A brilliant children’s museum, a wonderful zoo, and a warm welcome. The emerald isle’s capital has much to offer families
The response to my announcement that we were off to Dublin for the St Patrick’s Day celebrations was unanimous and universal: envy, tinged with slight reservation along the lines of, is all that merriment and hedonistic behaviour really compatible with a family trip? A faint hesitation had crossed my mind too, but assured that Dublin is a family-friendly city, it felt like a wonderful way to introduce my three-year-old son, Joseph Patrick, to his Irish heritage – and what’s more, he would have his namesake maternal grandfather, Patrick, on hand to instil a little bit of patriotism.
The carnival atmosphere was already setting in when we landed on Sunday afternoon (St Patrick’s Day, March 17, fell on a Monday but the official celebrations had been in full swing since March 13), with a mass of tri-coloured flags and funny hats already on display as we drove through the city to our hotel. We were staying at The Merrion, an award-winning five-star hotel on the edge of Merrion Square. The luxury hotel, housed in four magnificent Grade I listed Georgian buildings (formerly 21–24 Merrion Street) gave a grand welcome with its granite steps, distinctive fantail window and impressive columns, but it is fair from brash. Its subtle sophistication is perfectly in keeping with its architectural surroundings and prestigious neighbours. On the other side of the road is Leinster House, home of the Irish government, and a little further down the road is The Natural History Museum.
Merrion Street is steeped in history, with various Lords and Earls having lived in close proximity, but today Merrion Square has taken a slight turn for the tacky as it hosts a fairground with a huge Ferris Wheel and a handful of scary rides where you can be whirled and twirled at precarious speeds.
On this Sunday, Merrion Square was also host to “Denny’s Big Day Out”, a feast of street entertainment for all the family, and a chance to get a sneak preview of some of the floats that would be taking part in the St Patrick’s Day parade. Grace and Joe managed to leave their artistic mark on one of the floats when they were invited to pick up a paint brush and add a little graffiti of their own.
With a biting chill in the air, we only managed half an hour or so, before returning to the cosy warmth of our interconnecting rooms, where we delved into tempting plates of cakes, milk and cookies. Grace and Joe also got stuck into the activity kits and played with the cute Merrion bear and dog that they’d been given as welcome gifts.
Joe kicked off his shoes and made himself at home, schlepping about the place in his mini Merrion slippers (there were scaled-down mini dressing gowns waiting in the closet). We spent a couple of hours dozing and channel-hopping, while Joe tried to master the ascent to the impressively high double beds. At first, I had to hoist him up, in the form of a super-hero rescue, but in no time, he had devised his own run-and-leap-for-your-life method, which was rewarded with an enthusiastic jumping on the bed as his victory dance.
All this activity worked up a healthy appetite, so we were all hungry by the time we went for our 7.30pm dinner booking at The Cellar Restaurant on the lower level of the hotel. As my father got talking to the charming restaurant manager, Damian Corr, we were surprised to learn that the hotel has only been open for business for ten years. “But I like to say, when people ask, that the walls are many centuries old,” added Damian, in his soft, lilting accent. By now, Joe had started to flag and was literally nodding off in his macaroni cheese, until he was propped up by the cushion thoughtfully provided by Damian. Grace was impressed with the Miss & Master Merrion menu, and loved the chicken noodle soup, while we dined out on foie gras, roast lamb and – as recommended as a “simply must-try” – the Baileys Crème Brulée, all washed down with an elegant bottle of house wine – and a single malt whiskey provided on the house – as my father reminisced that he hadn’t been in Dublin since he got engaged in 1956. As we chatted, Damian kept oohing and ahhing over a blissfully sleeping Joe, comparing him to his own human tornado by the same name. We discovered both our three-year-old sons have difficulty in pronouncing their name and called themselves Joefizz. “Sure if my Joseph was here, he would never, NEVER in a million years fall asleep. He’d be tearing around…” I just nodded and stroked Joe’s head, rather than shattering the illusion of the angelic vision that was so far removed from his usual behaviour. Maybe there was a certain patron saint casting a beatific spell over him, I conjectured.
The following morning, however, there was no room for conjecture. Refreshed from a night on his high bed, Joe was back to his usual lively self, wandering the restaurant, greeting the other guests and hiding under tables, in between reluctant mouthfuls of dippy egg and toast soldiers.
As we left the hotel, we picked up small bundles of shamrock from the front desk and pinned them to our lapels – until Joe pricked himself and mine kept toppling upside down. Grace decided to discard hers on fashion principles as green didn’t coordinate with her outfit. And here, I have to say, Grace was definitely in the minority. I cannot vouch for the style credentials of the average Dubliner on an ordinary weekend, but we were definitely struck by the proliferation of people wearing silly hats with either Viking horns or Pippi Longstocking style red plaits attached. There were also a number of exuberant youths wearing cheeky fake bottoms over their jeans, emblazoned with “Póg Mo Thóin” (which Grace quickly worked out translated as “Kiss My Ass”). It was so cold that I contemplated buying one of the leprechaun hats complete with ginger beard in an attempt to beat the chill, but Grace told me she would have to disown me. Instead, we bought scarves from a street vendor and made our way to our grandstand seats for the main event.
With impeccable timing, as ever, Joe started to nod off during the pre-show warm-up, despite regular prodding from me to say “Look, Joe, at the Garda Traffic Corps motorbike!” Grace and I were also amused when my father suddenly got his camera out and was overcome by a sudden David Bailey-style frenzy at some body-popping rappers, “our guests all the way from LA”, our compere informed us over the loudspeaker. I was left wondering what it all had to do with St Patrick but hey! We were on holiday. From our grandstand vantage point, (tickets were €60 a head), we were away from the bustle and it all felt rather civilised, as we tucked into our packed lunches from the Merrion, with delicate finger sandwiches, cakes and fruit, and those mini pots of Pringles so beloved in our house. By the time the parade began, Joe was practically snoring so he missed out on the succession of baton-twirling majorettes, whose every Barbie smile was in danger of causing momentary blindness as their braces caught the sunlight. Every twirl of the baton heralded the way for yet another tumultuous brass band marching in unison. From the sidelines, I found myself hoping that none of them stood too close to any naked flames (there was a lot of polyester in those shiny show-time costumes) and wishing a few had worn Bridget Jones pants to hold in their awkward lumps and bumps, but we were won over by the sheer enthusiasm and happiness of it all.
The walk back to our hotel after the parade was busy, to say the least (think Trafalgar Square at 12.30am on New Year’s Eve– with a buggy and an OAP with an arthritic hip). It was only 3pm, so we decided to head to Dublin Zoo, nabbing a cab and headed north. “Traffic won’t be bad,” our cabbie assured us, but then we realised that many of the roads on our getaway were closed due to the parade. We arrived at the zoo forty-five minutes (it would usually only takes 15 minutes), with an hour and a half before closing time.
The most striking thing about the zoo is its openness: it covers 30 acres of Phoenix Park and we were instantly impressed – it just felt like the animals were less closed in than some other zoos we’ve visited and had more of a sense of their natural habitat. Showing our ‘innocent abroad’ pedigree, Grace and I were instantly intrigued to see the ‘Laguar’ signpost. “I’ve never heard of that,” I said. “Must be some sort of jaguar hybrid,” I surmised. “Oh, and it looks quite like a jaguar,” I said, until we read the signpost and realised that Jaguar is Laguar in Gaelic. We spent the rest of our visit, reading the Irish signs and saying, we wish we could see the “shebras” and “sheraffs” (who both seemed to be at prior engagements). The biggest “aah” of our visit was reserved for the new baby elephant calf who was as cute as any Dumbo you’d care to see.
Back at the hotel, we were greeted by another plateful of delicate pâtisserie, with an Irish flag and Happy St Patrick’s Day written in swirly chocolate writing, and a bundle of helium-filled balloons in orange, green and white. We didn’t venture very far for dinner, and just found a cosy local Italian eaterie. Even here, the spirit of St Patrick’s Day was evident, as we found ourselves sitting next to a lively family of three generations, all decked out in emerald hues. In other circumstances, we probably would have gone for an early evening promenade, but by then the “kiss-my-ass” brigade were out in force and in even higher spirits so instead we decided to have an early night to prepare for our next day’s adventure.
Situated in the suburb of Stillorgan, the Imaginosity Children’s Museum has to be of the city’s best-kept secrets. Set over three levels, Imaginosity is packed with brilliant things to do. There’s a food minimart, complete with trolleys, conveyor belts and scanners and children can pick up a shopping list and work their way around the store. And amazingly, there were only minor occasional scuffles and trolley rage. Joe looked like he was on a trolley dash, but he loved selecting from the selection of plastic fruits and products. Another popular area was the garage, where toddlers can drive a car, and the body area, where you can put the bones together in a jigsaw skeleton. I was rather keen on the Dublin Diner, where I sat down at one of the booths and let Joe and Grace take my order for tea and cake. The best bit, for me at least, was the real working juke box. So I played DJ, spinning The Shangri-Las’ Leader Of The Pack, Patsy Cline’s I Fall To Pieces, Smokey’s Tears Of A Clown…
Finally, Grace and Joe managed to tear me away from my retro musicfest, and we moved on to explore the other play zones via the central climbing area, which is full of tubes and ladders, levers to pull and look-out platforms. Upstairs, we found a construction area with foam bricks so you can build a wall; a rock-star corner where you can play a bright yellow guitar and make a video; and a studio where you can read the news and see yourself on TV. For babies, there were self-contained soft play zones, away from marauding toddlers, with water-filled tubes of colour-changing bubbles.
Before we knew it, our two-hour session was up, and the next crowd of youngsters were clamouring to get in. We wandered round the Plaza (which is still under construction as a mix of residential and business premises, plus shops) before heading back to The Merrion to collect our luggage.
There was just enough time for one last leisurely drink, so we used up our complimentary cocktail vouchers: Grace chose her favourite, a Shirley Temple (a grenadine and lemonade ‘mocktail’ concoction), while my father and I raised our glasses with a Black Velvet mix of champagne and Guinness. “Slainte,” as they say in Dublin.