The Boston Boy Visits Dublin: “Wicked Brilliant!”

St. Patrick on the steps of the Dublin Writers Museum
St. Patrick on the steps of the Dublin Writers Museum. Photos by Stephen Hartshorne.

By Stephen Hartshorne

It’s always a thrill for a Boston boy to visit Ireland, but to visit Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day, and to ride with the other international reporters in a bus at the head of the parade… to hear Seamus Heaney and 30 other great Irish writers read their work at the new convention center… and to attend The Commitments’ 20-year anniversary concert in their hometown… this was truly the trip of a lifetime.

More than five hundred thousand people turned out for the parade.
More than five hundred thousand people turned out for the parade.

I saw the President twice and the Lord Mayor twice, dined at splendid restaurants, and walked the cobblestone streets of this eminently walkable city where pilgrims come from all over the world.

I felt this ancient city open its heart to me, the taxi drivers, the barkeeps, and the people I met in the street- and I found this incredibly moving. I felt I was among thousands and thousands of kindred spirits in the spiritual and cultural center of the great Irish diaspora.

Back in Boston, I’d have to be careful not to go on about it too long, for fear it would be said I was putting on airs.

We had three beautiful sunny days in a row, unheard of for Dublin, and while I was there, President Obama announced he was coming to visit his ancestral home in Moneygall in County Offaly. The only people who didn’t have a good time were the hitherto undefeated English rugby team who were thrashed by the Irish 24 to 8.

UNESCO City of Literature

St. Patrick’s Day parades began in the US as a way for Irish Americans in to celebrate their heritage, but Dublin soon joined in the fun, and now they hold a huge week-long festival in honor of their patron saint. I met him, by the way. Heck of a nice guy. He said the festival is more a national celebration than a religious observance, but he was ok with that.

This year they were celebrating Dublin’s designation by UNESCO as a City of Literature, a distinction they share with just three other cities: Melbourne, Edinburgh and Iowa City (home of the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop).
The famous black dog of depression.

The famous black dog of depression
The famous black dog of depression

Dublin’s claim to this designation is obvious to students of world literature: William Butler Years, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, Sean O’Casey, Brendan Behan, Seamus Heaney and so many others. It’s a great center for singers and actors, too, and dancers and musicians — everything that is uplifting to the human spirit.

The theme of the parade was a story by bestselling author Roddy Doyle called “Brilliant!” about two young children named Raymond and Gloria who set out to defeat the black dog of depression and find Dublin’s lost funnybone. Brilliant is Dublin’s favorite adjective.

The Black Dog of Depression

The story begins with the children sneaking under the kitchen table and listening to their parents talk about the terrible economic news.

Ireland has been especially hard hit by the global economic crisis — even more so than the United States — and Raymond and Gloria hear their mother say that their favorite uncle, who has lost his painting business, has the black dog of depression on his back.

Raymond and Gloria rush through the streets of the city, joined by a legion of other children, a vampire and a very tall leprechaun, and they ultimately defeat the black dog with their cries of “brilliant!” which, as I mentioned, is Dublin’s favorite adjective.

That’s just a quick summary; there are flamingoes and flying pigs and polar bears, and all kinds of other creatures, all of which made it into the parade.

Each of Ireland’s leading pageant and theatrical companies took a chapter of the story, and their imaginative, colorful and ingenious floats and costumes made for one of the finest parades the city has ever seen.

The international press rode in the “Brilliant” bus at the head of the parade with noted television presenter (and teen idol) Bryan Ormond broadcasting live. We also passed television cameras suspended from giant booms that caught the parade from every possible angle.

As we drove through the streets lined with thousands of cheering onlookers wearing green hats and red beards, hanging from balconies, climbing on trees and statues, I kept thinking they must be wondering what I was doing up there; but I did my best to hold up my end by waving and shouting, “Brilliant!” the whole time.

The Swell of Emotion

Flying pigs even!
Flying pigs even!

When we got to the end of the parade route, we transferred to a stationary bus from which we could watch the rest of the parade, and what a spectacle it was! Be sure and visit the photogallery.

For all of us aboard the Brilliant! bus, it was a highly charged emotional experience. I was glad to learn that my colleagues from around the world were as nonplussed as I was.

“The swell of emotion is actually something words truly cannot describe, and I’m a writer,” said Charles Karel Bouley describing the experience in the Huffington Post. “Some things are simply meant to be felt.”

The Dublin Swell

The second highlight of my trip was the Dublin Swell, an event at the city’s new convention center featuring more than thirty of Ireland’s most famous writers, actors and musicians reading and performing their work.

Writers, actors and singers at the Dublin Swell
Writers, actors and singers at the Dublin Swell

Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney read one of his poems, “Casualty” an elegy for a friend who was killed in a bomb in Northern Ireland shortly after Bloody Sunday. His friend, who was a Catholic, went to a bar in violation of a curfew set by the Irish Republican Army.

Actor Eamon Morrissey gave a delicious reading of Jonathan Swift’s essay, “A Modest Proposal” — in which Swift advocated the marketing of Irish babies as meat — while sharpening a carving knife with a platter in front of him, covered with a cloth. It might not sound funny, but it was.

Journalist and author Paul Howard read a hilarious story in character as his alter ego Ross O’Carroll-Kelly about a girl who gets her roller skate stuck in a subway track, and we also had a chance to hear Roddy Doyle himself read a passage from “Brilliant!”

Dublin's new Convention Centre
Dublin’s new Convention Centre

Novelist, playwright and poet Dermot Bolger (The Journey Home) read a poem in honor of his late wife Bernie and their sons Diarmuid and Donnacha sang a touching song about her death called “Sad and Beautiful World.”

Mike Scott, founder of the Waterboys, with Iona Marshall, performed a memorable rendition of William Butler Yeats’ poem “Let the Earth Bear Witness” dedicated to democracy demonstrators in Iran, and the list went on and on until after midnight.

The Power of Self-Expression

I was very impressed with the way singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey belted out his song “Sing All Our Cares Away,” which to me summed up the power of self-expression and the indomitable spirit of the Irish people:

“Joey’s off the gear/ He’s been clean for half a year/ He gets bored out of his mind/ But he’s trying to toe the line/ Maggie’s in a chair/ ‘Twas joyriding put her there/ She puts the kettle on to boil/ And she’s always got a smile…”

The Commitments performed a 20th anniversary concert at the new O2 Centre.
The Commitments performed a 20th anniversary concert at the new O2 Centre.

But what struck me most about this amazing evening was that every author seemed to have a completely different approach to the creative process, but they all, in their own ways, opened their hearts and shared the innermost secrets of their souls, not with sentimentality, but with scathing honesty.

Novelist Sebastian Barry, who read from his book A Long, Long Way about Dublin during World War I, told the Irish Times how much he enjoyed sharing the stage with so many luminaries of literature.

“There are a lot of things that don’t seem to mean very much,” he said, “but this seems to mean a great deal.”

It certainly meant a lot to me, and I only wish I could tell my mom all about it. She was a professor of literature who passed away last year, and it was she who made me bookish.

Dublin Soul

Bronagh Gallagher of The Commitments
Bronagh Gallagher of The Commitments

On Saturday night I saw The Commitments’ 20th anniversary concert at the new O2 Center. What a show!

The Commitments are actually a fictional band from Roddy Doyle’s story of the same name which was made into a movie that became an international sensation.

The story is about a group of Northside Dubliners who form a soul band and perform classic Motown songs like “Mustang Sally” and “The Midnight Hour.”

I grew up with those songs, and I was amazed that these singers and musicians half a world away could not just get them right, but really nail them.

“Soul is the music people understand,” the band’s organizer, Jimmy Rabbitte, says in the movie. “Sure it’s basic and it’s simple. But it’s something else ’cause, ’cause, ’cause it’s honest, that’s it. It’s honest. There’s no fuckin’ bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart.”

“Sure there’s a lot of different music you can get off on but soul is more than that. It takes you somewhere else. It grabs you by the balls and lifts you above the shite.”

Buskers on Grafton Street in Dublin
Buskers on Grafton Street in Dublin

Most of the cast were unknowns when the movie came out, and needless to say, it greatly boosted their careers. Playing to a crowd of 12,000 people in their hometown of Dublin, with Roddy Doyle himself in the audience, they held nothing back, and it was a concert I’ll never forget.

The movie inspired a lot of bands all over the world, particularly in Dublin, and you can see some of them busking in the streets. They’re fun to watch because they’re sticking their necks out and saying it straight from the heart.

A Year-Round Destination

You don’t have to wait for the St. Patrick’s Day Festival to visit Dublin, though. It’s a great holiday destination all year ’round.

From my perch on the fifth floor of the Fitzwilliam Hotel, opposite St. Stephen’s Green, I had a bird’s eye view of the city. Some of the old cobblestone streets downtown are closed to vehicles, and they make a lively cultural center, with buskers and jugglers, and performers of all kinds.

In Dublin, history is all around you.
In Dublin, history is all around you.

Right around the corner is the National Concert Hall, where I saw a magnificent performance of traditional Irish music by the Kilfenora Ceili Band. Just up the street are the National Museum and the National Library, where I could easily spend a whole day learning about Irish history and literature, and Trinity College, where you can see the famous Book of Kells, a masterwork of calligraphy created by Celtic monks in the ninth century.

Planning Your Pilgrimage

Your pilgrimage to Dublin will depend on what’s important to you. You can visit the Dublin Writers Museum and find other museums dedicated to your favorite writers like Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett, visit Dublin Castle and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and learn about brewing and distilling at the Guinness Storehouse and the Jameson’s Distillery.

You can plan your trip at and, and you can even download podcast audio guides for self-guided walking tours of the city.

In Dublin's fair city, where girls are so pretty, I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone.
“In Dublin’s fair city, where girls are so pretty, I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone…”

My colleagues had lots of suggestions about their favorite Dublin attractions. In her splendid story for The Arts Desk in London, Alexandra Coghlan recommends the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle and Marsh’s Library, the oldest public library in Ireland — careful, it’s haunted!

Broadcaster and Huffington Post writer Charles Karel Bouley enjoyed the Dublin Bike Tours and the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, where professional actors reenact scenes from Irish literature at the pubs favored by the city’s great writers.

A Great City for Wandering

You might want to start with a Hop-on Hop-Off Bus Tour of the city to get oriented, but after that, you’ll find that nearly all the attractions you might want to see are either a fairly short walk or a very short cab ride away.

Dublin is a very walkable city with excellent public transportation and inexpensive bike rentals at stations all over the city.

It’s an ancient city, so it’s not laid out on a grid. The streets twist and turn all over the place, and they change names every block or two.

Whatever you do, leave time for some aimless wandering around the storied streets of Dublin. You never know what you’ll find. The street map that you carry in your hands marks you as a pilgrim, and this is a city that knows how to welcome pilgrims. They’ve been doing it for centuries.

“A week in Dublin is a tonic for the soul.” Know who wrote that?


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