My instructor, a woman named Áine, urged me on: “Do it for your country!” A group of us that had booked a traditional Irish games experience through Experience Gaelic Games (35 euros, about $42) stood out on a green field one hot afternoon in northern Dublin. Áine, having taught us the ways of hurling, a lacrosse-like game possibly as old as Ireland itself, was now instructing us in the ways of Gaelic football, which is played with a soccer ball-like orb. My immediate task: to juggle the ball off my foot while running toward a pair of goal posts, and then punt it through the uprights. My country, I thought, is about to be mighty disappointed.
I dribbled the ball once and continued running. I awkwardly bounced the ball off the top of my foot, somehow managing to catch it, then ran a few more steps and … booted the ball far to the left of the posts and into an adjacent field. Áine was kind about the whole thing. “Well, maybe you’re better off going lefty,” she teased. In the field where my ball landed, Conor McHugh, an amateur player, was calmly kicking goal after goal through the uprights from about 30 yards out. I sheepishly retrieved my ball, hoping too much national pride wasn’t lost through my poor display.
The beautiful capital city of Ireland has theater, literature and music emanating from its pores: the perfect place for culture and history mavens — not to mention those who’d like to experience bruising, idiosyncratic national sports. But the city is also a victim of its own success. Not designed to cater to hordes of tourists, it can present issues for visitors, particularly in cost. (Even locals have trouble keeping up with rents.) Hotels in Dublin are phenomenally expensive during the summer tourist season, and the transit system can be tricky to manage. Luckily, there are a few ways to lessen the financial burden of a trip to the Emerald Isle’s largest city, without sacrificing any of the enjoyment.
“Ashtown?” asked Tony, my taxi driver, “How’d you end up out there?” Ashtown, a townland in northwest Dublin, wasn’t an ideal location for my Airbnb, but at just $72 a night for a clean room in a young couple’s home, it certainly beat the alternative: spending hundreds per night on a hotel within the city. I told Tony that everything I’d seen in city center was too expensive, and he nodded. “We can’t even afford to live here.”
The location simply meant that I had to get to know the tram and bus system intimately. Once I had that down, it only took me about 20 minutes to get downtown on the Luas, or tram system, from the Broombridge station. I bought a three-day Leap Visitor card for 19.50 euros, which allows for unlimited public transportation, including the Airlink airport bus, which goes to the city center.
I stepped out from the Tara Street station near George’s Quay in central Dublin, which runs alongside the River Liffey. There was a buzz of activity outside the station and a pronounced sense of anticipation from passers-by. Before I took more than a dozen steps, a young woman pressed an “I’ve voted. Have you?” sticker into my hand. I eventually figured out what was going on: It was the day of the referendum to repeal Ireland’s longstanding ban on abortion. (The repeal was successful.) After grabbing a Burundi filter brew at Shoe Lane Coffee (2.70 euros), I set out to do a quick survey of the city on foot, heading up toward the landmark Spire (handy to spot if you get turned around) before turning down the pedestrian and shopping thoroughfare of Henry Street.
A stop at a cell provider store was necessary, so I went into the Three store where Henry Street became Mary Street (streets change names frequently in Dublin, and it’s best to just get used to it) where I was pleasantly surprised after speaking to an associate. Cellular data is one of the few things in Ireland where you can get quite a good deal. For 20 euros, I bought a SIM card that gave me unlimited data within Ireland and six gigabytes in the rest of Europe.
Safe in knowing that I could burn through data without consequence, I turned my attention back to enjoying Dublin — the street musicians in particular. While the 2007 movie “Once” put international attention on the art form, musicians singing for their supper is a tradition. Today, there’s considerable diversity in what you’ll hear as you walk the city. A young Bolivian man, Williams Erick Ortiz, crooned Spanish-language songs; Coldplay covers were the preferred choice of another performer, Minkyu Jo. Over toward the north end of Grafton Street (the most popular area to find musicians), I caught a talented teenager who goes by Buzz Apollo playing some angsty rock numbers.
For those who prefer their music in an indoor setting, The Cobblestone describes itself as a “drinking pub with a music problem.” That’s not to say it’s buttoned up or stuffy — when I walked in, two fiddlers were sitting in the corner to my left, playing off one another while others chatted and drank amber-colored pints. There was a special performance for Brittany Day, which celebrates Bretons in Ireland, the evening I was there (10 euros), and I caught the group Bal Feirste playing Breton and Irish tunes. (I made a well-intentioned attempt at learning the traditional dance a dozen or so people were doing near the stage — it didn’t go that well.)
If theater is more your thing, the birthplace of Shaw and Beckett can certainly oblige. I caught a new play, “My Son My Son” by Veronica Dyas at the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar, smack in the center of the city (14 euros). While some of the references flew over my head, the politically charged play, which revolves around the life of a single mother in the Liberties, a historically working-class neighborhood of Dublin, was excellently acted.
Over at the Abbey Theater, a 10-minute walk away, on the other side of the Liffey, I caught a fantastic production of “The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane” from visiting company Pan Pan Theater. While some modern riffs on Hamlet can come across as clunky or hackneyed — do we really need to see Hamlet in space? — Pan Pan forces us to truly think about the pliancy of Shakespeare’s language.
An actors speaking to the audience about Hamlet’s famous Act I monologue — “O that this too solid flesh would melt” — informs us that the word “solid,” depending on what edition one is perusing, might read as “sullied” or even “sallied,” giving the line different meaning. Playing on that fungibility, actors within the company “audition” for the role of Hamlet — a process both hilarious and harrowing. The audience members then get onstage to vote for their favorite. (My pick, Anthony Morris, won the vote in a squeaker.)
Those with an interest in history will find plenty to do in Dublin. I enjoyed a tour booked through Historical Walking Tours of Dublin (12 euros) and was impressed by my knowledgeable guide, Sylvie. The tour, which leaned on the 18th century as a crucial period in Irish history, began at Trinity College before slowly moving to the old House of Lords and Temple Bar areas. We learned, among other things, why the Irish language, while it may never be widely used again, will never go extinct thanks to extensive civic and government efforts to protect it.
A visit to Dublin must include walking the grounds of Trinity College, established by Queen Elizabeth in 1592 and the country’s oldest existing university. The Old Library on campus houses volumes of valuable and venerable manuscripts, the most famous of which are the lavishly illuminated New Testament Gospels known as the Book of Kells (exhibit admission, 14 euros). Two, John and Luke, were on display when I visited, and the exhibit does a good job explaining the history and significance of the volumes, which were created around 800 A.D.
But it’s the Long Room that has to be one of the most impressive sites in the country. The epic barrel-vaulted library, measuring over 200 feet long and nearly 50 feet high, is packed with 200,000 books, slotted neatly into row after row of wooden shelves stretching to the ceiling. It’s magical and a must-see for any library buff; you can almost feel the spirit of Oscar Wilde walking beside you.
For a different but no less important side of Irish history, head to Kilmainham Gaol, a county jail that held, among others, generations of Irish political prisoners from 1796 through its closure in 1924 following the Irish Civil War. Visitors should book tickets for the jail tour well ahead of time; they can sell out days in advance, as they did when I stopped in one afternoon.
Even without the tour, there’s still plenty to see at the jail, which for many still stands as a symbol of English oppression. An informative museum documents the imprisonment of such Irish leaders as Charles Parnell and Michael Collins, and there’s a room with original graffiti created by political prisoners and soldiers.
The nearby Irish Museum of Modern Art is worth stopping by while you’re in the neighborhood. Entered by means of a long walkway surrounded by lush greenery, the museum has paid exhibits, but I found that the free areas were more than adequate to keep me entertained. The paintings in Lucian Freud’s “Donegal Man” series made the trip worthwhile, as did Brian O’Doherty’s “Language and Space,” intricately detailed drawings inspired by the Celtic language.
But no visit to Dublin would be complete without a hearty meal and a creamy pint of one of Ireland’s fine beers. For the former, I recommend Pickle, which specializes in Northern Indian cuisine and has an excellent 22-euro early bird dinner special. For a deeper dive into the latter, the massive Guinness Storehouse is an obvious choice, a theme-parklike cash grab that is fun if you relax and go with the raucous atmosphere. I paid 17.50 euros online for my ticket, the minimum in their dynamic pricing arrangement, and found it slightly overpriced for my taste. You do get a free pint with admission, however, which I enjoyed with some excellent views of the city from the Gravity Bar on the seventh floor.
But why pay that much? The beer was just as cold at Dice Bar, a lively corner dive with worn leather booths and a homey atmosphere. I got a thick pint of D’Arcy’s Dublin Stout for 4.80 euros. A couple of new friends I made, Josh and Keith, took me to Grogan’s Castle Lounge, where we found a freewheeling gathering; we caroused and drank in the street with about a hundred other people. After a crawl that also included The Bar With No Name and Garage Bar, we collapsed at a table at Zaytoon, a busy late-night Iranian restaurant that’s something of a Holy Grail for Dublin barhoppers. I gratefully scarfed my 7.50-euro gut bomb of mixed lamb and chicken kebab and sat back, allowing the rich sauces and spices to soak up the alcohol.
The food was good, enhanced by having shared it with my new Irish companions and the excitement of the after-midnight crowd. And I had a parallel feeling after a long day exploring this exciting capital city: It was enriching and enjoyable, made even more so knowing I'd kept my expenses to a minimum.
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