Friday 24 January 2020

Top 10 things to do in The Liberties - is this Dublin's hottest 'hood?

From secret bars to hidden histories, Pól Ó Conghaile takes a tour of Dublin's Liberties

Pearse Lyons Whiskey Distillery
Pearse Lyons Whiskey Distillery
Born and bred in The Liberties: Liz Gillis. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Inside the Guinness Open Gate Brewery
St John's Lane Church. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Taking a tour at Roe & Co in Dublin
The camino tile outside St. James's Church in Dublin. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Luncheonette restaurant, NCAD Thomas Street. Photographed for Weekend Magazine.
Keep it lit: Jam Art Factory on Patrick St.
Variety Jones Thomas Street.
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

"The Liberties is about the little things," says Liz Gillis, leading me into a riveting, random, rabbit hole of a neighbourhood.

1. Walk the walk

Within moments, we're passing chunks of old city walls, antique shops on Francis Street, hidden churches and historical sites, like the junction where Robert Emmet was beheaded on a butcher's block.

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Liz is an author, historian and guide born and bred here, and she's greeted by locals everywhere she goes - from street stallholders to butchers in their doorways and ladies pulling grocery trollies.

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Born and bred in The Liberties: Liz Gillis. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

"Meath Street is the beating heart of the Liberties," she says, as we step along one of the last small-town streets in the inner city, a strip devoid of global brands but dotted with cheap clothes shops, family businesses and gems like Catherine's Café with its turnover bread and the grotto at St Catherine's church.

"You could go to do your shopping and it would take an hour," Liz chuckles. "Everyone says hello to ya. They know your secrets as well, but...' lizggillis@gmail.com

2. Shop Local

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Keep it lit: Jam Art Factory on Patrick St.

Small but perfectly formed, Jam Art Factory on Patrick Street brims with prints, illustrations and jewellery by Irish artists (even the frames are handmade in Dublin). A browse might uncover a Dublin skyline by animator Donal Mangan, or playful illustrations by Fuchsia MacAree, with prices starting from €18 - very reasonable given the originality and curation on offer. Afterwards, skip online Amazon orders for the inviting atmosphere at Marrowbone Books, a secondhand bookshop on The Coombe. "We don't have everything, but we usually have the good stuff," they say. jamartfactory.com; marrowbone.ie

3. Single malt... and murder

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Inside the Pearse Lyons Distillery in Dublin. Photo: Donal Murphy

"Like many great stories, it begins with a murder."

So says Pearse Lyons, in a video setting the scene for his whiskey distillery tour. He's talking about Thomas Becket, whose death in 1170 led to the formation of St Thomas's Abbey in Dublin, which in turn introduced the old St James's Church.

Lyons, the billionaire founder of the global animal-health company Alltech, sadly died in 2018 after building his dream distillery, but the result is testament to his family's thoughtful approach - the Kentucky copper pot stills are beautifully realised, and an illuminated spire is like a beacon for tasteful, inclusive 21st-century development in Dublin 8.

Tours and tastings start from €20pp, including a half-price drink in McCann's next door. pearselyonsdistillery.com

3. Containers and canteens

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Luncheonette restaurant, NCAD Thomas Street. Photographed for Weekend Magazine.

The tension between heritage and hipster is one reason I love the Liberties. Just as you think it's all tipping towards gentrification - the demolition of the Tivoli, for instance, or the arrival of new Hyatt and Marriott hotels - you're brought back down to earth by a bun in Mannings Bakery or a pint in Fallon's.

By now, "new" arrivals like The Fumbally and Two Pups feel like part of the family, and Container Coffee is a cosy addition near the onion-shaped dome of St Patrick's Tower. Luncheonette (pictured above), at the National College of Art & Design (NCAD), is a sweet surprise. Step into the old Powers Whiskey campus, past the pool table and posters, and into vaulted cellars where diners huddle under the glow of arty lamps at communal tables.

'If A Burrito Was A Soup' is the name of my dish, a warm, tomatoey bowl served with chilli, coriander and a spoonful of sour cream for just €3.50. facebook.com/luncheonettedublin

5. Michelin Magic

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Variety Jones Thomas Street.

The Liberties can now add a Michelin Star to its menu, thanks to the creative cooking of Keelan Higgs on Thomas Street. The room is funky; the food focused on seasonal ingredients cooked over an open fire (though be sure to leave room for the cheese). Tables can be hard to come by at peak times, so book ahead. varietyjones.ie

6. An open secret

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Inside the Guinness Open Gate Brewery

I'm walking down James Street on a wet night when, momentarily, my nostrils are warmed by the sweet whiff of roasting barley. Guinness lies at the core of this place, and its Storehouse draws throngs of tourists, but did you know you can also visit its experimental brewery?

"Every new beer since the 1960s has been made here," says Padraig Fox of the Open Gate Brewery (Hop House 13 and Rye Pale Ale are two examples) - €9 buys you a flight of four tasters from the taproom, and staff are happy to discuss the minutiae of each one. Small dishes like beef sliders and prawn tacos are designed for pairings.

"There's a beer for everyone," he smiles. "Some people just haven't found it yet."

Pre-booking advised; Thurs & Fri (4-10.30pm) Sat (2-8pm). guinnessopengate.com

7. Steeple chasing

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St John's Lane Church. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

The Liberties is famous for its churches, with locals long taking their bearings from steeples on the skyline. The 21st-century cranes are changing that, but you can still find intriguing interiors to explore. At Cornmarket, the 12th-century St Audeon's is the city's only remaining medieval church. Elsewhere, "You feel like you've sinned when you walk into [John's Lane Church], it's so gothic!" Liz Gillis says. "But St Catherine's is like going to your granny's."

8. Start your camino

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The camino tile outside St. James's Church in Dublin. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Medieval pilgrims didn't have budget airlines to whisk them to Spain. Their caminos began when they left home, and a traditional starting point was St James's Gate, the former western entrance to Dublin. Pilgrims had their passports stamped here before setting sail for Galicia and France and, though few realise it, that tradition continues today - you can drop into the Camino Society's information centre on select Saturdays for advice, passports and a stamp. Watch out for the small blue tile featuring a yellow scallop outside St James' Church. caminosociety.com

9. Roe & Co reborn

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Taking a tour at Roe & Co in Dublin

In a district scarred by neglect and dereliction (the festering Iveagh Markets are the worst example), it's good to see a building like the old Guinness Power Station take on a new life. Roe & Co's whiskey tour (from €25pp) is a fun, immersive trip during which visitors get to mix drinks in a flavour workshop and compare smells like toffee and cloves from a sensory box opened along the way.

It may not be for purists (the main whiskey is a mellow blend, nicely suited to cocktails), but the tour takes you back to the days of the 'Golden Triangle', when Dublin distilleries ruled the whiskey world. The Power House Bar bar is a cool kicker - it's open to the public, with views from the copper stills through the power station to the Guinness campus.

Open 11-7pm daily; to 9pm on 'Power House Fridays'. roeandcowhiskey.com

9. Stall the ball

Thomas Street was once wall-to- wall with street traders. They're dwindling today, but a chat with David O'Connor reveals a vibrant business. Locals stream by his Meath Street corner, plucking from stacks of toilet rolls, washing detergent, sweets, chocolate and much, much more.

"We'd nearly sell you mortgages," David laughs. I ask about development in the Liberties; whether it's changing the area character. "D'ya know what? It's about time! We were forgotten here," he replies, before turning to correct the choice of kitchen roll a man is about to buy. "That's not the one she gets," he smiles, sparing his customer a scolding at home.

"There's nothing wrong with change," Liz muses as we walk on. "We just want to retain the past as well as embracing the future... The Liberties is a living, breathing village. It's real Dublin. It's not Temple bar. We want visitors to experience this as well as the touristy stuff."

Get there

The Liberties is a 10-15 minute walk from Dublin's city centre, or a short hop by bus. It stretches from Patrick Street in the east to St James's Hospital (west), and the Liffey to roughly Newmarket and The Coombe. libertiesdublin.ie

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The only other inner-city quarter with a similarly rich mix of heritage, hipster and dyed-in-the-wool Dublin character is Stoneybatter, a sister in spirit just across the river.

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