Most Americans travel to Ireland to experience the bucolic green quilt and timeless stony coast familiar from films such as “How Green Was My Valley,” “The Quiet Man,” “Ryan’s Daughter,” “Dancing at Lughnasa” and “The Field.” Some make archaeological or genealogical pilgrimages to the Emerald Isle.
Dublin is generally visited briefly, if at all.
But with plenty to see and do, and nonstop flights from Dulles, this lively midsize city should be near the top of your getaway list. Yes, there are many wonderful pubs — imagine filling D.C.’s Dubliner with Irish people — but this article mainly covers must-sees for the arts-minded.
Even the arts-minded rarely make overseas pleasure trips with a library in mind, but Trinity College Library, alone, is a reason to visit the Irish capital.
Not because of the library building — though the Long Room is one of the most jaw-dropping book-filled interiors in the world. Because of the Book of Kells.
Google it now, and zoom in. Other extraordinarily beautiful illuminated manuscripts have survived, but the level of artistic and cultural intricacy of this 1,200-year-old Gospel book’s decoration is unsurpassed.
When it was made, around the year 800, Ireland had been Christian for almost four centuries. The island’s 1,000-year Celtic heritage, however, remained strong and was expressed in incredibly complex patterns — Celtic knots — incorporating the Latin text and stylized birds and beasts.
True, the library has only four pages of the Book of Kells on view at any given time. However, a large and excellent exhibition serves to put the book in context and peel back layers of Irish history.
On nearly 50 acres in the center of Dublin, Trinity College — founded in 1592 by Elizabeth I as a symbol of the Tudor monarchy — has a serene campus of walkways and quadrangles. Catholics could not enroll for about 200 years (and were forbidden by the Catholic Church in Ireland to enroll without permission from 1871 to 1970). Among its alumni are Samuel Beckett, George Berkeley, Edmund Burke, J. P. Donleavy, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, Bram Stoker, Jonathan Swift, William Trevor and Oscar Wilde.
On the campus’s Nassau Street side, tour buses unload group after group on their way to the Book of Kells and, afterward, several adjacent shops of woolens and souvenirs.
Around the time that the Book of Kells was completed, at the Abbey of Kells, north of Dublin, Vikings began to raid and later settle in Ireland, activities that they kept up until the mid 1100s, when the Normans arrived. The Normans then fought with Irish lords and English kings for a few centuries, the Black Death interrupting from 1348 to 1350.
Stunning and fascinating artifacts from the Celtic, Viking and Norman periods — made of stone, iron, gold and jewels — are displayed at the National Museum of Ireland, in an elaborate Victorian building on Kildare Street.
Trinity College, the National Museum and the Georgian blocks around St. Stephen’s Green — where there is a bust of James Joyce, who frequently refers to it in his work (Bloomsday 2017, by the way, is Friday, June 16) — are all south of the River Liffey.
The main boulevard heading north across the Liffey is O’Connell Street, known as Sackville Street when, 101 years ago, the leaders of the Easter Rising commandeered the main post office. The building burned, the Rising was put down and its leaders were executed.
Diagonally across from the post office, Nelson’s Pillar, a symbol of British rule, remained standing until Irish Republicans blew it up in 1966. It was replaced in 2003 by the 390-foot Spire of Dublin.
In the vicinity are an art museum, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, on Parnell Square North in an 18th-century William Chambers mansion, and Dublin’s two most famous playhouses, the Abbey and the Gate.
The Hugh Lane is named for an Irish-born London art dealer who established what is considered the world’s first public gallery of modern art in 1908 and went down with the Lusitania. Along with a core collection of French 19th-century paintings and special exhibitions, the museum displays seven large paintings by abstract artist Sean Scully and a reconstruction of the looks-like-a-bomb-hit-it London studio of the late Francis Bacon; both Scully and Bacon were born in Dublin.
At the Abbey Theatre, founded by poet William Butler Yeats and other Irish literary revivalists in 1904, the Druid Theatre Company’s production of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” is being presented from April 22 to May 20.
The Gate Theatre, where Orson Welles and James Mason got their start, will present Noël Coward’s classic 1939 comedy “Private Lives” from March 31 to June 24.
One more museum: The Irish Museum of Modern Art is displaying 30 paintings and 20 works on paper by Lucian Freud, Sigmund’s grandson, who died in 2011. This is the first year of a five-year loan of works from private collections that the museum is billing as “Freud Project.” Freud’s work isn’t for everyone, but he was one of the great figurative painters of the 20th century. If you have a taste for detailed, full-body portraits of the naked flesh of Londoners and their pets, make a point of visiting IMMA.
Ready to wet your whistle? North of the Liffey on the west side of Dublin is the Old Jameson Distillery, where the whiskey was made from 1780 until 1971. The “Bow St. Experience” is an immersive 40-minute tasting tour. South of the Liffey on the west side is Guinness Storehouse, a former fermentation plant in the still-going-strong St. James’s Gate Brewery. It was named Europe’s top tourist attraction at the 2015 World Travel Awards (what were they drinking?).
An impressive melding of the authentic and the fabricated, this walled-off pavilion is a high-tech family attraction, telling the story of the internationally famous brand and offering souvenirs, food, drink, lectures and cooking classes. Your ticket includes a sample pint and 360-degree view in the rooftop bar. Recommended way to return to central Dublin: horse and buggy.