“Why would you ever think Irish food is bland?” my friend Úna asked in disbelief.
I have no idea, but this was just one of many misconceptions about Dublin I carried with me recently.
Perhaps it’s because unlike many of my fellow Canadians, I don’t have a single Doyle or Kennedy or O’Connell in my ancestry – so I had no tall tales to shape my understanding of this land. Or maybe my opinion was colored by a recent history of violence in Northern Ireland and my ignorance too broad to tell the difference between countries. Or perhaps I just got it confused with England, a land of polite understatement (where, until the 1990s, traditional food was bland).
Whatever my ignorance and the reasons behind it, a week is not enough to set things right.
But Dublin, you surprised me. And some things turned out to be true after all.
1. Irish food is bland.
This was not one of them. Every Dublin restaurant I visited used the freshest ingredients, as befits an agricultural country. The eggs tasted of dairy, the vegetables were crunchy and green, the meats plump, marbled and meltingly tender. Living in France you wouldn’t think I’d salivate at the bread – but there is a rich, dark Irish brown bread with a hint of molasses whose density and sweetness were at war with my waistline.
2. It rains all the time in Dublin.
Apparently this is no misconception at all and I landed in a soup of fog and rain and mist that made the runway disappear as though a magician had waved his wand. It does rain all the time – except the week I was there. The sun shone brightly, alternating with splashes that left me indifferent since I’d heeded good advice and carried an umbrella with me, always. I mean, does THIS look like constant rain?
3. The accent is incomprehensible.
English is not my mother tongue. I speak it well but when a new accent wriggles by (I can say the same about Australia, NZ, South Africa and Scotland) I can become fainthearted with incomprehension – I strain and stretch, weighing every syllable for familiarity, trying to shape obvious sounds from foreign ones. I didn’t find Dubliners incomprehensible at all. At least not until they got to the pub.
4. Everybody is drunk all the time.
Absolutely not. At least not all the time. Perhaps in the evening, and on weekends, and on visits to breweries, and at meals and the like. I wouldn’t say drunk – I’d say people here enjoy their drink. (As someone who doesn’t drink, my assessment may be slightly warped.) You can’t walk a block without spotting the stencil-type white on black Guinness sign, and a ride beyond the downtown core. A quick ride into Dublin’s western suburbs will confront you with the pungent smell of roasting barley, well before you ever see the brewery. It’s not unpleasant, just unfamiliar to someone who can count the number of beers she’s ever had on a single hand. (Úna likes it – she says it’s typical of Dublin.) Get tickets for the Irish Whiskey Museum or if you’d rather taste, the Teeling Whiskey Distillery.
5. Dublin is all about music.
Absolutely true. You can’t escape music in Dublin. Wikipedia lists 79 ‘musicians from Dublin’ dead or alive who are famous enough to have their own Wikipedia listing. Glance over here, a music hall with a Sinead O’Connor performance. Over there, a hotel renovated by Bono. And over yonder, some U2 street art. So many music shops and musical references dot the city it defines itself at least as much by notes as by words. The sounds compete – buskers, rehearsals, private houses. And the music is good, very good. Both street groups I listened to on a bright sunny Saturday were ready for the big time. The tradition isn’t new. After all, Handel’s Messiah was first performed publicly in Dublin. Soak up some music at Dublin’s Rock ‘n Roll Museum Experience!
6. Everyone tells great stories.
Dublin is also about words, spoken and written. Dubliners respect oratory and hone it to perfection. From the part-time actor on the Ghost Bus Tour who relished the little shivers he sent down our necks to the barman who tartly filled the gaps in my Irish historical knowledge (a thankless task), a story told by a Dubliner is an irresistible story, one I don’t want to end. And look at this biased and partial list of Dublin authors: Maeve Binchy, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Bram Stoker, Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats… and those are just the ones I’ve personally heard of.
7. This is a closed traditional Catholic society.
It may well be and although Ireland is changing, one week is barely enough to get my bearings, let alone understand social, cultural and historical intricacies. I did find Dublin to be surprisingly diverse. I expected it to be, well, more Irish. Instead I overheard Serbian waitresses taking sandwich orders from Spanish au pairs and in the streets a mix of every language under the sun. Let’s not forget the city (due to Ireland’s controversially low corporate taxes) is home to the European headquarters of such companies as Google, eBay and Facebook, and today European means at least 28 nationalities, not to mention all the Africans, Asians, North and South Americans I kept meeting.
8. Dublin is friendly.
No, not friendly – extraordinarily friendly. When the World Economic Forum recently released a report listing the world’s friendliest countries, Ireland ranked ninth. Despite the financial drubbing the country has been experiencing, this city sings and smiles and is probably the friendliest city I’ve ever visited. I almost found pleasure in losing my way if only to stop people on the street and ask for directions. Each exchange led to a short walk together or a bit of conversation, the standard expression being an animated smile. In a country as economically battered as Ireland has been in recent years, a twinkle of enthusiasm was the last thing I expected to remember Dublin by.
9. Dublin is haunted.
10. Dublin is the capital of a northern European country so it’s a bit reserved and ordered.
Mwaah! Forgive the expression but I-don’t-think-so. Reserved? I just dealt with that above. Ordered? Nothing further from the truth. I think it has more in common with southern Mediterranean societies than its more composed neighbors. Take the streets, disconcerting in their confusion. They can change names every few meters – like Stillorgan Road which becomes Donnybrook Road which becomes Morehampton Road which becomes Upper Leeson Street which becomes… Then, in a perverse practical joke, both even and odd numbers sit side by side on some streets while on others, evens and odds are on opposite sides. Oh, and did I mention a certain aversion to discipline? Pedestrian lights are ‘indicative’ and time is elastic; even the millennium spire wasn’t finished until 2003.
11. Dublin has great architecture.
Dublin’s doors are apparently famous worldwide, as are its (few remaining) rows of Georgian houses. Some of its public buildings, carved from stone and granite and marble, exude a certain grandeur, probably much needed during the country’s nearly constant history of political upheaval. Such buildings provided a veneer of stability, but also acted as symbols of a strong and cohesive Ireland at a time it was anything but. There is plenty to keep your eyes roaming and it is definitely a walking city, albeit one with slightly uneven pavements.
So yes, Dublin, you surprised me, and I like surprises.
I didn’t know enough about you before I came, and now I want to know more.
Have you ever had your misconceptions blasted apart when visiting a new place? Please tell me about it in the comments below!
Things a Woman on the Road should know
- Dublin is safe, as European cities go, but there are plenty of neighborhoods I’d stay away from at night. Stick to the downtown core. Even here, some streets are dark so make sure you walk where you can easily be seen and where there are plenty of people.
- I stayed at Donnybrook Hall, a small family bed and breakfast so charming and friendly I thought I’d give them a plug here. I ate a few too many meals at O’Connells in Donnybrook, which serves Irish fare with flair and the best Ceasar’s Salad I’ve ever tasted. It’s a carvery, with brilliant chicken and guinea fowl.
- The fact that it is home to Ryanair, Europe’s largest discount airline, means it’s cheaply accessible from almost anywhere on the continent.
- A great way to see the city if you don’t have much time is with a Hop-on-Hop-off bus.