The artful pluck of the Irish

You may think you know Dublin, its pubs and winding streets, but its Temple Bar entertainment district cooks up a bubbling stew of progressive culture.

By Kathleen Ochshorn, Special to the Times
Published March 11, 2007


On a summer evening, stroll the brick-lined streets of Dublin's Temple Bar district, west of Trinity College between Dame Street and the River Liffey, and be entertained by the many buskers. You're likely to hear impromptu rock 'n' roll, traditional Irish music or the jazzy quartet of young Eastern Europeans we enjoyed last year, playing in the Hot Club of France style.

Those are only the first strains of cultural offerings in this unique area that draw natives and tourists, particularly the young. Anchor institutions include the Irish Film Centre and the National Photographic Archive. Other facilities, like the Temple Bar Music Centre and Filmbase (home to the Irish film magazine with the same name), have performances, classes and rental facilities for recording and editing.

Movie buffs wanted

My favorite spot in Temple Bar is the Irish Film Centre, a complex of two screening rooms, a courtyard and an outdoor dining area, a pub, a bookstore and a film archive. It occupies most of the old Quaker Meeting House. Here film buffs of all ages can take in the best in international and independent cinema. Last summer people packed theaters for Go West, a controversial Bosnian film about a Serbian man and his Bosnian partner. When war breaks out, they escape the country by dressing the Muslim man as a woman. There's no stadium seating, no tubs of popcorn or buckets of soda, but on any given day the center offers a choice of at least three fine films.

The district is becoming a lively destination for new theater at places like the Project Arts Centre and Filmbase. The Temple Bar Cultural Trust now also coordinates many free activities throughout the year with a special summer season of events called Diversions. Last year the Irish poet Seamus Heaney read his work. This year includes an international circus and free outdoor films in July.

Diverse offerings

In the 1970s, artists moved into Temple Bar, then a decaying, 18th century, low-rent district slated for demolition to make room for a bus depot. The artists and preservationists lobbied to save the neighborhood. Much of the success of Temple Bar is a tribute to the respect the Irish have for the arts. And all the activity there reflects the cultural renaissance in music, film, photography and theater that is accompanying Ireland's economic success.

On Saturdays, the district has a food market and a book market, plus Cow's Lane Fashion and Design Market, where you'll find clothes and jewelry with an independent and global flair. Saturday lunch is a treat at the food market in Meeting House Square, where you can purchase potato pancakes, salmon quiches or organic burritos. Save the handmade Irish chocolate for dessert. Independent shops also set up booths offering Irish cheeses, organic produce, French pastries from La Maison de Gourmets, and olives and soaps made from olive oil.

With all the buzz about Temple Bar, better restaurants are popping up all the time. Ben Gorman's hole-in-the-wall Gruel offers inexpensive single-dish fare such as couscous, and his more upscale Mermaid Cafe features New England-style crab cakes. Good Italian places abound, especially for thin crust pizzas. Several cafes feature Maud's creamy Irish ice cream. And if you're up early, check out Bagel Haven, where the excellent light bagels feature crisp crusts.

Party on, and on

Temple Bar also is a good place to pub crawl. Some bars, like the famous Temple Bar pub, offer traditional music mostly to an audience of tourists. If you really want to hear Irish music and are lucky enough to be in Dublin on a Sunday, go instead to the city's oldest pub, the Brazen Head on Bridge Street, west of Temple Bar, for the early afternoon jam sessions.

In recent years larger rock clubs have begun to dominate the eastern end of Temple Bar, and the neighborhood has acquired something of a rough late-night reputation for heavy drinking. Police warn against being alone on the darker narrow streets, and the noise level can make the Temple Bar hotels unappealing, including the gorgeous Clarence Hotel at the western edge of the district, which was restored by members of the rock band U2.

Beyond Temple Bar

Temple Bar is just a slice of the culture that central Dublin has to offer, all within walking distance. Be sure to take in the splendid National Gallery of Ireland, the National Museum of Ireland (archaeology and history), the National Library, and the Chester Beatty Library, a repository of Eastern and Islamic art behind Dublin Castle, all free. And visit the theaters, the Abbey (with the Peacock, its smaller, more experimental theater), the Gate, and the Gaiety. Ireland has more than its share of fine directors and actors, and a good seat will cost you less than a third the price of a Broadway ticket. Bewleys Cafe on Grafton Street has lunchtime theater in the summer too, where you can get a bowl of soup and bread with your play.

Once upon a time tourists to Ireland lined up for a peek at the Book of Kells at Trinity College, went on a pub crawl and left Dublin the next day for the countryside. Dublin is more than a jumping-off spot; spend at least a few days here.

Kathleen Ochshorn teaches Irish literature and edits fiction for Tampa Review at the University of Tampa.


If you go

Temple Bar

The Temple Bar Cultural Information Center is at 12 E Essex St. in Dublin. Go to www.temple-bar.ie for information.

The Dublin Tourism Centre is at Suffolk Street, Dublin 2. Go www.visitdublin.ie for information.