Beyond Guinness in Dublin, Part Two: A Bit of Irish History and a Little Something to Eat

It became clear that we'd need to add another focus: history. Not to have done so would have been like going to Philadelphia and missing the Liberty Bell.
11/24/2014 12:56 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Several weeks ago I wrote about Dublin as a great destination for lovers of literature, theater and art. And it was mainly for those pleasures that we'd initially planned our trip - with a side order of Irish cooking, of course. However, in e-mail conversations on the latter with our new friend Anne Kennedy (who runs a grand website on food and cooking, mainly Irish), it became clear that we'd need to add another focus: History. Not to have done so would have been like going to Philadelphia and missing the Liberty Bell.

Dublin was at the center of the 1916 Easter Rising, a turning point on the path to Ireland's independence from Britain. A storied event of the Rising was the occupation of the General Post Office on O'Connell Street by pro-Republic rebels and the subsequent shelling by British forces. There's a nice little museum off the Post Office's main lobby; most exhibits relate to the postal system in general - including an archive of postage stamps for lovers of small-format art - but almost inevitably touching on the Rising, with a holographic dramatization of the rebels' taking of the building. The unusual point of view is that of the civil servants who ran the post office, a logical perspective given that it was they who first came under attack.

The shelling was devastating to much of the downtown area, and the harshness with which rebel leaders and others were punished - courts-martial quickly handed down nearly a hundred death sentences, of which fifteen were confirmed by the British commander - had a considerable effect on public opinion. The executions took place at Kilmainham Gaol (jail), about two miles west of the city center and easily accessible by bus. Since we were enjoying a rain-free, almost sunny morning - not inevitable in those parts - we legged it, and as usual were glad we did. The walk, by no means at racing speed, took something more than an hour and led us past Dublin Castle, Christ Church Cathedral, the Guinness Brewery and the Liberties (a neighborhood we'd heard of from James Joyce). The lack of rain was welcome in another way, too: Unless you're lucky - luckier than we were - there's going to be a long outdoor line for the prison tours, and joining one of these (€6 / $7.50 for adults, with frequent departures) is the only way you will get to see the place, now that adopting a life of crime will deposit you in some other, more modern facility.

Once you've bought your ticket, you wait for your guide in an excellent museum devoted to the history of Kilmainham Gaol and to the theory and practice of the nineteenth-century British penal system. It is neither ghoulish nor over-sanitized, and if your tour departs before you've seen it all, please make an effort to return on your way out. Like the General Post Office, the jail is an icon of Irish independence - to many people, a shrine - so it isn't surprising that the tour focuses on this aspect rather than on all the non-political inmates who did time over the years. The (mildly) passionate narration helped us understand the centrality of the twentieth-century pro-republic leaders in the Irish national consciousness - like the Founding Fathers in the US, but a century and a half later.

As we finished our tour of the jail, in the yard where leaders of the Rising were executed by firing squad, the weather returned to normal (rainy), and we took a bus back to the center of town: to College Green, just outside the main gate of Trinity College, whose library houses the Book of Kells, a particularly fine ninth-century manuscript of the four Gospels. To see it, you can line up and buy a ticket at the entrance to the old library (there's a new library too), but the best way is first to take a half-hour tour of the college (€12 / $15 including admission to the library). These are conducted by students, and if our guide was typical, you'll be charmed while you're learning something about the history, architecture and present-day life of one of the world's great universities.

The Book of Kells itself can obviously be displayed only two facing pages at a time (the College website will tell you which ones), but before you reach it you pass through a fascinating exhibition devoted to the book's history and to the way such books were made in the Middle Ages.

From there, you walk up to the Long Library of the college, which is a beaut and would be well worth seeing on its own merits. It was built in the first couple of decades of the eighteenth century, and an upper rank of shelves and a handsome barrel-vaulted ceiling were added in the 1860s. The shelving system is a trifle eccentric - ask one of the staff to explain how a reader would find a book once it had been located it in the catalogue. Here you will also see one of the few surviving copies of the original proclamation of the Irish Republic read out in April 1916 near the General Post Office, which brings our brush with Irish history full circle.

* * *

When planning a trip, I spend (probably too much) time worrying about where we're going to eat both fancy and traditional cooking using seasonal, local ingredients. Looking at Dublin's high-end restaurants, several of them bearing Michelin stars, I was a trifle discouraged. The menus seemed a little bit behind the times in a way that is hard to define; perhaps they were excessively Gallic at a time when innovative cooks in other major cities are making their own way with fewer nods in the direction of France. So I dropped the idea of a luxurious dinner and turned back to Anne Kennedy, who, first of all, suggested that she and her husband drive us out to Howth - the fishing port where, lying among the rhododendrons, Molly got Bloom to propose to her in James Joyce's Ulysses - for a seafood meal. A generous offer not to be refused.

Howth reminded Jackie of the North Sea villages she was taken to when growing up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, to buy seafood fresh off the boat, and also to eat it in the form of fish and chips. As in those places, the commercial fishing business in Howth isn't what it used to be, but there are several restaurants that draw on the local catch for at least part of their menus.

Anne and Colm took us to The Oar House, their favorite - and judging by the crowded dining room the favorite of plenty of other Dubliners too. Since we were to be on Dublin Bay, what I really wanted was Dublin Bay prawns, known in other parts as langoustines or scampi, which are akin to slim little lobsters and are among the sweetest and tenderest members of that family. Anne had phoned ahead to make sure they had some. The restaurant generally offers deep-fried scampi tails, but these raise (possibly baseless) suspicions regarding provenance. That night, though, the menu featured whole Dublin Bay prawns in garlic butter, a whole mess of them for €12 ($15). There are London restaurants that charge ᅡᆪ5 ($8) apiece for langoustines, and they're almost unheard-of in New York, so to be presented with a plateful was a real treat. They were textbook-sweet and fresh, and I had fun noisily sucking the juices out of the heads.

Also delicious and generous were the crab cakes. East-coast Americans like me can be snooty about crab cakes, and we tend to assume that those made elsewhere will be more breadcrumbs than crab meat. The Oar House's version gave the lie to that: they were pretty much all crab and would have passed muster anywhere. For old time's sake, Jackie had fish and chips made of fresh haddock coated in a good batter.

The menu is extensive, but the Howth catch sometimes isn't, so it is worth asking the waiter what is local and freshly caught. You wouldn't want to be eating Cornish mackerel or Portuguese sardines, would you?

Back in town, we ate well at two restaurants operated by a single management: the well-known Winding Stair and its new cousin The Woollen Mills. The Winding Stair is above a book shop and has considerable charm, both in its worn but not shabby dᅢᄅcor and in its staff, all of whom were welcoming, accommodating and - very important - proud of the food they were serving. What we ate - potted crab from Dingle Bay in western Ireland; smoked haddock with cheese-enriched mashed potatoes; and plaice (a lovely fish I wish would swim in our waters) with pickled anchovies, capers and crushed peas - was full of flavor and absolutely vast in quantity. This was our first meal in Dublin, and we had no idea how generous the portions were going to be. Many people will be glad to hear it, but we were overwhelmed and could easily have shared a single main course (or omitted the potted crab, which would have been a shame). This was solid cooking by people who understand what tastes good: The Winding Stair deserves its reputation.

The nearby Woollen Mills is open blessedly late, and we had after-theater supper there twice. In fact, a member of the Abbey Theatre staff told us that since it opened last summer it has become a regular haunt of theirs. The menu, like that of The Winding Stair, makes good use of Irish produce and also includes a number of the home-style dishes we were eager to try. Coddle, for instance - in this case, Ha'penny Bridge Coddle, named after the nearby footbridge across the Liffey. It's a rich soup/stew full of potatoes, sausages, bacon and onions (and thyme, which the waitress confessed was not the way her grandma used to make it). A bowl of this will set you (and perhaps a friend) up for the winter ahead. We also had crisp ox tongue fritters and (on a completely different note) a plate of good hummus-like puree made with Jerusalem artichokes. I couldn't not order a platter of Connemara ham, an air-cured ham from (once again) western Ireland. This was unlike hams from the European continent (prosciutto and so forth); it was dryer and had more chew. Dressed with cold-pressed rapeseed oil (in vogue in the UK and Ireland among cooks who don't want to use imported olive oils), it was interesting and full of flavor. As a sharing plate, it would make a good pre-starter for three or four people.

I particularly liked the breadth of The Woollen Mills's menu - it is a big restaurant, with seating upstairs and down, plus an outdoor terrace for the balmy weather, so a lengthy menu is feasible.

There is also a slightly spurious James Joyce connection: There's talk of his having been employed here when it was a fabric shop; evidently he did indeed work for the company that ran it, but at a different location. So, in the end, the initial literary focus of our trip made its way into our eating too, which was kind of nice, wasn't it?

The Oar House. 8 West Pier, Howth, Co Dublin; +353 (0)1 839 4562; If Anne and Colm hadn't treated us (thank you!) we'd have paid around €90 ($110) for a three-course dinner with a modest wine.

The Winding Stair. 40 Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin 1; + 353 (0)1 872 7320;; Our dinner for two, with nice wine, cost about €100 ($125).

The Woollen Mills. 137 Capel Street (Lower Ormond Quay), Dublin 1; +353 (0)1 828 0835;; Our meals, though copious, were of the grazing kind and cost about €50 / $62 for two with half a liter of wine; a fuller meal for two would cost €85 ($105).

  • The library of Trinity College Dublin
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
  • Kilmainham Gaol: The intimidating entrance
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
  • Kilmainham Gaol: The main cell block
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
  • Grilled Dublin Bay prawns at The Oar House, Howth
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
  • Plaice with pickled anchovies and capers at The Winding Stair
  • Downstairs at The Woollen Mills restaurant
    Photograph courtesy of The Woollen Mills.
    Photograph courtesy of The Woollen Mills.