Tuesday 20 February 2018

A Day In The Life Of: Dublin Docklands

The National
Convention Centre overlooks the Liffey
The National Convention Centre overlooks the Liffey
Docklands Maritime Festival, which takes place in June

Pol O'Conghaile

Story of the day

Questionable governance, catastrophic land deals and mounting losses — it’s hard to avoid the impression from newspapers that Dublin’s docklands are in the doldrums. This once great vision, the beating heart of Dublin 2.0, seems to have fallen flat on its face.

This is a shame, because once you start exploring Dublin’s eastern quays you’ll see they remain Ireland’s most exciting emerging quarter. Anchored by iconic projects such as Daniel Libeskind’s Grand Canal Theatre and Santiago Calatrava’s Beckett Bridge, the public spaces are quiet and businesslike by day, but come the Maritime Festival (June 4-7; dublindocklands.ie; free), they’ll burst into life.

Activity of the day

Have you seen those yellow duckmobiles clattering through Dublin’s city centre? I hop on board a Viking Splash Tour (01- 707 6000; vikingsplash.ie; €20 for adults, €10 for children under 12) at St Stephen’s Green, joining the bus as it rollicks past sights such as Trinity College and Christchurch Cathedral en route to Grand Canal Basin.

Guests don Viking helmets and everyone roars at passers-by as the 1940s amphibious vehicle chugs along. In the basin, we hear how old warehouses have metamorphosed into U2’s Hanover Quay Studios and Cill Rialaig’s Urban Retreat gallery; how old lots now host tenants such as Facebook and flagship cultural projects. It’s a snapshot of a city in transition.

Discovery of the day

Along with George’s Dock and the nascent Point Village, Grand Canal Square is one of three areas anchoring the docklands. Its highlight is the Grand Canal Theatre (0818 719 377; grandcanaltheatre .ie). The €80m building at first reminds me of a flat-pack Guggenheim Bilbao. Then I see a stage curtain in its glass façade, a hint of sails in its stainless-steel panels.

Outside, the red light sticks and tufty plants of Martha Schwartz’s piazza give the feel of an extended lobby. But there are other, nicely grubby touches: the street names (Misery Hill, Blood Stoney Road); the artless graffiti outside U2’s studios (“Bono can’t paint for shite” reads one slogan. Huh?). I like the idea of the Chimney Park playground, built in consultation with local kids, but sand is a silly surface.

Dish of the day

I wouldn’t be pushed on dinner in the docklands (still strangely quiet by night), but the volume of office buildings means there’s no shortage of options for lunch. I plug for Herbstreet (01-675 3875; herbstreet.ie), a small, angular space fitted out with mosaic mirrors, floor-to-ceiling windows and vintage Harry Bertoia chairs. It’s full of good tunes and happy folk.

I order a combo platter of sweet potato soup (with homemade rocket oil and crumbled goat’s cheese) and a leek and Grùyere quiche. The soup is thick and slightly spicy, and jumpstarts when I stir in the cheese and oil; the quiche is parcelled within pastry that crumbles nicely under the fork. It’s perfect fare for a windy Dublin day, and good value at €9.50.

View of the day

The traditional postcard view of Dublin looks westwards, down the River Liffey towards the genteel curve of the Ha’penny Bridge. Look east from Seán O’Casey Bridge, however, and you’ll find an iconic view of the New Dublin. Tall ship the Jeanie Johnson sits moored by the Citigroup building. The Samuel Beckett Bridge, a white fish frozen in mid-leap, echoes the tilted glass atrium of Kevin Roche’s National Convention Centre. From Rowan Gillespie’s evocative Famine sculpture through to CHQ to the glittering O2, it’s the grand sweep of a city’s progress... for better or worse.

Remains of the day

At the end of May, a Big Wheel and an open market will open in Point Village. The docklands’ most exciting hotels, too, are works in progress. A Manuel Aires Mateus-designed five-star in Grand Canal Square, and the four-star Gibson Hotel in Point Village, won’t open until July.

In the meantime, The Clarion (01-433 8800; clarionhotels ireland.com; rooms from €99) seems the best of a mediocre bunch. It’s a compact and unpretentious offering and, on my short visit, staff are accommodating. An interconnecting bar, lounge and restaurant zone serves up sound menus and free Wi-Fi. With the contemporary stylings you could be anywhere, really. But I guess that’s no bad thing in a hotel with mainly business guests.

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