Saturday 1 October 2016

Dublin: A new city afoot

Clodagh Finn takes a walking tour with Pat Liddy and discovers a different city hidden in Dublin

Clodagh Finn

Published 22/08/2009 | 00:00

The Quays Dublin
The Quays Dublin

Historian Pat Liddy is something of a magician. Not only has he pulled a glorious day out of the hat, but he is also blessed with that special gift of taking the ordinary and giving it a new face. If you go on one of his walking tours through hidden Dublin, you'll see what I mean.

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It's a sad fact that locals rarely take the trouble to visit the gems on their own doorstep. Or, more to the point, they seldom imagine the hidden treasures and forgotten stories that lie beneath.

But with a few snippets of history and a well-told anecdote whisked with sleight of hand from his vast knowledge, Pat has transformed O'Connell Street into the magnificent Georgian thoroughfare it once was.

He travels back and forth in time, talking of the Celtic settlement further down the River Liffey, the Viking centre of Dublin behind Dublin Castle, then fast forwarding to the world's first purpose-built department store, The New Palatial Mart, which opened on the site of Clerys in O'Connell Street in 1853.

The pace is gentle as we meander from O'Connell Street towards Dame Street and on into the grounds of Trinity. Pat leads our group of 12 to a secluded spot at the back of the Ussher Library on Ireland's oldest campus and, in a conspiratorial tone, confides that several dismembered human bodies were found under the building during excavations in 1999.

And just as we're left with an image of murder most foul, he gives a little plug for his Magnificence and Macabre tour, a two-hour journey exploring the grim and ghoulish tales lurking behind the facades of 18th and 19th-century Dublin.

But back to Trinity's gruesome mystery: it is believed that the random dumping of the Ussher bodies, many dating back to the 18th century, was probably the handiwork of the college's medical department at a time when it was illegal to dissect dead bodies.

The tone is much more gay as we continue ambling through the college and out towards Grafton Street. With a nod southwards, Pat casually mentions that there is a second O'Connell Bridge in Dublin -- "it's the one over the duck ponds in St Stephen's Green". You can't help but be impressed by Pat's encyclopaedic knowledge and his infectious charm.

This is certainly the man to knock a sizeable dent in the carapace of even the most cynical Dub. In fact, it was the often-flippant attitude of the locals that prompted him to start the tours four years ago. He felt that the natives -- and visitors -- would be amazed to discover all the hidden surprises in Dublin.

"When I worked at Aer Lingus (for 31 years), my world travels showed me that Dublin could be equal to, or even more interesting than, many of the great world cities.

"Feeling this initially made me angry in the 70s and 80s, because the authorities and owners often cared little for Dublin at that time and the place was literally falling down. I felt I had to do something and started by writing a weekly column called Dublin Today, which highlighted the city's heritage," he says.

He now has 11 self-illustrated books about Dublin under his belt, and eight different walking tours of the city. Obviously, he can't lead all of them, but he tries to introduce each one and has personally trained a team of qualified guides. For a sneak preview, here are some of the things you can expect to hear if you go on one of Pat Liddy's excellent tours:


  • The Daniel O'Connell monument on O'Connell Street is peppered with sniper bullet holes from 1916. A neat bullet hole in the right breast of 'Courage', one of the four winged victories at the base, was the work of an Irish sniper. All the British sniper bullets were fired from the southside of the monument. There are at least four -- see if you can spot them.

  • In the 40s, there were no fewer than nine cinemas on or beside O'Connell Street. Among them was the 2,000-seater Carlton, which was known as the House of Horrors because it specialised in showing horror films.

  • There are several tunnels beneath Dublin, one of which reportedly runs from the Custom House to the infamous brothels of Monto, now Foley Street. Part of the tunnel was discovered near Talbot Street, but details of who used it -- and why -- are a lot more sketchy.

  • The Long Room in the Old Library at Trinity College has a first folio of Shakespeare, as well as the books used to educate Louis XIV as a child -- not to mention more than 200,000 volumes from the 16th century and precious early medieval manuscripts.

  • Parliament House on College Green (now the Bank of Ireland), built between 1729 and 1739, was the world's first purpose-built house of parliament with upper and lower houses. You can still visit the preserved Chamber of the House of Lords and see the tapestries, the carved-oak fireplace and the elaborate chandelier, which consists of 1,233 separate pieces of glass.

  • The expression 'to chance your arm' is thought to have originated from an incident in St Patrick's Cathedral. In 1492, Black Jack, nephew of the Earl of Ormond, took refuge there from the Earl of Kildare. However, Kildare offered a truce, and to prove his sincerity cut a hole with his sword in the door of the cathedral's Chapter House and thrust his arm through it to shake Black Jack's hand, which he did.

  • Others say 'chancing your arm' was inspired by the poor misfortunates who had the job of reloading cannon guns from the front when the charge refused to light.

    • The grassy mound at the Fitzwilliam Street Lower corner of Merrion Square Park covers the entrance to a Second World War air-raid shelter, complete with a series of underground tunnels.

    (If you are in the park, keep an eye out for the liberator of Chile -- a bust of Bernardo O'Higgins, a man of Irish descent and a hero in Chile, stands in the middle of the heather and bog-oak garden. It was presented by the Chilean government in 1995.)

    • The Duke of Wellington was born in a house that now forms part of the Merrion Hotel. The Georgian house was one of four that were meticulously restored to form the hotel's Main House.

    • The Constitution of the Irish Free State was drafted in room 112 of the Shelbourne Hotel in 1922. It's now used as a meeting room and has a replica of the original document. Also, the half-brother of Adolf Hitler, Alois Hitler, was once a waiter in the hotel.

    • If you had visited Dublin at the end of 17th century, you would have been forgiven for thinking that you had landed in Amsterdam. At the time, there were thousands of Dutch-gabled buildings in the city. Only about six remain, one of which is on Duke Street where it houses the Bailey pub at ground level and part of Marks & Spencer's upstairs.

    For a complete list of tours that run daily until the end of October, contact 0818 205 205 or see The cheapest tour is €5 (seniors and students) for the Dublin Experience walk. The average tour costs €12 for two hours; the more expensive rates (up to €22) include discounted admissions to St Patrick’s Cathedral, St Michan’s Mummies and the Guinness Storehouse. Further discounts available for two or more tours. Booking is not necessary unless you have a group — just turn up a few minutes before the tour on the day and pay the guide. Tours in most European languages are also available. In winter, pre-booked tours for groups of 10 will operate.

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