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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Frederic William Burton
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Down Dublin Streets:
Exploring Dublin's Checkered Past

gpo

The GPO on O'Connell Street

by Suzanne Barrett

First impressions of Dublin may be not altogether favorable. The ride from the airport passes through suburbs that seem to have remained in a 1940s and 50s time warp. But once you reach the heart of the city, the charm of Georgian Dublin is readily apparent, surprising even the most jaded tourist. Among the many eighteenth-century buildings are also a number of new structures, still in harmony with Dublin's classical face.

The shops are filled with beautiful wares, including a wide variety of items made by talented Irish craftspeople. Woolens, electronics, perfumes, jewelry, linens, leather goods, books, and pottery are among Europe's best. Dublin is also a purveyor of exciting fashion design as a walk along Grafton Street or visits to the Powerscourt Townhouse Shopping Centre on William Street and the Tower Design Centre off Grand Canal Quay will attest. The many individual shops within these buildings show Irish crafts at their best. Before we concentrate on shopping, let's familiarize ourselves with the city itself.

Dublin is not large, and the best way to begin one's exploration is on foot. Many of the historic buildings are located within a ten-block radius of the city center. The River Liffey comes down from the Wicklow hills, and is traversed by thirteen bridges, most of them originally constructed between 1760 and 1818, and having undergone a diverse series of names. The most famous bridge is the O'Connell Street Bridge, wider than it is long, designed by James Gandon, architect of the Four Courts building and the Custom House. The cast iron Ha'penny Bridge was originally named Wellington Bridge and is now simply the Liffey Bridge but retains its beloved nickname from the days when the toll to cross it was indeed a halfpenny.

My choice for the first day's sightseeing would be to start on the north side of the Liffey at O'Connell Street and the GPO - the General Post Office where the Proclamation of Irish Independence was read in 1916, during the Easter Rising. Note that high above your head are several chinks in the stone pillars, a result of cannon fire from British gunboats in the Liffey. Further north you can see the towering Parnell statue, and to the south, the shorter, stouter, monument to the great emancipator, Daniel O'Connell. Along the river to the east, lies the Custom House, completely gutted by a fire during the Civil War, but rebuilt. A similar fate befell the Four Courts building west of O'Connell Street along Wolfe Tone Quay. It, too, has been rebuilt. A huge copper dome sits atop this impressive building, affording viewers a glimpse of it from a great distance away. The Supreme and High Courts of Ireland sit here.

Continuing our walk, let's cross the bridge where O'Connell Street divides into D'Olier and Westmoreland Streets and head toward College Green. On our way we'll pass by the imposing Bank of Ireland built by several architects but which has managed not to become a hodgepodge of styles. James Gandon was responsible for the east front with its Corinthian columns. Several places are within a stone's throw of the Green. In front of the bank on the Green is a statue of Henry Grattan (1746-1820). Nearby, Trinity College houses in the library long room, the famous Book of Kells dating from about 800 AD. The library is open weekdays and half a day on Sundays. If you're lucky, you might be there to see one of its pages turned. But if you can't wait, there's a bookshop where you can buy a reproduction copy for about €14.

From Trinity, it's only a short hop to Kildare Street and the National Museum. This strange, old-fashioned place, opened in 1890, houses Ireland's treasures--the Tara Brooch, Ardagh Chalice, the Cross of Cong and other famous pieces plus some excellently preserved bog finds, including a long dugout. Of particular interest is a recent exhibit, Ar Thoir na Saoirse - the Road to Independence - and deals with Irish history from 1916 to 1921. (Kilmainham Gaol also has a fascinating exhibit from this period. We'll cover that in a future story.)

A visit wouldn't be complete without mentioning Dublin Castle, seat of Anglo-Irish rule for 700 years. Once the headquarters of the viceregal offices, the Castle was turned over to the Irish Free State in 1922 following the Treaty. It, too, is a mixture of styles, Medieval and Georgian, and no longer looks like a castle. Elegant State Apartments remain and are used for formal functions. These rooms are for view upon appointment.

Space does not permit discussion of other landmarks, Leinster House and Mansion House. Both, however, are within walking distance and should not be missed. A booklet titled Top Visitor Attractions in Dublin is available from Bord Fáilte--the tourist office--and gives opening dates, times, admission charges, a simplified city map, and a commentary about each attraction.

Until next time.

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