Prancing leprechauns. Tankards of Guinness beer. Three-leafed shamrocks. And oodles of that legendary Irish charm on wanton display! All Irish clichés (well, er, never mind the prancing leprechauns bit) the capital city of Dublin does very little to shrug off. But then why should it? The fun-loving, pub-hopping denizens of this city by the River Liffey seem to revel in every well-earned sobriquet that they are bestowed with. And going by what I saw, experienced and indulged in on a recent weekend side trip – from Britain – one may as well add “shopper’s paradise” to the mix.
I couldn’t have asked for a better guide into the realm of Dublin’s retail bounty than Deirdre McQuillan, who, as Fashion Editor of The Irish Times, has a steady hand on the pulse of what’s trending and what’s not. So, after meeting me for a quick coffee at my hotel slap-bang opposite the legendary Trinity College, we sauntered off towards what is called Dublin’s “creative quarter”. This area stretching from South William Street to George’s Street, and from Lower Stephen’s Street to Exchequer Street, has a long-standing history dating back to the 18th century of specialist design, and hosts exceptional artisan boutiques and shops like Raidar, Grahams Shoes and the dentist’s nightmare – the Candy Lab candy store – where we gorged on everything from liquorice whips to dainty lemon drop lozenges, with a few packets of the sweet treats tucked away as gifts for friends back home.
To work off the ensuing sugar rush, we then headed down the nearby pedestrian-only cobble-stoned Grafton Street that is the de facto “style mile” of Dublin, with almost every high street brand having its presence here, almost all offering great buys.
The street also has huge department stores like Marks & Spencer and the ever-popular Brown Thomas that is home to an unparalleled range of designer brands – in men’s wear, women’s wear, accessories, beauty and home ware. And at the eastern end of the street is the beautiful and baroque style St Ann’s Church that is perfect for a little post-shopping visit.
For a more unique shopping experience, I was taken down to Powerscourt Townhouse Centre on William Street a few steps from Grafton Street. This charming shopping arcade, housed in a stunning Georgian building, has everything to offer – from food, bars, arts and crafts to beauty, fashion jewellery and antiques. Here one can visit the Irish Design Centre which is a forum for up-and-coming and established designers to showcase their clothing. It also brings the finest fashion from Irish designers and international fashion houses to Dublin. And it was here that Deirdre revealed what was in store (pardon the pun!) for me next.
For diehard lovers of vintage music, like yours truly, R.A.G.E. or The Record Art Game Emporium is the ultimate place to shop at in Dublin. This record and video games store sells second-hand vinyl LP’s and retro video games and consoles. And while you’re still in “vintage” shopping mode, hit Eager Beaver in Crown Alley, in Dublin’s Temple Bar area. It is a wonderful little retro shop crammed with what is undoubtedly the hippest collection of hand-me-downs in the city!
Bidding adieu to Deirdre, I strolled down Temple Bar and soon learnt it is also famous for its weekend Saturday food market where you will be spoiled for choice with fine artisan produce like honey, cereals and jams. Temple Bar also has two other weekend markets – the Designer Mart and the Book Market, where you can spend hours on end browsing.
For antiques and bric-a-brac hunters, the Smock Alley Market (near the Smock Alley Theatre) is the perfect hunting ground, with stalls and shops aplenty. Another popular Dublin market is the Howth Market located opposite the Howth Harbour, about 25-30 minutes by train from Dublin City Centre. Here you can pick up everything from homemade chocolates to handmade jewellery as souvenirs to take back home.
Speaking of jewellery, if there is one piece that symbolises Ireland like no other, it would have to be the Claddagh ring. This is a traditional Irish ring worn by both men and women to represent love, loyalty and friendship: The hands represent friendship; the heart represents love; and the crown represents loyalty. If the ring is worn on the right hand, with the point of the heart towards the fingertips, the wearer is single and may be looking for love. But if worn on the left hand, with the point of the heart towards the wrist, the wearer is married. The best place to pick one up, I was told, is the R&C McCormack jewellery shop in the heart of Dublin that also specialises in other typically Celtic designs like the Celtic cross and the three-leafed shamrock.
Day of cliches
With all that Day One retail therapy overdose, almost enough to send me scurrying for rehab, I plotted my Day Two moves with the precision of a diehard, camera-toting tourist. I simply couldn’t leave Dublin without indulging in a few of the tropes it so lovingly nurtures, and besides, it was a Sunday after all…
Cliche 1: The sights. For those who want to start (or end!) your day taking in the sights of the city, a visit to the romantic Ha’Penny Bridge is the best way to get oriented with Dublin. This bridge that fords the River Liffey is a pedestrian bridge that was built in 1816. In olden times, lovers would meet and pay the toll of a Ha’Penny (half a penny) to cross over to the other side to meet their soul mates, thus lending the bridge its rather quirky name.
For sights straight out of an episode of Game Of Thrones, a visit to the Malahide Castle and Gardens will give you a vicarious thrill. This is one of Ireland’s oldest and most dramatic castles and just 20 minutes’ drive from Dublin’s city centre. Set over 105ha, the 12th century castle has been home to the Talbot family for over 800 years, but even here there is no escaping the shopping bug. Housed next to the castle’s visitors’ centre is the flagship store of Ireland’s premier home and lifestyle brand – Avoca. Selling everything from soft wool throws and jumpers to ceramics and artisanal cosmetics, this family-run shop shouldn’t be missed.
Cliche 2: Alcohol. Now the words “alcohol” and “Ireland” seem synonymous; instances of this coupling assaulted all my senses almost everywhere I looked. One of the most fun and educational (scout’s honour) places to delve into the history of Irish whiskey is the Irish Whiskey Museum on College Green in the heart of Dublin. The two-hour tour offered here takes aficionados on a journey back through time in a historic setting, depicting the origins of Irish whiskey and the current revival of new Irish whiskeys.
With alcohol still on my mind, I then paid a visit to the Ground Zero of all things beer – the Guinness Storehouse. The Storehouse spans seven floors which takes you from the main ingredients in a pint of Guinness to the amazing Gravity Bar which provides 360° views over Dublin City. Each floor takes you through a different aspect of the world-famous Guinness Brewery until you reach the Gravity Bar, the ultimate pit stop. But not for me! My ultimate pit stop in my 48 hours about Dublin was to be the mother of all Irish cliches – an Irish pub.
And if there’s one pub that you simply must visit while in Dublin, it is O’Donoghue’s (just off St Stephen’s Green). Here, you can sit back, order a pint of beer, oysters, a bowl of hearty Irish stew with soda bread and let the raucous revelry around you be the sound-track to a day well spent. In fact, every night a selection of traditional musicians get together at O’Donoghue’s for a jamming session, playing fiddles, tin whistles, bodhrans and uilleann pipes. The night I was there, famous Irish traditional band The Dubliners – which got its start playing at O’Donoghue’s – returned to play a couple of sets as a quasi reunion of sorts.
So, to the strains of Jug Of Punch, an old Irish drinking ditty, I made my weary way to the airport for my late night flight back to London, taking back with me a whole lot more than a mere suitcase full of memories!