Sunday, October 16, 2011

Open House Dublin

Have you ever walked past a building in your city that you maybe walk past every day, or a few times a week, without ever giving it a thought, and suddenly you seem to notice it for the first time? You wonder what actually goes on in there, what that building's story is.

About a week before I moved to the UK, my hometown in Canada was having an "Open House" where old buildings that are normally closed to the public were open and being run by volunteers who were, essentially, telling the stories of these structures that we walk past every day without ever really thinking about. My mum, my best friend Heather, and I walked down the hill to the city centre and toured a few different buildings - the Central Presbyterian Church, a Scottish cottage, and the Armoury. We learned some fascinating history, got to sample bannock and scones, and even got a bird's eye view of the city from a bell tower! The event seemed to be very popular and I thought it was a really great way to learn more about our own past as a city.

Last weekend, it just so fortuitously worked out that I would be in town for "Open House Dublin," the same event that I had attended back in Canada, only in a WAY cooler city this time! (Cambridge, I love you, but you are not exactly in the same league as the city that is named for the "black pool" - Dubh Linn - of the original settlement. After all, you're just named after another city in an Empire far, far away).

We had ambitious plans to check out several of the buildings open to the public, but the incredible popularity of the event and the long queues snaking up and down streets meant that we had to content ourselves with less. We started off with a tour of Liberty Hall for an unmatchable view of the city and the River Liffey that slices the city in two:

As you can see, it was very windy!

In a bit of a sad ending to this building, Liberty Hall is due to be torn down soon and rebuilt. The architect who designed the building said, "I don't care what you do with it as long as its after I die", and he passed away a few months ago.

After coming down from the top, we had worked up an appetite so we stopped at a little shop that specializes in the full Irish Breakfast, a formidable meal that is almost impossible to conquer. I'm not entirely sure what (if any) difference exists between an Irish Breakfast and an English one - English Ian maintains that it is the exact same (but originated in England) and Irish Iain contests both claims. All I know is, its not exactly vegetarian friendly!

Let me see if I've got this right: eggs, sausages, bacon (back or "Canadian"), black pudding (blood sausage), baked beans, tomatoes (gotta have some form of vitamin C to balance out all that protein!), and toast. Whew! But, as they say, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

I skipped out of the meat options but still left feeling more than pleasantly full - and all for 3 euros! We meandered/waddled down O'Connell Street, the wide, elegant main street in Dublin that is named after Daniel O'Connell, a nationalist leader from the nineteenth century. The street is dominated by the grand (in the imposing sense of the word, not the Irish one!) 1818 General Post Office building, and the 120 metre Spire, a rolled steel sculpture that is colloquially referred to by "Dubs" as the "Stiletto in the Ghetto" or the "Biggest Needle in the North" (the part of the city north of the Liffey is the, uh, less "stylish" and safe district, to put it diplomatically).

Our next stop on the Open House Dublin tour was the Department of Education building, built in 1740 by the Earl of Tyrone for 25,000 pounds and sold to the Department of Education a century later for a steal of a deal at 7,000 pounds. Then it was on to the birthplace of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula and perhaps the man we can all blame for this current Twilight crap.

Bram Stoker is the great-something uncle
of Liz! (I'm holding a biography on the
original inspiration for Stoker, Vlad Dracul)

Our last stop of the day was Casino Marino, a "pleasure house" that was built by the Earl of Charlemont, a man whose unique affliction was that his health "required" him to have access to fresh air and social interaction. Um, duh. Like you're the ONLY one in the world who needs those things. Because the rest of us proletariat can just suck it up and live in dank, airless, one-room hovels by ourselves, right? It was hard to summon up any sympathy for the guy, as Iain, Niamh and I had a few laughs at his expense after hearing that! But the building itself was very interesting architecturally. From the outside, it resembled a one-room, one-storey Greek temple with its Classic construction and columns, and it reminded me of how many men at this time, including Thomas Jefferson, were inspired by their Grand Tours abroad to recreate miniature wonders of the ancient world on their own turfs.

Inside, however, Casino Marino was revealed to have three storeys and sixteen rooms! There were lots of little tricks to maintain the sense of Classical symmetry from the outside, such as these trick windows:

Only the 12 panes of glass at the bottom right hand corner are an actual window that looks outward. The rest is just to create the illusion of large, symmetrical windows from the outside of the building!

The guides at each of the places we went were all well-informed, engaging, and passionate about their subject - truly making history come alive for us participants. I felt very lucky to have an introduction to a part of Dublin's past that is "off the beaten track" of O'Connell and Grafton Streets, and to have a peek in at buildings that even Dubliners walk past every day without really knowing the stories that lie within the walls.


  1. Good lord, that breakfast is even too much for me, and I can sure pack it away!

    And you know, I typically run the same running route every day and I still see new things--buildings, trees, etc.--that I haven't seen before. I think we become so familiar with things that (a) we don't look for the unfamiliar or (b) we don't think about what is familiar. Looks like the Open House Dublin tour was a blast though! Far more exciting, I think, than what I might find in the houses here in Kingston... heh heh :)

  2. I run the same route every day too, and I can sometimes do it even while still half-asleep! So I definitely don't pay attention to the "same old" scenery around me. Was there an Open House Kingston tour? I think Kingston is a really cool city, I've only been there once before but would love to explore it further!

    Also, since I know you are the bread baking Queen :) have you ever made Irish soda bread? I became addicted on my trip and I'd love to recreate some at home, just wondering if you know a good recipe or tips!

  3. I'm not sure if there ever was an Open House Kingston tour - but London did them all the time. Did you ever go? I think I went to a church once...

    As for Irish Soda Bread, no, I've never made it, but I've been meaning to. Heidi Swanson from 101cookbooks has this recipe that I always eyeball and even more this oat soda bread: I'm a sucker for oats and seeds. Let me know if you make one and how it turns out!