Irvine Welsh: In the past 15 years Dublin has gone from being Calcutta to Paris
The Irish capital has undergone a real transformation. But has it lost its character? Author Irvine Welsh doesn't think so. He reveals his favourite haunts to Elizabeth Heathcote
Published 18/10/2007 | 09:33
I've been visiting Dublin since I was a child. We had relatives in Ireland and I used to get shipped over in the summer holidays. It always had a welcoming feel. Then my partner got work in Dublin and I can write from anywhere; we've been here for three years.
There have been massive, massive changes. In the past 15 years it's like Dublin has gone from being Calcutta to Paris. That's an oversimplification, of course, but even 15 years ago, by British standards, it was grindingly poor. It's come out of an 800-year recession, of people leaving the country and struggling to get by, everything tatty and run down.
There's been a big influx of money. The infrastructure has been rebuilt. People who live here can't quite believe it. I live in the centre of the city; I'll go away for a few months and when I come back the main street that my road feeds on to will have changed. Dublin is a Georgian and Victorian city, and all those gap sites that have been empty for years are suddenly being filled. Glass and chrome are going up everywhere. Some of it's inspired, some of it less so.
There is a goldrush mentality. It has changed the mañana attitude of Ireland, which was one of the great things about it. People want to keep that laid-back Irishness, but they want the change, too.
In some ways I like the new Dublin better; in some ways I don't. I'm old enough to remember the old Dublin's character and warmth. The new Dublin is a cosmopolitan city. There are more options now - more nightclubs and restaurants and bars, but like any cosmopolitan city it's more alienated and brash, and people have less time for each other. You have a much bigger class divide, too. Some people are making loads of money, while others have missed out on the Celtic Tiger thing. There are tensions and divisions that you never used to have.
I'm constantly looking for parts of the old Dublin. You find it in the pubs - and there are still some good, dirty old bars. There is something about drinking Guinness in Ireland. I would never drink it anywhere else. It just makes sense. It's like eating snails in France: you just have to do it. People will always talk to you in a cafe or a bar. Everyone is very gabby, which suits me because I'm very gabby, too. You can talk about anything, whatever's in the papers.
Dublin is a great walking city. So many cars have come in that the roads are gridlocked, but if you live close to the centre, as I do, you can walk everywhere. One of my favourite walks is along Leeson Street to St Stephen's Green and then up Grafton Street and O'Connell Street. These are beautiful Georgian areas to walk through. I also like to walk down Thomas Street and Francis Street, where all the old antique shops are - that area's got a lot of character. Over at Smithfields as well, the old horse market, there are lots of shops and bars. It is a very atmospheric place to walk.
I love all the old Irish shops and supermarkets which the government has preserved. They've kept all the big chains out - there aren't Nexts and Gaps everywhere. All British cities are the same now. Dublin has got its own character and you feel like you are in a different city from any other.
Brown Thomas is a really smart sort of Harvey Nics-style posh store in Grafton Street, where I occasionally indulge myself by buying designer clothes. There are a lot of cool quirky wee places all over Dublin, lots of traditional hardware stores that sell all sorts of weird stuff and are interesting to look around. Clarendon Street has some great little food shops.
There is still a north-south divide in the city - the south is more middle class and affluent. The north has its own bars and shopping districts - Talbot Street, Henry Street and O'Connell Street. There are a lot of people who never cross the river.
I've got a lot of friends in the north, so I do go over. One place I visit a lot is the Bohemian Football Ground in Dalymount Park. It's the sort of place you never really see in Britain any more - an old unreconstructed football ground like I used to go to as a kid. I go on the occasional Friday night and there's a great atmosphere; you see all the local kids baiting the police officers.
I write at home, which is quiet, or I go to places like the French Institute cafe, which has the best coffee in town, or some of the old cafes such as the Winding Stair bookshop and cafe, places you can sit in the corner and write away. Joyce and Beckett are everywhere here. Ulysses was a huge influence on me. I've read it five times. The first time I didn't understand a word of it. The second time I started to get something out of it, and every time I've read it I've got more. I like the idea that the city becomes a character in its own right. I think it influenced Trainspotting in that way; I tried to make Edinburgh a character. If I was going to make Dublin a character, it would be like Bloom. That incomprehensible feel, but down to earth, too.
There is just so much creative stuff going on in Dublin. I've made a lot of friends who are really into the arts and writing and film-making, which is very energising. Since I've been here, I've got more into film and I think this is because I've got involved in the Attic Studios, where a lot of writers, film-makers, actors and producers hang out - like a sort of clearing house. There's a can-do spirit, a mentality of pitching in for each other. I shot a short film for practically nothing because everyone helped. In Britain, you'd be too embarrassed to ask people.
Music permeates Dublin in a way that it doesn't in any British city. There's lots going on at all levels. You can see big bands at the Point or Slane Castle or Dublin Castle, or you can listen to the local guy playing in the corner of the pub. At Eamonn Dorans in Temple Bar, when a band comes into town a big party is held for them. There are big spaces, like Tripod, for events - I saw Alabama Three there.
The Temple Bar stag night thing - well, you get it anywhere. I've got a mate coming over soon for a football match and we'll end up in Temple Bar. It's like living in Amsterdam, everyone who comes across says "let's go to the red light district", but you never go to the red light district if you live there. I don't mind it, it is what it is.
Kilmainham Jail is a place I would recommend any visitor to see. It tells the story of the 1916 Easter Rising, and the struggle for the Free State and the republic. It's a really atmospheric museum: you can see where the leaders from 1916 were executed and the cells where they were incarcerated.
I feel part of this city, I feel comfortable here. Maybe it's the Celtic thing - there's a familiarity; I feel that I get Ireland. There is a lot of pain underneath the smile. You hear all this stuff about paedophile priests and abuse, and hunger and famine, and coffin ships, but there's also this thing of "ar, the craic" and it's sort of brushed under the carpet. It's the opposite of Scotland. The Irish cover their pain under a cloak of jaunty optimism. The Scots will be partying and having the time of their lives, and as soon as someone comes in they'll be all "Agh, it's horrible." It's just a different defence mechanism, and once you get that you get Ireland.
Further reading Irvine Welsh's latest novel, 'The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs', is published by Vintage