MAGIC happens every day in Ireland. We were on the original and best Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
At Trinity College, our hosts Colm and Derek regaled us with stories of great Irish writers who had attended the college, and they quoted extensively from Brendan Kennelly, that very fine Irish contemporary novelist and poet who was professor of modern literature at Trinity until 2005.
As we exited the college’s quadrangle to continue the tour, in walked Kennelly himself, now 76 but as sprightly as ever, and happy to share a word or two. “Good stunt” said this cynical hack. Our hosts were mortally offended. “We didn’t even know he was in Dublin,” they said, and you had to believe them.
Later that night, in Oliver St John Gogarty’s pub/restaurant/music venue in Temple Bar – the best pub in the world in my experience, and yes, I have visited them all – the superb resident group of Irish folk musicians took a well-earned break for Guinness refuelling.
In their place, up stepped a gorgeous girl and a handsome young lad to commandeer the dance floor for a brilliant display that could have come straight off the Riverdance stage.
Halfway through their set, the boy fell flat on his backside after attempting one Flatley-esque kick too many, but no-one laughed. Instead the audience’s cheers echoed to the strains of the River Liffey as he bounced back up and instantly continued with his routine. The following day, the most impressive sorcery of all occurred – the sun shone, and for a few brief January hours in the panoramic Gravity Bar at the top of the Guinness Storehouse, hundreds of tourists looked down spellbound upon a very special city.
It’s a magical country, with Dublin a magical capital, and this year the magic very much surrounds the Gathering, a festival for which people of Irish descent around the globe are being invited to their ancestral homeland to join in a whole host of community-based events celebrating everything Irish – there’s even a convention for people with red hair.
There are perhaps 70 million people globally who claim to have Irish blood in them and the hard-working Irish Tourist Board is going flat out to get as many of them back to the motherland as possible.
The press was brought to Dublin for the official start to the Gathering, and tourism minister Leo Varadkar spoke exclusively to Scotland on Sunday. “It’s a year-long celebration of Irish culture and heritage. Pretty much anyone who has a love of Ireland or our Celtic heritage will be welcome.”
The idea is a fairly blatant rip-off of Scotland’s own Homecoming and Gathering of the Clans – can that really be four years ago already?
Varadkar admitted, “We had a look at Scotland’s Homecoming and thought that on balance it worked very well, but there were pluses and minuses so in some ways we are taking the best from that and making it much broader so that it is not just for people with an Irish surname.
“We have built on existing events and encouraged new ones, so that on one level you have the big festivals and sporting events, but beyond that there will be between 1,500 and 2,000 very much smaller events from village fêtes to family and school reunions.”
Knowing the Irish, they will do their Gathering so much better than ours, not least because we had “top down” events with a single weekend in Edinburgh as the focus, while Ireland’s Gathering will be organised very much at a local level with communities, networks and even individual families – there’s one christening and several wedding anniversaries on the official list – having their own celebration.
And when your family name is Kennedy, you have a rather impressive, not to say impossibly glamorous, roll of honour upon which to call. Fifty years ago this June, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy famously visited Wexford, where the farm from which his great-grandfather emigrated is still owned by a Kennedy.
JFK’s daughter Caroline Kennedy and Joseph Kennedy’s daughter Jean Kennedy Smith, a former US Ambassador to Ireland, have promised to attend the Kennedy Gathering in June – should be a brilliant party. So should all the Gatherings, for the Irish love a knees-up. It is hoped that each city, town and village will have a Gathering of its own.
Dublin’s Lord Mayor, the irrepressible Naoise Ó Muirí, for instance, will preside over a gathering of the civic chiefs of every town called Dublin in the world, who have been invited to the mother city.
Dublin would be a very good base from which to take in the Gathering and here are a few pointers to places that have never failed to deliver on any of my visits to the Irish capital.
The Westin Hotel remains one of the finest five-star establishments in the country, with its central location a huge plus. It’s next door to Trinity College, across the street from Temple Bar and just a few yards further is O’Connell Street, yet slip into the Westin and you are in a haven of luxury that is surprisingly affordable if you book in advance.
Dublin has restaurants that rival anything you’ll find in continental Europe. L’Ecrivain has one Michelin star and chef Derry Clarke clearly wants more, judging by the excellence of his cooking. The Mansion House restaurant and venue contains Fire Restaurant which prides itself on simple food prepared well – the steaks are unbeatable.
There’s so much to do and see in this true European capital city. The Literary Pub Crawl is a must, being two hours of unalloyed entertainment, revelling in the great Irish literary tradition – Swift, Goldsmith, Yeats, Shaw, O’Casey, Synge, Joyce, Beckett, Behan, Heaney and many more.
Just walking along the banks of the Liffey or along O’Connell Street to visit the Spire, the city’s frankly bonkers Millennium Project that the local calls the Spike, is a joy in itself.
Perusing St Stephen’s Green or the shops on Grafton Street, taking in the Book of Kells in Trinity College, a quick jaunt to the Viking Dublin quarter, or visiting any of the free museums or Dublin Castle gives you an impression of the scale and history of this city, while Temple Bar remains its cultural heart – great pubs, terrific music and an international gathering place seven days a week.
A relatively new addition to Dublin’s attractions is the National Leprechaun Museum which, if nothing else, shows that the Irish have learned to laugh at themselves. Other countries please take note…
Go to Ireland this year and you will find a whole nation dedicated to celebrating its traditions, art, sport, places and families with passion and whimsy, love of country and self-knowing humour. Magic will abound, and you won’t need to be a leprechaun to share it.
Direct flights to Dublin from Edinburgh and Glasgow Prestwick operated by Ryan Air (www.ryanair.com); from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen by Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com). The Westin Hotel, Westmoreland Street, rooms from e214 (www.thewestindublin.com). The Gathering Ireland 2013 (www.thegatheringireland.com