I ran into an Irishman in a Barcelona hair salon in February, and when I told him of my plan to visit his country for St. Patrick’s Day, he replied: “Oh, St. Patrick’s Day is a U.S. holiday — an Irish-American thing, really.”
Well, I felt like a rube. But then I remembered how, years ago, lots of smug people told me not to expect pizza in Italy before my first trip there, claiming the dish was an American invention (advice that, obviously, was way off base).
Still, I wondered: Was it idiotic to plan a trip to Dublin on March 17? The occasion was a visit with my West Coast sister, who was in Europe for a business trip. In the United States, our St. Patrick’s Day observance rarely extends beyond green bagels. But in Ireland? That would be different — an authentic cultural experience, we thought.
As it turns out, the Irish do indeed celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and in much the same fashion as their kin across the pond. In fact, the whole country shuts down for a three-day wearin’ of the green — a festival of leprechaun-hatted pub crawls, live music and cultural events involving harps. I can think of worse ways to take the pulse of a country on a first-time visit than to join in the national holiday.
It was a long weekend filled with a constant sense of déjà vu for all of us: nearly everywhere we went, within the Dublin city limits or around the Northern Irish countryside, felt like someplace in America. The Irish pubs in Ireland look and feel exactly like Irish pubs of the Upper East Side, Boston, Bologna, and probably Shanghai. Small towns share not just the architecture, but also the general layout and manner, of Long Island and New Jersey suburbs.
My sister summed it up best: “For an American, coming to Ireland is like meeting someone’s parents for the first time. You’ve never seen them before, but it’s all so familiar.”
She and Joel met us at the train station; Oggi and I had arrived wearing green headbands with blinking lights and the words “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” (true in my case, less so for Oggi). We hailed a cab straight to Temple Bar, Dublin’s touristy nightlife zone, where the detritus of past revelry was already apparent along these cobble-stoned alleys — historic in a way that recalls Greenwich Village — and the pubs were packed with girls in short skirts and bright-green stockings. “It’s like a whole city of Second Avenue,” marveled Oggi, a veteran of that pub-heavy Manhattan zone.
The next morning, we awoke to a typically leaden sky and set out to explore Europe’s northwestern-most outpost. In recent decades, Ireland has gone from being a longtime poor backwater to one of Europe’s hottest economies — the so-called “Celtic Tiger” — and back again, in a shattering economic reversal. Joel’s office, in a complex that flanked a peaceful canal, was part of a shiny new area thick with American corporations: Yahoo, Google, Accenture. All of it dated to the recent boom, when Ireland’s strategic, English-speaking environment and business-friendly tax policy sparked a wave of high-tech investment.
Downtown Dublin is a different story. I was frankly surprised by how un-gentrified much of the city looks even after its Celtic Tiger years; grimy buildings, hole-in-the-wall shops and dark, empty storefronts were reminiscent of parts of downtown Brooklyn in the 1990s.
There’s a modesty about small-scale, historically poor Dublin, even in its grandest parts — the campus of Trinity College, for instance, which straddles the heart of downtown. The campus is a pleasant oasis of cherry blossoms and arched doorways familiar to anyone who’s walked through Yale, and it contains a small museum that I found less than exciting.
Across from the campus entrance is Books Upstairs, at 36 College Green. A dusty vintage space with poetry-reading flyers on the walls, it’s a good place to pick up copies of The Stinging Fly, a local literary journal. I learned that Ireland’s reverence for literature is more than just talk: “No tax on books,” explained a clerk. “It’s pretty much the only thing that isn’t taxed here.”
We left Oggi browsing while my sister and I shopped Grafton Street, the main shopping drag. Car-free like many of its downtown foreign counterparts, Grafton is enjoyably wide and uncrowded, with plenty of local chains and Celtic-themed boutiques along with Sephora.
There’s surprisingly little of Ireland’s fabled greenery in its capital city, which makes St. Stephen’s Green — at the other end of Grafton from Trinity — a verdant oasis. In the shade of willows and beech trees, walking paths form a ring around a lake where swans glide picturesquely past romantic footbridges.
As we strolled, my sister confided that she’d tried to attend a Shabbat service at the Dublin synagogue, only to be turned off by what she perceived as a frosty reception: a list of entry requirements, including a passport and formal appointment. “I can walk right into any church,” my sister complained. The Toulouse shootings were all over the news — and I explained that throughout Europe, sadly, relatively small and oft-beleaguered Jewish communities enforce tight security out of necessity.
But the Irish Jewish Museum is a welcoming place (as, indeed, is the synagogue for those with the patience to navigate European red tape). Housed in the former Walworth Road Synagogue in what used to be a very Jewish area, Dublin Zone 8, it offers a small but worthwhile peek into the Jewish cultures of Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Limerick and other prominent communities over the past two centuries.
There’s a restored synagogue installation, a model Shabbat table and photographs.
Fans of Dublin’s most famous Jewish resident, Leopold Bloom, will appreciate the Joycean memorabilia.
In fact, throughout much of rumpled, book-mad Dublin, Leopold Bloom would still feel right at home.