Dublin's skyline is a clue to its age, with visible peaks of its architectural history dating back to the Middle Ages. Of course, Dublin is older still, but there are no traces left of its Viking origins and you'll have to begin your architectural exploration in the 12th century, with the construction of the city's castle and two cathedrals. Its finest buildings, however, date from much later – built during the golden century that came to be known as the Georgian period.
Viking Dublin was largely built of not-so-durable wood, of which there's virtually no trace left. The Norman footprint is a little deeper, but even its most impressive structures have been heavily reconstructed. The imposing Dublin Castle – or the complex of buildings that are known as Dublin Castle – bears little resemblance to the fortress that was erected by the Anglo-Normans at the beginning of the 13th century and more to the neoclassical style of the 17th century. However, there are some fascinating glimpses of the lower reaches of the original, which you can visit on a tour.
Although the 12th-century cathedrals of Christ Church and St Patrick's were heavily rebuilt in Victorian times, there are some original features, including the crypt in Christ Church, which has a 12th-century Romanesque door. The older of the two St Audoen's Churches dates from 1190 and it too has a few Norman odds and ends, including a late-12th-century doorway.
After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Dublin embarked upon almost a century and a half of unparalleled growth as the city raced to become the second most important in the British Empire. The most impressive examples of the style are the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (1680), designed by William Robinson and now home to the Irish Museum of Modern Art; and the Royal Barracks (now Collins Barracks; 1701) built by Thomas Burgh and now home to a branch of the National Museum of Ireland.
Dublin's architectural apogee can roughly be placed in the period spanning the rule of the four English Georges, between the accession of George I in 1714 and the death of George IV in 1830. The greatest influence on the shape of modern Dublin throughout this period came from the Wide Street Commissioners, appointed in 1757 and responsible for designing civic spaces and the framework of the modern city. Their efforts were complemented by Dublin's Anglo-Irish Protestant gentry who, flush with unprecedented wealth, dedicated themselves wholeheartedly towards improving their city.
Their inspiration was the work of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508–80), who revived the symmetry and harmony of classical architecture. When the Palladian style reached these shores in the 1720s, the architects of the time tweaked it and introduced a number of, let's call them, 'refinements'. Most obvious were the elegant brick exteriors and decorative touches, such as coloured doors, fanlights and ironwork, which broke the sometimes austere uniformity of the fashion. Consequently, Dublin came to be known for its 'Georgian style'.
Sir Edward Lovett Pearce
The architect credited with the introduction of the Georgian style to Dublin's cityscape was Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (1699–1733), who first arrived in Dublin in 1725 and turned heads with the building of Parliament House (now Bank of Ireland; 1728–39). It was the first two-chamber debating house in the world and the main chamber, the House of Commons, is topped by a massive pantheon-style dome.
Pearce also created the blueprint for the city's Georgian townhouses, the most distinguishing architectural feature of Dublin. The local version typically consists of four storeys, including the basement, with symmetrically arranged windows and an imposing, often brightly painted front door. Granite steps lead up to the door, which is often further embellished with a delicate leaded fanlight. The most celebrated examples are on the Southside, particularly around Merrion and Fitzwilliam Sqs, but the Northside also has some magnificent streets, including North Great George's and Henrietta Sts. The latter features two of Pearce's originals (at Nos 9 and 10) and is still Dublin's most unified Georgian street. Mountjoy Sq, the most elegant address in 18th-century Dublin, is currently being renewed after a century of neglect.
German architect Richard Cassels (aka Richard Castle; 1690–1751) hit town in 1728. While his most impressive country houses are outside Dublin, he did design Nos 85 and 86 St Stephen's Green (1738), which were combined in the 19th century and renamed Newman House, and No 80 (1736), which was later joined with No 81 to create Iveagh House, now the Department of Foreign Affairs; you can visit the peaceful gardens there still. The Rotunda Hospital (1748), at the top of O'Connell St, is also one of Cassels' works. As splendid as these buildings are, it seems he was only warming up for Leinster House (1745–48), the magnificent country residence built on what was then the countryside, but is now the centre of government.
Sir William Chambers
Dublin's boom attracted such notable architects as Swedish-born Sir William Chambers (1723–96), who designed some of Dublin's most impressive buildings, though he never actually bothered to visit the city. It was the north side of the Liffey that benefited most from Chambers' genius: the chaste and elegant Charlemont House (now Hugh Lane Gallery; 1763) lords over Parnell Sq, while the Casino at Marino (1755–79) is his most stunning and bewitching work.
It was towards the end of the 18th century that Dublin's developers really kicked into gear, when the power and confidence of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy seemed boundless. Of several great architects of the time, James Gandon (1743–1823) stood out, and he built two of Dublin's most enduring and elegant neoclassical landmarks: the Custom House (1781–91) and the Four Courts (1786–1802). They were both built on the quays to afford plenty of space in which to admire them.
Regency & Victorian
The Act of Union (1801) turned Dublin from glorious capital to Empire backwater, which resulted in precious little construction for much of the 19th century. Exceptions include the General Post Office (GPO), designed in 1818 by Francis Johnston (1760–1829), and the stunning series of curvilinear glasshouses in the National Botanic Gardens, which were created in the mid-19th century by the Dublin ironmaster Richard Turner (1798–1881).
After Catholic Emancipation in 1829, there was a wave of church building, and later the two great Protestant cathedrals of Christ Church and St Patrick's were reconstructed. One especially beautiful example is the splendidly ornate and incongruous Newman University Church (1856), built in a Byzantine style by John Hungerford Pollen (1820–1902) because Cardinal Newman was none too keen on the Gothic style that was all the rage at the time.
Without any blank slate like a mass demolition or an architecturally convenient fire (like Chicago suffered in 1871), the architecture of modern Dublin has largely been squeezed in between other periods and has been low on avant-garde examples of international movements.
Exceptions include modernist buildings such as Busáras (1953) and Liberty Hall (1965), which have divided critics. The 1960s and 1970s saw the erection of several buildings in the Brutalist style, including the Irish Life Centre (1977) on Lower Abbey St, the Central Bank building (1970; currently being revamped) on Dame St and Paul Koralek's bold and brazen Berkeley Library (1967) on the grounds of Trinity College. The style is divisive among critics, who either embrace its block-like forms and raw concrete construction or reject it as indelicate and ugly. The style's name doesn't help its case: from the French 'brut', meaning 'raw', in Dublin it's considered 'brutal', slang for 'awful'.
It wasn't until the explosive growth of the 1990s that the city's modern landscape really began to improve, even if some of the early constructions – such as the Irish Financial Services Centre (IFSC; 1987) and the Waterways Visitor Centre (1994) – don't seem as impressive now as they did when they first opened.
The most stunning makeover has occurred in the Docklands, which has been transformed from quasi-wasteland to a fine example of contemporary urban design. You'll find the best examples on Grand Canal Sq, dominated by Daniel Libeskind's elegant Bord Gáis Energy Theatre (2010) and Manuel Aires Mateus' Marker Hotel (2011), and the plaza itself, designed by American landscape artist Martha Schwartz in 2008, is equally eye-catching.
The financial crash of 2008 put the kibosh on new building, but in 2017 construction began in the Docklands on the 17-storey 'Exo' office block, named in reference to the 'exoskeleton' external supporting structure. It will be 74m high, 7m taller than the Montevetro building, Google's HQ on Barrow St. The Exo is expected to be completed by March 2020.
Feature: Georgian Plasterers
The handsome exteriors of Dublin's finest Georgian houses are often matched by superbly crafted plasterwork within. The fine work of Michael Stapleton (1747–1801) can be seen in Trinity College, Ely House near St Stephen's Green, and Belvedere House in north Dublin. The LaFranchini brothers, Paolo (1695–1776) and Filippo (1702–79), are responsible for the outstanding decoration in Newman House on St Stephen's Green. But perhaps Dublin's most famous plastered surfaces are in the chapel at the heart of the Rotunda Hospital. Although hospitals are never the most pleasant places to visit, this one's worth it for the German stuccadore Bartholomew Cramillion's fantastic rococo plasterwork.
Feature: Modern Bridges
Over the last few years the Liffey has been spanned by a handful of new bridges that are all pretty good examples of modern design. Santiago Calatrava's James Joyce Bridge (2003) at Usher's Island gave the city its first piece of design with the imprimatur of a 'starchitect', and he outdid himself again in 2009 with the harp-like Samuel Beckett Bridge at Spencer Dock. In between them is the award-winning pedestrian Sean O’Casey Bridge (2005), designed by Cyril O’Neill, while the latest addition is the Rosie Hackett Bridge, joining Hawkins St and Marlborough St. It opened in 2014 and is the only bridge in Dublin named after a woman; Hackett was a prominent trade unionist and participated in the Easter Rising of 1916.
Dubliners know a thing or two about the written word. No other city of comparable size can claim four winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, but the city's impact on the English-reading world extends far beyond the fab four of George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney…one name, folks: James Joyce.
Before Dublin was even a glint in a Viking's eye, Ireland was the land of saints and scholars, thanks to the monastic universities that sprang up around the country to foster the spread of Christianity and the education of Europe's privileged elite. But for our purposes, we need to fast-forward 1000 years to the 18th century and the glory days of Georgian Dublin, when the Irish and English languages began to cross-fertilise. Experimenting with English, using turns of phrase and expressions translated directly from Gaeilge, and combining these with a uniquely Irish perspective on life, Irish writers have dazzled and delighted readers for centuries. British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan summed it up in the Observer thus: 'The English hoard words like misers: the Irish spend them like sailors'.
Dublin has as many would-be sailors as Hollywood has frustrated waitresses, and it often seems like a bottomless well of creativity. The section given over to Irish writers is often the largest and busiest in any local bookstore, reflecting not only a rich literary tradition and thriving contemporary scene, but also an appreciative, knowledgeable and hungry local audience that attends readings and poetry recitals like rock-music fans at a gig.
Indeed, Dublin has produced so many writers, and has been written about so much, that you could easily plan a Dublin literary holiday. A Literary Guide to Dublin, by Vivien Igoe, includes detailed route maps, a guide to cemeteries and an eight-page section on literary and historical pubs. A. Norman Jeffares' O'Brien Pocket History of Irish Writers: From Swift to Heaney also has detailed and accessible summaries of writers and their work.
Old Literary Dublin
Modern Irish literature begins with Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), the master satirist, social commentator, dean of St Patrick's Cathedral and author of Gulliver's Travels. Fast-forward a couple of centuries and you’re in the company of acclaimed dramatist Oscar Wilde (1854–1900); Dracula creator Bram Stoker (1847–1912) – some have claimed that the name of the count may have come from the Irish droch fhola (bad blood); and playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), author of Pygmalion (which was later turned into My Fair Lady), who hailed from Synge St near the Grand Canal.
Towering above all of them – in reputation if not popularity – is James Joyce (1882–1941), whose name and books elicit enormous pride in Ireland. The majority of Joyce's literary output came when he had left Ireland for the artistic hotbed that was Paris, which was also true for another great experimenter in language and style, Samuel Beckett (1906–89). Beckett's work centres on fundamental existential questions about the human condition and the nature of self. He is probably best known for his play Waiting for Godot, but his unassailable reputation is based on a series of stark novels and plays.
Of the dozens of 20th-century Irish authors to have achieved published renown, some names to look out for include playwright and novelist Brendan Behan (1923–64), who wove tragedy, wit and a turbulent life into his best works, including Borstal Boy, The Quare Fellow and The Hostage, before dying young of alcoholism. A collection of his newspaper columns was published under the title Hold Your Hour and Have Another.
The Contemporary Scene
The literary scene is flourishing, thanks in part to the proliferation of smaller presses and printing houses giving authors a chance to publish, which in turn has helped engender a generation of new writers more confident in seeing the fruits of their labours reach an audience.
The #MeToo movement has also played its indirect part, with publishers keen to promote female voices that in previous eras may not have been given the opportunity to be heard. The best of these include Sally Rooney, who has emerged as the brightest star in the new, more female-focused firmament. Her first novel, Conversations with Friends (2017) established her as a writer of huge talent, but it was her follow-up, Normal People (2018), that really made her a star. The story of a difficult relationship between two friends during the economic downturn, Normal People won Best Novel at the Costa Book Awards, Book of the Year at the British Book Awards and was a New York Times bestseller. Another new name to look out for is Emilie Pine, who burst onto the scene in 2018 with a superb collection of nonfiction essays, Notes to Self, an unflinching look at addiction, sexual assault and mental health.
Melatu Uche Okorie was born in Nigeria, but moved to Ireland in 2006, where she spent 8½ years in direct provision (the processing system for asylum seekers), an experience she recounts in the three stories of This Hostel Life (2018), which cast a light on the migrant experience in Ireland.
Sinéad Gleeson is another important voice on the literary scene: her 2019 memoir, Constellations: Reflections from Life, is a stunning collection of linked essays exploring the fraught relationship between the physical body and identity. Dubliner Karl Geary left home for New York in the late 1980s, but tells the story of a love affair between a teenager and an older woman in his debut novel set in south Dublin, Montpelier Parade (2017).
Small Towns & Recession
The theme of small-town life is a popular one these days, as many authors explore the changes wrought by the economic crash of 2008. Gone is the nostalgic, repression-infused prose of yesteryear, replaced by a more brazen, often darkly comic style reflective of a new generation of writers raised on the optimistic confidence of the Celtic Tiger yet forced to grapple with the frequently harsh realities of post-crash austerity.
Both of Sally Rooney's novels are set against the backdrop of post-crash Dublin, but it's also a familiar landscape for the likes of Cork-born Lisa McInerney, author of The Glorious Heresies (2015), and Colin Barrett, who won the Guardian First Book Award for Young Skins (2013). Alan McMonagle's Ithaca (2017) treads similar ground, telling the story of a lonely boy's search for his elusive 'Da', and how in hunting for something we've lost, we risk losing sight of what we have. Multitudes (2016), by Lucy Caldwell, is a heart-warming debut collection of short stories set almost entirely in Belfast, with series of young female protagonists going through life's growing pains. Another recession-era novel of note is Donal Ryan's The Spinning Heart (2012), in which the effects of the crash on rural Ireland are explored through 21 different voices.
The Big Hitters
Rooney, Pine and others have joined the existing canon of established names. This includes Dubliner Colum McCann (1965–), who left Ireland in 1986, eventually settling in New York, where his sixth novel, the post–September 11 Let the Great World Spin (2009), catapulted him to the top of the literary tree and won him the National Book Award for fiction as well as the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Established heavyweights continue to add to the country's literary works. There's Roddy Doyle (1958–), of course, whose mega-successful Barrytown novels – The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha – have all been made into films. His latest book, Charlie Savage (2019), compiles a year's worth of very funny pieces he wrote for the Irish Independent about a middle-aged Dubliner.
Sebastian Barry (1955–) has been shortlisted twice for the Man Booker Prize, for his WWI drama A Long Long Way (2005) and the absolutely compelling The Secret Scripture (2008), about a 100-year-old inmate of a mental hospital who decides to write an autobiography. In 2016 he published the fourth McNulty family novel, Days Without End, an award-winning epic set partly during the American Civil War.
Anne Enright (1962–) did nab the Booker for The Gathering (2007), a zeitgeist tale of alcoholism and abuse – she described it as 'the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepie'. Her most recent novel, The Green Road (2015), also mines the murky waters of the Irish family.
Another Booker Prize winner is heavyweight John Banville (1945–), who won it for The Sea (2005); we also recommend either The Book of Evidence (1989) or the masterful roman à clef The Untouchable (1997), based loosely on the secret-agent life of art historian Anthony Blunt. Banville's literary alter ego is Benjamin Black, author of a series of eight hard-boiled detective thrillers set in the 1950s and starring a troubled pathologist called Quirke – the latest book is Wolf on a String (2017). Another big hitter is Wexford-born Colm Tóibín (1955–), author of nine novels including Brooklyn (2009; made into an Oscar-nominated film in 2015 starring Saoirse Ronan) and Nora Webster (2014), a powerful study of widowhood.
Emma Donoghue (1969–) followed the award-winning Room (2010) with Frog Music (2014), about the real-life shooting of cross-dressing gamine Jenny Bonnet in late-19th-century San Francisco, and The Wonder (2016), about a fasting child in 1850s Ireland. And finally there's John Boyne (1971–), whose Holocaust novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006; the film version came out in 2008) made him Ireland's most successful author. He's added a few works since then, most recently My Brother's Name is Jessica (2019), which has generated some controversy among trans-rights activists, who accuse Boyne of misgendering and deadnaming (referring to someone by their birthname after they've transitioned).
Feature: Five Books About Dublin
The Barrytown Trilogy (Roddy Doyle; 1992) Doyle's much-loved trilogy tells the story of the Northside working-class Rabbitte family. The three novels – The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991) – were published together in 1992.
Montpelier Parade (Karl Geary; 2017) The tale of the troubled relationship between the teenage Sonny and the much older Vera, set in the south Dublin neighbourhood of Monkstown, brings 1980s Dublin to life.
Dublin 4 (Maeve Binchy; 1982) Although written more than three decades ago, Binchy's examination of the tumult that afflicts a group of residents in Dublin's most affluent neighbourhood is just as poignant and relevant today.
Dubliners (James Joyce; 1914) Dublin serves as the unifying bedrock for this classic collection of 15 short stories that chronicle the travails of the capital and its middle-class residents at the turn of the 20th century.
Conversations with Friends (Sally Rooney; 2017) A brilliantly observed story of four characters – aspiring writer Frances, her ex Bobbi and older married couple Nick and Melissa – set against the backdrop of a post-economic-crash Dublin.
Feature: James Joyce
Uppermost among Dublin writers is James Joyce, author of Ulysses, considered by some to be the greatest book of the 20th century – although we've yet to meet five people who've actually finished it. Still, Dubliners are immensely proud of the writer once castigated as a literary pornographer by locals and luminaries alike – even George Bernard Shaw dismissed him as vulgar. Joyce was so unappreciated that he left the city, never to reside in it again, though he continued to live here through his imagination and literature.
Born in Rathgar in 1882, the young Joyce had three short stories published in an Irish farmers' magazine under the pen name Stephen Dedalus in 1904. The same year he fled town with the love of his life, Nora Barnacle (when Joyce's father heard her name he commented that she would surely stick to him). He spent most of the next 10 years in Trieste, now part of Italy, where he wrote prolifically but struggled to get published. His career was further hampered by recurrent eye problems: he had 25 operations for glaucoma, cataracts and other conditions.
The first major prose he finally had published was Dubliners (1914), a collection of short stories set in the city, including the three he had written in Ireland. Publishers began to take notice and his autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) followed. In 1918 the US magazine Little Review started to publish extracts from Ulysses but notoriety was already pursuing his epic work and the censors prevented publication of further episodes after 1920.
Passing through Paris on a rare visit to Dublin, he was persuaded by Ezra Pound to stay a while in the French capital. What he intended to be a brief visit turned into a 20-year stay. It was a good move for the struggling writer for, in 1922, he met Sylvia Beach of the Paris bookshop Shakespeare & Co, who finally managed to put Ulysses (1922) into print. The publicity from its earlier censorship ensured instant success.
Buoyed by the success of the inventive Ulysses, Joyce went for broke with Finnegans Wake (1939), 'set' in the dreamscape of a Dublin publican. Perhaps not one to read at the airport, the book is a daunting and often obscure tome about eternal recurrence. It is even more complex than Ulysses and took the author 17 years to write.
In 1940, WWII drove the Joyce family back to Zürich, Switzerland, where the author died the following year.
Ulysses is the ultimate chronicle of the city in which, Joyce once said, he intended 'to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book'. It is set here on 16 June 1904 – the day of Joyce's first date with Nora Barnacle – and follows its characters as their journeys around town parallel the voyage of Homer's Odyssey.
The experimental literary style makes it difficult to read, but there's much for even the slightly bemused reader to relish. It ends with Molly Bloom's famous stream of consciousness discourse, a chapter of eight huge, unpunctuated paragraphs. Because of its sexual explicitness, the book was banned in the USA and the UK until 1933 and 1937 respectively.
As a testament to the book's enduring relevance and extraordinary innovation, it has inspired writers of every generation since. Joyce admirers from around the world descend on Dublin every year on 16 June to celebrate Bloomsday and retrace the steps of Ulysses' central character, Leopold Bloom. It is a slightly gimmicky and touristy phenomenon that is aimed at Joyce fanatics and tourists, but it's plenty of fun and a great way to lay the groundwork for actually reading the book.
Feature: Book Festivals
Dublin's literary festivals are a great opportunity to meet Irish and international authors. Dublin has a handful of festivals of note:
- International Literature Festival Dublin The city's biggest literary event is a great showcase of local and international talent.
- Dublin Book Festival A three-day festival of literature with readings and talks.
- Dalkey Book Festival A small festival with an impressive line-up.
- Mountains to the Sea Dlr Book Festival The southside suburb of Dun Laoghaire gets literary.
Feature: Living Poets Society
Ireland's greatest modern bard was Derry-born but Dublin-resident Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney (1939–2013), whose enormous personal warmth and wry humour flow through each of his evocative works. He was, unquestionably, the successor to Yeats and one of the most important contemporary poets of the English language. After winning the Nobel Prize in 1995 he compared the ensuing attention to someone mentioning sex in front of their mammy. Opened Ground: Poems 1966–1996 (1998) is our favourite of his books.
Dubliner Paul Durcan (1944–) is one of the most reliable chroniclers of changing Dublin. He won the prestigious Whitbread Prize for Poetry in 1990 for Daddy, Daddy and is a funny, engaging, tender and savage writer. Eavan Boland (1944–) is a prolific and much-admired writer, best known for her poetry, who combines Irish politics with outspoken feminism; In a Time of Violence (1994) and The Lost Land (1998) are two of her most celebrated collections. More recently, Derek Mahon's (1941–) Against the Clock (2018) is as much a melancholic meditation on the passage of time as it is a light-hearted acceptance of the fact. Galway-born Elaine Feeney (1979–) is one of the country's best-known contemporary poets: 2017's Rise is her fourth collection of poems.
If you're interested in finding out more about poetry in Ireland, visit the website of the excellent Poetry Ireland (www.poetryireland.ie), which showcases the work of new and established poets.
Feature: Books for Young Adults
Irish authors have had a fair amount of success with the lucrative young adult market. John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas can rightfully be considered a YA masterpiece, while 2019's My Brother's Name is Jessica tackles the trans experience in a novel aimed at teenagers.
One of the most successful Irish authors is Eoin Colfer, creator of the Artemis Fowl series, eight fantasy novels following the adventures of Artemis Fowl II as he grows from criminal antihero to saviour of the fairies.
Dublin-born Sarah Crossan has established herself as one of the most successful authors for young adults, with books like The Weight of Water (2011), Apple and Rain (2014) and One (2015), a touching story about conjoined twins. Young readers have been delighted by Shane Hegarty's Darkmouth series, set in a fictional Irish town (Darkmouth), where young Finn is learning about girls and fighting monsters; 2018 saw the fourth book in the series, Hero Rising.
Dublin's literary tradition may have the intellectuals nodding sagely, but it's the city's musical credentials that have everyone else bopping, for it's no cliché to say that music is as intrinsic to the local lifestyle as a good night out. Even the streets – well, Grafton St and Temple Bar – are abuzz with the sounds of music, and you can hardly get around without stubbing your toe on the next international superstar busking their way to a record contract.
Traditional & Folk
Irish music – commonly referred to as 'traditional' or simply 'trad' – has retained a vibrancy not found in other traditional European forms. This is probably because, although Irish music has kept many of its traditional aspects, it has itself influenced many forms of music, most notably US country and western – a fusion of Mississippi Delta blues and Irish traditional tunes that, combined with other influences like gospel, is at the root of rock and roll. Other reasons for its current success include the willingness of its exponents to update the way it's played (in ensembles rather than the customary céilidh – communal dance – bands) and the popularity of pub sessions.
The pub session is still the best way to hear the music at its rich, lively best – and, thanks largely to the tourist demand, there are some terrific sessions in pubs throughout the city. Thankfully, though, the best musicians have also gone into the recording studio. If you want to hear musical skill that will both tear out your heart and restore your faith in humanity, go no further than the fiddle-playing of Tommy Peoples on The Quiet Glen (1998), the beauty of Paddy Keenan's uillean pipes on his self-titled 1975 album, or the stunning guitar playing of Andy Irvine on albums such as Compendium: The Best of Patrick Street (2000).
The most famous traditional band is The Chieftains, who spend most of their time these days playing in the US, and marked their 50th anniversary in 2012 with the ambitious Voice of Ages, a collaboration with the likes of Bon Iver and Paolo Nutini. More folksy than traditional were The Dubliners, founded in O'Donoghue's on Merrion Row the same year as The Chieftains. Most of the original members, including the utterly brilliant Luke Kelly and fellow frontman Ronnie Drew, have died, but the group still plays the odd nostalgia gig. In 2006 it released Live at Vicar St, which captures some of its brilliance.
Another band whose career has been stitched into the fabric of Dublin life is The Fureys, comprising four brothers originally from the travelling community (no, not like the Wilburys) along with guitarist Davey Arthur. And if it's rousing renditions of Irish rebel songs you're after, you can't go past The Wolfe Tones. Ireland is packed with traditional talent and we strongly recommend that you spend some time in a specialised traditional shop such as Claddagh Records, which has branches on Cecilia St in Temple Bar and Westmoreland St.
Since the 1970s various bands have tried to blend traditional with more progressive genres with mixed success. The first band to pull it off was Moving Hearts, led by Christy Moore, who went on to become an important folk musician in his own right.
From the 1960s onwards, Dublin became a hotbed of rock and pop; most of the artists have now faded into obscurity. Notable exceptions are Thin Lizzy, led by Phil Lynott (1949–86), and Bob Geldof's new wave Boomtown Rats, who didn't like Mondays or much else either.
But they all paled in comparison to the supernova that is U2, formed in 1976 in North Dublin and by the late 1980s one of the world's most successful rock bands. What else can we say about them that hasn't already been said? After 14 studio albums, 22 Grammy awards and 150 million album sales, they have nothing to prove to anyone – and not even their minor faux pas in 2014, when Apple 'gave' copies of Songs of Innocence to iTunes subscribers whether they wanted it or not, has dampened their popularity. The 2017 Joshua Tree Tour, staged to commemorate the 30th anniversary of their groundbreaking album, was a huge commercial and critical success.
Of all the Irish acts that followed in U2's wake during the 1980s and early 1990s, a few managed to comfortably avoid being tarred with 'the next U2' burden. The Pogues’ mix of punk and Irish folk kept everyone going for a while, but the real story there was the empathetic songwriting of Shane MacGowan, whose genius has been overshadowed by his heavy drinking – but he still managed to pen Ireland's favourite song, 'Fairytale of New York', sung with emotional fervour by everyone around Christmas. Sinéad O'Connor thrived by acting like a U2 antidote – whatever they were into she was not – and by having a damn fine voice; the raw emotion on The Lion and the Cobra (1987) makes it a great offering. And then there was My Bloody Valentine, the pioneers of late-1980s guitar-distorted shoegazer rock: Loveless (1991) is one of the best Dublin albums of all time.
The 1990s were largely dominated by DJs, dance music and a whole new spin on an old notion, the boy band. Behind Ireland's most successful groups (Boyzone and Westlife) is impresario Louis Walsh, whose musical sensibilities seem mired in '60s showband schmaltz. Walsh, who became a judge on The X Factor in the UK, also unleashed Jedward on the world – identical twins who endeared themselves to everyone with their wacky antics.
The Contemporary Scene
Alternative music has never been in ruder health in Ireland – and Dublin, as the largest city in the country, is where everyone comes to make noise. Local artists to look out for include Saint Sister, whose 'atmosfolk' sound is a blend of harp, synth and harmony; their 2018 debut album Shape of Silence was one of the year's best releases.
Wyvern Lingo's eponymous debut album was also very well received, their harmonious R&B sound a harbinger of even better things to come, while Kojaque, aka Kevin Smith, is one of the most interesting new voices of recent years; his unique brand of hip-hop is flawlessly expressed on his debut album, Deli Daydreams.
More established artists still making waves include Kodaline, whose fusion of American rock and British pop has made them one of Ireland's most popular bands; their third album, Politics of Living, was released in 2018. Bray-born, blues-influenced Hozier (full name Andrew Hozier-Byrne), whose 2013 smash Take Me to Church made him a global name, released his second album, Wasteland, Baby! in 2019, debuting at the top of the US Billboard 200 chart. Although he spends a lot of his time in New York these days, Glen Hansard (of Once fame) is still a major presence in Ireland; in 2019 he released his fourth solo album, The Wild Willing.
Hugely successful Dublin trio The Script have parlayed their melodic brand of pop-rock onto all kinds of TV shows, from 90210 to Made in Chelsea. In 2017 they released their fifth album, the chart-topping Freedom Child. They mightn't sell as many records, but Villagers (which is really just Conor O'Brien and a selection of collaborators) has earned universal acclaim for its brand of indie-folk rock – and in 2018 their album The Art of Pretending to Swim moved them away from the more folksy sound of earlier stuff into a more electronic feel, without foregoing the brilliant songwriting that cemented O'Brien's position as one of the country's best talents.
But it's not just about musicians with grave intent: if Boyzone and Westlife were big, their success pales in comparison to that of One Direction, another product of 'the X Factory'. We mention them because one of their members, Niall Horan, is from Mullingar, County Westmeath – about an hour west of Dublin – which inevitably meant that when One Direction played Croke Park in 2015 it was a kind of homecoming. The band has since split, but Niall has launched a successful solo career – 2017 saw the release of his first solo album, Flicker. Inevitably, it debuted at the top of the US album charts.
Feature: Luke Kelly: the Original Dubliner
With a halo of wiry ginger hair and a voice like hardened honey, Luke Kelly (1940–84) was perhaps the greatest Irish folk singer of the 20th century, a performer who used his voice in the manner of the American blues singers he admired so much to express the anguish of being lonely and afraid in a world they never made (to paraphrase AE Housman).
He was a founding member of The Dubliners, along with Ronnie Drew (1934–2008), Barney McKenna (1939–2012) and Ciarán Bourke (1935–88), but he treated Dublin's most famous folk group as more of a temporary cooperative enterprise. He shared the singing duties with Drew, lending his distinctive voice to classic drinking ditties like 'Dirty Old Town' and rousing rebel songs like 'A Nation Once Again', but it was his mastery of the more reflective ballad that made him peerless. His rendition of 'On Raglan Road', from a poem by Patrick Kavanagh that the poet himself insisted he sing, is the most beautiful song about Dublin we've ever heard, but it is his version of Phil Coulter's 'Scorn Not His Simplicity' that grants him his place among the immortals. Coulter wrote the song following the birth of a son with Down's syndrome, and even though it became one of Kelly's best-loved songs, he had such respect for it that he only sang it a handful of times, and only in the most respectful of settings.
Luke Kelly: The Collection is recommended listening.