Dublin Double Take
Saturday August 2, 2003, National Post
by Matt Beam

Galleries, shops and cafés filled with 20-somethings? This is not the Irish capital of our imagination.

   
One sunny Irish morning (it's not often one can start this way), I set off to find something Dublinesque. It wasn't a pub, although at any point along my stroll there were at least three within sipping distance. It wasn't a literary sight, nor a laugh, and yet I stumbled across two humorously nicknamed monuments -- one of Oscar Wilde reclined on a rock in Merrion park, dubbed Fag on a Crag, and one of the fishmonger-harlot Molly Malone, Tart with the Cart. It wasn't a historic institution like the 400-year-old Trinity College. I was looking for a piece of young, cosmopolitan Dublin.
   
Dublin has gone through some remarkable growing pains over the past five years. Once a place where few moved to, the young European Union city has received waves of new citizens, from immigrants (particularly from Eastern Europe) to descending countrysiders to returning nationals.
   
The city has developed rapidly as a result. Urban renewal has cleaned up seedy streets, and a glitzy urban veneer now embellishes Dublin's bucolic pub-life aesthetic. The increasingly expensive city is also extremely young -- more than 50% of the population is under 30. The old Dublin of our imagination is being left behind.
   
A part of the city that has experienced this remarkable boom is the Temple Bar area, an 18-square-kilometre district just south of the river Liffey. Once occupied by the Vikings, Temple Bar is now the hub of culture in the city. Soon after artists snapped up squalid, low-rent spaces in the 1980s, the area flourished with vivacity and expression. Since 1991, under the auspices of Temple Bar Properties and European Regional Development Funds, the area has been able to maintain reasonable rents while putting its resources into arts and entertainment. Along with pubs, the area offers galleries, trendy cuisine and chic cafés. Temple Bar was where my search for cosmopolitan Ireland would begin.
   
I approached the area from the west along a main thoroughfare, Dame Street, and nicked north onto Eustace, one of Temple Bar's narrow, 17th-century cobblestone streets. My first stop was the Film Institute of Ireland. For the past 10 years, the FII has occupied a former Quaker meeting house, which opens up brightly into a courtyard café. I met with Glen Hogarty, assistant manager of the institute, who was dressed in black and had a mess of short, blond hair. Between sips of coffee, Mr. Hogarty explained the multi-faceted institute is actually a triumvirate consisting of theatre, restaurant and archives. In August, FII supports a week-long gay/lesbian festival, Stranger than Fiction, and in November, Cine- France provides seven days of French classic and contemporary film.
   
Out the back door of FII, I skipped down some steps to the southwest corner of Meeting House Square, a small quad where public performances are held, and where I found Artselect, a small contemporary gallery. Greville Edwards is one of its two owners. With grey specks of receding hair and a friendly jumble of crooked teeth, Mr. Edwards softly told Artselect's story.
   
Many of his stable of a hundred local, emerging and veteran fine artists and sculptors are immigrants from India, Algeria, Canada and other places. Likewise, the majority of his customers are from elsewhere -- Japanese, English and American tourists. While pubs in the area were packing in the local 20-somethings, the community hadn't quite caught on to shelling out euros for original contemporary art. With a week of sunny skies and the summer fast approaching, Mr. Edwards was hopeful that things would pick up.
   
Around the corner, I met Annette Nugent and Aileen Corkery of Temple Bar Properties at Groul, a neo-bohemian café with mismatched chairs and tables, and delicious Roast on a Roll sandwiches. While the two of them tag-teamed me with the Temple Bar story -- the synergy of space, the sharing of ideas, and the shaping of Dublin's culture in the midst of rapid change -- I saw two "new" Dublin stories emerging.
   
Ms. Nugent is from near Clonmel in county Tipperary, and is as Irish as they come. She exudes Irish spirit. Several times during our discussions, she repeated the phrase "It was a good craic," which means that an event or day had the essence of an Irish good time. In her position as marketing manager of Temple Bar Properties, she has clearly embraced the growth and change in the city, and yet there was something in her demeanour that suggested inveterate Ireland -- traditional and obstinate -- would never change.
   
Ms. Corkery, on the other hand, is an immigrant from New York -- originally from Baltimore -- who, upon the urging of her Irish parents, visited the homeland in the 1980s and hasn't looked back. She is the visual arts curator of TBP, and is a strong proponent of cosmopolitan Ireland. While Ms. Corkery recognized the growth in the youthful pub life in the area had been beneficial, there had also been problems. Several years ago, Londoners started hopping over for their stags and were causing problems late at night on the narrow streets (a law has now been passed to prohibit these stags). In Ms. Corkery's vision of Dublin, there was the sparkle of a global cultural capital.
   
I saw the same gleam in the eyes of Willie White, the artistic director of the arts centre Project. According to Mr. White, who has the body of a tight end and the vocabulary of a cultural studies professor, Project began in 1966 as a maverick establishment and it continues in that tradition. Located in a former factory, Project has two performance areas (Space Upstairs and Cube), and a gallery where it shows dynamic and contemporary visual and performance productions. Mr. White was excited about a work in progress, Bread and Circus, by local choreographer Liz Roche, which explores the gladiator and its purpose in pacifying Roman citizenry.
   
Around the corner, I found the Front Door, a stylish bar with plush red carpeting, a startling collection of computer-enhanced photography, and the occasional gilded art deco sculpture. After ordering an afternoon Smithwick's -- all this talk (and listening) was making me thirsty -- I found manager Leo Molloy, cradling a cappuccino at a table by the bar. Mr. Molloy, slim and urbane, is originally from Illinois, and has been managing the Front Door since the late 1990s. The clientele, he explained, is of a new kind: young, hip urbanites mixing with the gay community. His staff could be lined up to show the chronology of recent immigration. While Mr. Molloy admitted the recent economic and cultural changes in this city had not always been easy, he was hopeful for his maturing metropolis.

"Dublin is in its teenage years," he declared.

The old city of Dublin, it seems, is beginning a whole new life.

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