Travel standing still: Seeing Dublin with different eyes

Dublin, westward along the Liffey, from Seán O'Casey Bridge
Dublin, westward along the Liffey, from Seán O’Casey Bridge

I didn’t think I’d be here. A few months ago, sitting on the balcony of my ninth-storey flat, looking out over Brighton, past the flamboyant Pavilion to the open sea, I would never have guessed that I’d so soon be living back in Dublin, where I’ve spent almost all of my life.

I love Brighton. It is a vibrant, lively, interesting city – small enough to have a real sense of community, but not so small that you feel enclosed. Not that you could feel enclosed in a city whose thriving heart opens right out onto the seafront. I lived there just long enough for it to become familiar, but without yet having lost that sense of novelty.

I could feel bitter and disappointed. I could sit around moping about being stuck here when I’d rather be there. But if I did, it would undermine the positives gained from the reason why I stayed here in the first place. One of the great things that I’ve developed over the past three months of counselling is a sense of acceptance of where I am right now, instead of regret or longing for where I could be. For now, and for what it’s worth, I’m in Dublin.

Because I have spent virtually all my life in this town, I have a tendency to take it for granted – which means I don’t really know it as well as I assume I do. What that suggests is that, with the right approach, there is a potential for adventure and exploration, for getting to know all those aspects I tend to overlook, for seeing Dublin with different eyes.

Wherever you are from, you surely know that feeling when you suddenly see your all-too-well-known hometown with the eyes of someone who has never seen it before. I find it often happens in springtime, when there may be a subtle change in the quality of the light. Just for a moment, the scales of familiarity fall from my eyes and I see what everything looks like to a tourist, to someone who is excited to be there, someone who is taking in all the details that I walk by without notice. Those are the moments when I really love my city, when I feel for it something of what I felt in Brighton, or in any of the other cities and countries I’ve travelled to over the years. While I’m here, I want to cultivate that experience – to find in the lifelong familiarity of Dublin something of the enjoyment and excitement of the traveller.

SlowDublinSlow Dublin

I stumbled across a book in Eason’s recently that captured exactly what I was looking for to help me reconnect with my city. Slow Dublin is a guidebook aimed squarely at Dubliners, not at tourists. It takes for granted that the reader is relatively familiar with the practicalities and the layout and the background that would take up a good portion of the average guide book. This is instead a book about experiencing Dublin – and with the tagline Live more, fret less, it seems particularly suited to the way I need to experience it. “Difficult times,” the introduction reads, “do tend to make life simpler and priorities clearer.”

Written by someone with the fittingly Dub name of Anto Howard, the idea of the book is to encourage the reader to slow down, to delve deeper into Dublin, to pay attention to overly familiar surroundings, and to appreciate them a bit more fully. It offers suggestions for ways and places to make use of all the senses to experience the city – the public art and overlooked architecture, the sounds of music and markets, the mingling aromas of hops and barley from the Guinness brewery, the feel of old granite and the worn wood of pub counters and cathedral pews – and the best pubs for a pint and a cheese toastie.

The book might concentrate on the particular detail of Dublin, but it is a concept that should be readily adaptable by anyone to any place. (Incidentally, it seems there are also Slow Guides to Sydney, Melbourne and London. The series is published by a Melbourne-based Dubliner, Martin Hughes, which explains why Slow Dublin was next on the list.)

The slow approach to Dublin is developed by first considering its gradual evolution – from the ancient landscape before the Viking settlement, through posh Georgian and socially polarised Victorian Dublin, to the modern post-Celtic Tiger city, self-consciously wearing the unfinished squanderings of its short-lived wealth on its grubby old sleeve.

The book then situates Dublin in nature – its surrounding sea and mountains, its urban wildlife, its parks and secret gardens, its rivers and canals – and it looks at how the city faces the changing of the seasons. Of Dublin in springtime (which finally arrived last week, but seems to have departed again), Howard writes: “We’re restless by the time spring comes, increasingly exasperated by so many false dawns. And then one day, we’ll be strolling through St Stephen’s Green, and a sudden arresting explosion of white, yellow and lilac crocuses around the statue of solemn Lord Ardilaun heralds once again the beginning of Dublin’s natural cycle.”

Róisín Dubh
Spring in Dublin: Róisín Dubh & the magnolias

In Stephen’s Green myself the other day, I had this very experience – though for me it was the magnolia trees around the bust of James Clarence Mangan, the soft cream-white flowers framing the delicate sculpture of Róisín Dubh on the pedestal. The sun had come out for what felt like the first time in an age, and people – tourists and Dubliners alike – seemed to be coming out of hibernation. It was still just as cold as the miserable murky March just ended, but now the Green – and the city – looked and felt different and new.

Several years ago, near the end of a leisurely ramble through more than a dozen European cities, a travelling companion said to me: “The journey in no way stops when you get home. You can travel standing still.” It’s a good thing to remember, and the more I go out and explore my hometown, the more I’m finding it to be a pretty wonderful old place to be stuck in.

Slow Dublin by Anto Howard (Affirm Press/Hardie Grant Books) is €14.95 from Eason’s and I’m sure is available in other bookshops too.
http://www.affirmpress.com.au/slow-guides

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2 thoughts on “Travel standing still: Seeing Dublin with different eyes

  1. An exercise I’ve started doing lately is walking along familiar streets and simply looking up to see what buildings are like above the first floor. There’s some great architecture above eye level and I enjoy scanning the length of a street above the mostly unappealing shopfronts at ground level.

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