Dublin, the city of poets and pubs, finds its pot of gold

Contributing editor Felicity Long recently visited the happening city of Dublin, Ireland. Her report follows:

ne look at Ireland's booming capital makes it evident that the destination has indeed found its pot of gold, turning Dublin into a modern-day Emerald City.

The Celtic Tiger economy, bolstered in recent years by investments in technology and pharmaceuticals, has let the good times roll, most notably in the south and east and, of course, in Dublin.

Combine this with a population of which nearly half is under the age of 30, and you've got a 1,000-year-old city evolving at warp speed.

The Irish parliament meets in the stately Government Buildings.The prosperity shows itself in the trendy restaurants and hotels, the cutting-edge music and, most notably, in the people themselves, trotting to and from work in designer duds with cell phones to their ears.

Not everyone in Dublin marches to the beat of high finance. I saw many young bohemian-types heading to work in the city's art and cultural centers.

I went on a hunt to find the new and the interesting, pausing occasionally to revisit the tried and true. Here is a run-down of my findings:

'Left Bank'

Think of this area, situated just south of the River Liffey, as the Left Bank of Dublin, offering a hip alternative to the mainstream attractions of the city.

The place to start is Meeting House Square, which serves as an open-air performance venue with family-friendly activities in summer and outdoor slide projection exhibitions in winter.

During my stay, the slide exhibition was "Underswim" by Sligo artist Laura Gannon. It depicted close-ups of the face of a semiconscious woman. Very Andy Warholish.

Videos are shown six days each from Tuesdays to Saturdays at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.; 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Sundays.

Those with growling stomachs can check out the Food Market in Meeting House Square on Saturdays, where wares range from sushi and fudge to cheeses and smoked fish. Also on Saturdays is the Book Market, where browsers can find everything from bestsellers to rare editions.

Grafton Street is known for its upscale shops, but bargains are available from street vendors. Surrounding the square are art galleries and cultural venues, such as the Temple Bar Music Center, a bar that offers live musical events nightly; Arthouse, a multimedia center that combines exhibition space with an Internet cafe; the Gallery of Photography, showcasing the talents of contemporary photographers, and the Irish Film Center, where visitors can see Irish films, visit film archives and attend special events and festivals.

Kids ages 4 to 13 can visit The Ark, a cultural center with hands-on theater, music and visual arts programs.

Then there's Dublin's Viking Adventure, which re-creates life in Dublin 1,000 years ago. Costumed characters go about their business in this ninth and 10th century Viking settlement that includes artifacts discovered in excavations in the city.

Smithfield Village

One of the up-and-coming areas to keep an eye on is Smithfield Village, where, before its recent renaissance, Dubliners used to buy their food at outdoor markets.

At the Old Jameson Distillery, visitors can take tours, sample whiskey and climb a 220-foot observation platform.

Chief O'Neills Cafe and Bar, named for a former Chicago chief of police and ardent Irish music fan, is the site of Ceol, a traditional Irish music center that explores the roots of local music and dance.

Grafton Street

This pedestrian area, which runs from Grafton to O'Connell streets, is Dublin's answer to the prayers of shopaholics, although the stiff price tags relegated me to window shopping.

Flower sellers and other vendors set up carts along the way, and street performers drew tourists and commuters.

As I threaded my way through the crowds along Grafton Street, I came across a quartet of boys in their early teens singing Beatles songs in perfect harmony.

To limit yourself to Grafton Street is to miss out on great shopping elsewhere in the city, from department stores such as the venerable Marks and Spencers to the cutting edge.

Irish knits can be purchased at shops throughout the city. I was guided to a store on Kildare Street called Cleo's, which features hand-spun, hand-dyed and hand-knit clothing with an organic, New Age look for children and adults. There were opera capes, baby sweaters and knitted dolls in vivid colors displayed in the tiny shop, which could barely accommodate a handful of customers.

Although the shop looks funky, it boasts a glitzy catalog and eyebrow-raising prices. I was taken with a particularly fetching sweater, for example, that would have set me back about $500.

That much money would have gotten me even less at Louise Kennedy's salon at 56 Merrion Square. Kennedy is one of Ireland's best-established designers, and her shop is as much a museum as a store.

To enter, visitors can call ahead or -- for the very intrepid -- ring the doorbell of the imposing Georgian building and be admitted into the foyer, presided over by a row of inscrutable statues of Buddha.

Here an attendant will assess the desires of the shopper and offer a level of individual service with which not everyone would be comfortable.

The wares themselves include charmingly wacky hats -- just the thing for Ascot Day -- to crystal, sumptuous clothing and objets d'art.

Theater

The Abbey Theater is an institution in Dublin, and during our stay, locals surprised us by suggesting we'd do better at the Gate or the Peacock, the latter of which, along with the Abbey, comprises the Ireland National Theater.

We saw "Down the Line" at the Peacock Theater -- a bargain at about $9 a ticket. It's a black comedy with plenty of salty language and iconoclastic themes (a dysfunctional family arguing over religion, women's roles and abortion) showcasing the considerable talents of Irish playwright Paul Mercier.

We loved it, but I did wonder if the show appealed to the busload of American seniors who had been brought to the theater as part of a packaged city tour.

Die-hard theater buffs can immerse themselves in plays during the annual Dublin Theater Festival, which runs for two weeks every October throughout the city.

This year's shows ranged from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" to a music and film presentation of Bela Lugosi's "Dracula," with music by Philip Glass.

Museums

Among the relatively new crop of niche museums is the Dublin Writers' Museum, which opened in 1991.

Located in an 18th century mansion, the museum showcases in letters, portraits and personal items the works of such famous Dubliners as George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and W.B. Yeats.

Especially interesting is the room dedicated to children's literature. Guided tours are available.

Also notable is the Newman House, located on St. Stephen's Green. The restoration of the Newman House began in 1989 and has just been completed.

Comprising two 18th century buildings with original and artfully restored interiors, this imposing Georgian building was the temporary home of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and writer James Joyce, both of whom studied and worked there and whose rooms are open to visitors.

The museum is open in summer only or to groups with advance reservations year-round.

Trinity College

On the street, I overheard a comment by an American tourist that "Trinity College is supposed to be crowded and not worth visiting." On the contrary, I waited for my turn to see the Book of Kells from the ninth century and other rare and beautifully illustrated manuscripts in the Old Library and found it fascinating.

Open daily, the permanent exhibition costs only about $5 for adults. Kids under the age of 12 are admitted free, although a word of caution: They might be bored.

As long as you're at Trinity College, you might consider signing up for a two-hour historical walking tour of Dublin, conducted by the school's history graduates. The itinerary begins at the college, then moves on to the Old Parliament House, Temple Bar, City Hall, Dublin Castle, Wood Quay, Christ Church Cathedral and Four Courts.

This tour is one of the best buys in town at less than $7 per person.

St. Stephen's Green

For a break from the bustle of the city, try a stroll or a morning jog through this 19th century park, which is an oasis of flower gardens, meandering paths and a quiet pond with birds. Best of all, it is situated within walking distance from the aforementioned attractions.

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