Momma, I’m so sorry, I’m not sober anymore/And daddy, please forgive me for the drinks spilled on the floor,” croons a heart-on-the-sleeve voice from a knot of people at the city centre. Strains of the Demi Lovato number, where the American artiste appears to convey her relapse into substance abuse, is spinning its magic on a restless city winding down for the day.
I am bang in the middle of Dublin’s O’Connell Street, with a front-row view of the city’s skyline that mimics a beautifully edited time-lapse video. I am also trying hard to track down the Lovato tune, which has me zipping past the General Post Office, its façade pockmarked with bullet holes from the Easter Rising of 1916. Easter Rising marks a crucial day in Ireland’s history, when more than 1,500 men and women took on the British army in a military campaign.
O’Connell Street is also next to Grafton Street, a busker’s paradise, where sound-hounds get their fix of music. It is at one corner of this live-music venue that I discover teenage busker Allie Sherlock crooning the Lovato track, while laying her guitar case open for tips and applause from the shopping crowd. I find out that her golden voice had crossed the Atlantic and landed right on The Ellen Degeneres Show earlier, earning her millions of fans in the US and across the globe.
Dublin invites a certain kind of traveller. If you are chasing serendipity and are willing to go beyond the clichés, selfies and checklists, it is a city after your heart. It also opens up to people who are not looking to conquer the touristic canon but are just content to greet locals with, “What’s the story?” (In Dublinspeak that translates into “What’s up, mate?”).
Obviously, if you are a bookworm, history nerd, pub-crawler, writer or even a music junkie, you will have already heard of Dublin. “Good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub,” goes one famous line in James Joyce’s classic novel Ulysses.
Located in the eastern part of Ireland, the capital is one of those rare global metropolises boasting of a strong personality and free-thinking spirit. When I washed up on its shores last evening, traversing a large swathe of the globe, the dramatic shift in the city layout disoriented me. With more than 20 bridges connecting the banks of River Liffey, Dublin’s gurgling landmark, there’s a real chance of outsiders getting lost in their individual stories. But the bridges are a portal to historical Dublin, when taxes were levied to cross these quaint conduits, with some of them staving off incursions of modernity even to this day.
The Ha’penny Bridge at Temple Bar, for instance, started off as a connecting throughfare in 1816 between two banks of the Liffey. The arch bridge could be crossed if a toll of half a penny was paid to ferry owner and city alderman, William Walsh, who had a lease on it for a century.
Present-day Dublin radiates out in both directions from the river’s banks, dividing the city into the North and South sides. Posters of multi-coloured dolls screaming, “We’re all made of the same stuff, say no to racism” are plastered on walls and glass doors. Although vestiges of Dublin’s aristocratic past live on in its townhouses and squares, the capital’s history and national identity also need to be viewed through the lens of conflict. Some of the most pitched battles between Irish rebels and the British empire were waged in 1916, with Dublin as a backdrop. Later, a string of guerrilla wars, collectively chalked up in history as the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), culminated in the Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed in December 1921. When violence convulses a region, it hardly beats a hasty retreat. The treaty, which had led to the formation of the Irish Free State, a self-governing British dominion, did not bring an end to escalating hostilities among the Irish population. If anything, it led to the Irish Civil War of 1922-23.
Conflict, though, does not define Ireland today. It is one of the top performers among the European Union economies, buoyed by high consumer spending and hefty investments in the construction sector. Nowhere is it more visible than at the main shopping drags of Grafton Street and the Creative Quarter. The next morning, I lose my sense of time seduced by stores and provocative street art, before recalling how the Irish capital is the city of the written word. Four literature Nobel winners, including George Bernard Shaw, WB Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney, were Dublin natives. This figure, when placed against the nation’s 4.8 million population, is a telling comment on the city’s literary culture.
I head over to the Chester Beatty Library (more correctly a museum), next to Dublin Castle. I am ushered into alcoves flush with American mining magnate Alfred Chester Beatty’s prints, books and miniature paintings from places as far-flung as Asia and North Africa. I see history spilling out from the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri — 12 Greek manuscripts of Christian Old and New Testament texts. These second century documents, discovered in Egypt, were acquired by Beatty in the 1930s and his compendium of historical artefacts was donated to Ireland in 1950.
Dublin may be called a bookworm but never a nerd. It’s a feeling I get when I pop into Trinity College in the city centre, surrounded by an electric crackle of cafés and youngsters on skateboards. Scraps of Spanish, German, Portuguese and Russian could be heard drifting over the 16th century campus. But also sweeping in is an army of travellers eager to check out an institution that had on its attendance rolls a galaxy of authors, philosophers and playwrights, including Jonathan Swift, Beckett, Edmund Burke and Oscar Wilde.
When the Liffey turns a shade of ink, I trudge back to my hotel, after capping off the day with a frothy pint of Guinness. Inevitably, the soundtrack of my journey is fingers plucking guitar strings. I am certain buskers have lined up along the musical alleys of Dublin, helping travellers and residents slough off their day with a tune or two. I know they are exhorting the new-age discoverer to go off stodgy itineraries. And, perhaps, look them in the eye and ask: “What’s the story?”
Susmita Saha is an independent Delhi-based journalist.
The article appeared in the print edition with the headline: Chasing Serendipity