Dublin has always been a party destination, but there’s a lot more to the Irish capital than sinking pints of stout in Temple Bar. The city also boasts a superb array of museums, all within walking distance, and a walking tour around a few of them is a great way to discover (or rediscover) this fascinating city.
The best place to start is at the National Gallery of Ireland in the historic heart of Dublin. This regal gallery has been a local landmark since 1864, but until last summer its ornate architecture was buried behind a bland modern extension. A stunning renovation has rejuvenated the original building, providing the perfect showcase for some amazing works of art.
The permanent collection contains treasures such as Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, Vermeer’s Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid, and a wonderful array of paintings by Jack B Yeats, one of Ireland’s most important painters. Until June 10, you can also see an intriguing Emil Nolde retrospective, Colour is Life, examining the life and work of the brilliant but troubled German Expressionist, who was both a supporter and a victim of the Nazi regime.
The most atmospheric gallery in Dublin is Dublin City Gallery, aka the Hugh Lane. Born in 1875, Lane was a wealthy Anglo-Irishman, and a pioneering collector and champion of Impressionist art. His lifelong ambition was to establish a national museum of modern art in Dublin, but this was thwarted when he died in 1915, aged just 39 – one of 1,200 people killed when a German U-boat torpedoed the RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland.
Lane’s will was unclear. Had he left his priceless collection to London or Dublin? For many years it remained in London’s National Gallery. Thankfully, London and Dublin eventually worked out a compromise, whereby the bulk of the collection resides in Dublin, augmented by loans from London. Highlights include masterpieces by Monet, Manet, Degas and Pissarro, and Renoir’s beautiful Parapluies. A more modern addition is the studio of Francis Bacon, meticulously recreated in every chaotic detail.
Around the corner from the Hugh Lane, on Parnell Square, is the Dublin Writers Museum, devoted to the multitude of great writers who’ve poured out of this eloquent, eccentric city. From Swift and Sheridan to Wilde and Shaw, from Joyce and Yeats to Samuel Beckett and Sean O’Casey, the list goes on and on. As well as all the usual literary curios and keepsakes (Brendan Behan’s typewriter – that sort of thing) there’s a good bookshop and some fine portraits of Irish writers, past and present.
Dublin was a Viking city long before the Brits arrived, and when Norse longboats first sailed up the Liffey its Celtic heritage was already well established. Dublin’s Museum of Archaeology charts every chapter in this rich and complex story, from prehistory to the Norman invasion. There are all sorts of ancient artefacts, from weapons to religious relics, and an absorbing display called Voice of the Voiceless, devoted to Sir Roger Casement’s humanitarian work in Africa and South America (a British diplomat and Irish Nationalist, Casement was executed for smuggling arms into Ireland from Germany, ahead of the Easter Rising in 1916).
Head west along the Liffey, and a brisk half hour hike brings you to Collins Barracks, named after Michael Collins, one of the heroes (and casualties) of Ireland’s bloody struggle for independence. Built in 1704, this barracks served as a prison for Wolfe Tone (leader of the 1798 uprising) and as a base for the British troops who put down the Easter Rising. Today it’s Ireland’s National Museum of Decorative Arts & History. There’s a spectacular exhibition all about the Easter Rising, and – most thrilling of all – the Asgard, the yacht that Anglo-Irish maverick Erskine Childers sailed along the German coast, inspiring his pioneering spy novel, The Riddle of the Sands (he also sailed her from Germany to Ireland, loaded with German guns).
Hidden in a handsome Georgian townhouse on St Stephen’s Green, the Little Museum of Dublin is a mad cabinet of curiosities devoted to the social history of 20th Century Dublin. The collection is delightfully eclectic, ranging from a potted history of the Irish Times to a potted history of U2. Dublin enjoys some of Europe’s leading museums and galleries, but it’s this old curiosity shop, stuffed full of the bric-a-brac of the last century, which best encapsulates the Irish capital’s quirky character and loquacious charm.