Dublin’s Circular Roads – 1.

Walk around Dublin in a day.


It is often trotted out that you can walk around Dublin in a day. This derives partly from a tendency to miniaturise Ireland at every hand’s turn. Little people abound, it’s a small island, a tiny population, Dublin a mere village. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. In truth, most cities can be ‘walked around’ in a day. The nature of cities is to have centres, Los Angeles notwithstanding, and these tend to be reasonably condensed. Megacities like Paris or London can be more daunting, but even there you could plot a route to encircle its core in a day. New York’s core, Manhattan, is about thirty miles around its rim, an eight hour hike.

Looking west from Liberty Hall

I’m taking it a bit literally here. I know Dublin is no megacity, but nor is it a village. Perhaps figuratively it could be, as in the literary or artistic cliques of the fifties or sixties. But this is a city of a million souls, a millennium’s history. Do you think that can be done in a day? Let’s give it a shot.

Looking east from Liberty Hall

Dublin is fortunate in that it has the Circular Roads, providing a neat route to circumnavigate the city. Conceived in the late eighteenth century, these are residential thoroughfares, well proportioned but almost two centuries removed from the notion of motorway ring roads. Horse drawn coaches and carts were the vehicular traffic, the Circular roads inscribing the old city, providing a clear line, which still persists, between urban and suburban.

The canals date to the same era. These were the inland trade routes, linking Dublin with the Shannon basin and beyond. Originally conceived as terminating in the west of the city, ultimately each followed a curve to the docklands of the east. They thereby provided an encircling arc, almost forming a moat around the city. The Royal to the north, was first bound for Broadstone, now intersects with the Liffey at Spencer Dock. It was completed in 1817. The Grand Canal to the south, first reached the Basin near Guinness’s Brewery. The extant route arcs east to meet the port at Grand Canal Docks near Ringsend. The navigable route to the Shannon was complete in 1804. The canals were the super-highways of their day, superseded by the railways of the mid nineteenth century on. 

The circular route is fourteen kilometres long and, without pausing for distractions, could be walked in three hours. Still, what’s the rush? There are pints to sink, coffees to sip and a few interesting stops along the way.

Riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of circulation back to … 

well, back to where we began.

I’ll take it from the east, near the city centre and the main transport hubs, travelling anti-clockwise with an eye to finishing later in the more socially exuberant south east. Up until the turn of the century the grimy docklands of Dublin were forgotten and decayed. I attended Art College on the south bank of the river in the late seventies. I was one of that itinerant generation of art students sent from the ancient environs of Kildare Street to wander the wilderness while the promised land was constructed at Power’s Distillery up on Thomas Street. Elegant boulevardiers on cobbled quaysides, slouching and smoking amongst the ruins of factories and freight yards. We became parishioners of City Quay, habitues of Conaty’s, the Elbow and the Windjammer, jostling stevedores on the oche as we honed our skills at art and darts.

I was on the inside when they pulled the four walls down

I was looking through the window, I was lost, I am found.

It’s all changed now, of course. U2 were early colonists of the new era, establishing their base camp for world domination at Windmill Lane. Die Mauer, of a different sort, tells many the garbled tale. Achtung Baby! Seeds planted, the area grew ripe for development.

North and South docks have given way to the glam and gleam of apartment living and the commercial sturm und drang of the late, lamented Celtic Tiger. Where once the Miranda Guinness docked and loaded cargo facing open sea, now an elegant, lyre-like bridge joins the two spangled arms of the inexorably eastward bound city. Samuel Beckett Bridge was built in 2009. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, also responsible for James Joyce Bridge upstream, the bridge swivels to allow ships to pass.  The design speaks more of music than Beckett’s bleak interior landscape but its beauty is somehow appropriate all the same. I imagine Beckett sailing through here, leaving Dublin in the late 1920s; standing astern in reefer jacket and cable knit, seeing a grey and gloomy vista sink in his ship’s wake.

These days, the Docklands development on each side gleams with commerce and stylish accommodation. Upstream the view towards the city centre features Gandon’s Custom House on the north quays dating from 1791, and the crystalline towers of the Ulster Bank HQ south of the river two centuries later. Nearby, the Jeannie Johnson is docked. This three masted barque originally carried Irish emigrants from Kerry to America during the Famine years and on through the 1850s. It was a journey of about seven weeks and the Jeannie Johnson never lost a soul. The reconstructed vessel functions as a training ship and as a museum of Irish emigration.

Past the Custom House you can see the Loop Line Bridge. The Loop Line was built in 1891, joining Westland Row (Pearse) and Amiens Street (Connolly) rail stations and spanning the River Liffey. This completed Dublin bay’s commuter railway, enabling the Dart almost a century later. It was less of an aesthetic triumph, the heavy iron bridge masking off the elegant river vista east of O’Connell Bridge to the Custom House. From our perspective it blocks the city centre quays and old Dublin. Liberty Hall peeks above it. This sixties tower was seen as a skyscraper, a harbinger of a soaring modernist future. Five decades on, it remains one of Dublin’s tallest buildings, though scheduled for demolition.

As I contemplate the beauty of Anna Livia, herself frames a tourist family against the backdrop of the bustling estuary and Kevin Roche’s Convention Centre. Our route heads north along Guild Street, the Royal Canal entering the Liffey to the right. Beyond is the Spencer Dock development. The original plan was to provide a high-rise sector for the capital designed by Irish architect Kevin Roche. Roche, a leading architect of postwar America, had no buildings in his native country. Adding to New York’s skyline is one thing, intruding on preciously protected Dublin’s is another. The Irish have a quaint attitude to tall buildings. Residents objected to the heights of Roche’s design, understandably for them, but peculiar in the context of a large city. Ultimately, it was the disruption of a sightline from distant Fitzwilliam Street to the south which did for the highrise plan. Curioser and curioser.

Nevertheless, the National Conference Centre went ahead. Completed in 2010 it has quickly established itself as an icon of modern Dublin. It’s tilted glass atrium somehow suggests an activity of which I am fond. Hmmm, what could that be now? There are fourteen kilometers to go. I’m treading water here. But, as Sam Beckett would say: I will go on.   

On the Road – 2 – The M50



The M50 near Sandyford (acrylic on canvas)

The M50 loops around Dublin city’s western perimeter. Technically, it starts at the River Liffey, heading north as the Port Tunnel before doubling back along the western arc near the Airport, crossing the Liffey at Chapelizod and finally merging with the southern bound N11 at the Dargle River, near Bray. This is EuroRoute 1, heading to Wexford and thence the Continent, bound for Gibraltar.

The construction of the motorway began thirty years ago. The first section, the Western Parkway joined Blanchardstown and Tallaght, crossing the Liffey at the West-Link bridge. The West-Link floats above the Strawberry Beds, a stretch of deep river valley between Chapelizod and Lucan. The area is famed in song and story.

Where the Strawberry Beds sweep down to the Liffey,

You’ll kiss away the worries from my brow.

This well known refrain is from the song The Ferryman, written by Pete St. John. It has been covered by the Dubliners and the Dublin City Ramblers. The Strawberry Beds itself sustains the folk and ballad tradition with pubs such as The Anglers’ Rest, The Wren’s Nest and Strawberry Hall.

Strawb 2

Angler’s Rest

The area was a popular spot for Dublin daytrippers and courting couples. A century or more ago it was sufficiently remote and romantic to be a popular honeymoon destination. James Joyce is associated with it, of course. From Chapppelizod he liked to contemplate the Liffey. Finnegans Wake focusses on the rivers gathering flow hereabouts, its principal characters living in the Mullingar House. Plain structure that it is, it has been a long-time sentinel above the river, founded as a coach house back in 1694.

Chapelizod 1

The Mullingar House

Sheridan Le Fanu lived here, merging the parkland and built environment with the gothic of his ghostly tails. The House by the Churchyard where he lived, his father was a vicar, still remains. It provides the title and central focus of one of his most celebrated novels. 

By the eighteenth century there were suggestions of suburbia here on the fringe of Dublin. Heading westward along the Liffey’s banks, they are still only suggestions.The area is a rare slice of unspoilt rural scenery close to Dublin. The Phoenix Park is to the North. Beyond the south bank the twentieth century suburban sprawl of Ballyfermot and Palmerstown is hidden in the folds and forests of topography.


The West Link bridge

There are a number of boatclubs along the way, taking advantage of the ninterrupted stretch of river. The area is not much commercialised, emphasising the impression that time has passed it by. The contemporary world does provide an exclamation mark with the intrusion of the West-Link bridge. Soaring above the quiet valley, far enough above to be of little disturbance, no more than a distant aircraft. Originally a slim, single span on completion in 1990, such was the volume of traffic that a second span was added in 2003.


The weir at Lucan

Beyond the bridge, the valley snakes towards Lucan. This far west, we’re nearly in Kildare. Though Lucan may be regarded as a Dublin suburb, it is sufficiently old and remote to be viewed as a town in its own right. Some old industrial sites emerge from the parkland before the river vista expands at the bridge. A huge weir provides the spectacle upriver, and there is a small park giving better access to the river. Much of the town’s structure dates to the early nineteenth century. It was once a spa town and despite the heavy human and vehicular traffic, the population is around thirty thousand, it retains a certain olde world charm replete with village green and thatched pub.

Looping back to the M50, the Dublin Mountains edge closer. The Red Cow junction was once called the Mad Cow such was the traffic chaos. Brian Boru, High King and attempted nemesis of the Danes parked nearby in his eleventh century campaigns agains Leinster and Dublin. The arc of the M50 still provides a notional border between the realms of Dublin and Ancient Hibernia. Of course, urban sprawl crosses the divide. Lucan, Clondalkin and Tallaght all lie to the west.

The Southern Cross section reached Dundrum in 2002, while the final South Eastern section linked up with Bray three years later. The whole shebang was upgraded to six lanes in 2010, as it was in danger of becoming a linear carpark. You’ll still encounter jams at morning and evening rush hour but for the most part journey times have been slashed and the route is visually attractive, especially towards the south.

M50 Bray

the M11 near Bray

Crossing the Dargle River it merges with the M11 and enters County Wicklow. The Dargle is referred to in another well-known balled, The Waxies‘ Dargle. This alludes to Bray’s position as a resort for the well-to-do in Victorian days. The railway from the 1850s provided access for the quality to Bray’s renowned sea and riverside amenities. Meanwhile, the Waxies‘ Dargle was the poorman’s equivalent. The waxies were cobblers, and these and other tradesmen could hardly aspire to such exotic locale as Bray. A jaunting car or charabanc to Irishtown, where a fairgreen faced the bay, was as much as they could hope for.

Says my aul wan to your aul wan,

will you come to the wakies dargle.

Says your aul wan to my aul wan,

sure I haven’t got a farthing.

These days, the M50 will take you around the western periphery by private car. You can trace the eastern edge of the city, along Dublin Bay by DART. You can stop for refreshments, for ceol and craic, wherever you desire.   

Early Modern Dublin

Stephens green

Dublin can be heaven

With coffee at eleven

And a stroll in Stephen’s Green

By the seventeenth century Dublin was spreading beyond its walls. The Liberties were established to the south and west. Settlements sprang up on the north bank of the Liffey. At the end of a tumultuous century, the Liffey was lined by redbrick gable-fronted houses and the quaysides had been constructed as thoroughfares. The trend was for enlargement to the east, which became the prosperous part of the city. Between the crumbling medieval Old Town and Georgian Dublin of the mid eighteenth century, the winding streets and lanes of today’s social and commercial heart developed.

Dame Street is one of the defining thoroughfares of the city, from City Hall to Trinity College and the old Parliament Buildings. Temple Bar lies to the north, to the south lies the shopping, strolling, cafe Capital centered on Grafton Street. Dame Street is the main street of banking and commerce, its palaces of commerce capturing the exuberance of the Belle Epoque, imposing facades topped with picturesque turrets. Recently, expanding city nightlife has colonised some of these premises for drinking and dining pleasure, old trades living on in such names as the Mercantile. Running parallel, Dame Lane stretches from the Castle’s Lower Yard, across South Great George’s Street, through Dame Court and past the Stag’s Head, eventually emerging into city traffic by Trinity Street.. If indeed you do pass the Stag’s Head, and you shouldn’t, it’s near enough the definitive old style Dublin pub.


St Andrew’s Church is Dublin’s tourist HQ and as good a reference point for the city centre as you’re likely to get. Setting up stall outside is a bronzed woman with fetching cleavage. The statue of Molly Malone by Jeanne Rynhart dates from Dublin’s millennium celebrations in 1988. In just a quarter of a century it has achieved iconic status. Molly steps from the air of a song to become flesh, or bronze at least.


In Dublin’s Fair City

Where the girls are so pretty

I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone.

As she wheeled her wheelbarrow

Through streets broad and narrow

Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-oh!

The song is of obscure provenance. First recorded as a music-hall ballad of the 1880s, attributed to Scottish songsmith, James Yorkston, though it may be derived from an older ballad. It has become the anthem for the capital city; the refrain Alive, alive oh! being suitably valedictory. However the song, as is the case with many an Irish song, finishes on a mournful note.

She died of a fever,

And no one could save her,

And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone.

Now her ghost wheels her barrow,

Through streets broad and narrow,

Crying: Cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh!

In old Dublinese, fever and save her would rhyme. She can still wheel her wheelbarrow, all the same. Last time I saw it ‘twas at the bottom of Grafton Street, now it stands outside Saint Andrew’s Church. Mythology has accreted to the song. The story goes that Molly was a seventeenth century barrowgirl who earned a bit on the side plying the oldest profession. The song certainly alludes to sex. Cockles and mussels (or muscles) has salacious connotations. The refrain has a bawdy singalong quality. Young lovers and visitors to the Fair City have taken the photo opportunity the statue offers. It is traditional to grasp one or both of Molly’s breasts, giving them a sunburst emphasis, fulfilling the myth’s premise.

Top o' Grafton Street

Top o’ Grafton Street

A few yards further east, Grafton Street runs at a right angle to Suffolk Street. Now Dublin’s principal shopping street, a bustling pedestrianised way thronged with shoppers and tourists, lined with buskers and street theatre.

Grafton Street’s a wonderland, there’s magic in the air.

There’s diamonds in the lady’s eyes

And gold dust in her hair.

East of this line is where Enlightenment Dublin begins, with a rationalist street plan and regular, symmetrical facades. To the left you’ll notice the streets, still narrow, offer straight vistas. Anne Street towards St Ann’s Church, dating to 1707, is a fine example. To the right narrow alleys like Johnson’s Court tunnel back to the medieval. The Court provides a rear entrance to Clarendon Street Church, an oasis of spiritual calm.

At Bruxelles Pub near the top of Grafton Street, another lifesize statue vies with Molly for popularity. Phil Lynott was black and Irish as Guinness, leader of Thin Lizzy, kings of the Dublin Rock scene of the early seventies. Lynott took a rocked up version of Irish trad balled, Whiskey in the Jar to the British charts. The ballad records the misadventures of a seventeenth century highwayman. The protagonist’s lover, or whore, in Lynott’s version is called Molly, so no accident that they’re still close.


But me I like sleeping

Especially in my Molly’s chamber

But here I am in prison

Here I am with a ball and chain.

Lynott died in 1985, aged just thirty six. The video for his song, Old Town, features him swanning about Grafton Street, a tradition he’d maintained since the late sixties. Captain America’s near the top of the street would have known him and holds some of his and other Rock memorabilia. Captain A’s featured artworks after Lichtenstein by Jim Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, famed for his depictions of Celtic myth and Che Guevara, recasts Captain America as a crusader against fascism. We came for their Mexican burgers and red wine. It was the hip hangout of the early seventies. Lizzy’s traveling coterie, Horslips, Mellow Candle and Chris De Burgh hung out here. De Burgh was resident singer, resplendent in star spangled suit. Probably helped to clear the joint.

Nearby, the Dandelion Market developed into Dublin’s hippy flea market. U2 cut their teeth here, before the whole thing was subsumed in the frothy Stephen’s Green Centre. At the top of Grafton Street, we emerge blinking into daylight dappled by trees. Saint Stephen’s Green in the seventeenth century was a commonage on the outskirts of the city. Those granted the title Freeman of the City, still maintain their right to graze their sheep on the Green. As Bono recently insisted.


The Green was walled in 1664 with access restricted to owners of adjacent properties. The surrounding houses would have been gable fronted properties, known as Dutch Billys. This style gave way to Georgian by the middle of the eighteenth century. Vestiges of the earlier style can be discerned. Look above street level and you will see, here and there, an asymmetrical window layout on the upper storeys, indicating where a gable frontage once was. The Green was restricted to residents until 1877 when Sir A E Guinness, Lord Ardilaun, campaigned to put the park into public ownership. The park was newly laid out to the design of William Shephard, Lord Ardilaun contributing the extensive planting of exotic trees and shrubs.

Entering through Fusiliers’ Arch, pathways flow around the ornamental lake. Young Dubliners and visitors occupy the grass, taking time out from the commercial hustle of Grafton Street. If Dublin can be heaven, and this is heaven’s heath. Beyond the park’s southern extent, the centre city starts to ebb. The rational expanse of Georgian Dublin takes over with its wide regular streets. Find a quiet elevated spot past the kip of the serenes, by Moore’s statue of WB Yeats. It looks nothing like the man! Slip into a boulevardier dream, slide back into another time.

Toora loora loora laddy, toora loora lay,

I know the Dublin pavements will be boulders on my grave.

Green pond

Dublin’s Temple Bar

View from Liffey Street

View from Liffey Street

Temple Bar lies to the east of the medieval walled city of Dublin, bounded by the South Quays, Westmoreland Street and Dame Street to the south. Temple Bar itself is a short segment midway along the Fleet Street/Essex Street thoroughfare. The name may have originated in imitation of the area in London which similarly lies just outside the city gates. Or it may be named after William Temple, Provost of Trinity College in the early seventeenth century. Trinity had been established by Queen Elizabeth in 1592. Temple and his descendents had property here, so the name probably recognises both facts.

When I was young this was a dilapidated and largely deserted part of Dublin. A place of well worn cobblestones and crumbling warehouses, the odd quirky shop or hostelry looming out of the smog. You might be picking up a Dickensian atmosphere here, but I’m not that old. The city planners in the 1970s had earmarked Temple Bar for development as a major bus station. As it was, Fleet Street was then choked with busses bound for Crumlin, Walkinstown and beyond. This was where we’d gather to imbibe the petrol fumes mingling with the smell of fish and chips, rain falling, steam rising from damp coats.

Heading towards Merchant's Arch

Heading towards Merchant’s Arch

The alternative society was sussing it out in the seventies. The Granary at Essex Street was a wholefood shop, branching out into a cafe and meeting place. Next door, the Project Arts Centre moved here from King Street by Saint Stephen’s Green, bringing alternative theatre, modern art and underground music. The Alchemist’s Head, making Ireland safe for science fiction, was just across the road. My work in the P&T as then was, Eircom now, also brought me to Crown Alley, an attractive turn of the century redbrick on Fleet Street. A hub of the telephone network, the 1916 rebels had it earmarked for takeover but feared, wrongly, that the British army was in possession. Their failure here and at Dublin Castle were major opportunities missed.

The bus station never flew. The low rents prior to development attracted a creative and bohemian bunch. Representations were made to the powers that be. It was Charlie Haughey, cultured rogue that he was, who saw the light. Temple Bar properties was established to oversee development, the aim to create a cultural quarter for the capital. More famously, it has become a major social hotspot, transforming the narrow, once empty streets, into a day long conga line of partying visitors and locals.

Liquid gold in the Temple Bar pub

Liquid gold in the Temple Bar pub

Some of my old watering haunts remain. Whenever possible I return to The Palace Bar which proclaims its literary and journalistic connections at the eastern end of Fleet Street. Almost two hundred years old, it retains its original old style dark wood bar and furnishing style. High ceilinged with stained glass and a grand glass frontage, all the light pouring in is trapped in this veritable drinking palace. Such pubs are the salt of Dublin’s earthy drinks culture. Our old city haunt, The Crane at Crane Lane is gone. Here we could rub shoulders with Special Branch men from the Castle and seek out ladies from our own suburbs. It happened to be the nearest city pub to our bus terminus. There are many more additions than subtractions. No shortage of watering holes. Temple Bar may have been where the Danes dropped anchor in the ninth century, but you can still pay Copenhagen prices for your Carlsberg here. The Temple Bar pub charges near seven euro a pint, but still the place is hopping by midday. The market here is not price sensitive.

The Central Bank at Dame Street

The Central Bank at Dame Street

From nineteen seventy three, the Central Bank has towered over the area like a modern Bastille. Though I’m sure it’s much more pleasant to work there. Sam Stephenson’s monsterpiece was controversial in many ways. Built from the sky down, as it were, the completed floors hung by visible cables from central support towers. The method itself alluded to a certain exalted origin and function. Getting even bigger for its boots, it was alleged to be taller than Liberty Hall, Ireland’s awe inspiring seventeen story skyscraper of the sixties and trade union home. Labour’s Minister for Local Government, James Tully, stepped in and ordered the completed building to be taken down a peg. In truth, its height was in contravention of the planning permission. But that’s another storey.

Being a tall building, something which the Irish feel should be confined to round towers and spires, objectors considered it an affront, a Tower of Babel. Advocates insisted it would stand the test of time. I sneered then but I’d concede that it has lasted well, unlike Stephenson’s notorious Bunkers at the Dublin Corporation buildings by Christchurch. Passing beneath the Central Bank, it does seem to float in the air, and to form a fine gateway for entering Temple Bar.

Throngs of people now float on down from Dame Street towards Merchant’s Arch. This is the main north south axis of Temple Bar. A perpetual beat on the street has replaced the isolated clack of heels on deserted cobbles. Under Merchant’s Arch you emerge blinking into the common daytime whirr of traffic, the south quays taking westbound traffic, the north quays taking it east. The elegant Halfpenny Bridge arches over the Liffey. It takes its name from the toll charged at its inception two hundred years ago, compensation to the ferryman who previously carried people over. Yeats once championed a Municipal Art Gallery purpose built on a covered bridge here. But the iron structure survives, one of Dublin’s most iconic images.

The Liffey, looking east from Halfpenny Bridge

The Liffey, looking east from Halfpenny Bridge

The river bank in medieval days would have been close to Fleet Street. As the city spilled outside the walls, houses built along the shore faced away from the river. It was after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, that the Royalist Lord Deputy of Ireland, James Butler, the Earl of Ormond, decreed that buildings face the river, with a roadway to form the quayside. This innovation, which Ormonde had observed whilst in exile in Europe during the Cromwellian years, transformed the character of Dublin, establishing the river as the defining character in its layout and aesthetic. The Wide Streets Commission, almost a century later, further moulded the city along neo-classical lines. The extent of Temple Bar was defined by the new thoroughfares, Parliament Street and Westmoreland Street, the widened Dame Street and College Green.

Since the eighties, multitudes have come to this cramped box of little lanes, the discrete vestige of medeval Dublin without the walls. We come here to play, to plunge into the past, to live in the moment, maybe set the course of our future. But mainly to play. There is nothing ostensibly pretty about Temple Bar, it is defined more by function than finesse, a jumble of back street businesses, a mercantile slum. But cities and towns are as much about their people as their built fabric. There’s enough human life here to illuminate the city should the electricity ever be cut off. It shines, night and day.

Westmoreland Strret

Saint Valentine in Dublin


Dublin is truly the city of love. The Romantic, and certainly the Gothic, are a rich part of its weave. There is a trail to be followed plotting its many love stories, imagined and true, from its Viking origins up to modern times. Here’s one to begin with.

On this date, February 14th, we celebrate St Valentine’s day, a day dedicated to romantic love. The story of Saint Valentine dates from the time of Emperor Claudius Gothicus in 3rd century Rome. Valentine, a bishop of the time, was a keen proselytizer for the Christian faith, then considered a crime. Compounding this, he married young courting couples which was seen as weakening military effectiveness; bachelors making more fearsome warriors, apparently. Arrested for his transgressions, Valentine came to the attention of the Emperor who took a liking to him. However, when Valentine tried to convert him, Claudius countered with a death sentence. Just as well they hit it off, so.

While Valentine languished on death row, the jailer, hearing the holy man possessed great powers of healing, brought his blind daughter to the cell to be cured. Valentine applied a combination of prayer and medicine, unfortunately Valentine’s sentence arrived before a cure. The saint’s final letter was addressed to the girl, enclosing with it a crocus flower, then in bloom. When the jailer opened it in her company, the girl saw for the first time the bright colours of the flower. Her sight was miraculously restored. The letter was signed, From Your Valentine.

Valentine was martyred at Rome’s Flaminian Gate on February 14th, 269AD. Seven hundred and fifty years later, the saint’s traditional association with marital love and devotion has become more specifically associated with courtship and romance, This, in part, is due to the Saint’s day being synonymous with the onset of Spring, and all that that entails.

Valentine is depicted in red vestments, cradling the first flower of Spring, the crocus, in a life-size statue in the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Whitefriar Street, Dublin. Father John Spratt, was instrumental in the establishment of this church in the early nineteenth century. From here he ministered to the poor of the surrounding Liberty of Saint Sepulchre. Also a renowned orator, Fr Spratt visited Rome in 1835 and greatly impressed Pope Gregory XVI with his orations. As a gift, Gregory sent a reliquary containing remains of Saint Valentine and a vessel tinged with his blood. These were installed with great ceremony in Whitefriar Street Church but subsequently fell into neglect. Interest was rekindled in the 1960s and the current shrine was constructed with a statue of Saint Valentine.

The Church itself was built in the days of Catholic Emancipation and is rather plain on the exterior. Ostentatious displays of the faith still being frowned upon in Dublin. Within, it is a different matter. Most spectacular is the enshrined statue of Our Lady of Dublin near the High Altar. This Black Madonna dates from the sixteenth century. It was presumed destroyed in the iconoclasm under Henry VIII only to resurface three hundred years later. Fr Spratt is again responsible, discovering the forgotten statue in a junk shop.

Saint Valentine’s shrine is to the right hand side as you enter. It is a major attraction for courting couples from around the globe, indeed any couple seeking spiritual affection for their love. The saint is venerated in special masses on this, his feast day, and there are Blessing of the Rings ceremonies for engaged couples. So, a happy Valentine’s Day to all who love, and all who sense the onset of Spring

Dublin Castle

Dublin Castle stands on the spot where it all began. Towards the middle of the ninth century, a longboat of Viking raiders found the confluence of the Liffey with its tributary the Poddle, sailed up that to beach their boat on the shore of a large, dark pool. A low ridge extended to the west and here was established the Danish settlement, taking its name from the Gaelic for the pool, Dubh Linn. There had been other settlements hereabout, of course. St. Patrick establishing a church where his designated cathedral now stands. Greek geographer, Claudius Ptolemy, noted the importance of Eblana in the first century, though its size and exact location are disputed. For the Danes, and possibly their Celtic predecessors, the area now occupied by Dublin Castle seemed a logical spot, hard by the tidal harbour of the Pool, the higher aspect of the south bank affording dominance over the surrounding landscape.

Looking south over Dubh Linn

Looking south over Dubh Linn

The Danes were to dominate the East and South coast for a century and a half. We read at school that Brian Boru ‘drove the Danes into the sea’ at the Battle of Clontarf. This is true of the forces on the day, a day of carnage; but the Danish leader, Sitric Silkenbeard, survived, Brian did not. The Danes were not expelled and survived another century and a half before the Norman invasion. It was Sitric, overtaken with piety in his later years, who established Christchurch Cathedral at the height of the ridge in 1028. The Danish city was already walled.

To the Norman though, goes the credit for establishing Dublin as a city of stone. The Castle was constructed by order of King John in 1202 at the south east corner of the city wall. The Pool lay to the south while the Poddle was harnessed to form a moat to the north and west. This rejoined the river at the north east corner of the Castle’s Lower Yard, flowing north into the Liffey near where the Clarence Hotel now stands. The Normans reconstructed the walls enclosing the growing city as far as the Liffey and westwards to St Audeon’s at Cornmarket. The extent of this walled enclosure was little amended over the centuries, until they were dismantled in the eighteenth century.

The Castle remains, itself greatly amended in the eighteenth century. For eight hundred years it was the centre and symbol of foreign power, first Norman, then English. It has never aspired to the romantic or picturesque. From the outset is was a functional, rectilinear structure comprising four stubby towers linked by curtain walls. There was no decoration, unless one counts the grisly occasions when rebel princes had their heads mounted on spikes at the gate. My own namesake, Shane O’Neill was to suffer this fate.

Bermingham Tower

Bermingham Tower

Unpopular with host and guest alike, detested by the Irish, the Castle nevertheless fulfilled its function. Edward the Bruce’s invasion of 1315 failed to rattle it. Silken Thomas’s revolt in 1534 went close, but no cigar. His first attack from within the City Walls got no further than punching a hole in the wall. The citizens expelled the attackers who attempted two more attacks. In a last, audacious onslaught the attackers gutted the buildings on Thomas Street to use as a covered ramp to breach the defenses. The garrison, facing the real prospect of defeat, made a great show of pretending that reinforcements had arrived and, rushing to meet the attackers head on, managed to see them off.

Robert Emmet’s fiasco came to naught, degenerating into a bloody riot on Thomas Street. In 1916 there was an attempt by rebels to seize it and the adjacent City Hall. Their forces weren’t up to it. They were responsible for the first death of the Rising when they shot the policeman guarding the gates. The Rebels briefly held the Upper Yard but were driven back by the garrison, though the battle raged about the Castle precincts for the rest of the day. The most significant breach of the fortress occurred during the War of Independence in the early twenties. Michael Collins, Ireland’s most wanted man, strolled into the Castle and pilfered details of Britain’s undercover network, with desperate ramifications for them. With the greatest guile and intelligence Collins effected revolution where centuries of armed assault had failed. In January 1922, Collins accepted the surrender of the Castle to the new Irish Nation.

The Lower Yard

The Lower Yard

The Castle today is quite different to the original thirteenth century structure. That had fallen into ruin by the middle of the seventeenth century. Within the walls at that time was the Irish parliament building, decaying and further degraded by Cromwell’s marauding troops. When a fire broke out in 1684, the Lord Deputy, the Earl of Allen, took extreme measures to prevent its spreading to the more valuable towers, by blowing up connecting buildings. A blessing in disguise, Allen having described the place as the ‘worst castle in Christendom’.

Rebuilding started immediately and the south-eastern building was completed within four years. The colonnaded ground floor indicates the architectural style of the Jacobean period. The remainder of the refurbished Castle is in the Georgian style, typical of the explosion in development in Dublin throughout the eighteenth century. The main entrance is overlooked by the Bedford Tower. Built in 1761, this elegant neoclassical tower is the most imposing in the Castle complex. To each side are identical portals, it’s the easternmost that acts as the main gate. Atop this is a statue of Justice, pointedly turning her back on the city outside.

Records Tower

Records Tower

At the southeast corner of the yard stands the only remaining visible structure from Medieval times, the Records Tower. This was the main prison of the Castle up to the nineteenth century, and it is from here that the young Red Hugh O’Donnell escaped in Elizabethan times. The battlements were added in the nineteenth century at the same time the Chapel Royal, now the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, was built in the Lower Yard. The Church is built in the neo-Gothic style, then replacing the Georgian in the affections of Dublin.

Shortly after surrender, the Castle was occupied by the Civic Guard, later the Garda Siochana, the national police force. So, much of its original function as the focus of law and order persists. For a time the Castle was also used ad hoc for emergent government departments of the new state. The Revenue Commissioners remain on its eastern side, Bord Telecom on the Ship Street side. As a young man in the 70s, my first fulltime job was with the P&T, the telephone company, and I was posted here for training. With my urban hippy chique, all hair and patchouli oil, I was not best clad for a trip past the Drug Squad HQ every morning. The Castle felt like an old, forgotten outpost then. The satellites were sodden pubs, the rained-on cobbles of an empty Temple Bar.

Older now it may be, but the Castle itself has been rejuvenated as a venue for civil and state occasions and a major tourist attraction. The State Apartments along the south wall have been lavishly refurbished. There’s a garden on the site of the old Dubh Linn, overlooked by the Chester Beatty Library. Rehoused here at the turn of the century, this holds the collection of the American mining millionaire, a priceless treasure of Oriental manuscripts, art and artifacts.


Standing at the entrance beneath the Bedford Tower, you stand very much at the crossroads of Dublin. The ancient settlement is a palimpsest here, overwritten by Norman Gothic, Jacobean, Georgian, Victorian and Modern, it is still a story contiguous with scattered settlements of Celts and Danes by a dark pool. Looking north, Parliament Street makes a straight line with Capel Street to disappear into the distance. This is the axis that bisects Dublin, the dividing line between the old, downmarket westside, and the new, more salubrious eastside. The divide is evident still

Dublin City Walls


Entering Crampton Court

Entering Crampton Court

I’ve been spending my money in the Old Town,
It’s not the same, Honey, since you’re not around.

Dublin’s Old Town was delineated by its walls. Mostly vanished now, some fragments remain, and vestiges of the ancient street plan allow us to follow an imaginary walk around the ancient city. The Dane’s settled here in the ninth century, dropping anchor at a tidal pool just off the Liffey, fed by the River Poddle. Their settlement was known by its Gaelic designation, Dubh Linn, meaning Dark Pool. The Poddle, now just a stream, flows underground, while the footprint of the pool remains as an ornamental garden, along the southern walls of Dublin Castle.
At the Lower Castle Yard, you can see that the ground is low enough to accommodate a natural moat. To head downstream towards the Liffey, leave the Yard and cross Dame Street. A narrow covered laneway passes to the side of Brogan’s Bar, leading into Crampton Court, to the rear of the Olympia Theatre. Dilapidated now, and a bit dodgy, this was a bustling centre of commerce in Early Modern days. Dublin’s first coffee houses sprang up here, popular meeting houses for traders and merchants before the building of the Royal Exchange.

Leaving the Court, a narrow covered alley leads out to Essex Street, by the Dublin Theatre Festival Office. The old Custom House once stood opposite, before Gandon’s Georgian masterpiece was built further east around 1800. The site is now occupied by U2’s Clarence Hotel. After the eerie silence of Crampton Court, it’s into the rattle and hum of Temple Bar. Close by to the right, the Project Arts Centre was an early manifestation of arts and entertainment a decade before the Temple Bar scene bloomed. Here in the Seventies, prog rock and punk jostled for attention with art and drama. Jim Sheridan cut his teeth here with the likes of the prescient Inner City Outer Space.

Parliament Street

Parliament Street

Heading west, Parliament Street marks the extremity of Temple Bar. Standing here one night recently, waiting for a friend, I experienced the tangible beat surging through the district. Back to the river, I took in that iconic Dublin view of the City Hall, even more dramatic when illuminated at night. One of the finest Georgian buildings in the city, it was originally the Royal Exchange. We had a drink and Fish n Chips in the Porterhouse. This was the first branch of the pub chain beyond its Bray home, now Porterhouses can be found in London and New York. Some things change, while others remain the same. Read’s Cutlers is Dubli’s oldest shop, dating back three hundred years. The Turks Head Chop House across the street harks back to ancient times, the Czech Inn, more recent.
That night, we headed towards Vicar Street for the Waterboys gig. Retracing old and ancient footsteps. This was often our route home after a gig at the Project or Zeros. Those days it was deserted around here, now nightlife and daylife are colonising the area too. We pass Cow Lane with it’s restaurants rising in terraces up towards Lord Edward Street. We join Fishamble Street as it curves uphill. This was Dublin’s original fish market, as the name suggests. This was also where Handel’s Messiah first rang out. At the Great Music Hall in 1743, seven hundred people enjoyed the first performance. Anticipating the large crowd, men were requested not to wear swords, women to refrain from wearing hoops.

Christchurch Cathedral occupies the highest ground of the Old Town. Just below the cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century, are the Civic Offices. Sam Stephenson’s ‘bunkers‘ at Wood Quay, site of the original Viking town, excited great opposition. Twenty thousand marched through Dublin in 1978, but ultimately the campaign failed to halt them. Screened by more postmodern structures now, the four brutalist towers are less ominous than they originally appeared. Winetavern Street appears to pass through the heart of Christchurch. An elegant Neo-Gothic bridge spans the road to join the cathedral with the former Synod Hall which now houses Dublinia, an extensive exhibition of Viking and Medieval Dublin.


St Audeon’s Gate  on Cook St.


Further west, along Cook Street, is the only good segment of wall remaining. Well restored, it gives some idea of what it would be like approaching Dublin in medieval times. The segment incorporates Saint Audeon’s gate, the only remaining city gate. St. Audeon’s Church is just above the gate, a modest structure established in early Norman times, it has witnessed great urban expansion over the centuries. Bridge Street descends to the Liffey, for a long time this spot was Dublin’s main fording point. In the twelfth century, a tavern was established here and the Brazen Head lays claim to being Ireland’s oldest public house. Dean Swift is said to have lowered a few here, probably en route to or from Celbridge and his trysts with Vanessa. Across the road, O’Shea’s is one of Dublin’s most renowned trad and ballad boozers.

Back to the top of the ridge, there are actually two St Audeon’s churches. The Catholic church is housed in a more imposing neo-classical structure. It is the designated church for Dublin’s Polish community. Passing outside both is Cornmarket, though there is nothing bucolic about it these days. The over-widened thoroughfare sends a constant stream of traffic west towards Thomas Street. Crossing the street, shades of Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger, Lamb Alley has a small fragment of wall. We are near the westernmost point of the walled town. From here, the walls sloped downward and eastward, cutting across Patrick Street where the Iveagh Trust Buildings now stand.


Iveagh Buildings on Patrick St.



These were built in 1904, a housing development for the poor of the Liberties. The surrounding area had become a slum by the nineteenth century. The first Lord Iveagh, Edward Guinness, great grandson of Arthur, had established the Trust to provide housing in Dublin and London. The massive five storey blocks stretch all down Patrick’s Street to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. In red brick with mansard roofs and gabled fronts, they are a distinctive and unified feature of Dublin’s streetscape. The complex also included public baths and a men’s hostel. On Bull Alley Street a ‘People’s Palace’ was built in a more ornate, grander style. This provided recreational and canteen facilities for the young of the area. It came to be known as The Bayno, an essential part of growing up in the Liberties. Closed in the 70s, it is now the Liberties College. Iveagh also developed the park opposite, it offers a great view of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the largest church in Ireland. Swift, Dean of the cathedral in the eighteenth century, was himself a passionate advocate for the poor of Dublin. Drapier’s Letters, A Modest Proposal and, arguably, Gulliver’s Travels, cocked a snook at English colonial misrule.
At Werburgh Street we are nearing the precincts of the Castle again. St Werburgh’s Church once had a soaring spire, but unfortunately it overlooked the Castle yard and was soon demolished. Nearby is Leo Burdock’s fish and chipper, Dublin’s most famous. Local resident Leo established it in 1913. Derby Square was also nearby. This obscure enclave features in Phil Lynott’s evocative ballad ‘Dublin’.

At sea with flowing hair I’d think of Dublin,
Of Grafton Street and Derby Square and those for whom I really care,
And you, in Dublin.


Ship St

Ship Street seems far inland for such a name. But it leads down to the location of the original Dark Pool. This is now an ornamental garden along the south wall of the Castle. The Chester Beatty Library was moved here at the Millenium. The American mining magnate had established an unrivalled collection of oriental arts and crafts. There is a good cafe in the entrance atrium. Gaze up at the Castle from the grassy surface of the old pool. It has taken a thousand years to get here, the walk itself took just over half an hour.
Follow the course of the ancient river back to where we began. The circle is closed, twelve centuries spanned. Cobbled streets are peopled by ghosts, of Viking, Norman, English and Gael, the ghosts of merchants, vicars, peelers and poets, where musicians have played and sang through time. Philo’s words come back to haunt me…

I’ve been spending my time in the Old Town,
I sure miss you, Honey, now you’re not around,
You’re not around this Old Town.