After the hens

Dublin came to regret its partying reputation. Jeni Harvey reports on how the city's image is being re-made.

STAG parties, all-night drinking marathons, good "craic" and a mandatory visit to the Guinness brewery. Less than a decade ago, this is what tourists in Dublin were renowned for – and those who haven't been to the city since will be in for a surprise.

While the pubs are still packed with drinkers after a pint of the "black stuff", traditional Irish culture is experiencing something of a renaissance, and those on a city break are equally as likely to stumble across a Gaelic singing session or a fiddle recital as they are to find a gaggle of Hens downing vodka shots.

At the centre of this cultural revival is Temple Bar – a warren of cobbled streets on the banks of the Liffey, crammed with an eclectic mix of independent traders, art galleries, chic hotels and pubs and restaurants brimming with character.

In and among the higgledy-piggledy buildings, tourists can also play "guess who" on the Rock and Roll Wall of Fame, while away an afternoon watching street entertainers or spot the cafe where a certain Sinad O'Connor waited on tables before pop stardom beckoned.

Martin Harte, managing director of Temple Bar Traders, which represents independent businesses in the Irish capital's historical heart, said: "In the past 80 per cent of our press was negative. We analysed it all and 69 per cent of press was negative in 2003, down to 24 per cent in 2004 and 12 per cent in 2005.

"In 2009, just eight per cent of press about tourism in Dublin was negative. Things are really changing."

And that change is, in no small part, down to the regeneration of Temple Bar. Once the industrial heartland of Dublin, the area fell into decline when traditional industries ran their course, and the neighbourhood became a no-go area for much of the last few decades.

However, a combination of forward-thinking locals and government tax incentives led to the area's rebirth as Dublin's prime destination for art, music, culture – and traditional Irish hospitality.

Mr Harte said: "Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the regeneration of Temple Bar. It was a place you wouldn't have liked to come to.

"The very centre of this capital city was derelict. Going back to the 1950s, Temple Bar would have had lots of manufacturers, but these industries went into decline.

"It ended up attracting artists, musicians and sculptors living hand to mouth. Then, in 1990-91 Dublin was the European Capital of Culture and the Prime Minister had the idea of creating Dublin's cultural quarter.

"From that, a regeneration plan was put forward and a company was set up called Temple Bar Properties. A plan was drawn up over the next 10 years.

"The area itself is a medieval street pattern, but they came up with designs for contemporary buildings that would stand the test of time."

Tax inventives were given to entrepreneurs willing to set up business in the up-and-coming area, making them exempt from council tax for the first 10 years.

"The area was very depressed", adds Mr Harte. "All the new buildings were developed under the tax incentive scheme. Part of the plan of the time was to prevent large chains coming in, and small units were developed to keep the big High Street stores out."

That ethos still holds true today – there isn't a single Tesco among the vibrant streets of Temple Bar, and the only chain stores are funkier, edgier brands such as Urban Outfitters. Instead, the shops are run by independent traders selling offbeat clothes and gifts and even the pubs have their own individual character, firmly at the opposite end of the spectrum to the soulless chains filling the centres of most cities closer to home.

"We've really preserved the historic core", Mr Harte said. "Our biggest strength is that we're owner-occupied. The owners are always around and there's a different mentality. This is a living city, not something that closes down at night. It's living and vibrant."

An estimated 60,000 visitors each day visit the 28 acres of Temple Bar and spend their city breaks enjoying themselves in its 280 pubs and 75 cafes and restaurants. In total the area, which lies in the shadow of Dublin Castle, is thought to generate e676m of the e6.6bn tourism brings to Ireland as a whole.

It's perfectly possible to spend a weekend in Dublin without even feeling the need to leave Temple Bar, as it covers all bases – eating, shopping, entertainment and sleeping. The neighbourhood includes opulent, top-of-the-range hotels such as The Clarence – owned by U2's Bono and The Edge – and boutique hotel The Morgan, home to Temple Bar's trendiest cocktail lounge.

For those with fewer euros burning a hole in their pocket (increasingly likely in one of the countries hardest hit by the international financial crisis – the Temple Bar Hotel or The Arlington are more affordable and equally central.

For a taste of the real Dublin, try the four-course lunch in the Oliver St John Gogarty in Fleet Street. A bed and breakfast, bar and restaurant, it serves up classic dishes with a side order of live folk music and authentic Irish craic. Gourmands will also enjoy a trip to Gallagher's Boxty House, which describes itself as the home of traditional Irish food and is especially worth a breakfast visit when one too many Guinnesses were drunk the night before.

This month, there's also another reason to give Temple Bar a try as the area is set to hold its sixth annual TradFest, a celebration of traditional Irish music, film and drama. Organised by Temple Bar Traders, the festival includes a host of concerts and exhibitions, as well as attractions such as street performances and children's storytellers.

Kieran Hanrahan, founder and programmer of the TradFest, said: "We

are very proud of how the TradFest has grown over the past six years and has become a firm fixture on the Irish festival calendar.

"Year on year the festival has presented some of the biggest names in Irish music, alongside many exciting new performers and musicians. I have no doubt that people will enjoy a truly exciting celebration of our culture.

"In our headline concerts we have assembled a line-up of some of the most iconic figures in Irish traditional music, coupled with some of the most exciting names in emerging Irish talent."

Acts set to play at the festival, which runs from January 26 to 30, include Altan, Beoga, Ciorras, harmonica player Brendan Power, button accordion player Jackie Daly and fiddle player Matt Cranitch.

Clannad will also mark their 40th anniversary with three performances in Dublin Christchurch Cathedral.

As flights to Dublin from Leeds Bradford airport start at 6 each way – including all taxes and charges – Temple Bar is one of the cheapest and most accessible European destinations for a city break and certainly one of the most overlooked.

GETTING THERE

Jeni Harvey flew to Dublin with Ryanair. Flights operate daily, from 6 each way. For details see www.ryanair.com

She stayed at the Arlington Hotel, Lord Edward Street, Temple Bar. Rooms start at e69 per night.

See www.arlingtonhoteltemplebar.com or call 0035 316 708 777.

YP MAG 15/1/11

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