Dublin; An odyssey through James Joyce's city

This being the centenary year of James Joyce's birth, Dublin promises visitors a plethora of charms out of proportion to its pleasingly modest size.

Like Paris and Pittsburgh, like London, Rome, and Boston, Dublin is a river city. It straddles the east-flowing Liffey, its two halves stitched together by 10 bridges. At the city's edge, the Liffey empties into Dublin Bay, a sheltered basin, warmed by the Gulf Stream and protected from the worst of the gales that sweep the Irish Sea. Jokes about the weather in Ireland are never in short supply and of these, Dublin as the capital reaps more than its fair share.

But while the wags may carry the day, the fact remains that Dublin proper rarely sees snow and the kind of killing cold that in the United States turns grassy swards into brown leather lawns. From autumn straight through to spring St. Stephen's Green and Merrion Square retain their verdant brilliance. Palm trees flourish in the parks as well as in the gardens of the well-kept Georgian houses that are Dublin's pride.

As in every rapidly expanding capital, complaints abound about the destruction of its architectural heritage. But a stroll along Fitzwilliam Square or Merrion Square, where Yeats and Wilde once lived, is still a visual delight of long rows of Georgian facades. The doorways are surmounted by graceful fans of 18th-century glass, and the great brass knockers, the massive fluted knobs, and the letter slots gleam as if burnished daily.

Buses in Dublin are frequent, clean, and inexpensive. Taxis are easily found and come, often as not, with self-styled philosopher-guide cabbies, but Dublin is a city best seen on foot. This year, of course, devotees of Joyce's ''Ulysses'' will be faithfully trudging in the imaginary footsteps of Leopold Bloom, duplicating his June 16 trek around the city. But many Dublin sites ignored by Bloom are well worth exploring.

Americans are subject to an eerie sense of deja vu when confronting the elegant simplicity of Leinster House, just off Merrion Square. It was built in 1745 by the Duke of Leinster, and serves as home today for Ireland's Parliament. It was this same Leinster House that served as a model for James Hoban, a young 30-year-old architect who in 1789 emigrated from Dublin to the New World. Three years later he submitted the winning design for a ''President's House'' to be built in the newly designated capital, Washington.

Hoban borrowed liberally, not only from Leinster House, but also from Dublin Castle on Dame Street. The White House as it stands today, excepting only the great front portico, owes both its exterior and much of its interior to these two Dublin landmarks. The Oval Office, the great East Room, and the mansion's sculptured plaster ceilings are but a few of the features prototypical of Dublin Castle. Of the Castle's Norman origins, only the Record Tower remains, everything else having been rebuilt as it now stands in the early 18th century.

Also on Dame Street is Christ Church Cathedral, whose first stones were laid in place in the 12th century by Strongbow, the earliest of the English conquerors. It's less than a five-minute walk from Christ Church Cathedral to St. Patrick's Cathedral, which, unlike its Manhattan namesake, is a Protestant sanctuary. It stands on the same site where St. Patrick, born a Roman citizen but enslaved and first brought to Ireland by Irish marauders, was thought to have baptized his Christian converts. Jonathan Swift, for 32 years dean of St. Patrick's, is buried here, as is Esther Johnson, the ''Stella'' of Swift's journals. Whether, in addition to being his literary inspiration, she was also his lawfully wedded wife is a question still hotly debated by scholars even to this day.

Only by deliberate avoidance could anyone miss a visit to Trinity College, since its 40 acres are in the very heart of Dublin. If you cross the city from almost any direction, the chances are you must skirt its gray-walled perimeters. Founded by order of Queen Elizabeth I in 1592 as a strictly Protestant alternative to the Roman Catholic education absorbed by so many of Ireland's sons on the Continent of Europe, Trinity has since 1793 admitted Catholics and Protestants alike and women since 1904.

The green and leafy serenity of its quadrangles have scarcely changed since the student days of Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, and Jonathan Swift, and have changed even less since the days of Yeats, Synge, Joyce, and Wilde. It's here at Trinity in the Old Library that the Book of Kells resides in modest splendor. Completed by monks on an offshore island in the 8th century, it boasts Christendom's very first representation of the Virgin and Child in manuscript form. The text is a Latin rendition of the Gospels, each page richly illustrated , its brilliant colors, red, blue, green, and yellow, seemingly unfaded despite the passing of more than 12 centuries. Displayed in a glass case, its custodians turn one page a day so as to preserve the contours of its binding.

Among the delights of a walk through Dublin are its many parks. They're well tended, beautifully landscaped, and much used. On sunny days you can count on a brisk cross traffic of prams and ''push carts'' bearing roly-poly, scarlet-cheeked, blue-eyed tyrants, each a replica of Joyce's Baby Boardman, that ''perfect little bunch of love'' who would ''certainly turn out to be something great.

Phoenix Park, the largest municipal park in Europe, more than twice the size of New York's Central Park, includes within its 1,760 acres a splendid zoo as well as the official residence of the president of Ireland and the handsome Georgian mansion leased since 1927 to the United States as the home for its ambassador to Ireland . . . a post that, as of this writing, remains unfilled.

Dublin's history dates back as far as 4000 BC to a burial site in Phoenix Park, probably Celtic. Norsemen created Dublin's first settlement where the Liffey meets the sea. In the 12th century, Normans swept in and by the century's end had ringed the growing port with fortifications, a circle of forts, and castles joined by walls, called the Pale. To venture outside this fortified area into the untamed land was to risk one's life. Savagery and danger lay beyond the Pale. But today, beyond the Pale, the Irish countryside promises not just scenic delights but hospitality and ''cead mile failte,'' or a hundred thousand welcomes. By car, bus, or even bicycle, to venture south along the coast is to discover a part of Ireland that for sheer beauty easily rivals the Bay of Naples.

From the lofty seawalk that rims the village of Dalkey, a 40-mile sweep of shoreline can be seen. To the north across Dublin Bay lie the headlands of Howth (rhymes with tooth), like a protective arm flung out into the sea above Dublin. ''The proud promontory of dear old Howth,'' wrote Joyce in ''Ulysses,'' ''guarding as ever the waters of the bay on the weed grown rocks.'' To the south the gentle Wicklow Mountains thrust down to the sea like a misty blue shoulder. It's no more than a comfortable walk from the lookouts of Dalkey to Sandycove and the Gentlemen's Forty Foot Bathing Pavilion, directly below the stubby stone tower, or ''martello,'' built to repel Napoleon, who never bothered to come. Today the tower is refitted as a Joyce museum.

Beyond the pale of Dublin is well worth exploring, but the two most essential ingredients of any visit to Dublin are its theater and its music. Since Dublin is in every sense the heart of Ireland and since Ireland, to paraphrase the Scriptures, does not live by bread alone, but by song, dance, and drama, it would be unthinkable to stay even briefly on the banks of the Liffey without including a visit to the Abbey Theater, founded by Yeats, or the smaller Peacock Theater in the Abbey building, where programs are presented not just in the evenings but at lunchtime as well. Or the Gate Theater on Parnell Square, the Gaiety, Olympia, or Focus, or any of a dozen others where Irish classics and newly written works all play to attentive, critical audiences who have no need to wait for reviews in the morning papers to judge a play either Bad or Good.

As for Irish music, it's everywhere, from the nightly impromptu sessions in many pubs to the more formal recitals of the Comhaltas, self-appointed custodians of Ireland's traditional music. A visit or a call to the Irish Tourish Board at 14 Upper O'Connell Street (tel. 74-7733) will provide up-to-the-minute information.

To so many Americans the Ireland of myth, song, fiction, and legend looms so large that the discovery of today's Dublin comes as a distinct surprise. Its thriving port, its beautifully maintained rows of 18th-century Georgian houses, the vitality of its commercial and cultural life, and above all its bustling, cheerful, kindly people, all convey a rewarding immediacy to a concept too long steeped in misconception or in simple unawareness. No capital city in Europe is more appealing or more accessible than Dublin. And while ''Bloomsday'' is a particularly grand day on which to see it, the truth is that all year long, Dublin charms.

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