Begin by walking across the way to the National Museum and spending some time with its incomparable collection of Celtic artifacts. Theirs is a strange and compelling beauty that somehow prefigures certain elements of the Irish aesthetic, particularly a love of astonishingly intricate ornament that both embellishes and conceals. Note particularly the care lavished on the "book shrines," which were meant to hold illuminated early medieval copies of the Gospels, because the greatest of them should be your next stop.
Extraordinary Book of Kells
YOUR next stop, then, is a book that is the visual apotheosis of that tendency. From the hotel, head north along Merrion Square to Clare Street. Turn left and, a bit farther on, it will become Nassau Street. Soon, you'll be walking along the southern side of Trinity College. The southern entrance to the 40-acre campus leads through the arts building. Follow the signs across Fellows Square to the Old Library, where the Book of Kells is kept.
The Old Library opens at 9:30 a.m., except on winter Sundays, when it opens at noon. Get there as early as possible. In spring or fall, there's a fair chance of having the place nearly to yourself, particularly in midweek. In summer it's your only fighting chance of surviving the organized bands of German tourists.
The introductory exhibit is compact and smart, and the viewing room is dim with the Book of Kells under glass at a convenient height. Spend some time with it. An 11th century commentator called it "the most precious object of the Western World." It is a folio-sized copy of the four Gospels, decorated not simply with lavishly illuminated script, but also with page-sized portraits and so-called carpet pages of geometric pattern. It is thought to have been executed in the great monastery on Iona off Scotland around 800 and subsequently taken to Kells for safety. Never before or since has so much creative reverence been lavished on a text. Note particularly, if you can, the special care and ornament the scribes gave to the word dicebat ("he said") whenever it was used. To this day, Irish writers accord a special authority to the spoken word.
Spend a bit of time with the other illuminated manuscripts on display. I'm particularly fond of the 7th century Book of Durrow, which has a less sophisticated but austere beauty. There's also an 8th century work, the Book of Dimma, and the 9th century Book of Armagh.
Once you're done — or overwhelmed, as I usually am — proceed up the stairs to the Long Room, a 209-foot, two-tiered, barrel-vaulted gallery that is every bibliophile's fantasy of what a library should be. This is where Trinity houses and conserves the 200,000 oldest volumes of its vast research collection. Breathe in the atmosphere and study the marble busts placed on wooden pedestals in front of the columns that line either side of the room. Before the pillar marked "I" is Louis-François Roubiliac's portrait of Swift, which many believe to be the finest ever made.
Exit Trinity through the main gate and turn left along College Green, which a few blocks on becomes Dame Street. As you pass Dublin Castle, it will become Lord Edward Street. When you see Christ Church Cathedral on your right, make the next left on Nicholas Street, which will become Patrick Street. You're now in the old city, founded by the Vikings and which later became the Liberties, one of Europe's worst slums, a place whose infant mortality rate exceeded Moscow's at the turn of the last century.
These were the streets that Swift, author of "A Modest Proposal" and "Gulliver's Travels," walked, seething over the mistreatment of the poor and London's neglect of his genius. Follow the signs to St. Patrick's Cathedral, a medieval building restored almost beyond recognition. Swift was dean here from 1713 until he died in 1745. He left his estate to fund a hospital for the insane. During his own last illness, when he was bedridden and incoherent, his manservant charged the curious for admission to the dying dean's bedroom.
Swift's chair and pulpit are preserved inside St. Patrick's, along with his tomb and famous epitaph: "He is laid where bitter indignation can no longer lacerate his heart. Go traveler and imitate if you can one who was, to the best of his powers, a defender of liberty." At his side is buried the enigmatic Esther Johnson, daughter to the housekeeper of his one-time patron Sir William Temple and, depending on your interpreter, Swift's lover, platonic companion or secret wife. She was the "Stella" to whom his great cycle of letters on public issues was addressed.
St. Patrick's was once the spiritual center of Protestant Anglo-Ireland, and some of its relics are preserved there still. Among them are the flags of the great Irish fighting regiments that were part of the British army before the establishment of the Free State. Try to pick out the banners of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, whose enlisted ranks were recruited from among the poor in the surrounding Liberties. Recall that they, like the Australians and New Zealanders, were sacrificed to Winston Churchill's folly at Gallipoli, and you'll have a sense of why Swift speaks to us still.
The next stop is 82 Merrion Square, which is a leisurely, two-minute walk from the Merrion Hotel. The townhouse at No. 82 was the home of Yeats from 1921 to 1928, when the poet served in the new Irish Senate and was awarded the Nobel Prize. After years as a dilapidated office warren, the building was purchased in 1996 by people who planned to demolish the interior and turn it into a guest house. When they were denied permits, the house was bought and restored as the headquarters of the Merrion Property Group.
The house now is open to visitors by appointment. Go early, take a volume of Yeats and find a quiet seat in the intimate gardens of the square. Read a few of your favorite poems, then stroll to No. 82 for your guided tour. The house is as it was when it was alive with the Yeats family. The poet's sisters, Lily and Elizabeth, set up their habitually unprofitable Cuala Industries on the lower floors, press in the basement, needlework in the dining room. There's a fine and rare example of that embroidery now hanging in the entry hallway.
The upper drawing room, where Yeats worked and entertained, has been restored right down to its elaborate ceiling frieze and marble fireplace. Ask to descend the worn granite steps to the basement kitchen. On a November night in 1923, Bertie Smyllie, editor of the Irish Times, phoned to tell Yeats he'd won the Nobel Prize.
"How much, man, how much is it worth?" the poet demanded. The next morning, the great man purchased a new carpet runner for the stairs.
Your next stop should be the James Joyce Centre at 35 N. Great George's St., another restored Georgian home. This was once the Earl of Kenmare's Dublin townhouse, but by the early 20th century, it and the surrounding area had fallen on hard times and the lower floor was occupied by the dancing academy of "Prof. Denis J. Maginni," whose sartorial splendor earned him a walk-on appearance in "Ulysses' " 10th chapter.
Admission to the center is about $6, and the tiny bookstore has an excellent selection of unusual guides to Joyce's Dublin. The plum-colored drawing room has a welcoming coal fire beside which you can watch a thoughtful film on the author's connections to the city. Upstairs are reading rooms and a library. Three times a week, there are Joycean walking tours that are worth the hour and the $12 charge. The Joyce Centre is also headquarters to one of Dublin's most interesting and useful contemporary literary magazines, the Stinging Fly, which is edited by Declan Meade, who also publishes a small press of the same name. Meade is a virtual encyclopedia of young literary Dublin, which makes the center a good place to check for information and notices on readings while you're in town.
Devoted Joyceans might also want to take the DART rail eight miles south to Sandycove. There, beside what Joyce called "the snot-green, scrotum-tightening sea," the Martello tower made famous in "Ulysses' " opening scene houses the Joyce Museum (open March through October).