Exploring Dublin. A darlin' vacation spot - with or without the Millennium celebrations

TO be sure, it is the city's Millennium. As sure, that is, as wry, irony-attuned Dubliners can be about their home and its turbulent past - a history which actually began prior to King Mael Sechnaill II's reign, with Dyflyn, the Viking seaport on the river Liffey's south banks and goes on through centuries of enviable literary happenings and unenviable politics. Indeed, if there is a festive mood borne on Dublin's soft summer air, it's as likely to arise from the drubbing Ireland gave England in last month's European Champions' Cup soccer semifinals as from any civic blarney conjured for the Irish chieftain's victory o'er the Vikings in A.D. 988.

Never mind. Any excuse for a ``pairty'' here will do for Dublin's 1 million own and the expected 250,000 additional visitors this year.

Manufactured or no, the Millennium has burgeoned into a year-long celebration with some 1,200 events planned (though many of them are annual occurrences anyway). This month, alone, features an international organ festival in two of Dublin's oldest churches - Christ Church Cathedral and St. Patrick's; a regatta on the Liffey; a folk music festival; and the official birthday party July 8-10, with 1,000 candles on an enormous cake in the 1,700-acre Phoenix Park. Slow march to gentrification

Not that July holds any particular significance to the 988 victory. The month was chosen simply because it coincides with Dublin's yearly street fair. Such is the pleasingly ad hoc way of doing things in this Georgian city, which has weathered centuries of insurrection and is now on a slow march to gentrification.

On the skyline, construction cranes vie with cathedral spires; on the streets, horse-drawn drays and bicycles compete with Mercedeses and motorbikes. Grafton Street is now a pedestrian mall where Yankee upstarts like Ralph Lauren have opened shops alongside Dublin's ancient and honorable department stores. It's also the place where watering holes like Davey Bryne's and The Bailey, immortalized in James Joyce's ``Ulysses,'' are now patronized by hordes of nine-to-fivers, who crowd the sidewalks with their ties loosened and their shirt sleeves rolled, just the way the yuppie crowd at New York's South Street Seaport does.

A similar restoration underway on Dublin Bay - the $400 million Customs House Dockside Development Project - is scheduled to bring this city new hotels, offices, eateries, and plenty of Olde World charm sometime in the mid-'90s.

All this says far more about the reality of Dublin today than its Viking heritage, touted though it may be in the tri-color Millennium banners hung about the city. Some locals scoff at the observance, insisting that the balmy, dry summer weather and Ireland's favorable exchange rate (the dollar equivalent is $1.50 per Irish punt versus $1.80 per British pound sterling) are more conducive to a boost in tourism than the Millennium itself. A replicated Viking village

In addition to the various events, the Millennium has inspired one important exhibit - the Viking Experience. It's a re-creation of the city's Scandinavian roots, and it's located near the original Dyflyn, in the crypts of St. Audeon's Church. The replicated Viking village there is staffed with a corps of actors performing daily tasks in the tradition of America's Colonial Williamsburg. Rich in state-of-the-art verisimilitude (right down to the dubious asset of the duplicated odors of Dublin 1,000 years ago), the exhibit bears little relation to the Dublin that envelopes a visitor today.

The modern city's pleasures include the serene Georgian squares with their row upon row of pictureque doorways and cookie-cutter perfection, the smoke-filled, aged pubs, and the incessant murmur of Gaelic-cadenced conversation on every corner. The Millennium walking tour

The most useful of the Millennium offerings? In this traveler's opinion, the thrice-daily guided tours that leave from the festival office in the Royal Hibernian Way, another luxury mall just off Grafton St. These two-hour walks acquaint the visitor with the city's high spots - Trinity College, Dublin Castle, Four Courts, St. Patrick's, the General Post Office, the site of the infamous Easter Uprisings (where you can touch the bullet holes in the walls), plus a few lesser-known treasures. Although there are also daily C.I.E. bus tours, the Millennium walk is one of the best ways to get the feel of this city, which is, one quickly discovers, an overgrown village characterized by its boisterous citizenry, very unlike its reserved neighbor, London. The Liffey, which bisects Dublin proper, is hardly Thames-sized, more like the drifting gray canals of Amsterdam.

The architecture, too, is modest. Dublin is not a city of monuments, but of doorways. The buildings are low, human-sized, and city's dimensions barely demands a visitor's use of DART, the whisker-clean subway, with its three downtown stops, or the spare taxi fleet. This is a walking city, virtually impossible to get lost in and full of interesting places to stop for local color - most notably the pubs and cafes where Dubliners congregate. Despite several new restaurants - Le Coq Hardi on Pembroke Road is most often mentioned as typical of those dishing up nouvelle Irish cuisine - most Dubliners choose to socialize and dine in the pubs and cafes. Among the best: Doheny & Nesbitt's, and any one of the Bewley Cafes.

One of the things not to miss this year (or any year) is tea time - with buttered scones and salmon sandwiches on brown bread - in the Lounge of the Shelburne Hotel, Dublin's only surviving grand hotel. The Shelburne has undergone $7 million worth of refurbishing, and the $150-a-night price seems worth it. The city's other luxury-class hotels - the Westbury and Berkeley Court - are modern buildings with different charms and amenities. Like the city itself, the 156-room Shelburne is small enough to add a wholly personal touch to its top-flight service.

Other must-sees include the Book of Kells in the Long Room of Trinity's Library. This illuminated calfskin manuscript - lit only by mirrors reflecting the library's natural light - is wondrous in its medieval beauty. And the looming, well-used bookcases, with their crumbling leather volumes, are evocative of the university's illustrious alumnai, Yeats, Synge, Wilde, and the like.

For a touch of modern local color, catch Eamonn McThomas's weekly lectures in the lobby of the Bank of Ireland, just outside Trinity's gates. This crusty Irishman is not only the city's best-informed guide but something of a legend and folk hero as well. His lectures, whether in the bank or on St. Stephen's Green (Wednesdays at 7 p.m. at the Grafton St. corner) are rich in history and spicy opinion. An example: ``Yeats's collected poems are a beautiful `buke' and should be kept on your bedside locker, so through the years you can reach out and read the beautiful poems.'' The theater is a must-see

For other linguistic pleasures, a visit to the theater is a must. It is even more accessible than London's, with only three top-flight theaters to choose from - the Gate, the Gaiety, and the Abbey. Tickets seldom exceed $15, and the annual Dublin Theatre Festival (Sept. 26-Oct. 10) will feature new productions by modern Irish playwrights Brian Friel and Frank McGuinness, along with revivals of Irish classics and new work by farther-flung companies, including the Druid and Charabanc.

Nearly every Irishman you meet - and you will have no trouble meeting a great many - will tell you a visit is incomplete without a stop in the country. DART routes to Howth and Dalkey make for easy side trips to typical Irish seaside villages. Fortunately, Wicklow County, considered the ``Garden of Ireland,'' is accessible via C.I.E. busses, private tour, or even taxi. Here you can visit Glendalough, or Valley of the Two Lakes, known for its exquisite natural beauty, and you can see the evocative ruins of St. Kevins Church, an example of an early Irish barrel-vaulted church. The nearby Powerscourt House, an imposing 18th-century building on the site of the former castle of the O'Tooles, offers manicured gardens with breathtaking views of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Practical information

For more details, contact the Irish Tourist Board, 757 Third Ave. New York, NY, 10017; tel: (212) 418-0800.

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