Byline: SUE SCOTT
FIRST impressions? Wet. Very wet. A real James Joyce depression had enveloped Dublin in fact.
Not only had I chosen to make my first trip to the Fair City during the dampest November it had seen since 1866, but a miserable pall was hanging over the entire country. This was the weekend following the infamous 'hand of Frog' incident, the moment Thierry Henry put an end to Ireland's World Cup hopes. Even the Liffy looked morose.
But sploshing past the soggy sandbags lining its busy grey banks, veering erratically around tight knots of long legged girls in tell tale black tights - some of the hundreds who keep visitors like me entertained nightly with their exhausting traditional floor dances - I began to feel grateful. I'd read the literature, tried (as best as any non-native could) to understand the political history, sung the songs, and been bewitched by the sound of an Irish voice since first I can remember.
. A lyrical, romantic despair seemed to sum it up - and I was living it.
So it was a positive pleasure to set out to find free things to do on a wet weekend in Dublin.
But I was left with a nagging unease as I picked my way over bundles of homeless on my way to Dublin's impressively stylish shopping quarter, with its pavement cafes and upmarket eateries - Dublin has one of the biggest homeless populations in the Eurozone. This really is a tale of two cities.
From the Arlington Hotel, near historic O'Connell Bridge - probably the most politically charged bridge in history - I could have stepped aboard the tour bus and venue hopped around town for around 13. But that would have been cheating. Instead, I fortified myself with a Jamieson's from the huge Arlington bar - and planned my 48-hour campaign for free attractions.
The Arlington is one of three Dublin hotels owned by pub operators the Louis Fitzgerald Group - one of a consortium of bidders for Newcastle United when the club was still in the Premiership. It came as a surprise, though, to discover duty manager John not only followed the fortunes of the Boro, but had an intimate knowledge of every pub in Yarm. He likes Teessiders, he says - they have the same fatalistic view of life as the Irish but extend a great welcome.
Upstairs at the Arlington that welcome was evident with huge bowls of fresh fruit in every comfy room, while in the basement equally huge helpings of traditional Irish stew are served at long refectory tables accompanied by folk singing and the mesmeric Gaelic Rhythm dancers.
Trudging up the hill on the rougher side of town, past the James Joyce museum, I began list-ing Ireland's many famous sons who left in a temper - often never to return to Dublin - but for whom the country had a lifelong influence on their work. Joyce was probably the most famous, but I was on my way to see another even more controversial figure of 20th century culture - Francis Bacon. …