10/03/2014 04:42 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2014

Beyond Guinness in Dublin, Part One: The Arts

As my wife and I planned a trip to Dublin this past summer, gloomy words from a friend hung in the air: "Dublin? One day at most." It is hard to imagine any city worthy of the name that doesn't merit far more than a day trip, so we weren't really too worried. Still, some travelers evidently feel that way about the capital and focus their Irish trips more on castles and countryside. That was certainly true of American and Australian tourists we met during our five days in the city; after driving the length and breadth of the island, they were in town for a look at the Book of Kels and a few pints of Guinness (both laudable activities - in which we certainly engaged) before heading to the airport.

Their loss: We arranged most of our time in Dublin with the arts and history in mind, and in those areas the place shines, as it does in urban beauty, walkability and general pleasantness - thanks in no small part to its populace, who live up to their reputation for easy friendliness. Here are some art and literature highlights of our stay, all to be recommended to any visitor. (History and food will follow in another story.)

The city's walkability and its literary heritage come together in the tours offered by the James Joyce Centre, housed in a handsome 18th-century building down the street from Belvedere College, where Joyce went to school at eleven years of age. We joined two of these guided walks, one in the morning and another the same afternoon. The first was a circular tour of places associated with Joyce and his writings in general; it ended back at the Centre, so we had coffee and cake at the friendly Cobalt Cafe & Gallery across the way, then returned for the Footsteps of Leopold Bloom tour, which follows Bloom's activities on June 16, 1904, as traced in Ulysses (tours cost €10 - about $13 - each and need not be booked in advance). Both were led by experts whose enthusiasm for Joyce and, just as important, for Dublin was backed up by profound knowledge and a talent for vivid reading. In Ulysses, Bloom's day-long odyssey seems marathonic in the distance it covers, but it turns out that the route, or a lot of it, is easily traversed in a couple of hours, including frequent stops for readings and little history lessons. I soon felt the benefit of these tours: When I read the short-story collection Dubliners on the flight home, nearly every street mentioned was one we'd walked, and the stories became that much more vibrant.

The Bloom tour ends at the gate of the National Library of Ireland, whose airy reading room figures in Ulysses and may be viewed by any visitor. A peek at this handsome domed space is worth the few minutes it takes, but the library has more to offer by way of a nice café (with local beers other than Guinness) and an exemplary and beautifully assembled long-term exhibition, The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats (free admission). It illuminates the poet and dramatist's career through books, manuscripts, printed ephemera and artifacts, as well as interesting audio-visual presentations. It will impel you to read some Yeats and perhaps to seek out performances of his plays.

None of these were to be seen in Dublin while we were there, but we got to a couple of plays by other Irishmen, one of them at the playhouse I first think of when Irish theater is mentioned: The Abbey Theatre, founded in 1904 by Yeats and the literary figure Augusta Gregory. There we saw George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House in a traditional yet imaginative production played by a uniformly fine cast. This is an odd play; I'd read it as a teenager but had never seen it, for it is rarely produced. While the first half sparkles - it is impossible not to discern Shaw's debt to his countryman Oscar Wilde - it goes heavily off the rails in its latter scenes, with sermonizing monologues and implausible turns of plot, and the actors and director were hard pressed to keep it moving forward convincingly. The other day I delved into the online archive of The New York Times and was interested to see that the critic Alexander Woollcott viewed the first production, in 1920 in New York, in a similar way. But what a treat to see such a good performance of even a flawed work in this historic theater (renovated, of course, and as comfortable as they come).

Our other evening of theater could hardly have been more different: We saw Tracer, a brand-new corporate-conspiracy thriller by the young playwright Stewart Roche. This too was an imperfectly constructed piece - and its language certainly didn't glitter as Shaw's does - but in this production, featuring engaging actors, it kept us entertained as the evil plot was untangled. It was performed at the 65-seat New Theatre in the bustling Temple Bar district. The theater is located behind an old-fashioned far-left bookshop of the kind you rarely see nowadays (you can buy a copy of The Communist Manifesto in the Irish language if you wish); the company mainly offers new plays featuring young performers and directors, and theater-goers will want to check its website before a visit to Dublin.

Speaking of playwrights, in 1944 Shaw sent a note to a former director of the National Gallery of Ireland to say that he intended to leave a bequest to that art museum, "to which," he wrote, "I owe much of the only real education I ever got as a boy in Eire." The institution continues to benefit from royalties on Shaw's works, which will dry up in 2020 when these slip into the public domain.

Not for the first time in its 150-year life, the Gallery (free admission) is in the throes of renovation, and only well chosen highlights are on display. Enough of the international collection - including wonderful works from Fra Angelico to Picasso - is shown that you will spend all afternoon looking at it if you're not careful. I recommend starting, while you're full of energy, with Galleries 1 to 5 on Level One, where Irish paintings, mainly of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, are hung. These you will not readily see elsewhere, at least not all assembled in one place. Okay, some of this art has a provincial tinge to it, but it is worthy enough and provides a look into urban and rural Irish life that should be part of any visitor's itinerary.

Across the River Liffey is the Hugh Lane Gallery, operated by the city of Dublin (free admission) in an elegant, peaceful, limestone-faced town house - a mansion, really - built in 1765. There is much to love about the collection, mainly of modern and contemporary art by Irish and international artists, but two things above all will stay in my memory. The first is the chaotic London studio of the painter Francis Bacon, donated to the gallery after his death and moved to Dublin, Champagne bottle by spent Champagne bottle. I'd seen photographs of this artist's monumental mess, but they never quite conveyed what a jumble of accumulated rubbish he felt comfortable working in. For art historians, the material is perhaps illuminating; for the rest of us, it's kind of nice to find someone who was even untidier than we are.

The other ineradicable memory will be of the gallery housing abstract works donated by Dublin-born Sean Scully. This is not so much because of Mr. Scully's paintings as because of the unstoppable monologue delivered in a ripe Dublin accent by a charming museum guard who is best described as a character. We learned his views on contemporary art - and contemporary artists - and we heard about his brief sojourn in the hospital after mistaking a basket of flower bulbs for onions and eating them for dinner.

This was the sort of near-poetical flow of blarney that we'd hoped to encounter in Ireland. We'd run into it before on a smaller scale, out of the mouths of folk like taxi drivers and waiters, but the museum guard had neither traffic lights to watch out for nor food to deliver, so he had the scope he needed to construct a finely crafted narrative.

Nothing could have been a more perfect Irish experience. Not even a pint of Guinness.

Beyond Guinness in Dublin, Part One: The Arts