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March 30, 2010

Dublin Survives Affluence

Dublin is booming. Can it become affluent without becoming like everyplace else?

FULL, FULL, FULL, says the digital parking garage sign outside Kilkenny Shop on Nassau Street. VACANCIES, VACANCIES, shouts a board by Reed's Employment Services round the corner on Dawson Street: "Finance or Business Graduates Wanted Now." On the opposite side, just up the road from the 1710 Mansion House, a huge poster announces an exhibition: THE EURO EXPLAINED. But there are few takers among the crowds. "Oh, will you just look at this traffic now," says a man waiting by St. Ann's Church as he tries to get across for a read of his paper beneath the huge dulled chandeliers of the Art Nouveau Café en Seine: SUICIDES UP 14 PERCENT LAST YEAR; AER LINGUS MAY UNDERGO FLOTATION. And "You would never, never believe it," says a woman to her friend as she waits for the hemorrhage of traffic to be staunched by the lights near the bullet-pocked columns of the Royal College of Surgeons. "A one-bedroom place out in Dalkey on offer for over two hundred thousand punt [$255,000]!

"What's the world coming to?" she adds contentedly as they bustle across and then turn northward to riffle through the titles at Hodges Figgis' Irish bookshop, among them: Arguing at the Crossroads; Inside the Celtic Tiger; The Ex-Isle of Erin.

"This place is truly throbbing," says columnist and broadcaster David Hanly, sitting over a pint of Guinness in a back snug at Doheny & Nesbitt's on Lower Baggot Street. "It's hard to get it in focus, it's moving so fast. Fifty years ago, when Seán O'Faoláin wrote The Irish, it was a totally static society. Now, well . . . when a Dublin publisher asked me to write an update of O'Faoláin's book, I finally had to decline. For fifty years on," he says, spreading his hands in resignation, "it's like trying to nail down quicksilver."

For foreigners, as well as for émigré Irish, going to Dublin used to mean going back: back to an ethos and an era in which there was a sense of community, when people had time for each other, and the land and the city, if poor, seemed continuous, sitting snugly together. "When I first moved to Dublin from England thirty years ago," says Patrick Mason, until recently artistic director of Dublin's celebrated Abbey Theatre, "the whole place was like one gigantic neighborhood. It was easy crossing boundaries of class and occupation." That informality and ease of movement still exist, insists Hanly: "You can walk into a pub and talk to anyone and still find originality of thought and expression and an interest beyond the local. I think it remains the best place on earth to live," he goes on. "You can be surprised here as you can't, say, in Schenectady."

But something has happened in Dublin in the past 10 years: It's become rich. With the help of grants from the European Union, it's now the capital of the fastest-growing economy in Europe. And in the process it has had to jettison many of the principles on which the nation-state of Ireland was based, the myths that used to sustain it. Yet the odd thing is—you can't help thinking as you join the parties in Dublin's pubs—that it seems to have achieved this without any of the prickly defensiveness of the French or the gloomy soul-searching of the English. By becoming like other Europeans ("citizens of an economy, rather than a nation," as Hanly wryly puts it), Dubliners seem to have become even more like their traditional selves (open, free and easy, self-assured, given to celebration) rather than less so.

What lies at the root of this virtually seamless progression from almost Third World poverty to highly visible wealth one can only speculate. The ride in from Dublin's airport has changed little in the past 10 years. For all the sea and mountains that engird them, the outskirts still resemble a 1950s English suburb. O'Connell Street, when you get to it, has no old tramcars to ease the eye. It's now merely a vision of fast-food joints and amusement arcades, little improved by the fountain with which Dublin celebrated, in 1988, the millennium of its founding by Viking invaders. Formally christened the Anna Livia Millennium Fountain, it is known locally as the Floozie in the Jacuzzi. (Dubliners tend to rechristen everything they can: The statue of Molly Malone on Grafton Street is known as the Tart with the Cart.) Nor is the city, it has to be said, much improved by some lingering sense Dubliners have that they don't own their own place. There's still spitting in the streets and plenty of litter. But clearly, and you sense this at once, the psychogeography of the city, the way it perceives itself, has changed profoundly. And if I had to put a date on the moment the past almost imperceptibly became the future here, I think as I check into The Merrion hotel (opposite the elegantly domed neo-Georgian Government Buildings on Upper Merrion Street), then I'd have to plump for 1996.

Before that, of course—like the graffiti on the huge monument to Wolfe Tone on St. Stephen's Green—there were various writings on the wall. their showing in the World Soccer Championships in 1990, for example; and the following year, the dubbing of Dublin as "European City of Culture," which spurred the redevelopment of the old mercantile area round Temple Bar on the Liffey. Then there was Riverdance, that extraordinary marriage of traditional liturgical dancing to Broadway pizzazz, which has broadcast its message about the resilience of postmodern Ireland around the world. There was the rock phenomenon U2, two of whose members, Bono and The Edge, own The Clarence Hotel and a club, The Kitchen, both in Temple Bar; and there was—above all, perhaps—the inspirational figure of President Mary Robinson who became—and not only to the intellectuals and beau monde of the city (known collectively as Dublin 4 for the postal code of the neighborhood they favor)—a kind of secular saint. (She is now enshrined in the National Wax Museum on Parnell Square.)

But it was in 1996 that whatever was going on here in Dublin reached a critical mass. For in that year not only did the Irish people vote for an amendment to their constitution to permit divorce (thus, in effect, secularizing the Irish state for the first time), but they also saw themselves overtaking a definitive old enemy in the prosperity stakes. Suddenly they possessed more wealth per head than the British. In Dublin in 1996, according to the journalist and writer Fintan O'Toole, a dozen houses changed hands for more than a million punt (almost $1.3 million); and around 250 executives in the city's Financial Services Centre alone earned some 250,000 punt ($318,000) per annum. In that year, too, over the whole of Ireland, a population of only 3.6 million splashed out more than 20 billion punt ($25.4 billion) on goods and services; and 115,000 new cars were registered. It was no wonder then that in December, after what had seemed like decades of poverty, Newsweek announced the birth of the "Emerald Tiger." ("No need to search the Far East. The best answers to Europe's economic problems are much closer to home. Ireland is booming.")

The first thing you notice about Dublin's center is how small it is, both in height and breadth—you can walk across it in less than an hour. (On foot is easily the best way to travel, since there's no subway, and buses share the fate of the rest of the road traffic: They crawl.) The second thing you notice is how young and purposeful Dubliners seem these days. The city no longer has the air of an extended village. Time has shrunk; clocks are watched; mobile phones are everywhere.

And yet as soon as you get off the street, you could be back again in the old Dublin, which they used to say had marvelous acoustics: If you whispered something at one end of the city, you'd soon be heard at the other. The politicians, the journalists who write about them, and the lawyers who serve them still rub shoulders in the late afternoon at the Horseshoe Bar in the Shelbourne Hotel Dublin. The actors and theater crowd still hang out at Neary's. It's still amazingly informal—the man standing next to you in the crush at the Horseshoe Bar or Doheny & Nesbitt's may be a judge or a writer or the Prime Minister. (One evening I have dinner with an Irish Times journalist; the next night I rediscover him as an expert critic on the late show. Conversely, one night I see on television an interview with Marion O'Dwyer, the co-star of Anjelica Huston's new movie; the next night I sit next to her to watch a revival of a Brian Friel play, at the theater in the Abbey's basement.)

The conversations you fall into in places like these are no longer about the problems of being Irish, but about the problems brought by prosperity. The phrase the Celtic Tiger is inevitably introduced, usually dusted down with irony. And then we're off into the problems of the traffic outside and the terrifyingly high cost of housing; into the crime-riddled housing estates to the north and west of the city, which the new wealth hasn't touched; into the high rates of suicide (particularly in young men); into drug-peddling; into new black immigration; into Irish racism.

"There are problems, definitely," says Deirdre McQuillan, a columnist and editor at The Sunday Tribune and the author of a recent book, Dublin Style. "There's a drug problem; there are environmental problems; and there's a rage at all the wealth being created among those who haven't benefited. There are pressures everywhere—enormous pressure on farmers round the city, for example, to sell their land for new housing. But you know, prosperity is something we've not been used to here—everything that's happened has happened in just ten years. And on the whole there's every reason to be extremely optimistic. We now have nearly full employment in this country. We have a hugely successful financial-services sector; we have computer industries; chemicals, electronics. The population is young [40.7 percent of Dubliners are under 25], well-educated, and highly literate, which is why international corporations chose to come here.

"The other thing," she says, looking round at the ground-floor bar at The Merrion, whose furniture is covered in a wonderful range of fabrics by Galway-based weaver Alice Roden, "is that the new money being made and spent is having a really important side effect. People are returning to Dublin or not going away. So the place is now bristling with talent—in the colleges of art, in furniture design, in painting, in fashion and jewelry. Before, we used to look for these things across the water. Now we can find them right here."

Sculptor Rowan Gillespie agrees. "There's a positive situation right now in Ireland," he says, standing in his forge in Blackrock. "There's a young population, lots of talent, and some very good people emerging. Now the galleries that managed to hang on during the lean years are doing extremely well." Gillespie, who trained in Norway and England (one of his mentors was Henry Moore), used to sell most of his work in Norway. (He's presently finishing a statue of James Joyce at the heart of a whirlpool of quotations from his books, for a Jesuit university in Colorado.) In the last few years, though, he's had a growing number of private and public commissions in Dublin. One of his pieces, Famine (figures rough-cast in bronze of dejected emigrants making their way into exile), stands on a Liffey quayside outside the new Financial Services Centre. But he remains distantly astonished at the city's new appetite for art. "I go to exhibitions," he says, "and find that half the people exhibiting, and doing good work, I've never heard of. There are so many of them that most galleries turn around their shows in three weeks. And they sell—the number of sales these days at the Irish Academy shows, for example, are unheard of. My daughter, who is studying at the Glasgow School of Art, takes it for granted—as I never could—that she'll have a successful career."

"Young people in Dublin are interested in entertaining at home—and therefore having pieces for their walls," says Ib Jorgensen, a Dane who's lived in Ireland for almost 50 years. Operating from a beautiful townhouse on Molesworth Street, Jorgensen, who used to be a fashion designer, specializes in 19th- and 20th-century paintings. (He also represents eight living painters.) And he says that the competition for Dubliners' wall space is now fierce. "There's the Kerlin Gallery, on Anne's Lane," he says: "very modern and upmarket; the Solomon Gallery and the John Taylor Gallery, which show some of the best living artists. There are also two auction houses, Adams and John de Vere White; and all sorts of new places opening up all the time, the demand is so big. The prices are going up at a frightening rate, but," he says, shrugging his shoulders as he eyes the paintings crowding his walls, "you have to go along with it if you want to stay in business."

This resigned, faintly threnodic note in Jorgensen's voice when he speaks about the escalating prices is something I begin to notice more and more in Dublin the longer I stay. Rowan Gillespie, for example, talks one minute about the positiveness of life and the next minute about the erosion of "the old Catholic ethos—being good to families, caring about families—which was so much a part of the old city." David Hanly, over his Guinness, keeps coming back to the high suicide rate: "What on earth is happening here?" Patrick Mason at the Abbey Theatre speaks of "a self-consciousness these days to all the partying"—even the beginnings of what he refers to as "a sort of corporate neurosis."

Ten years ago the Dublin family was still bound together by relative poverty and lack of opportunity—the only way up was out. But one by-product of prosperity is that the "we're all in this together" coziness of the place, which made it so attractive to visitors, is beginning to break down. In the process, the river Liffey has become more of a socioeconomic divide than ever.

South of it, the home of Dublin's tofu-eating, internationally minded "chattering classes," is where most of the new money has become sleekly apparent. It's also where the old money resided, as you can see by the buildings. In the Palladianism of Henrietta Street and the Bank of Ireland, and in the cluster of Georgian houses around Merrion and Fitzwilliam squares and St. Stephen's Green, this Dublin neighborhood has some of Europe's most satisfying urban buildings and spaces.

North of the Liffey, the home of the "knackers" (working-class Northsiders), has become a frontier area in which glitzy new theme bars like Zanzibar and Pravda, catering to Dublin's young, sit in an urban landscape otherwise marked by decrepitude and neglect. It is the most recent incarnation of the area's traditional role as home to Dublin's working class (but also most of its old literary lions).

It's this divide which makes my visit to Dublin's Francis Street, just south of the Liffey, so oddly poignant. Francis Street is in the Coombe, one of the oldest parts of the city, and is the headquarters of Dublin's antiques business. Right now it's doing extremely well. But it's on Francis Street that one becomes most aware that for every buyer in Dublin, there's a seller—for every winner, a loser. Chantal O' Sullivan, one of the youngest and most respected dealers on the street, puts this succinctly. "The younger generations are now buying larger apartments and houses, they're making so much money. And the big old houses are selling off their contents, so it's a healthy cycle. People are also aware that antiques are a good investment; they're a hedge against a possible recession."

"O'Sullivan, who has an outlet in New York's East Village as well as in Kenmare in County Kerry, is one of Dublin's great success stories. She has a reputation for quality; she also deals in big pieces, 18th-century tables at $153,000. And she offers some compensation for profiting from what I'm beginning to see as a seismic shift in the city's psyche. She recently found, she says, "eighteen chairs in America, Irish Chippendale, the best of Irish pieces. Now," she adds with satisfaction, "they'll come home."

The great Dublin writer Flann O'Brien, who may well have worked in the 18th-century buildings that are today The Merrion Hotel, was once asked if he thought Ireland was a capitalist country. "Aye," he grunted, "Roman capitalist." Well, Ireland isn't very Roman anymore—the sex scandals in the Irish Church in the mid-nineties helped put paid to that. But it is certainly capitalist—it may, in fact, be one of the few countries in the world to have landed successfully in the postindustrial age without the inconvenience of passing through an industrial era. And that raises a question for Ireland in general, and for Dublin in particular: Is it possible for this city—having traversed such a gap—to avoid becoming blandly international, just another production and consumption line on the map of a homogenized global economy? Can Dublin somehow manage to spread its new wealth but retain a vibrant culture ultimately rooted in poverty?

At one level, I have to say, the signs are not good. The bulk of the new and relaunched hotels in Dublin, like The Fitzwilliam Hotel, are international designer chic. They could be anywhere. The bars and clubs set up for the affluent young north of the Liffey might as well be in Amsterdam or Hamburg. And as for the packed restaurants, far too many now offer Californian, Pacific Rim, or "fusion" cuisine. (A recent offering from Conrad Gallagher, a Dublin entrepreneur in his twenties who already owns six restaurants, is the Michelin one-star Peacock Alley in The Fitzwilliam Hotel—and it's every bit as un-Irish and rootlessly cross-cultural as its unfortunate name.) My best meal in Dublin, apart from the one I eat in the incomparable Patrick Guilbaud in The Merrion, is a lunch at Cavistons, a modest place near the Martello Tower made famous in Joyce's Ulysses. The perfectly fresh Irish fish was cooked both simply and, well, perfectly.

At a deeper level, though, the omens are much, much better. For the culture of Ireland is well capable in the new climate of being bent into new shapes. This was what Riverdance illustrated: that the traditional could be given authentic new expression as long as its roots (in Riverdance's case, emigration and a kind of desperate joy) were respected. "The old high art/low art distinction has been exploded in contemporary culture," comments Fintan O'Toole, and you're free "to pick up the shattered pieces and glue them together in any combination you like." The storytellers of old Dublin are now telling their stories both in novels and on film Paddywood, as they call it, is thriving. The theaters have conscripted a new generation of wild poets; and the musics of the city—however various—are still fed at bottom by the sort of laments, jigs, and sean-nos (old-style) solo singing you hear all day long in pubs like Oliver St. John Gogarty's in Temple Bar.

Mining the old to create the new, of course, requires not only respect for the past but taste—an unerring ability to tune together the traditional and the contemporary into some new and perfect pitch. And it's this combination that marks in different ways the best of what Dublin now has to offer. It's in owner Tom Mangan's fine restoration and enlargement of Doheny & Nesbitt's, for example. It's in Jacinta Fahy's hats; in Lainey Keogh and Brid Nihill's knitwear at Havana (in Dublin 4); in the exquisite Irish jewelry at the Designyard on East Essex Street; and in Pat McCarthy's contemporary tweeds and linens at An Táin in Temple Bar. It's clearly on view in the cooking of Patrick Guilbaud, who relentlessly searches out the best seasonal foodstuffs from all over Ireland and then plays extraordinary descants upon them; and it is paramount in the hotel that houses his Michelin-two-star restaurant.

The 145-room Merrion, which opened two and a half years ago, was created out of four elegant Georgian townhouses, one of which was originally built for the father of the first duke of Wellington. Brilliantly restored, it has high-ceilinged and beautifully proportioned public rooms, immaculate and comfortable bedrooms, and one of the finest collections of contemporary art in the country. Like all great hotels, it's efficiently run, but none of the operating machinery is visible. Rather, the entire enterprise is suffused with a radiant Irish charm. It's not at all surprising that The Merrion's drawing rooms and bars have become the home from home not only of Ireland's old money but also of the internationally minded young professionals of Dublin 4. For in its furnishings and atmosphere The Merrion is a seamless extension into modernity of 18th-century elegance and 19th-century country-house life. Serenely self-confident, this hotel epitomizes a quintessentially new-Dublin-style marriage between tradition and high-tech.

It's also just around the corner from one of my favorite places in Dublin—the gallery-cum-shop of Louise Kennedy, a young fashion designer and entrepreneur. More than any other single person, she represents for me the best of the new, outward- rather than inward-looking city. When I see her, she's just come back from Milan and is two months away from opening a shop in London. In fact, Kennedy is anything but parochial Irish. Her linens may come from Ireland, but her hand-combed cashmere is from Scotland; her embroidery, from Austria and Switzerland. And she acts as the only outlet in Ireland for the London-based designers David Linley, Stephen Woodham, and Philip Treacy. She's like a postmodern magpie with an exquisite eye.

And yet there is something ineffably Irish about Kennedy's confidence, the certainty of taste that binds together everything she touches. Her own designs—woven coats, shearlings, beaded cashmere scarves with dévoré detailing—are exquisitely cut and beautifully detailed; and everything else in her Georgian townhouse headquarters is simply the best she can find. If you want to go somewhere in Dublin where the past and future have met entirely happily, then go to 56 Merrion Square South.