, I saw this was a chance to discover more about a city I thought I knew. We stayed two nights and everyone, from Jessica on reception to Anne, the manager, our waiters, and the lovely people in housekeeping, went the extra mile to make us feel at home. Some of Brooks’ stylish bedrooms have a contemporary vibe while others are more traditional, and among its joys were the meals produced by Executive Chef Patrick, who’s created the hotel’s little urban garden and often forages wild ingredients. Immensely knowledgeable and talented, he’s dedicated to freshness and sustainability.
Visits to Dublin’s tourist attractions have never been so relaxed, as tickets must be booked online and crowding isn’t permitted. Highlights of our trip were the Book of Kells and the Long Room at Trinity College Library. Like many Irish people, I’ve been wary of the queues the exhibition attracts, but, with fewer foreign tourists about, queuing is minimal and you can linger in front of the stunning medieval manuscript. We found the same sense of ease in the Museum of Literature Ireland, a partnership between University College Dublin and the National Library. Here state-of-the art displays are housed in gracious Georgian rooms in which many of the writers they celebrate once attended lectures (or, in the case of my generation of UCD students, rehearsed plays). Wilf and I lunched in the courtyard café, admiring a tree beneath which James Joyce posed for his BA graduation photo in 1902. Afterwards, we wandered through an arched gateway into Iveagh Gardens, a hidden, green oasis in the very heart of the city.
Next day, waved off by Patrick, who’d emerged from his kitchen to stand on the pavement discussing pickling techniques, we drove to Ballsbridge. I grew up close to this southside suburb with its redbrick housing, leafy park and riverside walks, and had never realised how convenient it is as a base for a city break. The Clayton Hotel there is a Victorian building, originally a school, and our bright, modern room had a view of its iconic tower, crowned by an ornate iron weathervane. Drinks and snacks could be had at tables scattered on the lawn, dinner was served in a modern bar that opens onto a sunken courtyard, and breakfast included a generous vegan option to set you up for the day.
Between visits to bookshops, our sightseeing continued, including a stroll down the quays from O’Connell St to the Jeanie Johnston, a full-scale modern replica of a nineteenth century ship that took Irish emigrants fleeing famine and disease to the New World. We learned that, unusually, the original vessel’s owner had actively sought a humane captain, and employed a doctor, on its sixteen transatlantic voyages, each of which carried up to three hundred men, women and children. In the nearby EPIC Emigration Museum, Europe’s leading tourist attraction in 2019 and 2020, interactive displays provide a remarkably detailed look at Irish history and worldwide achievement. There we met Tania, a charming Portuguese staff member, who told us she found Ireland very welcoming, and wondered if that was because we’re a nation of emigrants. So, both venues offered heart-warming thoughts at a time when the world is learning to recognise the implications of interdependence and the vital importance of empathy
Before becoming an author, I was an actress, and worked briefly for Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. In those days it hadn’t begun its backstage tours run by James Hickson, whose enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, his subject is amazing. Visitors range from theatre buffs to design students, to people with tickets for an Abbey show who’d like an enhanced experience. It was magical to feel the bubbling excitement as the lights have begun to go up after months of darkness. It’s a special kind of energy, specific to the backstage world, and participants in James’s tours can share it.
Our break provided a delightful mix of urban edge and unexpected tranquillity. Airfield Estate is a 38-acre working farm in Dundrum, about twenty minutes’ drive from Ballsbridge. There, amid glorious organic growth, our guide, Irene, told us the story of Letitia and Naomi Overend, sisters who bequeathed the estate to the nation “for education and recreation”. Active farmers and cattle-breeders, indefatigable charity workers, and dauntless – if occasionally dangerous – drivers of vintage cars, the Overend women themselves favoured high-end recreation. A tour of their lovely, Victorian villa reveals memorabilia found in the attic, including photos of skiing trips in the 1930s and cruises to exotic locations. I can’t think of a more lovely day out in Dublin, and a picnic from Overends Kitchen which “connects land and table, farmer and eater” provided the perfect lunch among drifts of flowers.
Our last night was spent on the northside, in the Bonnington Hotel which has smart décor, an impressive pool and health club, and majors in family and romantic breaks and city getaways. It’s close to Dublin’s National Botanic Gardens, a quick bus-ride to the city centre, and a short drive to quiet beaches. And, like the Overend sisters and Patrick at Brooks, it knows the importance of traceable and locally-sourced ingredients. Being close to Croke Park, the home of the GAA, we decided to eat in the hotel’s sports bar, and had delicious beefburgers from Dexter cattle reared in South Tipperary served with chips made from potatoes grown on a local farm. The bar, with its young, efficient staff, TV screens and neon lighting, was a fun setting in which to end a brilliant city staycation. We slept well in a comfortable bed before driving back to West Kerry. And I can honestly say that, when we’d set out, I’d had no idea how much of Dublin there still was to discover.
USA Today bestselling Irish writer Felicity Hayes-McCoy is the author of the ‘Finfarran’ novels, set in a fictional county on Ireland’s West Coast.