Skittish Sheep, Hotel Poets and Majestic Church Bells: BlackBook Does Dublin
It seemed fitting that we’d arrived in Dublin for the first time just days after The Pogues’ frontman Shane McGowan’s very well-documented 60th birthday party. The guest list, hardly surprisingly, included the likes of Nick Cave, Johnny Depp and Bobby Gillespie, all of whom had checked into the Conrad hotel, where we also happened to be dropping our bags. For us, the lobby (and surely the bar) had been “consecrated” in advance by their visit.
Now we’d over the years clocked considerable time and kilometers in England, Scotland and Wales; but the Dublin soil had yet eluded our soles. Charmingly, the first “attraction” our airport driver brought to our attention? “Those are U2’s offices,” he beamed, pointing proudly to a strikingly modern looking building along the River Liffey, as if it were the Parthenon.
But what we eventually would come to most appreciate of the Irish capital was that it felt decidedly more Euro than Anglo – and our new friends there seemed happy we’d noticed just that.
A special treat? We had taken an Aer Lingus flight from New York, which also happened to be carrying one Peter Dinklage – decisively confirming that the filming of yet another season of Game of Thrones was well underway in the far reaches of the Emerald Isle.
But despite all that, surely nothing reminded us more profoundly that we were, indeed, in Dublin, than the Conrad’s in-house…poet. It was surely the highlight of our trip.
Here’s what we did.
Perhaps owing to our particular aesthetic inclinations, we genuinely relish any and every opportunity to ponce about in an extravagantly gothic house of God. And dating to 1030, Christ Church doesn’t even have to use the “neo” prefix of so many of those English cathedrals. We were afforded a particularly special privilege: that of climbing up to the bell room to actually ring the enormous church bells – and the music they made was all the more majestic for that proximity (mind, they are also really heavy). Surprisingly, they’re actually short of ringers there – so if you’re seeking employment that might also take you a few steps closer to divinity, Christ Church should be your first call.
Downstairs in the “crypt” were a mummified cat and rat, discovered in the 1850s trapped in the church’s pipe organ. Do not leave without visiting them, nor the on-site Foxy Friars gift shop.
For dark-hearted literary types, this is sort of like visiting the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris, where one can kneel before the graves of Baudelaire, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. But St. Ann’s was actually the site of Oscar Wilde’s baptism in 1854, and Bram Stoker’s wedding in 1878. Fittingly, the latter’s bride, Florence Balcombe, was also making time with Oscar. Would you have expected anything less?
For a particularly ethereal immersion in the unique Europeaness of Dublin, we slipped behind the National Concert Hall to discover the elegantly discreet Iveagh Gardens (tip: you’ll want to make sure to bring your best garden-sauntering soundtrack with you.) Built by Edward Guinness, Lord Iveagh, he was to Dublin what the Medici were to Florence – an aesthetically defining patron. There is some English influence, but the Iveagh is most notably marked out by its Italianate fountains and its French style waterfall and promenade. Truly lovely, and delightfully furtive.
Taken in London or Bath, tea can be a bit…twee. But The Story Teller Afternoon Tea at Lemuel’s, the Conrad’s chic, Art Deco style bar and lounge, was distinctly Irish – encouraging as it does some mid-day tippling with your rarefied nibbles. It’s anything but traditional, with hibiscus infused scones, white chocolate and pistachio cake lollipop, and a free range egg sandwich with chive truffle aioli. We added cocktails, specifically the brandy based Sorcerer’s Tipple, and the Brobdingnag Sting for the gin lovers amongst us. All the signature drinks have backstories culled from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, a fittingly literary touch – and the selection of specialty loose leaf teas is head-spinning. Classy, but fun.
Despite its ostensibly mythic status, it turns out Irish whiskey makes up only about 4% of the worldwide total consumption. But the lads at Teeling are not having it, and have been leading a renaissance – which was perfectly encapsulated in their eye-catchingly modern city centre distillery and tasting rooms. At one of the latter, a 007-meets-Illuminati private enclave, we learned the intricacies of their small batch, single grain and single malt whiskeys – like, how one hits the throat, and another the gut. Their lush, amber single grain is literally a symphony of flavors, one of the most satisfying whiskey experiences we can recall. There’s also a swank new bar on site, should your tippling preferences tend towards swish cocktailing or fancy Irish coffees.
You wouldn’t think from the name, but this is one of the more romantic eateries in a city where you’re just as likely to be romancing a demon spirit as a beautiful lass. In one of the art-and-fireplace-adorned rooms, we dined rapturously on St Tola goats cheese, Earl Grey Tea cured Irish salmon, and duck liver, pork & smoked black pudding terrine. It was also an ideal opportunity to take a break from the hard stuff – their sommeliers are totally aces.
The Conrad’s exceedingly stylish signature restaurant, the Coburg is a buzzy scene from breakfast all the way through to late night. We first did time at its chic Champagne Table for an expertly led course in whiskey and gin tasting – and fell hard for Irish Gunpowder Gin, with its juniper base enhanced by flavors of coriander, cardamom, star anise and, naturally, gunpowder tea. Coburg’s menu is approachable but intriguing, and dinner highlights might include smoked steak tartare, whole grilled mackerel, rack of Irish lamb, and a 35-day dry-aged Irish beef fillet so flavorful that it will likely have you requesting a few cuts to smuggle home in your luggage.
We were most thrilled to just take in the nighttime view of The National Concert Hall’s luminously illuminated facade from our suite at the Conrad. But this is where you would come to experience an elevated program of music in Dublin: Weill, Schubert, Beethoven, opera and more curated contemporary offerings. We took in Imagining Ireland: 21st Century Song, for a fascinating narrative on modern Irish music. It makes for a refined break from the city’s more rockist live music offerings.
Dublin is one of those destinations, like Florence, where you haven’t truly visited unless you’ve gotten out of the city. And really, when was the last time you were invited out to experience something, you know…neolithic? For certain, Newgrange is a must for Neanderphiles, a Stone Age monument dating to 3200 B.C. An ancient passage tomb – now a UNESCO World Heritage site – it was conceived to capture a shaft of sunlight at the Winter Solstice, and still, amazingly, performs that function. The complex, mathematical construction makes it all the more shocking that it was built 5000 years ago. An incomparable experience.
An ethereal, Iron Age archaeological site, it’s home to a number of ancient monuments, all with fascinating backstories…as well as some mind-blowing sun circles. We climbed the hill for its awe-inspiring vantage point – and there encountered a herd of sheep we were hoping to make friends with. Alas, the cleverly skittish little fellows were cagey enough to avoid our advances – amusingly matching our movement step for step. Meaning, we never really even got close to them.
While you’re there, do make sure to pop in to The Old Book Shop, which is exactly what it sounds like it is – with an owner, Michael Slavin, that you should plan to spend some time chatting up about the area’s history. And a couple of doors down, Maguires Cafe is a buzzy but charming spot for a long, lazy lunch.
It’s mentally exhausting, listening to every new hotel’s endless proclamations of “immersion in local culture.” But the Conrad Dublin totally nails it…by the utterly genius employment of a “house poet” (what could be more Irish?). To be sure, natty young lad Stephen Clare sits in the private dining room at Lemuel’s, tapping away on a typewriter (in a totally non-hipster way), and turning out poignant yet startlingly mellifluous poetry, considering its unpremeditated spontaneity. (Being in Ireland, we asked him grace us with some ethereal words on Christianity – and were nothing shy of awestruck by the result.)
As for the hotel itself, it might well be Dublin’s best, drawing the likes of J-Lo, Bill & Hillary and, aforementioned of course, the occasional debauched rock star, with its 5-star goodies and utterly brilliant staff. And while the smartly art-adorned public spaces dazzle in their unstuffy elegance, the rooms and suites exhibit a more subdued chic, with their white-and grey color schemes, soothing light woods, plush bathrooms and generous windows, framing the surrounding city centre. Request one with views to the Neo-Classical National Theatre, or over to the lush St. Stephen’s Green just up the road.
It also has a distinctly fun side, with a basement pub, Alfie Byrne’s, that can go head to head with almost any local for authenticity, vibe, beer selection and spirited clientele (who went totally mental upon the Irish beating the French in Six Nations Rugby). Though, admittedly, we were at our most content cocktailing the night away back up at Lemuel’s, where a couple of rounds of Dublin Daisies – made with Teeling whiskey, naturally – capped our visit to a city (and a hotel) that we must admit we fell pretty hard for.
Indeed, return plans are already in the works.