On my first visit to Dublin, I learned everything I needed to know about the city on the Hop On/Off bus. Yep… St Patrick’s Cathedral, Jameson Whiskey, Trinity College, government buildings, a lap around the zoo, and Guinness… add a stroll down Grafton Street to see the street buskers, and my checklist exceeded my expectations.
Plus, the charming bus driver left me well-versed in the nicknames for Dublin public art — “The Tart with the Cart,” “Hags with Bags,” and “The Floozy in the Jacuzzi” (which was later replaced by the “Stiffy on the Liffey”) — I was practically talking Dublinese.
Over time I realized there was more to the Fair City than what I found in the rinse-and-repeat ingredients of Dublin Top Ten lists. It was in my nature to search out weird and unexpected places when I traveled; so when a guide book arrived promising to “get off the tourist grid and discover Dublin’s hidden treasures,” I took notice.
Secret Dublin: An Unusual Guide
Pól Ó Conghaile’s “Secret Dublin – An Unusual Guide” doesn’t promise the inside scoop on hotels stocked with the fluffiest pillows or restaurants plating the city’s most unpronounceable menu items. Instead, it archives a collection of timeless tidbits that contribute to Dublin’s history and character.
The sites in the book are organized by geography so you can easily create your own walkabout, but they could easily be grouped into other categories, such as:
Unexpected Historic Artifacts: those strange things you may happen upon and ask “what’s that?” Like… hints of a lost abbey; the “Sick & Indigent Roomkeepers Society;” IRA bullets; a politician’s honey pot, really, it’s a pot for honey; one of the city’s original telephone booths; several references to Dublin’s Viking and medieval past; and the original terminal at Dublin Airport.
Honoring Dead People: Sure, the book covers a couple plaques and graves, but it also includes fascinating stories; like… a burial ground for 1798 rebels; mummies in a crypt, Dublin’s smallest cemetery; a memorial to a man who was never born; and Michael Collins’ secret admirer.
Artistic References: The Irish are known around the world for their contributions to the arts, and this book points to plenty of clues to that in Dublin; like… Thomas Moore’s harp, an organ played by Handel which is in a NIGHTCLUB!!!; Sinéad O’Connor reading Yeats’ poetry; scenes from “Gulliver’s Travels” on a building, and plenty of references to James Joyce’s Dublin.
Hidden in plain view: There are those places in every town and city that even the locals can pass each day and never notice; in Dublin it would be… a cab drivers’ shrine; notable, but easy-to-miss architectural details; pubs with distinct characteristics; a bench-eating tree; unique museums dedicated to the postal service, taxes, print, geology, toys, and Dracula author Bram Stoker; lampposts held up by half-horse sea creatures… in fact, there could be a whole category dedicated to unusual lampposts; unexpected art installations; and hidden gardens.
In Dublin, really? As fashions change and history gets written, details get lost leaving us wondering how certain things found their way to Dublin; like… a polar bear that isn’t at the zoo; the city’s last statue to a British monarch; St Valentine’s relics; and Napoleon’s tooth brush.
There are well over 125 features in the book (so I’m only teasing you with my examples), and each listing includes photos and concise, casually-written text that makes for enjoyable reading. In fact, Pól’s writing style often feels like he’s letting us listen in on a gossip session shared over a cup of tea rather than a lecture of factual details. The topics are interesting; like those stories your uncle used to tell… only these have the details to back them up.
Truthfully, the book is not written for stereotypical tourists on a whirlwind tour. Secret Dublin takes the approach that readers should stop and look more closely at the city, treasure the details, and not rely on someone exaggerating the appeal of a place. That makes the writing better suited for locals or visitors with a genuine interest in stories that don’t always have mass appeal.
I only found three notable shortcomings with the book: 1) In order to keep it a convenient pocket-size guide, the publisher settled for smaller-than-usual text. It’s readable, but can be hard on the eyes after a while. 2) The index is thin… more like the table of contents put in alphabetical order; I would prefer one that catalogs some of the other key references mentioned in the descriptions, like “cemeteries,” “1916 Uprising,” “Joyce,” and “gardens.” 3) The book includes decent maps highlighting locations for every site; but in this day of location-aware smartphones, I would also like the GPS coordinates for each location… better yet, I’d LOVE to see this content in a smartphone app (don’t confuse this book with the Secret Dublin app in the iTunes store).
Although “guidebooks” are generally intended to help people plan trips, this one holds it own for general reading as well. It’s divided into bitesize bits, and I was surprised to find myself repeating some of the more interesting tales to friends while in general conversation. Could it be? This book may have made me a more interesting person, and increased my interest in Dublin.
Here’s where you can purchase Secret Dublin – An Unusual Guide.
Learn more about Pól Ó Conghaile at his website at www.poloconghaile.com where he regularly posts article on travel in Ireland.