Dublin Travel Information

Mother Earth Travel > Ireland > Dublin > History

The river Liffey divides Dublin into two distinct halves: the south side of the city and the north.

The south side of the city traditionally has been the domain of Dublin's middle-classes and is - generally speaking - more affluent than its northern counterpart.

Temple Bar Area - In the maze of cobblestone nooks and crooked crannies, between Dame Street and the Liffey, is Dublin's most upwardly mobile area. In the 1980s, the district was scheduled to be demolished to make way for a vast bus station, but was saved by some last minute planning decisions and became instead the focus of Dublin's urban regeneration scheme throughout the 1990s. Every turn uncovers more distinctive shops and another trendy arts centre. With music and television recording studios, the excellent Irish Film Centre and other media magnets, this is where Dublin's cultural heart is to be found. By night visitors (and some Dubliners) gravitate towards Temple Bar and its environs to socialise. Here, above a former Viking settlement, they come to soak up the cafe culture or have a drink in one of the ever-growing number of bars and pubs. The atmosphere in the area has been much improved as a result of the decision to ban stag parties from the area at weekends; you'll still, however, find the streets and lanes thronged after dark.

Medieval Dublin - The area around Temple Bar flows seamlessly into the historic heart of the city. Dublin Castle is the former seat of British power and home to the Viceroys of Ireland. With its ornate dining hall, crystal chandeliers and ornate State Rooms, the Castle still constitutes a powerful symbol of the British colonial presence ... even though today the Castle witnesses the inaugurations of the Presidents of Ireland. Also contained in the large Castle complex are the Crypt Theatre and the marvellous Chester Beatty Library, one of the world's great treasure-houses of Islamic and Oriental art. On the edge of the Castle lies the recently refurbished City Hall. The great domed atrium of the building - originally founded in the eighteenth century to house the Royal Exchange - is one the city's most beautiful and impressive spaces. Dublin Castle and the twin medieval cathedrals of St Patrick and Christchurch, are some of the oldest and most significant buildings in Dublin.

Tucked behind St Patrick's is the exquisite Marsh's Library, set amid formal gardens and housed in a beautiful Queen Anne mansion. The interior is no less marvellous: the library still features a cage in which scholars were locked whilst consulting the Library's most treasured possessions. Marsh's is one of Dublin's hidden jewels and holds a wide array of manuscripts and first editions, as well as a considerable collection of Turkish, Hebrew and Arabic printings.

Trinity College - Trinity is a famous seat of learning and one of the great universities of Europe. The long list of famous ex-students includes Samuel Beckett, Edmund Burke and Oscar Wilde. Trinity was founded by Elizabeth I in order to save the Irish from 'popery' and for centuries remained a bastion of British culture in Ireland. As a result, until the 1970s Catholics could only attend the college with a special dispensation from the Archbishop of Dublin; today, however, they form 70% of the student population. The College unfolds from Front Gate in a series of elegant quadrangles, which in turn give way to College Park, home to cricket matches on langorous summer afternoons. You should make a point of visiting the Berkeley Library in Fellows Square, which is the best example of modernist architecture in the city and the College Chapel in Front Square. Trinity's greatest treasure, however, is the beautiful illuminated medieval manuscript called the Book of Kells, housed in the great vaulted Long Room - perhaps the finest internal space in Dublin.

Georgian Dublin - The elegant charm of south-east Dublin stands as a testament to Georgian urban design. In amongst the throngs of tourists is the exquisite Merrion Square complete with beautiful central gardens and a wonderfully camp memorial to Oscar Wilde, who lived on the square in his youth. Other alumni of the Square include W.B. Yeats, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and the great Liberator himself, Daniel O'Connell. More recently, the British Embassy occupied the east side of Merrion Square until it was burned to the ground in 1972 in the aftermath of the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry. Nearby Fitzwilliam Square is much smaller and more intimate and is the best preserved of Dublin's great set-piece Georgian squares.

A few minutes walk west brings one to the lovely open space that is St Stephen's Green, which undoubtedly forms the centrepiece of eighteenth-century Dublin's impressive town planning. Many notable buildings surround the Green, including the Royal College of Surgeons, still pockmarked with bullets from the 1916 Easter Rising, and the Shelbourne, Dublin's original posh hotel and still the best spot for afternoon tea in the city. Newman House, two Georgian townhouses on the south side of the Green which were the original home of University College Dublin, have recently been superbly restored, and today their fantastic internal decorations can be seen in all their splendour. The central gardens of the Green feature a lake and many statues, including tributes to Yeats and Countess Marcievicz. The statue of Wolfe Tone in the south-west corner of the Green was blown up by loyalist terrorist in 1979. Once his head was (luckily) discovered by the Shelbourne hotel, the statue was reconstructed. Grafton Street runs into the north-eastern corner of the Green and is a shopper's paradise, but in your purchasing frenzy don't forget the National Gallery, National Museum or Leinster House, home of the Irish parliament (Dail Eireann), which are all of enormous cultural interest.

Liberties - Inherited its name from its days as a toll-free district. Brick Lane and Francis Street boast a glittering array of antique shops and the colourful Mother Redcap's market.

Kilmainham - The greatest attraction of this western district is undoubtedly Kilmainham Gaol. The leaders of the 1916 Rising were executed here, radicalizing the Irish public and marking the beginning of the end of the British administration in Dublin. The old jail was built according to the Enlightenment principles of panopticism or continual surveillance. It has recently found stardom in its own right, featuring in such films as In the Name of the Father, and includes an excellent museum documenting colonial history and political martyrdom in Ireland. Also in the Kilmainham area is the Irish Museum of Modern Art which was opened in 1991. In only ten years it has become a key Irish cultural institution. IMMA is housed in the former Royal Hospital, constructed in 1684 as a home for retired soldiers and well worth seeing in its own right. The museum also features the beautifully restored chapel and a fine baroque formal garden. Nearby also lies the Guinness Hop Store which pays homage to Ireland's biggest - and most enjoyed - export.

The northern districts of Dublin never really recovered after being abandoned by the professional middle classes, who migrated south of the river or left for London after the Act of Union in 1801. Once home to Europe's worst city slum, times are changing, but gentrification is still a relatively slow process in comparison to the rate of development in areas south of the Liffey.

O'Connell Street - The main artery of Dublin's city centre has been sadly neglected in recent years, but now seems due for revival. The grand, broad and tree-lined boulevard has suffered from intrusions from fast-food outlets and more recently a sex-shop, but ambitious plans are now afoot to return to the area its former reputation as Main Street, Ireland. This should not, perhaps, prove too difficult: all of O'Connell Street's main institutions remain in place: the Gresham Hotel, Clery's department store, Eason's bookshop and the Gate Theatre. O'Connell Street is also home to Dublin's most potent symbol - the General Post Office (GPO). In 1916, the GPO served as headquarters of the Easter Rising, and the proclamation of the Irish Republic was read from its steps. The building still bears the scars of the violence of those few days and retains its radical credentials to this day, remaining the favourite choice of location for any demonstration. Georgian Parnell Square, the Dublin Writers Museum and the fine Hugh Lane Municipal Museum of Art are the other major points of interest in this area. Close at hand, the elegant James Joyce Centre is housed in a fine Georgian townhouse.

North of O'Connell Street, in the Drumcondra area of the city, lies the Botanic Gardens, complete with impressive glasshouses and a riverside walk. Glasnevin Cemetery lies nearby and while a stroll through a graveyard might not seem like everyone's idea of a jolly afternoon out, this particular cemetery lies close to the heart of Ireland's national psyche and houses the remains of a multitude of historical and cultural figures: de Valera, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Daniel O'Connell and Michael Collins are just some of the names on the cemetery's gravestones.

East of O'Connell Street lies Custom House Quay, set on fire by Sinn Fein supporters in the turmoil of 1921. Custom House is the eighteenth-century masterpiece of architect James Gandon and was long considered a powerful symbol of British colonialism. The restoration of the impressive, colonnade-lined structure we now see on the waterfront was finally completed in 1991. While the building now houses government offices, sections of the elegant interior are open to the public. While the Custom House is particularly imposing when illuminated at night, by day it is worth studying for the great statue of Commerce which adorns the tip of the copper dome, and for the representations of the gods of Ireland's fourteen great rivers. (Worth noting: the only river deemed to be female is the Liffey herself.) Beyond the Custom House, the quays stretch for miles to the Pigeonhouse Fort, now an electricity generating station with candy-striped towers which have become something of a city landmark. The thin and low South Wall breakwater stretches a mile into Dublin Bay, culminating in the Poolbeg Lighthouse: it is probably the best place in Dublin for a bracing, seaside walk.

West of O'Connell Street, the city quays continue to the Four Courts, seat of the Irish justice system. Also designed by James Gandon, it survived damage in both the 1916 Rising before being extensively damaged in the Civil War of 1922. The building houses the High Court and Supreme Court of Ireland and, unfortunately, only the central atrium is open to the public. Behind the Four Courts lies Smithfield Village, once a working-class area of small cottages and a weekly horse market and now the site of Dublin's most ambitious urban regeneration scheme to date. Many small cafes and restaurants have sprung up here in recent years, alongside Ceol, the museum of Irish music through the ages. The centrepiece of the area, however, is the impressive National Museum at Collins Barracks, opened in 1997 and - in contrast to the original site at Kildare Street - emphasizing Ireland's recent history. There is also a strong focus on fashion and decorative art.

Phoenix Park is the lungs of the city. Covering 1752 acres, this is the largest city park in Europe and is the location of the recently revamped Dublin Zoo and of Aras an Uachtarain, the official residence of the President of Ireland. The Visitor Centre will help you to get your bearings, and also worth visiting is the Papal Cross, raised as a memorial to the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979. Over a million people gathered in the park to hear the Pope utter his immortal line: 'Young people of Ireland, I love you'.

Dublin's proximity to the sea has always been one of its greatest assets, and there is much to see along the shoreline of Dublin Bay. The DART public metro, which hugs the coastline for miles, is a good way of orienting yourself.

North of the Liffey estuary, Bull Island is a breezy bird sanctuary and home of one of the city's most exclusive golf courses, the Royal Dublin. North again, the peninsula of Howth forms the northern arm of Dublin Bay and is fine destination for a day out. Howth village is built around its pretty harbour, and apart from fine restaurants and fish and chip shops, is also the start of magnificent cliff walks to Howth Head and the Bailey Lighthouse. Howth Head and Howth summit afford sweeping views of Dublin and its bay.

South of the Liffey, prosperous suburbs follow the railway to Dun Laoghaire and beyond. The wide sands at Sandymount stretch for miles and the great harbour walls at Dun Laoghaire, one of engineering miracles of the nineteenth century, are a favourite walk for many Dubliners (twenty minutes out and twenty minutes back). A little further out, the pretty village of Dalkey is a classified heritage area and haunt of the rich and famous (U2, Enya, Lisa Stansfield and the rest all hang out in the area) and the sweep of Killiney Bay is compared (frequently and tediously, but truly) with the Bay of Naples.