What a delight it is to toy with a wooden newspaper-holder rather than a smartphone, tucked away in the cosy corner by the tall sunlit windows of a Victorian hotel. My companion sips her Baileys coffee, while I hide behind my broadsheet earwigging as a novelist is interviewed — possibly for the newspaper I’m reading.
Dublin is still sponsored by Guinness and after I’ve drunk a second pint in the charming Library Bar of the Central Hotel, we head across to the great bookshop Hodges Figgis. En route, we pass Davy Byrnes, where you can still get a gorgonzola sandwich and glass of wine as Leopold Bloom did in 1904. Hodges Figgis is set on the charming Dawson Street, which links St Stephen’s Green to Trinity College. This is a great shop to meander around: it has three floors to browse and 250 years of practice at bookselling, and some time passes before we emerge, laden with purchases.
Dublin has regained a sense of itself again since the Celtic tiger crawled back into its cage; there’s a restored air of congeniality and comeliness that can be felt in restaurants and shops and on street corners.
After some fine food at the Trocadero, we head across to the Gate Theatre. The Gate was set up in 1928 in the old rotunda hospital at the top of O’Connell Street, where its original agenda was to provide an alternative to the cabbage and bacon of the parochial Abbey Theatre and produce the work of European dramatists like Ibsen and Chekhov. We’re there to see The Gigli Concert, a 1983 play by Tom Murphy.
Murphy’s plays are usually restrained meditations on local themes. But this piece edges towards a Stoppardian ingenuity, in a timely story about an overwrought Irish property developer seeking counsel from a down-on-his-luck, hard-drinking English Dynamatologist, and pursuing avant-garde therapy through singing the opera of Beniamino Gigli. This is the first time a Murphy play has been produced at the Gate, and the Dublin theatre community considered it a wonder the play got produced at all, given that he and the long-time director of the Gate, Michael Colgan, apparently had a run-in at a party ten years ago. The story goes that, after many drinks were had, Colgan called Murphy a ‘provincial playwright’, and Murphy then accused Colgan of being ‘the keeper of a museum’ and dumped a plate of lasagne on his head.
This staging of Murphy’s play is beautiful and particularly well suited to the Gate Theatre (it’s back there for a short run from 28 October). I enjoyed the first act so much that I didn’t want the interval to arrive, but when it did, I was delighted to see the novelist from the Central Hotel heading out to the bar.
After rushing back to my seat to pick up my newly bought book, I squeezed through to the bar and saw the author sipping tea from a china cup. He was very friendly in signing my book: we had a wee chat and he told me he’s a friend of Murphy’s and regaled me with the story of the lasagne.
And that’s what’s really to be liked about Dublin: wrapped in this great city is a small town, with very much craic to be had.